Contrary to what many modern Christians would like to believe, Christian theology has never stood still. And that is because faith is not an answer we arrive at. From a Christian perspective, we already have the answer: Jesus. What Christian theology is trying to do is understand what the question is. And as any delving into Christian history will reveal, we haven’t figured that out yet. We have trusted that Jesus is the revelation of God, and we trust that through this revelation – completely apart from anything we may so – God has reconciled humanity to Henself. But how that works and what that demands of us has been a source of – to put it mildly – debate over the last two millenia.
And that is natural. It is how human knowledge works. It was scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn who introduced the concept of the paradigm shift. His core thesis was that we always use models and theories to understand the world around us, and because these provide the parameters for looking at the world, they make us essentially blind to ways of seeing that lie outside of those parameters. Our explorations – what Kuhn calls “normal science” – tend to confirm what we were already looking for, and we habitually ignore the evidence that contradicts the prevailing theory. That is, until it becomes impossible to do so anymore. You see, as strong as a theory may be, no theory is perfect. Thus when a critical mass of evidence is garnered against the prevailing theory, so much so that we can no longer ignore its flaws, only then do we change it.
It happens in theology too, not just science. Jesus was the catalyst for a change in paradigms in his day. Centuries later, the rampant corruption in the Catholic church, among other things, catalysed the Reformation. Today we stand on the cusp of another paradigm shift in Christian theology. And I think the catalyst this time is mimetic theory and the work of René Girard. He has provided us with radical new insight into how religion operates and how we form societies, and suddenly all of the niggling doubts we have harboured about prevailing Christian worldviews have something solid to latch onto. Protestant theories are, I believe, no longer intellectually tenable.
A key insight of Girard’s is that we are not individuals, but interdividuals. The distinction matters a great deal, because ultimately I think it spells the death of Protestant theology. The credibility of the Protestant and Evangelical understandings of the cross depend entirely on the assumption that people make autonomous moral choices for which they alone can be held accountable.
The work of René Girard demonstrates that our desires – the drivers behind our actions – are not instrinsic: they are mediated though others. More than that, the ways that we negotiate those desires and the mimetic rivalry that invariably follows are not, for the most part, conscious. We never act either fully consciously or fully independently. We are always part of a complex web of relationships that are shaped by, and in turn which give shape to, the power relations in society. We never act alone. We cannot judge the rapist without also judging the society that gave shape to him, the family dynamics that formed him, the education system that failed him, the religions and cultures that formed the backdrop to who he became. There can never be any true justice for the crime of rape if we believe that the rapist acted in terrible isolation. There will be no justice until the societal ideas about manhood change, until the various institutions that perpetuate these transform. The rapist is responsible for his crime – I am certainly not claiming otherwise – but he is not solely responsible. We cannot understand people or their problematic behaviour in isolation. We are not individuals.
So when Protestant theology claims that sin is a problem that can be solved on an individual level, with the individual confessing and accepting forgiveness or alternatively being punished for eternity, it simply doesn’t make sense to me. It does not fit the facts of who we are or why we act as we do. It ignores the fact that we are first and foremost relational beings. But worse than being illogical, I think it is a dangerous theology, because it renders any requirement for social transformation if not unnecessary, then at best optional.
Now in the past when I have labeled a theology as dangerous and unloving, I have been criticised for tarring all Christians with the same brush. But it is a critique that fundamentally misunderstands my concern: the fact of the matter is that I am critiquing a system, not the people in that system. I am not for a moment suggesting that there are not loving and peace-loving Christians in the Protestant church. I am not even suggesting that they are in the minority. What I am saying is that the problem is a systemic one, not a personal one. It is a bit like racism. Even if there were no racists in our society, the fact remains that the way we have structured our society is fundamentally racist. Even if every person in our community found racism abhorrent, it would not change the fact that our institutions – in terms of culture, language, opportunity, and a host of other factors – privilege whiteness. Nor will it change the fact that until this is addressed, racism will continue to flourish. My criticism of Protestant theology functions the same way. Even if every member of the Protestant church was loving and practiced peace-making, it would do nothing to alter the fact that at its core Protestant theology endorses scapegoating violence. And there can be no justice, no Kingdom of God, until that changes.
Changing that is no easy matter, though. Perhaps a good starting point would be to reflect on where we are now and how we got here. So a (woefully brief and completely inadequate) bit of history would be helpful. You see, as I mentioned at the beginning, theology has never been a destination one arrives at; it has always been a pilgrimage, a journey. It is not a riddle that, once solved, opens the door to the Divine; it has never been anything more than our wrestling with revelation. And as such, there has never been just one voice. We have always argued and debated.
One of the recurring voices in the Scriptures is the priestly voice, which demands unwavering obedience, as well as atoning sacrifice for disobedience, if we wish to avoid a terrible punishment:
“If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the Lord your God— the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. He will bring on you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. The Lord will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law, until you are destroyed. You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you.” (Deuteronomy 28: 58-63, my emphasis)
And then there are the prophetic voices that insist that sacrifice is unnecessary and God is merciful:
For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:32)
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.(Hosea 6:6)
When we get to the New Testament, we have Jesus saying “you have heard it said…but I say…”, and he invariably taking some Scripture that speaks to God’s wrath and subverting it. We have a Jesus who insists that God is “Abba”, not a brutish warrior who would issue commands like:
“and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:2)
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:3)
So there has always been disagreement when it comes to theology. How could we possibly expect, then, that there would have been no disagreement in the church when it came to understanding the revelation that was Jesus?
Right from the beginning of Christianity there was a divide between the church in Jerusalem, which wanted new followers of Jesus to observe Jewish Law, and Paul who insisted that to do so would be no gospel at all. And the divisions only got wider from there.
Contrary to what Protestants today seem to believe, there has never been only one way of understanding the cross – the Penal Substitution Theory. In fact, that theory is a relative latecomer on the stage of thinking around atonement. Penal Substitution is just one step in the evolution of Christian thinking around Atonement, not the entirety of it.
The earliest church fathers did not understand sin as a conscious moral choice made by individuals that would lead to their damnation. In fact, Clement of Alexandria (who probably took over from Peter and James in the Jerusalem church), believed that sin was both involuntary and irrational. Given his stature in the church, it is reasonable to extrapolate that this was the common understanding, which would – in turn – make sense of the fact that understandings of the atonement in the early church were largely universal in nature.
For the most part, the earliest Christian thinkers held to one of two theories around atonement. Some, like Irenaeus (130-202), held a Recapitulation conception of the atonement, where the very incarnation of God as human was what saved us. In the Fall, the theory goes, we lost the image and likeness of God. We became corrupted. But because God is incorruptible, by becoming human, and living the various stages of human life, Jesus bestowed God’s incorruptibility onto humanity. And just as Adam’s corruption spread through humanity, so Jesus’s incorruptibility did too, which saved us.
Most, like Origen (184-253) held to a Ransom theory of the atonement. According to this theory, Adam and Eve had made humanity slaves to the Devil/Death (depending on whose work you are reading), and this required that God pay a ransom (Jesus’s death) in order to release us from captivity. But God tricked the Devil because Jesus could not be contained in death, and so God triumphs. For the first millenium of Christianity, this was the dominant view.
One thousand years later, Anselm, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093-1109) revolutionised thinking around the atonement by arguing that God could never owe a debt to the Devil. He posited that human sin was an insult to God’s perfect justice that needed to be atoned for. But because God’s justice was infinite, it required an infinite price in recompense that finite humanity was unable to pay. So God, in the person of Jesus, offered his infinite self up as that price.
In contrast to that theory, Peter Abelard (1079-1142) argued that non only ought we to reject the notion that God could owe a debt to the Devil, we also ought to reject the notion that God could look at humanity differently as a result of Jesus’s sacrifice. This, he argued, would make God changeable. Instead, he argued that at the cross Jesus demonstrated that God is loving, unoffended and forgiving, that God provided an example of what it means to love. This formed the basis of later Moral Example theories of the atonement.
It is only with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, and through the writings of Luther and Calvin in particular, that we arrive at a Penal Substitution theory of the atonement: that Jesus took on himself the punishment for our sins.
But there are a number of problems with Penal Substitution theory that can no longer be ignored, and today we are in the process of another major theoretical paradigm shift in Christian theology. We are living in exciting times, theologically speaking. We are in the midst of a revolution, one where the victims of our scapegoating are finding their voices. Sadly, if history has shown us anything, it is that old paradigms die hard. Those who benefit from the opportunities that the prevailing theories afford do not let go without a fight. #blacklivesmatter will invariably get met with the nonsensical #alllivesmatter; patriarchal culture will downplay sexism as “locker-room banter”; theological dissidents will be branded heretics and expelled from the church. But none of that will stop the change from coming. The way we have structured our society – creating social cohesion by scapegoating those from whom the threat of reciprocal violence is minimal – is glaringly unjust. We see that now, and it cannot be unseen.
In all of this, it is our job, I think, as followers of Jesus, to model God’s perfect justice. And perfect justice, as we saw at the cross, was never retributive. Perfect justice is this: to recognise that lasting change only ever comes through reconciliation, because we are not individuals, but interdividuals. We are in relationship with everyone around us, whether we like that or not. We become who we are through others, just as others become who they are through us. And because we are mimetic beings, the follower of Jesus must set henself up as the right kind of mimetic model: one devoted to self-giving love.