Saturday, December 3, 2011

Robert Jenson on Atonement: Part 2

More of a discussion on Jenson.  This deals specifically with his atonement theology.

In light of his history of divine self-actualization, the meaning of the work of Christ comes into focus.  Humanity’s true destiny is integration into the life of the Trinity: “God will let the redeemed see him: the Father by the Spirit will make Christ’s eyes their eyes.  Under all rubrics, the redeemed will be appropriated to God’s own being.”[14]  Therefore, the work of Christ is cast not so much as atonement for sin or defeat of demonic forces, but rather as God’s self-identification with sinful humanity and his reconciliation with them through their integration with the divine being.  In response to Jenson’s descriptions, one is at times more than tempted to see specters of Hegel’s “Speculative Good Friday.”[15] 

In entering into a more general discussion of atonement, Jenson first rejects both Anselm and other theories of substitutionary atonement.  For Jenson, atonement must be about our reconciliation with God, rather than his reconciliation with us.[16]  Nowhere, claims Jenson, does the New Testament speak about God’s reconciliation to us; rather it consistently speaks about our reconciliation to God.[17] Similarly, subjective theories of atonement (here Jenson mentions Schleiermacher) are problematic in that they make the communication of consciousness the real goal of redemption.  Such conceptions of the work of the work of Christ make no distinction between reconciliation as a subjective and objective event.[18]  For the tradition of Protestant Liberalism, Jesus died merely following his vocational duty to communicate his religious consciousness.  Ultimately then, it is completely irrelevant whether he died on the cross or “in bed.”[19] 

Lastly, Jenson reviews Gustaf Aulén and his promotion of the conquest motif.  Aulén’s theological construction is doubtless appealing due to its richness.  Most attractive to Jenson is that it makes the resurrection a true victory.[20]  According to Jenson this makes the conquest motif superior to Anselm’s theory of atonement where resurrection is irrelevant because all is already accomplished on the cross.[21] Nonetheless, Jenson believes that Aulén’s theory is deficient for two reasons.  First, it constructs a theory from “bits of Biblical and Patristic language,” while abandoning the actual narrative of Jesus’ Passion we discover in the Gospels. Instead, the conquest motif replaces the Gospel-narrative with a new and invented story of Jesus’ struggle against demonic forces. Secondly, this theory suffers from the weakness of being unable to give a coherent answer to the question of why God bothers to enter into the struggle of redemption in the first place.  What sense does it make for Jesus to do battle with Satan, when “victory is easily attained.”  This also creates the similar problem of how what Jesus “does for himself” (i.e., defeating the demonic forces) becomes “actual”[22] for us. 

Over against these theories of atonement, Jenson proposes a modified version of Gerhard Forde’s view that we will discuss in future chapters.  Crucifixion is what it actually “costs” God to remain a loving and forgiving Father.  Jesus reveals the Father to us and identifies with us in our sin and brokenness.  He wishes for us to share in his relationship with this loving Father.  We do not want to share this relationship in that we “do not want there to be a Father.”  The ultimate result of this rejection is the crucifixion of Christ by sinful humanity.  In that Jesus is raised from the dead in the power of the Spirit, humanity’s sinful status is made manifest.  We are truly the wicked vineyard keepers of Jesus’ parable.  Nonetheless, the Son finds “his own identity in the totus Christus, in the Son identified with us.”[23]  This theme of the totus Christus (originating in Augustine[24]) is extremely important to Jenson.  Classically, the terms refers to Christ and the Church together as single body and subject, a theme that Jenson exploits in the development of his ecclesiology.  The concept has been especially important for modern Roman Catholic ecclesiologies which Jenson often appears to be channeling.[25]  By Jesus’ suffering crucifixion, he identifies to the end with the effects of human sin that are present in the members of his mystical body.  He moves to identify with the very depths of human existence and thereby integrates sinful humanity into the life of God.

This brings Jenson to the nature of sacrifice.  The idea that Christ’s death was a sacrifice is an important idea in the Scriptures and also in the history of the Church.  What therefore, asks Jenson, is the meaning and significance of this concept?  According to him, we should not exclusively identify sacrifice with propitiation.  Rather, we should look at sacrifice as a kind of prayer, a “prayer spoken not only with language, but with words and gestures.”  Christ’s death was a prayer whereby he gave himself over to us in love and prayed for us to the Father.  Through participating in him, his one prayer incorporates many prayers of his body, the people of God.  His resurrection represents not so much his acceptance, but rather of his body the Church as it subsists in him as the totus Christus.  In the power of his resurrection, Christ now becomes the true priest able to baptize with the Spirit.  The Church is reconciled “only when we are actually brought together with him and his Father in one community; that is, in that their communal Spirit becomes that of a community in and by which we live.”[26]  The resurrection therefore structures the being and identity of the Son, thereby manifesting him as the true Logos of creation.  Echoing Pannenberg, for Jenson, the resurrection confirms Jesus’ status as the originator and goal of creation, thereby making him the true Logos of creation.  

The demonic forces of the old creation are also defeated by this death of the Son.  Although Jenson does not deny that that Jesus was one performed exorcisms and who strove with actual demons, he believes that it is more important that Jesus’ victory was primarily over the unholy alliance of the high priest and the Roman procurator.  This being said, Jenson is reticent about how exact this victory is accomplished.[27]  One may infer that Jenson believes that Jesus’ resurrection overcame and defeated the sinful actions of these governing authorities, but he does not directly state this. 

Ultimately, for Jenson, the sacrificial and conquest motifs are but minor and passing themes.  The main accent consistently falls on the theme of the Son’s integration of humanity into the trinitarian relationship.  This can be observed in how Jenson deals with the resurrection and the overall concept of sacrifice.  Reconciliation primarily consists of Christ identification with humanity.  By his resurrection and giving of the Spirit, draws humanity into the inner life of God.  In the power of the Spirit, the visible Church becomes something of the prolongation of the Incarnation: “The Church is ontologically the risen Christ’s human body.”[28]  Indeed, Jenson goes so far as to state “the Church is the risen Christ’s Ego.”[29]  Thereby the bond of humanity established in the Incarnation is universally communicated through the ministry of the Church.


  1. The thought of divorcing sacrifice from propitiation makes a mockery of the cross. In a brief stroke of the pen, Jenson separates the necessity of shed blood from atonement thereby abrogating the total focus of Leviticus to the work of Christ. There seems to be a desire to forego the crucification and proceed directly to Easter morning; how then does this differ from Peter's declaration of far be it that Jesus should suffer and die as a propitiation for our sins? I should think that if prayer alone were a sufficient sacrifice, the high priestly prayer in John 17 would have accomplished all that were needed for our salvation. Yet, scripture is quite clear this was Christ's willingness to yield to the Father's will and suffer real death for our sins - not as an identification but as a propitiation.

  2. Dennis, Very true. It's true to Jenson's nature to hop-skip-and-jump over specific texts in the Bible. He likes to make a pretense of being true to the Bible, while only talking about its teaching in general and abstract terms, thereby getting around specific text. Case-in-point: The Bible says that Jesus' death is about sacrifice, well but what kind of sacrifice? Let's see, perhaps a kind of sacrifice that would work with my theology better! He doesn't bother to go through the OT and NT passages. Otherwise he couldn't escape the impression that he's largely rejecting what Scripture teaches on this subject.

    Moreover, I also think it's important that we do not reduce Jesus' death to one category of sacrifice. Jesus' death as Hebrews says, fulfills all sacrifice. In my Christology book, I show that Jesus' death 1. Praises the Father. 2. Is offered for the remission of sins. 3. Confirms a covenant or testament. These are all three functions of sacrifice in the OT and Jesus' death comprehensively fulfills all of them.