Paul and atonement


I recently attended a "Living the Questions" session that was devoted to the apostle Paul. I found it fascinating. Paul has often been misunderstood, and often unfairly maligned; but in fact some of the most egregiously offensive (sexist or homophobic) comments associated with him are found in letters attributed to him but which he did not write. In addition, although 1 Corinthians is a legitimately Pauline letter, it is believed by many that 1 Corinthians 14:34, which says that women should remain silent in church, was not written by Paul, but is instead an inauthentic passage that was inserted into that epistle later on. Combine all of this with the fact that Paul seemed remarkably progressive elsewhere in his authentic epistles--he referred positively to a female apostle, for example, and he stated that there is "neither male nor female" in Christ--then we can see that Paul was much more progressive than his reputation would suggest.

Leaving aside the questions of sexism and homophobia, though, there is also the theological doctrine of atonement that is attributed to Paul, and which is problematic for many people. Romans 3:21-26 in particular is cited as the source of this doctrine. The NRSV translation, for example, has Paul saying:

But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
The above passage has been used as the basis for much fundamentalist proselytizing. The notion frequently attributed to Paul by many Christians is that we are "saved" by the blood atonement of Jesus's death so long as we have the correct theological beliefs, namely belief in Jesus.

One of the theologians who figures prominently in the "Living the Questions" session about Paul is John Cobb, who raises a couple of important points about the Greek text that serves as the basis of this passage. First, he argues that the Greek word pistis that is translated as "faith" in this passage would be better rendered by the word "faithfulness". Second, the phrase "faith in Jesus" uses a mistranslated preposition; instead of "in", the correct word should actually be "of". Thus, instead of "faith in Jesus", Paul was talking about "faithfulness of Jesus". Which, of course, changes everything. Suddenly, instead of a theology that required people to believe in Jesus in order to be "saved", Paul was talking about emulating the model of a faithful lifestyle that Jesus himself exhibited.

I found an online text of a lecture that Cobb has given on this same subject, but in much greater detail. The lecture, titled "Did Paul Teach the Doctrine of the Atonement", takes apart that passage in Romans, line by line, analyzing the original Greek and how it has been and probably should be rendered in English. The alternate translation that Cobb proposes is delivered piecemeal in the lecture, but if I assemble the parts I come up with this:
Apart from the law the justice of God has now been disclosed to all who are faithful in the faithfulness of Jesus. This is attested by the Jewish scriptures. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the liberation that is in Christ Jesus, which God purposed as an act of conciliation through Jesus' faithfulness to death. God did this (the act of conciliation) to show God's justice (which had been disclosed in Jesus' faithfulness). Although God had expressed forbearance earlier by passing over sins, the new disclosure was to demonstrate at the present time that God is just and that God justifies the one who participates in the faithfulness of Jesus.
Participating in Jesus's own faithfulness--that's the essential point. According to this view, we are being asked to join in with Jesus, to be co-participants in his faith--and be faithful like he was. This has nothing to do with a doctrine of atonement, let alone the notion that in order to receive the benefits of said atonement one has to affirm one's "faith" by assenting to a set of theological propositions about Jesus:
Those who insist on the atonement often suppose that without such a doctrine Christians cannot explain how their salvation depends on Jesus Christ. They point out that what is called the moral influence theory fails to take full account of the power of sin. Paul certainly gives some suggestion of an influence of Jesus upon us, with his extraordinary faithfulness even to death on the cross evoking faithfulness on our part. But the idea of moral influence is far too weak to capture his meaning.

Paul surely believed that Jesus revealed the nature of God's justice and that in doing this, Jesus deeply changed the way we think of God and relate to God. But Paul did not suppose that changing our understanding of God by itself saved us.

Paul believed that in Jesus God won a victory over sin. But the idea that God did this by paying Jesus to the Devil as the price for ransoming human beings would have made no sense to him. Certainly, the later explanation of God's victory over the Devil in terms of tricking him into unjustly killing Jesus was not at all in the horizons of his thought.
So how, according to Paul, did Jesus save us if not through blood atonement? Cobb writes:
Jesus saves us by being radically faithful. This faithfulness shows us the true character of God's justice. This whole passage emphasizes God's disclosing and demonstrating this paradoxical justice that would more typically be called mercy. The disclosure transforms the relation of God and the world from one of wrath of one of love. Human participation is this new transformed situation is by faithfulness. This faithfulness is a participation in the faithfulness of Jesus. God views those who participate in Jesus' faithfulness in terms of the justice to which they thereby attain rather than in terms of their continuing sinfulness. This participation in Jesus' faithfulness entails readiness to suffer with Jesus. In baptism we participate in Jesus' death and burial. By thus being united with Jesus, the faithful live in confidence that they will rise with him and share in his glory.
We are being asked to join in with Jesus by emulating his own faithfulness.

In discovering this interpretation of Paul's writings, Paul suddenly seems to me to be a much more interesting author than he did before. It is so easy to read Paul in the light of later theological interpretations, and as a result his words have often struck me as trite. But perhaps I wasn't giving Paul enough credit.


Paul said...

Sounds good to me. At the same time, the NT overall does offer plenty of material to those who favor versions of Christianity that lack a universal spirit. A couple examples:

“Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John 3:18

“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” Mark 16:16

Mystical Seeker said...

True, although those Gospels were written after Paul had died (and in the case of John, long after he died.)

rev katie m ladd said...

Excellent post. I gave you a shout out over on my blog.

Paul's relationship to atonement is not easy to understand for a whole host of reasons. John Cobb offers us a new way of approaching what Paul was teaching. Your summary could be really helpful for a lot of people. Thanks.

I love your blog.

Mike L. said...

Great post! I think most christians have a love/hate relationship with Paul and some of that can be the misunderstands combined with the fact that he didn't write everything assigned to him. I still think there are ideas in his logic that we should just reject rather than trying to find ways to soften his words.

Gartenfische said...

I found this very interesting. It shows again why words and beliefs should not be put ahead of people and love.

Thank you.