Tag Archives: Peter Rollins

Tony Jones, A Better Atonement, and the Future of Emergent Church Theology

Over the past five years or so there seems to have been a climax and subsequent decline in optimism and enthusiasm surrounding the Emergent Church conversation.  Of course those on the conservative evangelical side have always dismissed the movement as heterodox and a return to theological liberalism, but even some of the more sympathetic critics that often describe themselves as “missional” have expressed concern about a lack of theological leadership.  There’s been no shortage of deconstruction and even ecclesial innovation amid this group, but the common question remains: what is it exactly that so-called emergents believe?

One way to answer this question has been to point to someone like Peter Rollins, for example, who argues very persuasively that we have to get beyond belief.  I think many would concede this, myself included, and the adage of “belong, behave, believe” (as opposed to the traditionally reversed order) has since been well-received.  Nonetheless, I think we’ve also learned that it’s helpful and maybe even essential to know what beliefs we’re trying to get beyond in the first place.  Even Brian McLaren, whose significance and example for me and many others I’m sure can hardly be over-stated, has been decidedly hesitant to spend much time putting forth specific formulations of systematic theology.  Indeed, the trend, and rightly so, has been to uphold narrative before proposition, and transformation before information.  But my contention is that the signifance of what we believe is no less urgent now than ever before – especially when it comes to being organized as a movement (just look at the successes and failures of OWS!) – even if the issue of how we believe continues to take center stage, as I agree it should.

I’d like to think that I’m a pretty strong believer in the centrality of Christian praxis; BUT, emphasizing orthopraxis to the detriment of orthodoxy – at least to the extent that ecclesiological unity is concerned – may be running out of steam.  Are the two not mutually interdependent?  This is why I’ve been especially appreciative of figures like Rachel Held Evans, David Fitch and Roger Olson, for instance (check out Olson’s most recent posts in response to a TGC publication on “the gospel”).  In his own more scientifically sensitive way, Philip Clayton has similarly pioneered a way forward for those of us who are not quite ready to be done with the creeds.  Then there’s the oft-cited work of N.T. Wright of course.  Many others could be mentioned, and it is good to remember the limited cultural and ethnic context of this little North American middle-class discussion.  Nonetheless, I think we disaffected, homeless, progressive but not quite post-Christian folks in this region of the world might still have an important role to play in the global future of our faith.

With this in mind, the voice I’m recognizing here is that of Tony Jones and his very short new book, A Better Atonement. I wouldn’t say that Jones is trying to be particularly original with this work.  And if you’re looking for the next cutting edge theory or criticism of Christian atonement, this is not it.  If that’s what you want, check out Kathryn Tanner, Delores Williams, Mark Heim, Andrew Sung Park, etc.  No, Tony’s book is far simpler and more useful than that.

No doubt I’m probably in danger of painting with too broad of strokes here, but…

As has frequently been noted, a major problem in many evangelical contexts continues to be the degree to which “the gospel” is equated with the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (PSA).  I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the future of the emergent church depends on its ability to articulately refute, and concisely recast, this reductive tendency among our more conservative friends.  No matter what kind of social justice projects (KONY 2012, etc.)  get tacked onto this message, and regardless of how much Relevant Magazine emphasizes “rejecting apathy,” so long as PSA is depicted as the full picture or main event of the good news, the church will fall well short of expressing Jesus’ vision for it.  (By the way, I’m talking to people who still care about preserving something like the Christian church that isn’t just Mainline version 2.0… if this isn’t you, that’s fine!).   An adequate response, however, will take more than just ignoring or only deconstructing Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral (conversionism, Biblicism, crucicentrism and evangelism).

Because even if you’re convinced PSA is the devil, the language is in the Bible even when re-interpreted, so it’s probably not going away.  Tony Jones knows this, and he also knows better than to dismiss it.  Instead, as others have tried to do (e.g., Scot McKnight), he’s merely attempting to dethrone it, and I would like to join him.  Unless “emergent” is to become forever irrelevant even to the most open-minded evangelicals, this is the path that should be taken.  I’m very appreciative of the various feminist criticisms of traditional atonement readings, but if you want to engage the other side of the debate, you can’t just throw out PSA.  It has to be dealt with even if you revise it.  If this is too conservative for you, sorry! 🙂  At the same time, Tony is also careful to point out that, generally speaking, atonement theory (not christology) has never really been a dividing debate in church history and shouldn’t be now.  Compared to the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, atonement is secondary.  I’m not as sure about this, but he could be right.  I’m simply saying that, just as mainliners might need to meet emergents halfway, so too can emergents be generous enough to “go to the middle” for evangelicals so to speak.

I feel like there’s been a heavy slew of blog posts and books lately on why young adults are leaving the church (see Frank Schaeffer, Christian Piatt, Dianna Butler Bass, etc.)  This is a good conversation to have, and I think the practical issues definitely need to be addressed.  We should talk about aesthetics, music, liturgy, values, programs, etc.  But the two biggest factors, I would want to say, are still identity and purpose, and surely we get these from our theology, and perhaps more precisely, our christology.  Without this, the church might as well become an arts interest group or a social service club.

  1. The first thing Jones does is to (convincingly, in my view, and biblically!) debunk original sin without neglecting the seriousness of sin as such.  Again, this is not new, but sin must be understood structurally and socially (war, violence, oppression, inequality, environmental degradation, etc) without forgetting about it individually.  This is crucial for an emergent church theological project.
  2. Secondly, Jones directly challenges Driscoll and Piper on this issue for their hyper and irresponsible, Calvinist PSA.  I am so glad he’s not ignoring them.  They are way too powerful and influential to ignore if we care about the North American church.  And here’s what we have to see: a lot of people who go to their churches aren’t even like them because they don’t know better!  The response: offer an alternative that isn’t reactionary.
  3. Thirdly, after outlining the major theories of atonement throughout history and testifying to both their necessity and finitude, Jones turns to a better theory for our time, despite its shared limitation (see below).

Anyone who has studied 20th century theology already knows what Jones is saying here.  Jon Sobrino and the liberation theologians said it.  Jurgen Moltmann and other political theologians have said it.  Scholars like Theodore Jennings, Miroslav Volf, and Joel Green have made cases along the same lines.  People who like the Girardian “Last Scapegoat” take will obviously appreciate Mark Heim or someone like Ingolf Dalferth.  And this is one of the positions that Jones defends.  More emphatically though, Jones follow’s Moltmann’s notion of atonement as solidarity through the Philippians 2 hymn and The Crucified God.  Now to be fair, the best proponents of penal substitution (e.g., von Balthasar) can also say this, but think substitution without the penal, or what Volf calls inclusive substitution, in which Christ is not a third party inserted between God and humanity, but the very God who was wronged:

“Jesus’s life, and particularly his death, show God’s ultimate solidarity with the marginalized and the poor,” Jones explains, “with those who most acutely experience godforsakenness . . . in his death, we are united with his suffering.  And in identifying with his resurrection, we are raised to new life.”

My interpretation of A Better Atonement goes something like this: The real hole in our gospel for conservatives is the failure to proclaim the saving significance that Jesus and therefore God participates fully in and understands human suffering, while for liberals it is that Jesus does this as Christ.  This means three things: we affirm incarnation, we affirm resurrection, and we declare the prophetic meaning of the crucifixion loud and clear.  Yes, we’ve read and written about this, and it might even be old news for some, but surprisingly enough, most people sitting in the pew as it were still haven’t really heard it preached or seen it in action, either because we’re too distracted as ministers with preaching salvation as a legal transaction on the one hand or using it as mere exemplary inspiration on the other.  The justice of God gets sidelined in both cases, as the parables about the Kingdom of God are either overly eschatologized or mystically internalized.  The cross and the kingdom must be reconnected, and it can’t just be social.  It has to be soteriological.  This is what Jones is saying.  This is what we have to claim (for a better Scriptural understanding of what this looks like, I recommend N.T. Wright’s most recent book, How God Became King).

The book reads like a blog – very informal, but still clear and free from overly simplistic caricatures, which is a difficult balance to find.  This is reliable, timely, and bold theological leadership for the emergent church that is desperately needed.  I must confess that I wish it had come sooner, as I feel too many people have already moved away from the conversation before listening to what might be a tenable alternative to the monolithic PSA gospel of conservative evangelicalism.    Nonetheless, this should be a welcomed and appreciated little book for easy reference and for prompting discussion in an intelligent and accessible fashion.  What could be more appropriate as we approach Easter?  In sum, Jones lays out what in my view is the most compelling theory of atonement for our situation in light of the overwhelming crises we face as a North American church in the midst of what Walter Brueggemann has perceptively called a culture of therapeutic, technological consumer militarism.

A shorter and slightly different version of this post can be found at homebrewedchristianity.com.

From “aha” to “uh oh” and then what?

Here is a post that went up on Provoketive.com recently which I am now occasionally writing for:

I was just listening to an interview with Doug Pagitt (whose book Preaching Re-imagined, among others, was a big eye-opener for me when i first started doing youth ministry) on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, and he was talking about how the dominant narrative for Christendom prior to recent decades was one of moving from “being lost” to “being found.”  This is illustrated well by the extensive familiarly you find in the West with songs like “Amazing Grace”… “I once was blind but now I see.”  This idea was, and for many perhaps still is, the dominant thinking about religion in general and Christianity in particular.

What Pagitt suggests is that in today’s cultural climate, which he calls “the inventive age” (see his latest books with this phrase in the title here), people in North America are more likely to have conversions for “aha” to “uh-oh” than from “I don’t know” to “aha.”  Pagitt is not implying, however, that these people are all saying goodbye to their Christian faith.  He makes a distinction between the current context as a post-Christian era vs. post-Church era, arguing for the latter more so than the former.

In many ways, I find this to be true in my own experience.  It’s not a new story; I hear it frequently.  Like Pagitt, my faith background was significantly influenced by conservative evangelicalism.  For those who can relate, what’s funny about the way this story usually goes for people is that we started singing “Amazing Grace” so early, it’s hard to remember a time when we were ever “lost.”  I didn’t have time to get lost!  By my baptism at age ten, I don’t even know how many times I had already prayed for Jesus to come into my heart.  During high school and most of college, if I did any reading related to difficult theological questions, it was usually to seek out confirmation for what were already my solidified doctrinal presuppositions.

After college and partly during seminary though – though not really because of seminary – I went through a challenging season of having many of my assumptions questioned . . . in some ways I may have even been too open-minded for my own good.  Nonetheless, I experienced what I guess could be called a second-conversion – a conversion to not knowing.  It was a conversion to a place of frustration with preconceived boundaries and filters.  I wouldn’t have ever have called myself agnostic; nor would I fit into the popular category of “spiritual but not religious.”  But a fundamental paradigm shift definitely took place, and it has deeply affected my worldview. It wasn’t just about the creeds of orthodoxy.  My transformation touched the political, economic and cultural.  Nor was it about left and right – while there may have been implication there.  The product is unfinished, and there’s a combined sense of both liberty and estrangement as a result.

I still confess the faith of my upbringing, but its significance for me has evolved substantially.  I sometimes wonder how this fits into the rubric for discipleship.  Maybe I’m off course a bit? On the other hand, maybe I’ve learned how to be a little more honest and gracious toward myself and other people.  Most importantly perhaps, the journey doesn’t have to end at this point, and having conversation with others about it might be the doorway to the next chapter.

Despite my resonance with Pagitt’s thesis, I do have some doubts about its soundness insofar as it’s superimposed on American culture writ large.  To what extent do others really relate to this, and to what extent is it more of a sub-cultural, Bible-belt phenomenon as a result of things like the information revolution, hipster Christian trends, and environmental changes in the burgeoning stages of young adulthood?  In addition, this narrative might also just nicely follow the typical stages of faith development – rules, doctrine, doubt, mature belief (or second naiveté) – but for some reason I’m not sure.  Maybe I just want to feel more special than that 🙂  The Emergent Church movement (with which Pagitt is associated) has sometimes been accused of being too ethnically and culturally insular, of being composed primarily of middle-class folks.  Whether this is fair, would it necessarily take away from the legitimacy of this testimony for a portion of North American Christians like myself?

Peter Rollins talks a lot about a church “beyond belief”.  We have our differences, but what Pete proposes seems to me to be striking a chord with a lot disenchanted would-be Jesus followers.  In order to do or be much of anything, a community certainly needs belief.  Going beyond belief doesn’t mean doing away with it or even changing it – though change might happen.  Moving beyond belief means changing how we believe.  Do we believe primarily with epistemology (knowledge) or ontology (being)? Do we lead with confession or action?  Do our beliefs first comfort or direct us?  Which kind of belief did Jesus embrace?  Maybe it’s not always either/or.  Dark days require consolation.  But what does belief look like for privileged citizens in the land of plenty and power?  This is one of the main questions I hope to explore here, especially with regard to the responsibility that churches have in light of this belief.