Was the crucifixion merely the result of evil plotting?

Describing the crucifixion, “God on the Cross”, Nietzsche reminds us of its perennial ability to disturb: “Till now there was never and nowhere such an audacity in reversal, something so fearful, questioning and questionable as this formula.” And in our day we continue questioning, probing, reformulating, and grappling with the possible – and impossible – implications of it. A live example is the current discussion on the link between violence and the atonement. Is the cross an instance of divine and human violence, or is it an instance only of human violence – of evil plotting alone?

Having recently reviewed a book on nonviolent atonement theory, Stricken by God?, I was left with a question to which I only hinted in the review and would like to explore further here. Why is the doctrine of providence and its relationship to atonement rarely, if ever, discussed? Related to this, why do I think this is noteworthy or even just curious?

Atonement and Providence

To invoke the doctrine of providence is to bring two issues to the fore – both of which have direct significance for doctrines of atonement: (1) the character of the actors in the drama of redemption (God and creatures) and (2) the relationship between divine and human action.

With that in mind, I have two suggestions. First, if it does concern itself with those realities then the doctrine of providence, though not mentioned in the present discussions about the relationship between atonement and violence, has determinative significance for one’s doctrine of atonement. Second, by allowing the doctrine of providence to function more “transparently” we gain a sense for how doctrines of the atonement assume certain models of providence and, just so, become more informed to judge whether they can be sustained, given their implications for providence.

Part of my concern is pastoral and the other doctrinal. On the pastoral front, I suspect that some people may be uncomfortable with the attending implications that particular doctrines of atonement have for divine providence. On the doctrinal side, I am interested in coherence and would like to think – the optimist that I am – that the dogmatic implications for doctrinal decisions should be explored (i.e. doctrines of the atonement have direct implications for doctrines of providence and visa versa).

Let’s probe this just a bit further related to notions of divine intentionality.

Atonement and divine intentionality?

To his credit J. Denny Weaver is the only one in this volume to surface the implications for agency that are tied up with atonement theories.

No amount of nuancing and redefining and reemphasizing this or that element will rescue satisfaction atonement from its intrinsically violent orientation, and from the image of God as the agent ultimately behind the death that satisfies God – because satisfaction in any form retains God as the actor of agency to engineer the saving death of Jesus (343)

He goes on quite rightly to identify the attending implications for divine intentionality saying, “a flaw in all the standard atonement theories is the image of a God who intends that Jesus die or the image of a purposeful sending of Jesus in order to die” (351). Though he does not say so, to speak of divine intentionality is to speak about providence (relationship between actors).

Not surprisingly, then, he argues later, “God is not willfully sending Jesus for the specific purpose of dying, but God nonetheless willed that Jesus died” (352). While still trying to retain some sense of divine intentionality, Weaver wants to distance God as far from violence as possible. Hans Boersma’s critique of Weaver relates precisely to the implications here for divine intentionality, that arguments in favor of a “nonviolent atonement typically end up being arguments that reject divine intentionality in the cross” (from Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation).

Whether or not that is true isn’t my interest here. I simply want to use Weaver in order surface some of the issues involved that relate to the possibility we have been exploring: that one’s doctrine of Providence (character of actors and relationship between acts) has determinative significance for one’s understanding of the atonement.

Thoughts? As I said, I am exploring some ideas here and would love your feedback.

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