Friday, September 10, 2010

Pauline Metalepsis and Limited Atonement

If there is one Reformed doctrine that has received more scorn than the rest, it is the doctrine of limited atonement. It is the product of austere, harsh men, and it certainly has no basis in the Bible. I know a professor of New Testament who exclaims that there are four major 'Christian' doctrines that have falsely been propagated as biblical: premillenial rapture, infant baptism, the cessation of the charismatic gifts, and limited atonement. The other three aside; it seems to me that the doctrine of limited atonement does have very little textual support. For the most part it has been a doctrine argued for by logical deduction. Richard Hays' chapter on Christ's praying of the Psalms in The Conversion of the Imagination has given me new eyes to see this doctrine biblically, though.

Here are a few reflections:

It seems to me that one of the greatest fears in the Psalms is the fear of shame. Especially, throughout the so-called lament Psalms. The two phrases "Let me not be put to shame" or "Let them (my enemies) be put to shame" occur often (cf. Psalm 6, 25, 31, 35, 40, 44, 53, 69, 70, 71, 83, 86, 109, 119, 127, 129 in some of these chapters it occurs multiple times). Shame and honor are the ultimate punishment and reward. The idea of personal shame is horrific, and the shame of one's enemies is the climax of vindication.

What does this have to do with atonement? This is where Hays helps. Romans 15 is of course a chapter that calls the church of Rome to lay down their rights. It is a chapter that obligates the powerful to bear with the other. There is an interesting quotation of Psalm 69 that appears in verse 3: "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me." At face value this quotation only partially makes sense in its Romans 15 context. It is merely reminding the reader that Christ didn't mind a little vicarious suffering. But is this all Paul is trying to communicate? The literary trope of metalepsis may shed a bit more light. If one takes into account the context of Psalm 69, we get a broader picture of Paul's meaning.

"Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel. For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face... the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me" (Psalm 69:6-9).

Here is Hays, "the Messiah who prays such a prayer in the midst of suffering is a powerful model for the other-regarding conduct that Paul is urging. Paul wants the Roman Christians to echo the prayer of the Messiah by saying, in effect, 'Do not let the one for whom Christ died be put to shame because of me' (cf. Romans 14:15)".

Paul is arguing that there is a specific class of people that should labor to remove internal shame from their midst. Those for whom Christ died should bear with one another. The Church's identification with the death of Christ is an extra motivating factor in intra-ecclesiastical fraternity. If this identification is not unique to the Church, Paul's argument loses much of its force. Neither David nor Paul would, it seems to me, want to argue that vicarious shame has universal impact. Especially, when one remembers David's urge for God to humiliate his enemies (as shown above).

While this may not be the nail in the coffin, it at very least provides a potential biblical trajectory for the doctrine of limited atonement. More importantly for me personally, it gives positive pastoral implications for this austere doctrine. Here we have one more reason to practically love our brothers and sisters. They are those unique few for whom our Savior shed his blood.

Let it be known that I am in no way saying that Richard Hays is implicitly arguing for the Reformed idea of limited atonement in his book. He is definitely not. However, I doubt he would mind a little reader-response 'interpretation'.


Jon Furst said...

Interesting thought, John. Indeed, shame is a powerful force that, for whatever reason, we don't believe has much substance in our midst. I appreciate that you shed some light on this.

Michael Gormley said...

Catholics and some Protestants & “Bible only” Christians believe in the universal or unlimited atonement of Christ, i.e. that He died on the cross for all men, the Elect (those predestined to heaven) and the Reprobate (those predestined to hell).

The scriptural support that Christ died on the cross for everyone is overwhelming, among which:

And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15)

And they sang a new song, saying: ”Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, (Revelation 5:9)

Other verses like John 4:42 refers Christ as the Saviour of the world; 1 Timothy 4:10 calls God as the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe; Hebrews 2:9 says that Christ tasted death for every one and 1 John 2:2 states that Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: ‘So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.’

He affirms that he came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us.

The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 605)

John Paulling said...

Thanks for the comments, Michael.

I'm not a Roman Catholic so my adherence to the catechism doesn't go very far. That doesn't mean I'm not eager to come to terms with you, I am. Only, it can't happen merely on the terms of the catechism you cite.

Your first statement is historically incorrect, as I understand it. Many Protestants hold to the doctrine of limited atonement. At the very least we can say that many of the early Reformers did.

I do appreciate your presentation of biblical evidence. However, I'm not sure that any of the verses you cited unequivocally express the doctrine of unlimited atonement. Take for example the text from Revelation. If Christ's blood actually "ransomed men for God" then I'm confused as to how this could be unlimited. Unless you as a Roman Catholic are ready to admit that everyone outside of the Catholic Church has been reconciled to God.

My point, is exactly John's point. Christ was slain, and his blood literally ransomed men for God from everywhere. This can't be everyone, unless you hold to something like a universal redemption.