Review of Jennings’ Transforming Atonement

Jennings’ Transforming Atonement is an excellent work. Unlike other liberation theologians that generally focus on ethics or politics, Jennings’ political theology of the cross is grounded in Biblical exegesis. In Part I he focuses upon the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and death along with Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed and the sinners of society.

I want to focus this review on the last chapter of Part 1 and last chapters of Part 2. Many Christians view Jesus’ death as a peace offering to appease a wrathful God that hates us. Jennings argues quite persuasively that it is humanity that needs to be reconciled to God, according to Paul. Humanity is angry and “we are the ones who have a “beef” with God” (128). However, God takes the initiative to reconcile us. God has come in Christ to remove our alienation from God.

In chapter nine, Jennings asks “[w]hat are the implications of the theology of the cross for our understanding of God?” (199). Jennings worries that older formulations tried to protect the Godhead from the death suffered by the Son by insisting that only Jesus’ human nature was impacted by crucifixion. However, this splitting apart of Jesus’ two natures potentially threatens the unity of the Godhead. [That’s why it’s always been no surprise to me that Lutheran theologians have been able to proclaim that God is dead since they tend to err in the other direction away from these Nestorian Christological formulations]. This would contradict the Biblical witness that God was “present in the fate of the crucified Messiah” (203). This splitting apart of the Godhead ultimately encouraged the idea that the Father was “an agent rather than as sufferer” (203) in the death of the Messiah. Jennings then briefly reviews other theologians who have likewise critiqued the idea of an impassible God such as: Whitehead, Bonhoeffer, Kitamori, Moltmann, and Altizer.

Jennings then turns to discuss Heidegger’s famous remark that “only a God can save us” and Derrida’s critique of the sovereign God of onto-theology. Jennings writes, “only with the idea of a nonsovereign God, a vulnerable God, indeed a God who can die, can humanity be rid of the dreams of invincible power that has consigned our history to violence and suffering” (213). Jennings recognizes that his position is very close to Altizer’s gospel of Christian atheism, which is the idea “that God is emptied into history as the coming sociality of mutual care, of justice, generosity, and joy” (214). This coming community is the only thing that can save us.

In the closing chapter Jennings discusses different atonement theories. He argues that there is no orthodox reading of the tradition. He rejects satisfaction metaphors because satisfaction can function as a substitute for justice, not to mention the whole notion is unjust even if Christ’s death was voluntary. Next, he takes aim at forensic metaphors which he believes betray the Pauline distinction between law and justice. Substitution will not do because it underemphasizes the important ethical implications of the cross. Instead Jennings favors Soelle’s idea that Christ represents us temporarily but is not a substitute for humanity. Although he appreciates liberation theologians’ re-interpretation of the patristic tradition, Jennings is doubtful that these new readings share much in common with older ransom models. Finally, the Abelardian theory is inappropriately individualistic and might encourage abuse since God wills Jesus’ death to demonstrate God’s love.

Jennings believes that all three theories have holes and that any sort of attempted synthesis is doomed to fail. What is ultimately sacrificed is “the divine claim and call for justice” (223). Moreover, what mattes is not a theory but “a confrontation with all systems of arrogance and violence, of domination, and death, of privilege and prestige, that holds humanity hostage” (229).

This work is a bold attempt to argue for an updated political theology of the cross. Although I did not focus on the more exegetical chapters, his mastery of Pauline literature is simple amazing. He is able to navigate deftly through the epistles and to demystify so much of the jargon to explain the heart of the Pauline message. Theologically I am drawn to this work as it weaves together quite convincingly two of my favorite theological traditions: radical death of God theology and liberation theology.

New Issue of Political Theology

The newest issue of Political Theology is now available. I bring this to your attention as it contains excellent articles by some of our own — see Brad Johnson’s “Doing Justice to Justice” and Anthony Paul Smith’s “The Judgment of God and the Immeasurable.” Check them out.

The Far-Reaching Scope of Pauline Apocalyptic

This is a postscript to a post I wrote a while back on “Why I Used to be Attracted to Radical Orthodoxy,” in which I stated my initial attraction to RO because it “promis[ed] to have something theological to say about economics, sex, cities, philosophy, aesthetics and music,” and most nearly everything. Before I ever encountered RO, I was captivated by chapter 8 of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (“Christ and Power”) because it offered a means for reflecting on the structural aspects of sin and the structural elements of redemption. As I was recently reading Douglas Harink’s Paul Among the Postliberals it occurred to me that Pauline apocalyptic theology might have been a more obvious place to begin exploring the cosmic (all encompassing) framework of the gospel, rather than RO’s  explorations into the various “sites” in which secular modernity has invested heavily (because they often uphold Christendom as the alternative). A couple of choice quotations from Harink make the case for apocalyptic as a mode for theological engagement with different “sites” with the gospel: Read the rest of this entry »

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