_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 8 – How
Posted by joespencer on July 7, 2012
The last chapter of Robinson’s Believing Christ sees him shift from the more practical to the more theoretical, from the more concrete to the more abstract, from the more applicable to the more doctrinal. I’m actually rather skeptical about such distinctions, but I’ll ignore that skepticism for the moment. It’s best, anyway, to say that Robinson here turns from grace as it is given to us to grace as it is brought into existence. The focus here becomes, in a word, the “how” of the atonement. What did Jesus do? How did He do it? And what should we learn from that?
Here, again, I feel I’ve got to be critical, as I’ve been up through my last post. It’s as if we finally get behind the paneling to see the motor that has been running the Robinsonian machine. And so the criticisms I’ve been raising from the very beginning—coupled, note, at every moment with words of appreciation and recognition!—can finally be worked out fully. It’s here, I think, that we find where Robinson really goes wrong, and why—in my opinion, anyway—he can still get so much right when he sometimes gets things muddled.
The first part of the chapter is titled, simply, “The Divinity of Christ.” The point, first, is to make clear that Jesus could effect the atonement because “Jesus was God, not only the Son of God or the Elder Brother, but God in his own right” (p. 109). Any non-Mormon Christian reading this claim could only be shocked that it’s necessary to explain how Christ received the power to effect the atonement. This detail makes clear the extent to which Robinson is resisting widespread Mormon theologies of works—theologies that often make the Son so distinct and separate from the Father that His power has to be explained. Robinson is right, more than right, to resist this idea. Christ is divine, the very God of the Book of Mormon (“God himself will come down,” etc., the Nephites testify again and again). So I have no major quibble with this first part of the chapter (except with regard to something that will come up later). The next part, then, concerns “The Humanity of Christ.” Here the emphasis is on the idea in Hebrews that Christ experienced temptation in a real sense. This is radicalized in important ways in Alma 7, so there’s no getting around it. Robinson takes all this to motivate talk about the way Christ isn’t distant from us. We’re dealing with a compassionate God who came to feel all that we feel. That’s right as well. And again, no major quibbles here.
Problems arise only when we come to the third part of the chapter, “Vicarious Suffering,” a topic already mentioned in the first part of the chapter, but not as the focus there. This is where, I think, Robinson gets a bit derailed. Let me see if I can explain.
The way Robinson sets up the question is interesting. He doesn’t simply assert that the atonement was a matter of vicarious suffering, of sacrifice—he motivates it. Here’s how: “Still, some are haunted by the final three words in Hebrews 4:15, ‘yet without sin.’ After all, human beings aren’t just tempted to sin—they actually do it. Since I have on occasion given in to my temptations and Jesus never did, since I am guilty and he never was, how can he understand the sinner?” (p. 116). Note the move here. Robinson identifies a problem with all our talk about the humanity of Christ, about all the experienced compassion, etc. Jesus, never sinning, didn’t experience enough to know what I feel. Unless, that is, He suffered vicariously. There’s the motivation. And so Robinson points, inevitably, to the Garden of Gethsemane and what (we usually say) happened there. If in experiencing mortal life, Jesus experienced most of what it is to be human, in Gethsemane, He experienced the rest of what it is to be human. That’s the idea.
I’m skeptical. Very skeptical. For one, where does scripture teach that Jesus suffered vicariously for our sins? I can name only one passage—part of Amulek’s sermon in Alma 34—and that’s one that I think the text goes on to criticize in subtle but important ways—in Alma’s words to his son in Alma 40-42. I don’t find any scriptural warrant for the idea that Jesus suffered vicariously on our behalf. When Robinson says (p. 117) that Christ assumed both our deserved punishment and our earned guilt, I think he steps out into the void beyond the scriptural text. Now, of course, there has been plenty of this sort of talk in Mormonism generally, and often enough by those in authority, but I know of no canonical, binding source that teaches this idea, and I think there are canonical, binding sources that motivate real concern about it.
How does the atonement work according to the Book of Mormon, for instance? Lehi, Jacob, Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma—they’re all agreed on a few basic points. The saving event was Christ’s resurrection—there’s no redemption in Jesus’ suffering, but only in His triumph over the grave. That event trumps death, that force which introduced sin into the world. By uncoupling us from the insuperable horizon of death, Christ uncoupled us from any necessity to sin; we become free to do good if we so desire, or to continue in evil if we so desire. Our works will demonstrate our desires, and so it is by our works that we’ll be judged. The atonement, then, is a matter entirely of the resurrection and the way that it overcomes not only death (giving us to rise again) but sin (giving us the freedom to do good now). The atonement gives us, in uncompromised grace, to work. Justice is satisfied because what we are now—in response to the resurrection—is what we’ll be in the hereafter—after the resurrection has had its physical and not just its spiritual effect on us. And mercy, obviously, holds sway because we’re freed from the otherwise tyrannical power of death. Mercy and justice are worked out before we come onto the scene; we just have to decide whether we like the weave of mercy and justice, or whether we hate it and desire wickedness and death.
That’s the doctrine of atonement in the Book of Mormon. No talk of vicarious suffering, of our having incurred some kind of debt through our sins, of our needing to have all of our shortcomings made up for—none of that. The atonement is a matter, pure and simple, of Christ’s conquest over death, the chief spiritual effect of which is freedom from the power of sin. We don’t have to sin if we don’t want to. We’re not depraved. If we sin, it’s because we selfishly cling to our deaths, reject the implications of the resurrection, would rather be in charge than God, etc. That’s, as it were, the whole story.
Except that there’s Amulek. He has a number of things to say that make it sound as if there’s this other story to be told. He talks about incurred debt, about an infinite God transgressing the boundaries of personal individuality in order to release our debts, etc. He seems to give us the picture we usually paint when we talk about the atonement. So, shouldn’t we just say that Amulek gives us another part of the story—the most important part?
But let’s step very carefully here. Amulek is the only Nephite figure we have who tells us about the atonement without having the status of prophet. He’s a missionary, yes, and one who is often under the influence of the Spirit, no question, but he’s not exactly of the same status as Lehi or Jacob or Benjamin or Abinadi or Alma—and that’s important, I suspect. I think it’s also important that Amulek’s sermon on the atonement—Alma 34—comes rather suddenly to an end without much of an epilogue. His words just end abruptly, and then the missionaries leave town and a war ensues. That’s odd, and very unlike Mormon to tell the story that way. Moreover, we learn a few chapters later that there have been unfortunate things happening among the Nephite missionaries. Corianton, Alma’s son, has been using certain unidentified doctrinal ideas in order to justify wicked desires. And when Alma corrects him, he qualifies, clarifies, and in a few places outright contradicts the teachings of Amulek from Alma 34.
Without providing a full argument—which I need to do at some point—I’ll say that I see the Book of Mormon as offering a subtle critique of Amulek’s understanding of atonement. The point of the larger narrative there is in part to say that the atonement can’t be understood in vicarious terms, in terms of satisfying abstract justice through vicarious suffering, etc. The atonement works otherwise. The one text that might justify our usual way of talking is, at any rate, complexly contextualized, and we ought to be extremely careful interpreting it. I won’t say there’s only one possible way of interpreting it—the one I’ve outlined—but I will say that we’ve not been nearly careful enough in its interpretation when it is in rather obvious tension with every other Book of Mormon sermon on atonement.
So I can’t blame Robinson for his understanding of the atonement here, but I can worry that he’s missed the most consistent Book of Mormon account of things. If we pay attention to that account, we’ll have a rather different picture—one in which we don’t begin in a crisis of justice, though we might invent such a crisis in order to comfort ourselves about our corrupt desires. If we pay attention to that account, we might begin to recognize that we are indeed saved by grace—only by grace—but that our works are the crucial indicators of our relationship to that salvation. If we pay attention to that account, we might finally get over the idea that we’ve got to motivate God to save us, since He’s already done that, delivering us from death and sin. If we pay attention to that account, we might just begin to work in the right way, getting serious work in the kingdom done, instead of wringing our hands all the time about whether we’re going to be saved some day.
Believing Christ. It’s an important book, make no mistake. But in the end, I suppose I want to say that there’s a still better, still more relevant book on grace we might do well to begin investigating: the Book of Mormon. I suggest we get started.