Friday, January 15, 2010

atonement: a debt that needs to be paid vs. a stain/burden that needs to be lifted

This is related to the comment stream on an earlier post.

Here's Bruce Marshall in First Things with a review of Gary Anderson's book, Sin: A History...

Marshall opens by quoting Mk 10:21's "Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. He points to self-sacrifice for the poor and notes the connection to our gifts yielding “treasure in heaven”. Anderson says, "We give to the poor, and God rewards us with a deposit in our heavenly bank account."

From there, he broadens the discussion to conceptions of sin and atonement...

In both early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, sin is overwhelmingly described as a debt owed to God, while the forgiveness of sin is understood as a repayment of that debt.

The earlier biblical texts were different. Before the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C., sin was sometimes described as a defiling stain but mainly as a burden to be borne. Sins produced a weight that was loaded onto the back of the sinner and eventually would crush him. Thus, for example, the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16...The goat is not an object of punishment but a beast of burden. Aramaic the language for religious transgression comes directly from the world of commerce....Over time, the idea of a debt demanding payment became pervasive in Jewish discourse about sin and forgiveness: in Second Isaiah [chs. 40-55] and Daniel...and throughout the New Testament.

Communal and individual suffering is clearly a basic biblical currency by which the debt of sin can be paid off. Isaiah 40, for example, tells us that Israel has paid God back in suffering “double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2)....Decades of penal service in Babylon would be required to satisfy its terms.”

Suffering, however, is not the only currency. As the Second Temple period drew to a close, almsgiving came to be seen as the supremely effective way to pay down one’s debt. Thus, in Daniel 4:27...At root, to redeem means to buy out of slavery....

Not all debts end up being paid. Sometimes a creditor remits a debt, turning the sum owed by his debtor into an unmerited gift....

In early Christianity, the Cross of Jesus motivates God to remit our debt. The most important text for the Church Fathers’ reflection on atonement is probably Colossians 2:14: “Christ erased the bond of indebtedness that stood against us, nailing it to the cross.” The author of Colossians here uses the standard Greek term for a debt instrument— cheirographon, a note of hand that was destroyed when the debt was repaid....

It is not by accident that words for religious faith in many languages are the same as those for financial relationships; indeed, the word credit, loaned to English by Latin, simply means that one believes or trusts another....


At January 15, 2010 at 3:25 PM , Blogger Janet P said...

Interesting insights.
It's not an either/or thing is it? Both ideas in your title sort of work together.

There are consequences, punishment, or suffering or whatever you want to call it owed to a holy and just God for the wrong done.
Then, from our perspective, there's the need to be clean, to have another chance, to have the guilt of the sin removed (David in Psalms), to have a relationship with our supernatural Creator.

Anyway, I tried to look up something on th Hebrew. I came across this from a Hebrew Research website

Ancient Hebrew Word Meanings
Atonement ~ kaphar
By Jeff A. Benner

The Hebrew word kaphar means "to cover over" such as a lid and is the word for the lid of the ark of the covenant (though many translations translate this as mercy seat for no etymological reason). This word is translated as pitch which was spread over the ark in order to make it water tight (Genesis 6:14) This same word is also translated as a atonement. The word atonement is an abstract but in order to understand the true Hebrew meaning of a word we must look to the concrete meaning. If an offense has been made the one that has been offended can act as though the offense is covered over and unseen. We express this idea through the word of forgiveness. Atonement is an outward action that covers over the error.

2283 (V)

At January 15, 2010 at 3:47 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Correct, it's not an either/or, but a both/and-- and an evolution in the understanding of the term.

If I understand William's earlier comments, the evolution of atonement from burden toward debt is relevant to that discussion.

At January 15, 2010 at 4:35 PM , Blogger Janet P said...

Thanks for the info, Eric and please correct me if I'm wrong, William, but it seems the debate was not so much about whether atonement means payment of a debt or lifting of a burden, but whether or not belief in Jesus Christ, as mediator of such an arrangement, is necessary.


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