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September 30, 2004



I've been interested in your atonement posts, Greg, because I also recoil from substitutionary models. And the more I try honestly to engage with Scripture and history, the more I believe that something like the model you're proposing is more accurate.

So I hope you won't take offence if I say that I sense in your posts (and in this one particularly) a dismissal, even a disdain, for the ritual practices of ancient Israel. Jesus is the grammar of God, but for a long time, so was Israel, and I think that needs to be remembered.

When Hebrews opens by saying that God spoke in times past to prophets, but in latter days speaks through Jesus, that "but" indicates an "and." And the rest of the book is trying to understand how the same God can be speaking through BOTH Israel and Jesus.

Does part of your rejection of substitutionary sacrifice come from a visceral revulsion for the scapegoats of the Day of Atonement, for Abraham lifting his knife over Isaac, for turtle doves, for the lifting up of a serpent in the desert in order to cure snake bites (an analogy to the cross, incidentally, that John attributes to Jesus himself)?

I know my own difficulty with substitution is a difficulty with images like these. But they cannot be easily dismissed, and my view is that they must be taken into account (along with a million other things) when we try to understand the mystery of the cross. To say Hebrews is silliness comes close to saying the Hebrews were silly, too, which is close to Marcionism.

That's not to say that I think Israel's sacrificial rules and regulations point towards a substitutionary model. For even the prophets are clear that what God demands is not sacrifice on an altar, but the alteration of our behavior.

Still, the altars remain. And dealing with them is difficult. Substitution does strike me as an easy way out. But to write off Hebrews, or even to write off the Hebrews and their turtle doves and lambs, may also be an easy way out of another set of problems.

And it's a way out that Jesus himself never took, from what we can tell. Even as the grammar of God, he spent a lot of time in the temple. He probably broke the neck of a turtle dove or two.

Thanks for sharing your thinking and your passion with us.



Good points. I tend to see the sacrificial practices of the ancient Hebrews, though not necessarily God-ordained, as pointing to the necessity of involvement, a visceral involvement, in repentance, which, quite frankly, militates against a substitutionary approach.

All of the examples you cite don't lend themselves to a substitutionary as much as a participatory interpretation unless one already reads through the lens of substitution.

That's a short answer. Thanks for your thoughts.


I completely agree that the examples I cited don't necessarily point towards substitution: hence the consistent prophetic line about God not desiring sacrifice, but repentance.

My main point, though, was that I think understanding Hebrew ideas about atonement (whatever they were) is a critical part of understanding Christian atonement. That has to be brought to bear on this question. And since Hebrews is trying to wrestle with the translation between both of God's grammars, I hesitate to write it off entirely.

We also can't start by looking through the lens of participation, and then say that any other language is "not necessarily God-ordained" or simply pagan silliness. That's an easy way out, too; somehow, we have to hold a variety of languages together. The cross, after all, is foolishness to Jew AND Greek, and that statement of its mysteriousness comes from someone who clearly can't be denied canonicity.

All that said, I hope I made clear that I write all of this as a friendly amendment. I'm really enjoying reading these posts and hope you'll continue writing about it.



fantastic post - all great points, especially #8: why not just forgive? - God/Jesus are surely better moral agents than all the rest of us, and if we sinful humans can forgive one another w/o demanding blood or any other type of consideration but can forgive simply from love, surely a God whose mercy, kindness, compassion, and love far exceed our own can also forgive without asking or needing anything in return - in fact, is it really even forgiving our sins if it's done only if God receives something (blood) in return? - if the latter is the case, it seems as if we are purchasing God's mercy at the price of Christ's blood - the death of Christ becomes, ultimately, an act of cosmic bartering

some will undoubtedly bring up the typical argument about God's justice: "God demands justice - our sins are horrible offenses against God - justice cannot be ignored" - really? - is there anything more slanderous than to say that God, the infinite ground of all being and Love personified, is so petty that he not only can be offended by the actions of creatures to whom he gave existence but that he even refuses to forgive their imperfections unless blood is shed? - is God a loving father/mother, or is God a callous judge? - my earthly parents forgive me and ask nothing in return for their forgiveness - should we say that God is any less forgiving, less merciful?

what then of Christ's death? - I think Abelard's moral influence perspective, a view which I think can be seen in John's Gospel and in many of the ancient church fathers (particularly Irenaeus), captures it best (and this is highly over-simplified): in Christ's death, we see God showing most truly his identification w/ us and his love for us - God becoming truly and completely human, experiencing what is most universal for all of us: death - "what if God was one of us?" - well, Joan Osborne, he was

eddie jones

I say it all works because God makes the rules and he can do, I'll try and put this in your language... "Whatever the hell he wants". If God says a monkey is the great sacrifice then we all praise the blessed monkey. Now that would be a funny picture at a catholic church, a bronze monkey hangin on a wooden cross while the pope stands underneath it and preaches redemption and stuff like that.

P.S. Faith is doing something in itself.

God bless the monkey!



I appreciate your thoughts, so don't worry about how I take them. Hell, you can even be mean, or pointless, like Eddie.

I do tend to see Hebrews as an alternative read in the NT. If evangelicals are honest, they do too. Nobody really believes that stuff about crucifying the Son of God afresh and trampling the blood of the covenant underfoot. We play hermeneutical games to make it nonsense. I'm just a little more honest about it. It's an alternative read. Yes, it's part of the canon. So is Job.

You rightly point out the prophetic strain in the OT that sees no need for sacrifice. That corrective strain runs throughout Scripture. That's why I chuckle at all the inerrant/infallible folk. This is the most self-correcting document in the world. Hebrews, which I've preached from more frequently than any other book by the way, is doing this weird archetypal thing with Jesus. Aligning our lives with the archetypal ideal equals salvation. How Greek is that? And it's not just me: Brueggemann calls it a minority reading in the NT community. Someone is going to have to produce a better read than Hebrews to convince me of the validity of any kind of substitutionary read.


To me Hebrews has always been a great opportunity for learning about community, especially community in danger of dissolution. I reckon that this read of the book has come about through people trying to make some sense of its place in the cannon (please correct me if I'm wrong, I've had two survey classes in the Bible, I'm far from being a scholar). This isn't such a bad habit, is it?
You say you've preached from it more than any other book. Is that the sort of use you usually get out of it or have you frequently preached about the topic of which these recent posts have treated?


Garrison Keiler has a story (sorry about my folky contribution) about children laughing at the slaughter of a pig to be used in a family dinner. An angry father chastizes the kids for their lack of sobriety in what might be seen as a holy act---one life giving itself up for the sustainance of others. Something, by the way, that the majority of us city folk are distanced from.

"This is my body broken for you, take and eat, this is my blood pured out for thesins of many, do this in remembrance of me." Yes, it is hard to understand, the words recorded in John 8? about eating flesh and drinking blood, many followers turning tail and running, Jesus looks at his inner and circle and says, "You leaving too?" Peter says, "Where else would we go, you have the words of life?"

So this very difficult and on some level very artistic (I'm having trouble finding the right word) corner of human experience is somehow valued by these people (this rabbi) at this point in time. Caleb spoke of the Hebrew experience having a "but" in the New Testament covenant. perhaps as this religion evolves it indeed has another "however," something akin to Marcionism (which I think is already an unspoken sentiment in many modern pew sitters). The story of God evolves, to what degree God has his full hand in that process and how much is our own creation (i.e. adaptation from blood religions) is something I cannot say.

As ludicris as blood atonement seems to me, and maybe will grow more in that direction, I am not willing to say it has never been an intended voice in God's narrative.


Greg--Fart! Monkey!

(I like Tim's comment, by the way.)



I like to talk about the emergent character of God finally resolving in Jesus. It's not that God wanted these things; it was more a matter of how the people understood God--incorrectly a good bit of the time, it appears, what with all the killing, smiting, excluding, and hating. Jesus shows up to clarify things. Other than his death at the hands of the principalities and powers and the way the NT writers struggle with its import, I see nothing of the grammar of blood atonement in the way he spoke.


Nothing pointless about what I said. It is a lot like the bible and God. Just because you don't understand why it needs to be that way doesn't make it pointless.

Oh, And Monkies are never pointless. They are Gods greatest creation.




What you said was funny, so in that sense it wasn't pointless. However, your line:

"I say it all works because God makes the rules and he can do, I'll try and put this in your language...'Whatever the hell he wants'"

...is the one I was referring to. I never know when you're being tongue in cheek or being seriouis. If this was your attempt at being serious...well...you're gonna have to do better. I am quite certain that God can't do whatever the hell he wants.

eddie jones

I was simply poking fun at you for your cussing ways... You know because you are a heathen and all. :) You should know me well enough to know I don't really care what you believe enough to argue with you about it. The monkey comment was darn funny but My point can be taken seriously if you like. I feel God can do what he wants even if we don't believe it. That's cool that you are certain he can't, but I am not sure that matters. If God is all powerful, and if he is God he has to be, than he can do whatever he wants in my eyes. If he allows himself to do so is a different story and a different question.

Mostly I think we all think to much about stuff.

I just wanted to shake up all the "butt-kissing we all agree and you so are great" posts with some humor and monkey talk. so sue me. :)



Your statement "If God is all powerful, and if he is God he has to be," is simply not true. Why does he have to be? Is there a God rule book that says: 1) God must be omnipotent?

However, you know my affection for monkeys, so monkey humor is always appreciated. As for the butt-kissing, why don't you give my blog address at RA concerts. That should get some disagreements going. While you're at it, give yours.

eddie jones

I like the thought of a God that is all powerful or omnipotent. But Hey, I am trying to make myself a fundy again as well. Life was easier then. Anyway, I will try and find you some more conservative types that might get on here and stir up some fun. As for my blog... Well, that is to stay silent. It is not suitable for small children and most christian type people.

Eddie Jones

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