Knowing that I am interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, one of my best friends sent me a link to James Faulconer’s blog, where he has done a post on Atonement theories and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I really like what I’ve read of Faulconer’s writings and find him to be a warm and interesting thinker, though I haven’t bought one of his books or read too much of his blog.
However, this blog post was interesting because he talks about the different Atonement theories and how he likes Eastern Orthodoxy’s best. Now Faulconer is a very intelligent man so I do not doubt that he is well-versed on the subject, but it highlighted to me a very common thing in Mormonism. In a strong tradition starting with Joseph Smith himself, Mormons like to take what is true from other religions, and there is a high degree of latitude on the part of individual members to construct a personal philosophy as long as they don’t teach it as official doctrine of the LDS church. As such, when a Mormon comes across an interpretation or a snippet of doctrine they like from another church, sometimes they’ll incorporate it into their own view.
The problem as I see it is that the Eastern Orthodox view of the Atonement is not a “theory” that is offered as a possible “resolution” to the “problem” of Jesus’ suffering, and it’s not something that can just be extracted from the Orthodox world-view and incorporated into somebody else’s religion. This is because the Orthodox view of the Atonement is directly related to their view of Ancestral Sin, Jesus’ purpose and nature, the nature of the Church, the nature of the Sacraments, the nature of human beings, God’s purpose for humans, the Fall of Adam, and the definition of sin. It’s a complex web of interconnected ideas – and it would be very hard, if not impossible, to just extract one piece of it that you like and have it coherently make sense out of its place in the web. It would be like taking a fish out of water.
I explained quite a bit about the Orthodox view of the Atonement to my friend and he really liked it – he said that it resolved a lot of the concerns he has with the “justice and mercy” doctrine of Mormonism. But his major sticking point was D&C 19. In that section, Jesus Christ himself says that he experienced a violent Atoning experience in Gethsemane where blood came out of his pores, and that we will suffer likewise if we don’t repent. So it would seem that Mormonism requires a sort of post-Anselmian view of Atonement where Jesus was violently punished for our sins. I told my friend that such an event would be pretty unnecessary, even alien, to the Orthodox view.
And so it is. Imagine a hypothetical person who wants to invent their own sport. He likes soccer, so he starts with a soccer field. But he likes American football, too, so he uses an American football instead of a soccer ball. He also likes tennis so instead of kicking the ball, he makes the players use a tennis racket. But he’s also a hockey fan so he wants players to wear ice skates. Obviously you can see where I’m going with this. Each of those components fit perfectly in their respective sports because they are functionally designed for those sports. An American football is meant to be punted and thrown long distances. A tennis racket is made to hit a soft, bouncy ball shorter distances. Trying to take the various pieces and put them all together is going to mean a big, complex mess with parts that don’t fit together.
Unfortunately, that’s how I see Mormonism. I applaud any systematic theologians, or just members, in Mormonism who try to make all the pieces fit together – but just taking an issue like Atonement theory and reading the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants reveals a (seemingly, to me) confused mess of conflicting Atonement theories and views of God that don’t quite fit together. Sometimes very foundational doctrines, like polygamy, are expanded into big complex theologies only to have the doctrine yanked out from under it, leaving a mess of tiny little pieces with no home.
Perhaps this isn’t quite fair. Certainly every religion has varieties of opinions and people who don’t believe in the mainstream – and Eastern Orthodoxy has its share of doctrinal conflicts! It has been called “the most disorganized organized religion in the world.” All religions diffuse, merge, shift, and change with other cultures and religions. But still, Eastern Orthodoxy has a complete, interlocking theology of core doctrines that have remained unchanged for a long time. I don’t know what the doctrinal “core” of Mormonism is. To me it still looks like a sport invented by cobbling together pieces of other sports.