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Is the Mormon view of Atonement “Atheological?”

gethsemaneI had a few thoughts in response to a recent article at Times and Seasons called The Atheological Atonement.  Dave Banack describes two “mildly surprising conclusions” that I think many Mormon thinkers would likely agree with.

1. The LDS Church affirms a doctrine of the atonement, but not any particular theory of the atonement.

I totally agree with this, though I also agree with his observation that many Mormons do accept Penal Substitution or a form if it (“How many drops of blood were shed for me?”) as their primary mental model.  I would argue that D&C 19 makes Penal Substitution much, much harder to escape – the fact of the matter is, according to the D&C, Jesus did have to suffer a physical punishment which we would suffer if we don’t repent.  But some very smart Mormon thinkers have attempted to view this scripture in light of other theories.  Fine.

But why doesn’t Mormonism have a strong theological model of the Atonement?  I can think of two general kinds of reasons.  Possible Reason 1 is that the Atonement really is a complete mystery.  And I mean mystery in the modern sense (since anciently the word “mystery” meant something that is revealed).  As such, as many comments on the Times and Seasons post seemed to indicate, any model of the Atonement is going to be a shadowy idol compared to the real thing.  I’ve heard some Orthodox make this argument too, but more on that in a minute.  On this view, there is simply no way we could ever understand the Atonement and so we’re free to simply guess and wonder, but we’re better off just using the Atonement rather than try to figure it out.  As a result of this mystery, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are going to shift inexplicably across many different models, analogies, theologies, and prophetic opinions because the truth is a transcendent sort of triangulation of all those models.

Possible Reason 2 is that Joseph Smith inherited a vague, undisciplined mish-mash of Atonement theories because that was the state of American Protestantism at the time.  As a result, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are going to shift inexplicably across many different models, analogies, theologies, and prophetic opinions because Joseph never really considered the depths of implications each theory has about the nature of reality and God’s relationship to humans.

The problem here – if you haven’t already noticed – is that it seems very difficult to judge which Possible Reason is right, since they both result in the same data.  On to Banack’s second conclusion:

2. Maybe it is just as well that the Church avoids formulating a more detailed theory of the atonement.

Banack’s reasoning is that sometimes when the LDS church tries to officially foray into establishing theology, it produces “questionable results.”  As such, if the church leaves questions open to interpretation, it allows us to study the issue and come up with new, interesting, and deep explanations that can be quite edifying.  He cites James Faulconer’s reasons for why the church generally stays out of theology:

He gives five reasons we have, in the past, avoided theology: the Church is still young; fideism has become popular among LDS leaders; continuing revelation makes rational theology more challenging; the view that scripture contains a catalogue of implicit propositional truths; and our view that religion is primarily a matter of practice rather than propositional belief. I find encouraging Faulconer’s view that newer and broader approaches to theology (hermeneutic theology, narrative theology, theology in the style of Wittegenstein or Badiou) offer more promise for deepening LDS thought than rational or systematic theology.

This is the part that I don’t understand, because it seems to make a few assumptions about theology that I probably don’t agree with.  Why should we be afraid of true theology?  If the LDS Prophet revealed some concrete theological truth, shouldn’t we be excited and happy that he did so?  Or would we be disappointed that we can’t BS by the campfire about it anymore?  One assumption Banack makes seems to be that theological answers (at least, systematic theology as represented by the Christian tradition) are just not very good answers to begin with.  If they were, then wouldn’t he be happy to pursue systematic theological answers?  I’m also interested in why he thinks that Continental-style theology is somehow better than this – he says it’s “broader.”  Personally I find it too vague, constructivist, and subjective to be helpful in day-to-day life.  Very few people have the patience and personality to appreciate that type of theology, and thus it seems to operate on the assumption that theology isn’t all that useful to people in their daily lives (except for the elites).  But straightforward systematic theology can be grasped by far more people and has real implications on their behavior.  So yeah, if you don’t think theology is “real” (or if it’s just an elaborate “Rube Goldberg Machine”) then yeah, let’s bury it in an amorphous cloud of Continental sophistry because it’s not all that useful anyway.  That probably isn’t a charitable interpretation, but it’s what pops into my mind.

(I’m not big on Continental philosophy if you can’t tell – especially Wittgenstein)

On the other hand I would suspect that both the Orthodox and the Mormons would suggest that theology is experiential rather than discursive, though they’d say it in their own ways.  I think this is one area of wide agreement between the two sides.  Though on the other hand I do think Orthodoxy has an emphasis on “right belief,” and would probably say that a correct discursive understanding is the start of theosis.  I’m not even sure the Mormon would claim this (though Joseph Smith did, explicitly, in the Lectures on Faith).


3 thoughts on “Is the Mormon view of Atonement “Atheological?”

  1. Yes the Councils have never defined how it was that Christ’s death achieved our salvation. The Church has never made a dogmatic statement about how the atonement achieved our salvation. The Protestants, particularly conservative Reformed types, are now trying to make penal sub a dogma. Aulen’s book puts paid to the penal sub theory. It just isn’t how the Church viewed the atonement for at least the first millennium of the Christian era. We know this from the hymns in the liturgy. Also, read St John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily. There is absolutely no hint of penal sub anywhere in his short Easter sermon. This is read on Easter Sunday in Orthodox Churches.

    It appears that Mormonism adopted the sort of legal/forensic framework from American evangelicalism as you state above. Look at Bruce R. McConkie’s final testimony. It is dripping with legal language. This is not how the Early Church spoke of the atonement.

    “O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb !For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that have slept. To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

  2. Yes, I think you’re generally right about the legalistic aspect. Even though I think that other views of the Atonement besides the legalistic penal substitution and satisfaction theories are possible in Mormonism, I think that any formulations that don’t include those aspects are going to seem quite foreign to the average Mormon. In other words, it’s possible that Blake Ostler’s version of the Atonement is right and fits perfectly in Mormonism, but I am guessing that if the average Joe Mormon read it, he’d think, “Huh?” I am not sure whether it’s most appropriate to judge Mormonism based on a possible interpretation that fits the evidence but would be foreign to an average Mormon, or to take the average Mormon interpretation as the most likely or reasonable. Maybe I’ll post on that now.

  3. Syphax, I think you are missing a major issue here, and I think this is because your personal leanings are different.

    If you look at the development of Christianity, you first have the Jewish-Apocalyptic-Prophetic phase. In this phase, they had living oracles of God leading the Church. In this phase, Paul could urge his followers to avoid philosophy. This phase had a narrative theology. They were concerned with the point *that* Christ atoned for our sins, not *how*. It was all about experiencing the Spirit of God, which alone knows the things of God. And those things of God were laughable for Jews and Greeks alike.

    IIt logically follows that in this scheme, while there is unity in the fundamentals, there is difference of focus and experience. Also, people come from different backgrounds and do not suddenly get rid of their tradition (in the sense of “way of thinking and reasoning”, a paradigm).

    This led to a diversification of Christianity. And it was not a good time for diversification. It was a time of persecution. Irenaeus of Lyon saw his bishop and many others martyred, and he thought that the Church would only live, if they had a unified front. He decided, and the Church accepted after time, that this front is done best by taking the things where there is unity and denounce everything that goes beyond. He took the baptismal questions and made them into a creed. And he who believes not exactly like the creed claims, he who believes less as well as he who believes more, was Anathema. Irenaeus still knew about real prophets, but he and his followers claimed that real prophets could not go beyond that which was already revealed. Over time, this led to a closed canon.

    The influence of Greek philosophy as a missionary tool for Christianity was already massive at that time (think Justin Martyr and Origen, for instance), and together with a creed and a no progressing revelation, this meant that the way to new and better knowledge was not revelation, but using the tools of Greek philosophy on the sacred texts, where the creeds became the lens through which the scriptures were understood. In a way, the creeds became more important than the scriptures.

    Please understand that I find this development perfectly logical, and I do not believe that Justin, Origen or Irenaeus were “designing priests” trying to lead the people astray. I believe they were honest Christians trying to do the best with the situation and the information they had.

    Now, as I said, they used the tools of Greek philosophy to get more meaning and understanding out of the Bible, which is a Hebrew text (not necessarily in language, but in thought. But of course, even for Origen, translation issues were a problem, which led him to compile the Hexapla, and both Origen and Justin pointed out problems of text transmission. I don’t think they recognized that there is more to “translation” than just language.)

    So, exegesis became the primary way for new ideas, which then had to be systematized. systematic theology and philosophy of religion replaced narrative theology. This, as you well know, led to the fights about trinity, to the creation of trinitarian dogmas and further creeds. It is simply “their way of thinking”. And for every creed, you had people who were formerly good christians, kicked out of the fold and proclaimed anathema or heretics. And not every such decision was – in the long run – correct. Think of the miaphysites, who have unfairly been called monophysites by the Chalcedonian council and its followers. Many centuries they were seen as heretical, until in the last decades the orthodox Churches made a real effort to understand what those “heretics” were saying. Then, after all maligning and after wars, both sides understood that they meant the same thing but used different words and different concepts as explanation.

    This systematic way of thinking, placed the reasonings of men (the creeds) on a more important position than the scriptures, and revelation was basically given up or reduced to private importance.

    I skip the schism between East and West. There is more policy than theology in the reasons for the schism (though we have to keep in mind that the west never understood how deeply the filioque clause changed the philosophical fundament for the East, as the West always emphasized the unity more than the threeness of God.

    In the reformation, people still held fast to the philosophical way of thinking, still believed in a closed canon, but rejected tradition. So, basically they forgot why they think and argue the way they do. They abandoned the reason, why the Early Church introduced the Creeds: Unity.

    Now, in the 2nd Great Awakening, people saw the negative effects of the reformation: Sectification and individualization of Christianity. Every man and his dog would stand up and erect his own Church, based on his reading of the scripture, with no corrective element like tradition. Correctly, they nailed the problem that began all this: The introduction of creeds and systematic philosophy. This was reasoning behind the Swiss “Apostolicum Conflict”, the reasoning used by the “Catholic Apostolic Church”, the Restoration Movement in the US. So, they wanted to get rid of the creeds, and back to the Bible alone.

    In this climate, we have Joseph Smith, who went behind the reformer’s battle cry of “sola scriptura” and claimed “solus deus” as the source of all divine knowledge and understanding.

    Now let’s have a look at the First Vision. No matter, if there was development in the narrative or not, a central point that was fairly early was that Jesus told Joseph “the creeds (not the denominations!) are an abomination.” And from the beginning, the Church did not have a systematic theology, but a narrative, since the fundament of systematic theology, creeds, was rejected.

    Joseph instated a paradigm of revelation, not only for some prophet, but for every believer. He claimed that without personal revelation, you cannot understand what a prophet says. This is a radical return to a prophetic Christianity, and as you know, it is also an apocalyptic worldview that Joseph established. In this at least, Joseph was a restorer. And as is natural with this worldview, the question of unity became a problem (think Pratt and the Seer Stone). Joseph’s (or as I believe: God’s) answer to this was manyfold: First, there is one in the Church who speaks for God to the whole world. Second, there are the quorums of the Priesthood, which are equal in power. The Q12 is equal as a whole to the FP. All of the Q70ies together are also equal. If the President of the Church claims to have had a revelation of something new, the Q12 have to search for a revelation, too. And if they all have the same revelation, or a testimony that the new thing is really of God, then the question is passed down to the Q70ies. And if they, too, testify that this is true, then the question is passed on to the General Conference, and the prophetic people is asked to ratify the new revelation and accept it as binding on the Church. If the general conference does not accept it, then this revelation will not be binding on the Church. This way, unity is preserved, though individuality is allowed.

    Thus, it is important to believe that we are saved through the atonement of Christ, but it is unimportant for the Church as a whole, to define the details of how this works. It is necessary to believe that the atonement was the only way to salvation, necessary enough that an apostle who rejected the necessity of the atonement, was excommunicated, but a systematic analysis is not necessary. In fact, it is against Mormon principles to insist on a binding definition concerning this topic. You and me are asked to study the atonement and receive personal revelation, but what I get as revelation, I must not force on you, because I am not the president of the Church. It is more important, in Mormon thought, that we both receive revelation concerning this than that we both agree. And in fact, if there was an official theology of the atonement, this would encourage us to not think, pray and receive revelation for ourselves, but to accept what we are forced to believe.

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