Michael Hardin and the ‘new view’ of the atonement

As usual I would like to keep this brief (as an excuse for lack of effort to research much while I write) but this will probably end up proliferating anyway, so there. Read on, and do the research yourself, o thou internet user.

This morning we had the pleasure of hosting Michael Hardin at our Bible School. Michael is an Anabaptist, an advocate for peace, and a very competent scholar. He was given the subject of the ‘non-violent atonement’ which he said later (I was privileged enough to catch lunch with him and a few others afterwards) was a difficult one to be given because it was more controversial than some of the other topics on which he gives seminars. He certainly said a few controversial things.

Being a friend of people like Greg Boyd, Brian McLaren, and others, I suppose he would be. Greg Boyd’s influence came through, particularly with reference to the subject. Greg is outspoken in seeing the traditional view of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA – in which Jesus is bearing the punishment for our sin) in that now infamous sense of ‘cosmic child abuse’, and prefers a Christus Victor view (in which Jesus is conquering the powers) over against it. Hardin definitely follows this trajectory.

Here’s my first reflection. I haven’t yet heard Greg, Hardin or others in this camp defend themselves as to whether they’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater of the PSA view, or more broadly on the issue of whether God has wrath against sin which needs to be appeased. The ‘new’ view (and I’ll try to get to the issue of its ‘newness’ in a minute) I think unfortunately suffers because of the way it caricatures the opposing view. In the traditional view (say Boyd, and Hardin this morning), God has an ‘anger management problem’; he is a rage-a-holic who just wants a blood-bath in order to appease his wrath. Perhaps more soberly they surmise that it’s merely a reflection of the sacrificial systems of the pagan nations who themselves believed that they had to offer sacrifices – often human ones – in order to appease the wrath of the gods. With these illustrations, it can become easy to subscribe to a passionate rebuttal of this view and say “No! God can’t be like that! Look at how loving Jesus is!” and conclude that the PSA view contains nothing more than a doctrinal statement that God has anger management issues, and therefore reject it.

Roger Forster, at the end of Hardin’s seminar, simply but boldly responded: ‘there is a place for the blood’ – and left everyone wondering what he might have said further! Roger has always taught the atonement in a very balanced way, taking in Anselm, Abelard and Aulen as three convenient A’s to represent different angles on the cross (roughly speaking, the first two come into the ‘traditional view’ of dealing with the problem of sin, while Aulen looks behind the scenes at the victory over Satan). He doesn’t set them against one another but tries to take in a complete picture of what’s going on at the cross.

Looking for our selves at the issues presented by Hardin, Boyd and others, at the moment it seems to me that they have run away with a particular caricature of God (associated, as it is, with traditional Calvinism which they equally reject) and therefore discount any possible Scriptural narrative wherein God might be angry about sin, or in which Jesus might somehow have been standing in the place of all humanity in bearing the consequences of sin in his body.

However, I do have a respect for one way in which Hardin answered this, although he answered it in a funny way. After asking the question of where in the NT it actually says that Jesus carries our sins on the cross, someone answered him at the end by pointing to 1 Peter 2:24. Alarmingly Hardin admitted that he takes a view where he would be comfortable suggesting that Peter had got it wrong, but I don’t know why he admitted that because he then proceeded to make a good case for Jesus having borne the weight of the systematic sin against him. In other words, it’s not that my own individual sins (2000 years in the future) all caused Jesus to go to the cross, not that all of them were felt individually there; but rather the same system into which we were all born was that which beat up, humiliated and ultimately crucified an innocent man. He was thoroughly sinned against under the same system in which I live, and in which I too have sinned. The context in Peter even seems to have that in view.

It wasn’t a bad defence, but I still have yet to feel satisfied that the question has really been answered about how Jesus ‘bore our sins’. I think the issue of sin, guilt and God’s wrath still needs to be satisfactorily addressed by the proponents of what Hardin calls the ‘new view’, given the Biblical narrative and the strength of God’s feeling against sin in so many portions of Scripture. I personally think forgiveness wouldn’t mean anything if there wasn’t some anger. If I forgive someone who never really made me angry in the first place, is that forgiveness? If you have to forgive someone, doesn’t it hurt precisely because the natural feeling is towards vengeance? “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Where does that come into this view?

And is it a ‘new view’? If so, there can be a natural tendency to wariness among many who hear of it. Better I think to show how something can be rooted in Scripture, history and tradition – something which, again, Roger Forster has been excellent at doing in all his years of ministry, and perhaps lending him some credibility in evangelical circles despite being ‘radical’ on a number of subjects. (Besides, to be ‘radical’ literally means to go ‘back to the roots’, if you study the etymology of the word – hardly what many people think when they hear the word ‘radical’.)

Actually, I don’t think it benefits Hardin or others to call it a ‘new view’. It might be a radical departure from most of the evangelical mainstream especially in America; but it might benefit more from showing how it is more consistent with the flow of revelation in Scripture and history. And it’s not a new view – not if you’re referring to Christus Victor.

I meant to say at the outset that it’s only certain pacifists that seem to be applying pacifism to every element of theology, including the cross. I suppose it’s because the cross is a violent act. But there are others who would be political pacifists without feeling the need to apply it to atonement theory.

A final word. I enjoyed the time we had with Michael Hardin and will be following his blog on Patheos and other things he does, with interest. One of the things we discussed afterwards was the difference between British and American culture. I had to tell him that here in the UK, if you begin to raise an argument or a fierce debate over an issue, it can be perceived that you have a problem with the other person, and taken to heart as an offence. This shocked Michael – because over in the States, they practice the art of debate. And if you’ve seen any American TV shows (faithful portrayals of reality as they are), you’ll know that they can argue a lot, yet rarely seem to fall out over it. It’s how they hash out an issue together. Michael commented that there are areas where he and Greg Boyd really disagree – but they still love each other as friends.

So, more debate classes in UK schools, I say. Then maybe we’ll stop falling out with each other so much. And I say this because I wanted to take up some of these issues but with the freedom of the knowledge that I can still respect Hardin and his work, as I do, and that if he read this he’d be happy to dialogue back.

Oh, and he was thoroughly kind enough to give me one of his books – indeed, the one he says is his most systematic – when I said farewell to him. You’ve gotta respect someone who does that! Thanks Michael, I look forward to reading it.

One final, FINAL word – there were many other things which he said which many of us listening found hugely helpful, including a comment on the distinction between action and intention, centred around Jesus’ words “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Further light was shed on this phrase when he explained that it’s the only statement on the cross that we have recorded in the ‘iterative’ sense in the Greek – ie. Jesus could have been repeating those words over and over… Wow. The book, I’m sure, has more on this. It’s called The Jesus Driven Life. Go check it out.

4 thoughts on “Michael Hardin and the ‘new view’ of the atonement

  1. Concerning the notion of Jesus bearing our sins on the cross, is there any mileage in considering the distinction between deliberate punishment and inevitable consequences?

  2. Good piece, Ben. My personal view is a both/and rather than either/or. In doing I agree with NT Wright’s view that both PSA and Christus Victor are sort of correct, but could be stated better than they traditionally are.

    With that as my starting point, it will be of surprise that Michael’s talk didn’t sit wholly comfortably with me. But that’s no bad thing, in and of itself. It’s usually a good thing to listen carefully to those you disagree with.

    I think my ears first pricked up when he referred to PSA as “cosmic child abuse”. This seems to be a phrase co-opted into the christian vernacular from atheistic criticism. My issue with it is that it’s a caricature of PSA, not a fair and reasonable assessment of it. Not least, because it heavily hints at an interpretation of “Son of God” as denoting some kind of lineage, as though Jesus is a descendant of God, rather than seeing “Son” and “Father” as titles embodying a metaphor of the relationship between them.

    I was going to ask a question, but Debbie intervened before I could. I was going to be slightly pointed and ask “In developing nonviolent atonement, has the idea of penal substitutionary atonement itself become a scapegoat?”

    I agree with your view that there is a danger of throwing the baby out with bathwater, which seems to happen quite a lot in the history of theology. I’d also agree that the notion of separating out action and intent; it was just interesting that this wasn’t linked back to the Fall and the knowledge of good and evil, not just the doing of good and evil.

    Michael was certainly an interesting figure and it’ll be well worth following up on him and his work later on.

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