Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mere Christianity: Book 2; Chapter 4 (The Perfect Penitent)

A Modern Atonement Theory

Lewis' chapter on "the perfect penitent" is really just a thinly veiled treatise on Atonement Theory.  Atonement theories basically describe the way in which Christ's Crucifixion enables our salvation.

There are three main theories of atonement amongst mainline scholars, those being: Ransom Theory, Satisfaction Theory, and Moral Influence Theory.  Many Protestants also adhere to Substitution Theory, but the differences are so nuanced that, for the purpose of this post, they shall be as one.

It is important to note that Lewis considers the discussion of specific theories rather unnecessary. He states that What Christ did (die on the cross for our sins) is more important than how he did it.  He says that we will never fully understand it, despite our theories, and so such theories should only be used to paint a "fuller picture" and only for those who can understand such.  Nevertheless, Lewis posits his own Atonement Theory.

Lewis starts off by stating the problem--humans, by sinning, have dug themselves into a hole and need to get out of it.  The only way by getting out of it is by repentance--dying to yourself, "unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years".  The catch is that only a bad person needs to repent, and only a perfect person can do it.  Or in other words, the very thing that makes us need repentance, makes us incapable of doing it.  Therefore we can only do it if God helps us.  And here is where Lewis theology gets, "unique".

Lewis posits an interesting twist between Satisfaction and Moral Influence theories in saying that God had to be come human in order to teach us how to repent.  In essence, it was Christ's human AND divine natures that enabled him to show us how to suffer and repent.  Now.. that may seem like no big deal, but lets look at the implications of this thought.

Talking of the process of repentance Lewis states, "You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man".  Lets think about this... for we are now putting a limit on God.  Is Lewis right in this assertion about God?  I believe so, for repentance is contrary to the perfect nature of God.

"Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God's dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence:  but we cannot share God's dying unless God dies; and he cannot die except by being a man.  That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all." Lewis' theology here makes me very nervous... as he is seemingly treading a very thin Christological line.  However, he focuses equally on Christ's divine and human natures, saying that it was the union of each that enabled his example of complete self sacrifice (a very "satisfactionary" answer).  It is this very example that enables us to learn from Christ's example.  This differs from traditional Moral Influence theory in that, while MI Theory focuses on the moral imperative we are moved to by Christ's loving sacrifice, Lewis' theory focuses on the ability of that Sacrifice to TEACH us.  Lewis is moving from a theory of exemplar love, to one of pedagogy.  Interesting, and hopefully we shall see where he is going with it.

If you didn't understand most of this post, that's fine--I struggled in understanding what I was writing.  The important thing to remember is that God loves us so much that he died for our sins even though he was completely blameless.  We should react to that love by taking his example of perfect penitence, and trying to repent ourselves.

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