Boersma, Hans. Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.
Hans Boersma uses concepts like violence and hospitality, particularly in their recent philosophical venues, as a set of ciphers to explore the atonement. He succeeds brilliantly. I wish I read this book in seminary. It might, just might, have staved off a number of bad decisions later on.
Asking “Is the Atonement violent” sounds funny, and it is, but feminist and postmodern theologians think it is an important question. Unfortunately, they answer it. For Boersma, Hospitality is God’s work of reconciliation in Jesus Christ (Boersma 15). God comes to us in Christ to invite us into his eternal fellowship. Hospitality is a metaphor for the love of God (17).
Violence, then, is any exclusionary practice. Theologically, it could be something legitimate like church discipline, but raised to doctrine of God levels, it could be something more problematic: the decree of election which excludes others from God’s presence. Boersma will deal with this later.
Problem: Does “violence” negate God’s hospitality in Jesus Christ?
Boersma examines the three models of the atonement and notes that when they are abstracted and placed as *the* model, problems can arise. For example, the Christus Victor model is wonderful and scriptural, yet it doesn’t tell me *how* sins are forgiven. Boersma will place it within a larger Irenaean framework and show how it works.
Postmodernism, following Jacques Derrida, says that any act of true hospitality must be pure, unconditional. Pure hospitality means I forego all judging, analyzing, and classification of the other.”
Is the Derridean model coherent? Not really. Boersma points out that hospitality always takes place within the finite limits of space and time. By definition it will be limited in character (31). There is always this fear in postmodern literature that the limits of temporality are negative. Boersma wonders why. I think it goes back to the old Origenist problematic: the Fall and Finitude are linked.
Postmodernism isn’t on any firmer ground when it challenges violence. What is violence? It is something like “anything that contravenes the rights of another, or causes injury to the life, well-being, etc., of another” (quoted in Boersma 44). The problem is that this definition rules out all forms of corrective punishment. It also rules out self-defense, but perhaps worst of all, it is self-defeating when postmodernists try to “protest” systemic injustices. Boersma lists a number of defeaters:
- If I physically restrain my wife from crossing the road when a car is coming, am I offering violence?
- When the govt forces my kids to go to school, is that an act of violence?
- If I engage in economic boycotts, knowing that such boycotts will jeopardize the well-being of the average worker, how is that not violence?
Postmodernism cannot give a coherent reason why their good acts of physical resistance aren’t violent, yet “the other side” (Alterity!) is violent. The takeaway is that there can be good acts of violence. “Hospitality does not exclude all violence” (48).
Nonetheless, hospitality bespeaks the very essence of God. Violence is one of the ways he safeguards it.
Boersma argues that the High Calvinist (read: Supralapsarian) understanding of double predestination draws violence back into the being of God in eternity (56). Specifically, the violence (exclusion) of his hidden will overshadows the hospitality of his revealed will.
Boersma’s survey of Calvin is accurate. He avoids the Calvin vs Calvinist thesis and is free from any rebuttals from that side. His argument has some force and can’t be ignored. If the will that really matters is the hidden will, then I can never truly know if Christ died for me.
On the other hand, Boersma doesn’t deal with the “Owenian” challenges to non-limited atonement.
Boersma argues that Paul’s doctrine of election was focused on Jewish historical categories, rather than eternalist categories. Divine election, then, has four characteristics: 1) it is an act of sovereign grace, 2) it is an act of God in history, 3) it is a corporate act, and 4) it is an instrumental act (77).
The instrumental aspect links election and covenant (80). Israel isn’t elected for her own sake. While this approach certainly relieves God of having violence in his eternal being, it does play out rather violently in history. Israel’s election means the Canaanites exclusion. To his credit, Boersma doesn’t balk at that hard fact. Boersma concludes: “Precisely because God’s hospitality takes place within a history that is already marred by human violence, his hospitality cannot be pure or universal in character” (84).
We have to speak of God’s action in Christ in metaphorical terms. That doesn’t make them “less real.” Boersma asserts that all our language is metaphorical. Indeed, I would have taken it a step further and said our language is analogical. As he notes, “All interpretive access is indirect, by means of association” (105).
Staving off charges of relativism, he notes that not all metaphors are created equal. Some are root metaphors. While Jesus likens himself to a hen at one point, it’s better to speak of him primarily as a Son than as a chicken.
In terms of the three models of the atonement (moral, Christus Victor, substitution), Boersma suggests that the best way to unite the three models is by means of Irenaeus’s recapitulation model (112). He takes it one step further: Not only does Jesus reconstitute humanity, but he does so as Israel’s Representative.
Liberal theologians initially seized upon the Abelardian model of Jesus’s Atonement as a good moral example because it seemed to remove violence from God the Father. This ideal collapses upon a careful reading. Boersma notes, “As soon as a moral-influence theory introduces any divine purpose at all into the crucifixion, an element of violence or exclusion is introduced into our understanding of the cross” (117).
Boersma gives a fine summary of Rene Girard’s thought. Girard argues that the only violence in the Cross is human violence “and that God uses the cross to bring about a nonviolent society” (134). The violence is one of a scapegoat mechanism. While an attractive and compelling theory, it comes at a high price:
- Human culture is violent at its origin. This is a half-truth. If he means all post-fall culture, then it is true that it can never be free of violence. But if that’s the case, then it is not clear how the Scapegoat can create a violence-free culture.
- To say it another way, Christ has nothing to do with creation.But Jesus is the Word that spoke creation into being and in himself sets forth an “eternal hospitality” (145).
- Girard opposes any “penal” language about the cross, going so far to suggest that the early church corrupted the pure message (Girard, Things Hidden 180). If the cross on Girard’s reading is so obviously a scapegoat mechanism, then how did the church get it wrong so early? Further, if Western culture is so violent at root, then how can Western culture (presumably by way of the Cross) also have the seeds of democracy, equality, etc.?
The violence of the atonement in Augustinianism
Boersma, and he isn’t alone, notes that the Augustinian tradition faces the temptation to “juridicize” the atonement at the expense of other models. This is exacerbated by some forms of federal theology. The high point is seen in the pactum salutis where the members of the Trinity engage in a transactional exchange. Boersma notes, “In federal theology, therefore, the world of God’s eternal decrees overshadowed the historic covenant relationship and diminished its significance” (166). In a footnote Boersma attributes this mindset to Klaas Schilder, citing a passage from Berkouwer’s Providence of God. Yet Schilder didn’t believe this. True, he rejected common grace, which seemed to be Berkouwer’s point, but Schilder’s own critique of federalism is very much in line with Boersma’s.
An inference from this is the individualization of the atonement. It’s not clear how God’s dealings with Israel in history function in this scheme. Boersma counters with a brief Pauline study on law and salvation. He calls it a “national-historical reading” (174). It contains penal elements but places them within the larger recapitulatory action of Christ. The curse falls on the people as a whole, which Christ, the reconstituted Israel, takes upon himself for his chuch.
Therefore, there is certainly substitutionary language, but it should be seen more in terms of representation than a 1:1 exchange (177). God’s justice is restorative justice (178).
The book ends with several learned interactions with liberation theology and Radical Orthodoxy. This is one of those books that engages criticisms of traditional doctrine at a very high level. It stands within the tradition while seeking to clarify tensions that have arisen.