Friday, May 01, 2020

The ransom

Reading John Owen's Death of Death and Karl Barth's treatment of the atonement in Church Dogmatics IV/1 somewhat concurrently is interesting.  The theological modes in which these two thoroughly Christ-centred theologians operate are very different, and that show in their conclusions.  I am particularly struck that Owen relies very heavily in his work on ransom imagery.  His book is polemical, aimed at promoting a theology of limited or definite atonement; his particular target is those who teach a 'general ransom'.  Owen's argument is long and detailed, but at the heart of it is the apparently inescapable conclusion that for whomever a ransom is paid, that person must in justice be set free; therefore, if a general ransom - a ransom for all - has been paid in the death of Christ, all must be saved.  Since he (rightly) regards universalism as obviously contrary to the witness of Holy Scripture, he considers that the general ransom is to be rejected by all who bow to Scripture's authority.

Barth frames his teaching entirely differently, focusing on legal imagery - "the Judge judged in our place".  He works this through thoroughly, and only at the very end of his treatment looks to other images.  He discusses priestly and cultic imagery at greatest length, corresponding to the more prominent place these images have in the NT - the book of Hebrews, for example, revolves entirely around this way of viewing the atonement.  Indeed, Barth suggests that this would have been just as good a way of structuring the whole of his treatment, except that it is more obscure to us than the legal imagery.  (He speculates that it may have been the primary mode of understanding the atonement in the earliest Christian communities).  He deals very briefly (in a single short paragraph) with military imagery and the concept of victory, but is unconvinced it would be helpful to develop this systematically even though a place must be preserved for it in our understanding of the atonement.  (So much for the suggestion, which I have regularly seen, that Barth prefers Christus Victor as a model of the atonement rather than penal substitution; this is simply unsustainable on any straightforward reading of the Dogmatics.)  And financial imagery - the ransom - gets a similarly brief review.  Barth acknowledges that the NT does "strangely enough" contain this image, but thinks that "this strand is relatively slender".  He considers that it would be difficult and unprofitable to use this as a framework for the whole doctrine of atonement.

Different approaches, very different conclusions.  I'm not going to dive into the rights and wrongs of either here (except to say the only way to begin to do that dive would be an overview of the relative strengths of the different images used in the NT, with their OT background, and not primarily a detailed exegesis of particular passages).  It just interests me that so much can rest on which set of NT images becomes the main interpretive lens of your engagement with doctrine.

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