You would not normally hear any professed believer express any doubt of who and what purpose Yahshua’s is and what His Mission was, yet, theologians and the early “church fathers” have pondered over this question for almost 2000 years. So far, two main doctrines have evolved from their investigation into this question. Grass root Christians fed a steady diet of obligatory dogma from the pulpits necessarily give you an unambiguous answer as to Yahshua’s identity and mission, mainly because Yahshua has been cast in a mold designed to answer to their own individual insecurities. In other words other than the phrase: He died for our sins; most people do not really know what to think about Him? If you believe the Word of G-d, we are told little of His pre-incarnate life or even His earthly life as Scripture is filled with voids and gaps. In the age to come there is even more confusion of His role. That leaves us with how to interpret this life as we glimpse brief episodes revealed to us through the Scriptures, but more importantly, how does He fit into the scheme of redemption? Why did He have to die?
This has been a perennial question that many theologians and laymen alike ask, why did Yahshua have to die? Even today, after you would have thought this question would have been settled thousands of years ago, it is the source of an ongoing argument. Many ask, could not YHVH Elohim have sent Yahshua to teach us and then levitate Him back into Heaven when His mission was complete. Was it necessary for Him having to experience a horrific death? Again, Why did He have to die? You may say, as is the canned response most commonly relied upon, “He died for our sins!” However, this short brief answer seems designed to deter serious examination of the causes of His execution. It is also a cosmetic answer that assumes a great deal, which allows people to escape the reality of His horrific death and the cause for it. A prospect many people do not or want entertain or confront. Furthermore, there is a large segment of Christendom that questions how the death of one man can lead to the atonement of humanity? Not surprisingly, the topic of Yahshua’s death and the reasons why, are inert, if ever present in many churches.
As I said the “church,” its theologians and commentators have struggled with these questions since the inception of Christianity, and though it may seem that the typical response, “that he died for our sins,” was always apparent, it was not.
When we hear “He gave His life for us,” it forces us into metaphysical formulations (abstract or speculative reasoning) that even most religious scholars are poorly equipped to handle let alone elucidate. Men of letters are disinclined to acknowledge that there are many mysteries of the atonement that we cannot understand on this side of eternity, and because of this, many pulpits have forgone sermons or messages on the subject except those glossed over messages of “He gave His life for us.”
Let us do a little exploring.
Before the Advent of Yahshua G-d was always defined by otherness, and humans with good cause feared that the alienation between His creation and Himself was increasing. In the Torah we are told that sin separates us from G-d, and in the B’rit Chadasha we later are told in 1 John 3:4 “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” In both the Old and Renewed Covenant or as it is called, the NT our estrangement is a result of sin. The Psalms are replete with cries from dejected suitors who ask, “Why O Adonai, do you stand aloof.” Bible commentators concluded that the cause of this estrangement was sin and disobedience. Sacrifice in the form of the Temple Cult became the norm to reconcile us to G-d. By AD 57 when Sha’ul wrote the book of Romans it was clear that the new sect within Judaism called “The Way” wanted to reconstruct reconciliation around the life, death and resurrection of Yahshua, but the question remained, how? If you carefully read the New Testament, you will see that the writers are everywhere trying to make some logic of Why Yahshua died. It was not nearly so clear as pulpits would have you believe. The best that can be said is that the early believers were persuaded that something dramatic, radical and fundamental had taken place, and they began drawing together all kinds of things in order to understand this phenomenon.
We can take the Book of Hebrews as an example. It directly appropriates the Jewish Sacrificial System as a metaphor; except this time, Yahshua is both priest and sacrifice, spilling not the blood of goats and calves but His own blood, thus securing eternal redemption. Mark on the other hand favors Roman legal language for the freeing of slaves: “The Son of Man came…to give His life as a ransom for many.” The First Epistle of Peter, takes a completely different approach, posing Yahshua’s trial as occasion for imitation: “because Messiah also suffered for you, leaving an example, that you should follow in His footsteps.” Sha’ul’s letter to the Colossians pauses only briefly at the execution stake on it way to the triumphal image of a risen Messiah parading defeated demonic enemies, publicly exposing them: “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.”
It was this model that surfaced as the primary understanding of Yahshua for the first 1000 years of church history and it behooves us to examine this to better comprehend the churches understanding of Yahshua. Although the word “church” is a mistranslation, I use it here for expedience because most Christians do not think outside of that definition, and I pray that Christians who believe they are “saved” by profession only will read this message when I post it on the Internet.
The early Church and the “Early Church Fathers” as evidenced by their writings seem to have viewed Yahshua’s suffering and dying not as an all important element of eternal salvation, instead they viewed it as a essential step in G-d’s triumphal campaign into the human world and into Satan’s precincts. They saw the incarnation and resurrection, not as salvation as we understand it today, but as a new start for humanity. Reconciliation is the best word to employ in this context and if you pause for a minute, you might recall the seven-fold witness of Yahshua that defines a true believer in the Book of Revelation, and perhaps, conclude that they early had it right or nearly right. Unfortunately, today, this message had degenerated into Salvation by profession only, eternal security, and antinomianism. The only Christian church today that holds closely to this doctrine is the Easter Orthodox Church. If you know your church history you’ll recall that early in church history the Eastern church and the Roman church were one entity, but split over doctrinal and theological differences.
Eventually, a doctrine developed that presents Yahshua as paying a debt to hasatan in the form of a ransom for the redemption of humanity, because hasatan had obtained a legitimate and legal claim on humanity due to Adam’s fall. However, If this were the case than by virtue of Yahshua’s victory, all humanity individually and collectively would be saved regardless of their rebellion and lawlessness. On the other hand many church fathers taught that the crucifixion and Yahshua’s subsequent descent into Hades was a kind of fraud perpetrated upon Satan because Satan thought he had caught a particularly righteous human, but subsequently discovered that he had allowed into his sanctuary the power that would eventually wrest authority from him and rescue humanity in the process. Less you think I jest I direct your attention to St. Augustine of whom most of you have heard. As august as this personage was he was a proponent of, and believed the latter theory. He likened it to the devil being the mouse, the cross to a mousetrap and Yahshua as the bait. While there were some segments of the “Church” which did not develop a doctrine, and let it stand as a mystery, they all considered Yahshua’s agony not as a victim but a triumph in the spiritual realm.
Today, what is recognized by most Christians as to Who Yahshua is, was developed by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who developed his theory and wrote of it in 1098 AD (CE), titled “Why G-d became man.” He did not believe that the Satan could be owed anything so he restructured the theory of a debt to Satan in favor of humanity’s debt to G-d. The problem with this theory is that the debt was not payable since everything we possess including our lives was already G-d’s. Ergo, without relief from the debt damnation was certain. Anselm saved the day with the inception of the doctrine of grace, something that the church has recast into a dispensation instead of a quality of G-d. In accordance with this theory G-d “recast” himself into human form so that Yahshua was both human and deity, devoid of human sin, and by suffering the crucifixion for undeserved penalty, this suffering was dedicated to YHVH on humanity’s behalf. “Yahshua paid for sinners what He owed not himself,” Anselm wrote. He added, “Could the Father justly refuse to man what the Son will to give Him? “ Thus was born the doctrine of salvation by grace through the sacrifice of Yahshua. What I find amazing is the year that this doctrine took shape, but it was not yet adopted as a tenet of the faith. I assume, and with good cause that most of modern Christianity does not know this and most believe that the doctrine of grace and salvation by profession was resident with the church from the beginning.
Anselm’s formulation, most often called “substitutionary atonement” has been redrafted in many different forms over the years, and eventually, the church extended the sin of Adam to all humanity by the concept of original sin. A concept that traditional Judaism rejects. In the 16th century the reformer, John Calvin changed Anselm’s doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” or “satisfaction,” as it was called, which is a feudal term meaning debt to the king, Satan in this case, to that of a severe judge (G-d) who was furious at a deservedly cursed creation. Instead of securing salvation by reconciling the debt to Satan, it was now achieved by paying a debt to G-d.
What followed was the question to which group should benefit from this doctrine, and the argument still rages on. Such doctrines as Church replacement theology, two covenant Theology, and other doctrines are extensions of this argument. Does it benefit everyone, the “church” only, or the elect? However, no other post biblical formulation has so sophisticatedly intertwined the Father, Son, fallen creation, and the doctrines of sin and grace as Anselm’s theory however the modifications.
The Catholic Church adopted Anselm’s theory now canonized as “substitutionary atonement” in the 16th Century as a legitimate doctrine of the Church, The reformation by default, as it did many other doctrines, such as Sunday worship, Easter, Christmas, etc, carried it into the “reformation” as their own doctrine.
You may think that all was now settled on this question, but not so. By the 18th century, various Christian scholars, leaders and commentators were still squabbling. American’s in the majority have thought Calvin’s G-d was too severe, a tyrant if you will. Not readily known was that many of our nation’s forefathers were theists, like Thomas Jefferson, unsure of the role of Yahshua. Jefferson even went so far as to cut from the NT all references to Yahshua’s miracles. In addition, there was a growing sentiment that humans could perfect themselves through their own effort and this created a backlash against the emotional evangelizing and the idea of a personal relationship with Yahshua. Anselm’s legalistic equation of repaying a debt owed to G-d became a hindrance to those preaching the winning of souls and thus was birthed the profession of faith only. Christendom, as observed, typically adopted one extreme or the other. Furthermore, if we dismissed any consideration of Yahshua’s deity or His essence, Christendom still failed to grasp the practical example of Yahshua’s model. They failed to realize that His teaching derived from the two houses of authority of His time: the more stringent Shammai and the more lenient Hillel. They further failed to recognize how Yahshua restructured and interpreted material from both houses of authority giving us to the proper interpretation of Scripture. Fulfilling the ancient Jewish prediction that Yahshua would properly interpret Torah for us when He came. He took what was proper and G-d inspired from each and dismissed the rest. But not our learned scholars, who saw only extremes.
These dissenters turned to another source as old as Anselm. The French theologian Peter Abelard who also in the middle ages addressed Yahshua’s role in the redemption of humanity, but did so without recourse to legalistic paying of a debt. His atonement centered on the love of G-d, and Yahshua for humanity, that was expressed in Yahshua’s willingness to die rather than disobey His call. “Love answers love’s appeal,” Abelard wrote. With this doctrine being widely acclaimed, humankind could now answer G-d’s call by merely professing and claiming salvation without the necessity of radically changing one’s sinful life or recognition of G-d’s Torah as binding. Love conquerors all was the clarion cry, even the justice of G-d so goes the thought. Lip service was still given to obeying commandments that even civil law prohibited, but dietary, Shabbat, and other commandments were dismissed as irrelevant.
According to a noted Yale a noted Yale Theologian Serene Jones, these two positions can be summed up this way: “In “substitutionary atonement” the problem is debt owed to G-d and in Abelardian theory the problem is of ignorance, we don’t have enough information.” I might add that information is available if one cares to consult Torah and ignorance of the law will not be a valid defense.
This new doctrine known as “exemplary abandonment,” which espouses, “grace only” took off because it birthed non-accountability, easy Christianity. This fit in nicely with the Enlightenment Period then sweeping the country. Horace Bushnell a renowned minister in the 19th Century and a great proponent of the Enlightenment spirit started preaching that Yahshua’s death was no longer central to redemption. He taught that it was no longer the price for lifting the burden of sin, and taught that Christians should emulate Yahshua’s healing, his scourging of the moneychangers, and his precepts of love and tolerance. Thus, healing ministries, and other emphases such as prosperity preaching owe their genesis to this period. “Exemplary abandonment” is preached from pulpits in different forms. Just recently a Presbyterian Minister, Rev Shafer said that the central issue of Yahshua’s crucifixion was not that He died to pay a debt to an angry G-d, but was first to model for humankind the fullness of mercy and forgiveness that G-d offers to us sinners, and second, to model for us the perfection of love that G-d is, and that those who accept G-d’s forgiveness are invited, by G-d’s grace, to become.” (That was the end of the statement) He concluded, “It is not Yahshua’s death that can save us but his life!” I hope you all see that a necessary element has been left out here. Again it is the “profession of faith” theology wrapped up in the doctrine of “exemplary abandonment” that abandons obedience altogether.
Unfortunately, in the wrong hands, this doctrine can support wife abuse, child abuse and many other violent behaviors because its adherents teach women that they must be “good Christians” and stay with abusive husbands as “Christ accepted the cross.” There is an over emphasis of the suffering of Yahshua as opposed to His teaching, His Torah, His Halakhah, and this tends to support violence. It glorifies death and suffering, encourages scapegoating, and places the burden of forgiveness on the victim. Exemplarists Christians tend to be inclusive and not condemnatory which sounds very well except it allows bad apples to spoil the barrel or forgoes discipline in favor of license. However, the truth is that today there is no distinct dividing line between “substitutionary atonement” and “exemplary abandonment” doctrines observable in the lives of most professed Christians, even though “substitutionary atonement” seems to be the most published and known, and the one most profess as their doctrine. I find it enlightening that there is a modern movement a foot, in the lofty circles of Theologians that sees a need to balance out and integrate these two doctrines.
Some theologians have remarked that the “exemplary” model has no use for Yahshua’s divinity for any righteous man such as Able or Job would have been enough. Yet, it incorporates the need to lead righteous lives, even though from our Messianics viewpoint, not a Torah centered life. On the other hand, “substitutionary atonement” is a very a eye-catching package for if I can convince you that G-d will have His pound of flesh because of sin, but I have a way out, then it becomes a very attractive theology.
What is more to the truth is something in between, shades of Yahshua’s model, and it is very sad to think that it has taken theologians so long to come to an understanding. Yahshua, the center of all this controversy has already decided and taught us the answer. He left it for us in His definition of true believer or worshipper in the Book of Revelation.
We are to trust in the faithfulness of Yahshua’s work, and here let me editorialize a little, for we don’t trust in Yahshua per se, but in His Faithfulness, that allows for our reconciliation to G-d by canceling out our past sins. We thereby gain a new start, imparted righteousness if you will, then we have to pick up the ball and run with it. G-d’s quality of grace has been exercised by virtue of the faithfulness of Yahshua and by us placing our trust in Yahshua’s faithfulness. As a result, YHVH has given us a new start. Once we are reconciled, be it because of original sin, and all the other sins we have committed, we now must be obedient to G-d’s standards, His Torah, as the guidepost for our lives. Yahshua’s definition involves both substitutionary as well as exemplary doctrine that becomes welded into the biblical model He gave us in Revelations. The bottom line? Yes, we need absolution from sin, original and otherwise, but we also need to follow Yahshua’s example and let His life inspire us to live in obedience to G-d’s standards, His Torah. May His Word penetrate the hearts of man to repentance.
Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart