“A Meal, Not a Theory”


We’ve been talking about the crucifixion of Jesus and what it means. In his book on atonement, Saved From Sacrifice, Mark Heim quotes Gil Bailie, Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University and Director of the Florilegia Institute:

Perhaps the anthropological role of the Christian church in human history might be simplified as follows: To undermine the structures of sacred violence by making it impossible to forget how Jesus died and to show the world how to live without such structures by making it impossible to forget how Jesus lived.”

Heim goes on to say;

….The celebration of the Eucharist combines both of these emphases. In some churches this is made explicit. Before reception of the bread the participants are told, “Take and eat, and may the spirit in which Christ died be your spirit also.” When Christians gather at communion, they encounter an unequivocal reminder of Christ’s bloody death. They are faced with the fact that victims have real flesh and blood. When we hear “Do this in remembrance of me,” we should hear the implied contrast that comes with emphasis on this. Unlike the mythic victims who became sacred models for future sacrifices, Christs is not to be remembered with scapegoating, by taking or being new victims. “This” is a humble meal and prayer, not a new cross.”

Reading this I was reminded of what Bishop N.T. Wright once said about the different views of atonement;

“In any case, I am one of those who think it good that the church has never formally defined ‘the atonement’, partly because I firmly believe that when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal. Of course, the earliest exponent of that meal (Paul, in 1 Corinthians) insists that it matters quite a lot that you understand what you are about as you come to share in it; but still it is the meal, not the understanding, that is the primary vehicle of meaning. What is more, I happen to believe, as a reader of the New Testament, that all the great ‘theories’ about atonement do indeed have roots there, and that the better we understand the apostolic testimony the better we see how they fit together.”

From The Cross and the Caricatures: a response to Robert Jenson, Jeffrey John, and a new volume entitled Pierced for Our Transgressions


I don’t think these ideas necessarily negate other atonement views; there certainly may incorporate more than what has been said here, but certainly not less.

(Mark Heim is Samuel Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School and Bishop Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England)

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  1. #1 by Christian Beyer on October 2, 2008 - 12:01 pm

    OK, fine. How about offering us some more ‘meat’ and fewer ‘potatoes’?

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