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Posted February 10, 2004

Book: Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity
Author: Peter L. Berger
Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK, pp.187

An excerpt from the Jacket:

Does God exist? What was so special about Jesus? How can one be Christian in a pluralistic society? These are among the fundamental questions addressed by leading religious and cultural commentator, Peter Berger, in this engaging exploration of faith in modern times.

The book is structured around key phrases from the Apostle’s Creed, which the author uses to explore the basics of Christian belief. Drawing on both the Christian theological tradition and the work of other relevant thinkers from Freud through to Simone Weil, he negotiates between traditional and modern, liberal and orthodox views.

Throughout the book, Berger takes the position of an open-minded skeptic, not bound by any traditional authority, be it church, scripture, or personal experience. At the same time he explores his own beliefs, indicating why, in the end, he does have faith.

An Excerpt from the Book:

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”

There are two rather obvious points to be made about this sentience in the Apostle’s Creed. The reference to Pontius Pilate is certainly not intended to bestow a special honor on the sleazy Roman governor who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion. Rather, it underlines the historicity of Jesus: He is not to be understood as the ahistorical avatar of some divinity, but as the particular Jewish individual who lived and died in Palestine when Pilate was in charge of that territory. Also, the threefold reiteration of Jesus’ end-crucified, died, and buried - is clearly intended as an anti-Docetic statement” Jesus did not seem to die on the cross, as various Gnostic and other heretics maintained, but he really died as a fully human being. There is no need to say any more here about either of these two points.

There is, however, a pressing question that arises here:

Why Did Jesus Die?

. . . .The question here is not a historical but a theological one: What was accomplished by the death of Jesus Christ? Or, to put it differently: Could Christ’s redemptive action not have been accomplished without his death on the cross? Or again: What is the place of the cross in the drama of redemption? In theological parlance, this is the question about the nature of the atonement brought about by Christ.

The English word is suggestive: “at-one-ment.” Literally, it describes a process of making one what was not one — that is, making whole what was not whole. And it clearly refers to a particular un-wholesome rift that between God and mankind. Behind this reference stands the Biblical account of mankind’s fall from the place God intended for it at its creation, that fall which in the Book of Genesis is symbolized by the story of Adam and Eve, their primeval rebellion against God and their expulsion from paradise. And the terrible consequence of the fall is the loss of immortality: Mankind was created to be immortal, but it now stands under the curse of death. Sin and death are thus linked in the Biblical account of the fall, and they remained linked in the New Testament statements about the atonement: What the atonement is all about is the liberation of mankind from both sin and death.

It may be useful to reiterate here a point made earlier in this book: Evil and suffering, and death itself, are only “natural” in the sense that they mark the human condition as it is now. But to say that this condition is “natural” in no way implies an acceptance of it. This is particularly important with regard to death. It implies a rejection of the facile consolation that death is “natural’ and should therefore be accepted. No! Death is not to be accepted; it is an offence against the core “nature” of mankind — that is, the human nature as it was intended in God’s original creation.

Key New Testament texts are clear about one thing: Christ died for us and for our sins, and the purpose of this action is to overcome death and to restore mankind to the immortal state that was lost in the fall. This is stated succinctly in what is probably the most frequently quoted New Testament passage, from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life:. Put most simply: The purpose of the atonement is the abolition of death. Other New Testament texts link this action with human sin. Thus a Pauline text: “Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” And a text from the Johannine tradition: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” To be sure, there are different emphases in different traditions within the New Testament. Thus, I think it fair to say that the Pauline tradition emphasizes mankind’s guilt for its fallen condition, while the Johannine tradition presents that condition as a fate not to be directly or exclusively ascribed to human guilt. Be this as it may, there is a general anthropological presupposition: Mankind is caught, imprisoned, in a condition marked by sin and death. Sin is the state of being separated from God and death is the consequence of this separation. Looming behind the separation from God are what Paul describes as “principalities and powers,” meta-human forces of evil personified in the figure of Satan. The latter amplification, if nothing else, implies that the fallen condition of mankind is not simply the result of human guilt. Put differently, sin is not just a moral but an ontological category.

These anthropological assumptions in the New Testament are the basis of the doctrine of “original sin” – original both in the sense of deriving from the sin of Adam and in the sense of being prior to any particular sinning by individual human beings. Leaving aside the myth of Adam and Eve, the anthropological point that can be made apart from any mythology is that mankind is caught in its rift with God and thus in its “unnatural” subjection to death, and that men cannot overcome the rift by their own efforts, no matter how morally admirable such efforts may be. Only an act of God Himself can repair the damage. What is more, the damage goes beyond the human condition, affects the entire creation. Thus the work of atonement must have a cosmic scope.

. . . In the history of Christian thought, at least in the West, there has been a predominance of the so-called “objective” view of the atonement. It is very rational, indeed juridical in character. The atonement is understood as a sort of legal transaction. The sacrifice of Jesus, his crucifixion and death, is undertaken by him as the representative of man (the “new Adam”, as it were) as a payment for human sin to God the Father (or, in some versions, to Satan, who is some how entitled to it).

The classical and immensely influential elaboration of this idea was made by Anselm of Canterbury in his work Cur Deus homo?

. . . .The basic Anselmian argument is as follows: The atonement consists of a remission by God of the punishment due t Him for human sin. The question then becomes why God cannot grant the remission by compassion alone. He cannot do so because His will cannot be arbitrary, but must be in conformity with the moral order of the universe established by Him. This order cannot be violated and God cannot be inconsistent. Sin must be punished. The debt must be paid. And this is where Christ comes in. This is how a commentator describes the core of Anselm’s argument: “God will not pay the debt, because he has no debt to pay; man, because he cannot – he has made himself impotent by his fall. One being alone could do this, one who is perfect God and perfect Man. . . .

But let Anselm speak for himself: “The just treatment of unatoned sin is to punish it; if it be not punished, it is unjustly forgiven. . . .Therefore it beseemeth not God thus to forgive unpunished sin . . . And there is somewhat else which follows, if sin be thus forgiven unpunished: since the same treatment wuld at God’s hands be dealt to sinful and sinless; which is not consistent with God”

Table of Contents:

1. I Believe

2. . . . in God

3. . . .the Father Almighty

4. . . .Creator of heaven and earth

5. . . .I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord

6. . . .He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary

Excursus: On Prayer in Christ’s Name

7. . . .He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried

Excursus: On the Empty Tomb and Other Miracles

8. . . .He descended int hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead

9. . . .I believe in the Holy Spirit

10. . .The holy catholic church, the communion of saints

11. . .the forgiveness of sins

Excursus: On Christian Morality

12. . . .the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting