Herein lies one of the great problems for theologians--- the danger is that history and praxis will be ignored, and one will try to settle theological controversies simply on the basis of debating ideas, or rearranging ideas, or logically thinking through and connecting ideas.This resonates with me because my training was in biblical theology as opposed to philosophical theology. However, I do think that once the teaching of the Bible is ascertained, it's meaning must be dissected and analyzed through the use of analytic philosophy.
He begins by pointing out that atonement theories have been developed by theologians in the context of the particular theologian's time and culture. This results in reading back into the text the philosophical ideas that were common in the particular theologian's day.
One of the great problems one sees in the great debates about the meaning, significance, and effects of the death of Jesus is the problem of anachronism. Already in the classic discussions which begin at least as early as Anselm, significant terms, ideas, concepts are being read into NT texts resulting in skewed interpretations of some of the more crucial and explicit NT texts which deal with atonement for sins. This trend unfortunately did not end with the Patristic period but continued on into the Reformation period, and indeed into the modern period. Juridical ideas and theories which didn't not even exist in the first century A.D., or did not have the bearing they were later to have, have been imported into the discussion "ad libertum" with telling effect.
I think he is accurate in his evaluation. Atonement theories have largely been shaped by the culture, its theories of punishment and justice, that were dominant during the time that the theory was developed. Much better, it is, to go back and look at the concepts of god(s), punishment, and forgiveness that were prevalent when the Scriptural writers wrote to understand what the atonement meant to the first century Christians.This is what Witherington does in his article.
Most religions in the Greco-Roman world, like most religions in the Ancient Near East had three things in common---- temples, priests, and sacrifices. One of the real problems Christianity must have had in the first three plus centuries of its existence was establishing that it was indeed a "religio" and should be taken seriously as such, despite the fact that it had no temples, no priests, and offered no literal sacrifices.
So, the concept of offering sacrifices in order to appease the anger of a deity was common in the first century, in both Jewish and Gentile circles (As a matter of fact, the offering of a sacrifice to a deity is one of the oldest and most widespread practices among all religions (see Jeffrey Carter, ed. Understanding Religious Sacrifice: A Reader ).
If one probes Greco-Roman religion, and indeed early Jewish religion when it comes to atonement thought, it becomes very clear indeed that offering sacrifices, and making atonement was seen as a way to deal with one god or another's anger with some action or attitude of the suppliant. It is hardly possible to remove the notion of anger or wrath and the notion of appeasement or satisfaction from these discussions, and have anything significant left to say about the atonement thought in play. And if a non-Christian Jew or Gentile in the middle of the first century had read the following words in Romans: "for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness..." (Rom. 1.18) and then went on to peruse the discussion of the hilasterion in Rom. 3, it can hardly be doubted that they would conclude that the Christian God as well was a God who was angry about sin and demanding atonement, or justice, or satisfaction or some such thing as a result. And when such a demand is stated or implied, we are most definitely in the territory of the term 'propitiation' which might as well include the notion of 'expiation' though not necessarily. It was not Jonathan Edwards who invented the notion of a Christianity which included the concept of sinners in the hands of an angry God. My point is simply this--- it takes a lot of ignoring of the larger religious context and conceptualities about God or the gods to be able to exclude ideas like appeasement, propitiation, divine wrath, and the like from the discussion of the atonement in the NT [emphasis mine] whatever other sorts of concepts we might want to include in the discussion.
I agree with Witherington. It is obvious to me that the Bible merely adopts the ideas of its time and culture. Granted, in the OT, the Jews put a different twist on the concept of sacrifice than what was prevalent in the societies around them and in the NT, the Christians did the same thing with regard to the death of Jesus. The most radical concept being that the death of Jesus was the ultimate and thus final sacrifice in time. Nevertheless, the basic concept of what a sacrifice was, why it was needed, and what it accomplished with regard to the deity were not unique to either Judaism or Christianity. This leads me to see both Judaism and Christianity as not uniquely true religions. They are explainable based on the concepts of god, sin, and forgiveness that were prevalent in the time and culture in which they developed. Each succeeding generation has put a new twist on the nature and purpose of the atonement based on their own cultural thinking. This has led to a number of different theories of the atonement during the course of church history. Today, atonement by means of a blood sacrifice is mostly repulsive to the Western mind. Thus, new concepts of the atonement that try to erase the deity's need for a redemptive violence are prevalent, even within some evangelical circles. However, for most evangelicals, they realize that this notion of a blood sacrifice to forgive sin is a fundamental notion. It cannot be compromised or removed without destroying the very heart and soul of the Christian religion. As Witherington remarks:
"[W]ithout the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins"(Heb. 9.22). So much for the modern notion that that's Jesus' death was not absolutely necessary in order for God to forgive our sins. To those who like to make such statements these days, our author would rebut--- if Jesus' death was not both the absolutely necessary and sufficient sacrifice to procure for us the forgiveness of sins, if God could do it just because God is a nice God who likes to forgive sin, then strangely enough that God is not a good God, not a good Father, for what Father would put his only and beloved Son through that agony if it was not the one means necessary to save the world?