How should I proceed to unpack this particular doctrine; a doctrine which for thousands of years has underpinned both the mission of the church and the language of Christianity?
Well, with a mixture of trepidation and hope.
Trepidation, because people have built much of their faith upon this doctrine. Hope, because of all the doctrines this one generates most discomfort for lots of people, and a contemporary interpretation of it may well lead to a richer expression of what it means to be both fully human and faithful.
Doctrines exist within and beyond religious traditions, but within any religion they have been given a status of far greater importance than they actually deserve. Especially when they evolve into dogmas that cannot be challenged or reformed. The word doctrine literally means teaching. So, all of the ‘doctrines’ of faith ( all faiths) began life as a form of instruction. A set of words crafted by people of faith in an attempt to express the inexpressible. A way of helping people interpret their faith stories. But more importantly, it was instruction influenced by writers in a particular context and culture, and with a particular understanding of life at that time.
Personal view – doctrines are only helpful when they resist becoming dogmas and remain open to fresh interpretation and insights and new contexts.
The doctrine of redemption is one of those teachings that comes to us out of the dense fog of history and ancient religious practice, and has resisted being modified to express 21st century understandings of what it means to be human and what it means to make mistakes.
I say resisted modification, but really I mean its defenders have opposed most attempts at modifying it. The reason for this is not all that complex. Essentially, it’s about power. The doctrine in its original form enabled a colonising religious system to exercise spiritual influence over people’s lives. Through this doctrine the church ( and indeed other religions) has been able to insert itself between people and the God(s) in whom they believe, as the broker. Historically, it has taken the very ancient concept of human sinfulness and convinced people that they needed some form of cleansing, or salvation or saviour – they needed to be redeemed from themselves. Without such redemption they would not be able to overcome the sense or experience of separation from God.
For thousands of years, third-party sacrifices were used as offerings to satisfy the God(s) and in some cultures, still used. The doctrine reached its peak when the ministry of Jesus was transformed theologically into the ultimate sacrifice for all humankind and for all time.
So, let the unpacking begin.
Reading: Psalm 51