My Translation of Packer’s Debt-As-Atonement Parable

Inspired by General Conference and the Abomallination of Sinning Chic, I’ve decided to invent a completely different model of atonement, redemption, resurrection and salvation.  If they are right, and they build billion-dollar malls, and say demonstrably false things, then what hope is there for everyone else?

Thus, I dedicate this short bit, extracted from a very long essay I’m writing on Atonement, to Boyd K. Pennypacker.

A Catholic writer: “It is represented as the payment of a price, or a ransom, or as the offering of satisfaction for a debt. But we can never rest in these material figures as though they were literal and adequate. As both Abelard and Bernard remind us, the Atonement is the work of love. It is essentially a sacrifice, the one supreme sacrifice of which the rest were but types and figures. And, as St. Augustine teaches us, the outward rite of Sacrifice is the sacrament, or sacred sign, of the invisible sacrifice of the heart. It was by this inward sacrifice of obedience unto death, by this perfect love with which He laid down his life for His friends, that Christ paid the debt to justice, and taught us by His example, and drew all things to Himself; it was by this that He wrought our Atonement and Reconciliation with God, ‘making peace through the blood of His Cross’.”

The word “atonement” often yields little more than a substitute for “sacrifice,” with a bit of reverential air breathed in: A-tone-Ment.  Sometimes, it says “Payment,” and other contexts it stands in for “suffering” with a dollop of mystery on top.

And more often than not, the term is used like the Christian “Passion,” to refer to events told in the various stories about the death and resurrection of Christ.  Perhaps, you say, it means all these: payment of suffering offered as a sacrifice, dramatically as in a medieval execution pageant?  Perhaps.  Mystery did mean long ago, a play.  But can we find some alternative to the endless soft-spoken commentary, teary sermons, and empty explication, which more often than not introduce “philosophies of men” into scripture, using Christ as a foundation for these creeds declared “abominations” and those doctrines “all wrong”?

The “religious” terminology of being freed of debt maybe appealed to poor Christians long ago, but when proposed by the wealthy in the prosperity gospel, it seems to take on a different, um, tone.  Let us strip atonement-as-debt-payment to its bare linguistic bones, sans nice words.

This is what Packer really means, in that saccharine film shown in seminaries around the world, where the servant gets into debt with a money-lender:

God speaks and gives us advice; when we run contrary to his word, we accrue a debit in his accounts book.  A single debit—accepting from an imbecile some petty theft of fruit lifted from an unfenced orchard—put the first man into arrears, overextending his means, and forcing liquidation of his life savings.  Such payment still doesn’t reconcile the accounting, and so the debt is passed onto children and their children, added to by their own debts.  This debt also makes them wildly spendthrift, by the way.  There was no amortization of this debt, it was no mortgage and keeps building.  An eternal lien is placed on every soul, with no forbearance.  Oh, and God knew all along such debts would accrue without acquittal, like a loan shark chumming the casinos for desperate gamblers; he as our financial advisor directed us to take on this plan.  And, yeah, he also runs the debtor’s court, and sends folks to debtor prison: life sentence.  But God was hedged, with his son as collateral in this scheme.  In order to keep his accounting books correctly, because he likes it so, God duns Man one last time.  Man accepts his finance terms.  Thus God pays himself with the only one not in arrears, his own son (or himself).  One might wonder if the son was free of debt because he wisely keep himself free of the father’s entrepreneurship.  But the father asked him to submit to torture unto death, because that is the only currency he accepts as payment for all the bills we’ve not paid, these being the price of living in his interest-laden world.  All is right with the world, finally, and the son, realizing the absurdity of it all, doesn’t do unto us what his father, for the sake of keeping a good book, did unto him.

And this version is supposed to give us faith unto repentance?  Or was it fear and guilt?  Sure, Jesus comes out alright, but what about the Father?  Who could love such an incompetent or conniving father that created this mess: knowing how it would turn out he proceeds as if surprised by it all, like a Ponzi-schemer stunned by the zero in the bank, blaming his debonair yacht captain for not also returning a handsome investment; and then he cruelly extorts his own creation for mucking it all up, for sinking his ship; thus he punishes the only good one in the whole batch?  There must be a different story.


      1. What an outstanding lineup for the April Fools sessions. I know I had my favorites.

        And, how ’bout that…The mall is barely finished and they’ve already laid off the entire Presiding Bishopric!

    1. And the Son passes it on to his own next Son, in the next world where the sins again are paid in blood, if we take the extended repayment version of things.

  1. “Who could love such an incompetent or conniving father?”

    I have scratched my head many times over this version of the story I was commanded to preach in the name of the church to the good people of England. And I have wondered who else might be quietly asking the same question, especially at those times when well-intentioned friends refer me to C. Skousen’s “meaning of the atonement” to make sense of it; that slightly modified version where blame for the need for God’s sacrifice-as-payment is shifted from God to “the elements,” those heartless intelligences who only obey Him out of their deep respect for his justice (as opposed to his love and mercy, say). The image this invokes is sadly hilarious…the Supreme Being, throws his hands up, shrugs his shoulders and asks, “What’s a God to do? You gotta ‘give respect to get respect,’ right?”

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