In favour of substitutionary atonement , sort of (1 of 2)

On Palm Sunday our direction turned to the Herodian temple and it is there where it must remain if we are to properly understand Jesus’ atonement. Jesus’ first act in Jerusalem was to visit the temple. With the cursing of the fig tree, the parable of the wicked tenants, and the violent cleansing of its precincts, his rejection of the temple was total and unambiguous. By driving out the money changers he was certainly making a statement about financial corruption in holy places, but more to the point was that by doing so, the rituals of the temple were disrupted. This seems to be the central purpose of Holy Week: Jesus’ acts are an apocalyptic rejection of the Jewish temple and its replacement in his own body. Here he goes beyond the Qumran community who had fled to the desert to await the new temple; Jesus does not wait for God to act, he is God. The temple is symbolically torn down. Note the tearing of the veil at his death.

This would be hard for his Jewish followers to bear. Even after his death, even though the temple remains rejected, the Acts of the Apostles tell us that they still congregated at this place of Jewish national and religious identity. Old habits die hard, which is why Jesus had to go further. Religions need rituals and so he gave them a new one. The Last Supper makes this clear. For many Christians, the Last Supper seems to have made Jesus into a kind of Dionysus in which by eating his flesh we become joined to the god in a mysterious union. This is true on one level, and like all good myths and their ritual enactments, there are levels of meaning here. It is true in that in the Eucharist we are bound to Jesus, but not in some strange act of spiritual ecstasy but rather in a very practical way.

The Last Supper was the last supper of many similar meals, and it is Jesus’ social eating prior to the Passion that offers insight into how Jesus used food and feasting to drive a message of love and inclusion. His fellowship at meals was frequently criticised (Matt 11:19) because it broke Jewish purity laws when he sat down with “tax agents and sinners.” That Jesus of Nazareth tried to break down the social and ritual barriers that separated people is well-known, and we ought not to ignore this mission when he comes to Jerusalem, overwhelmed as we are by the grandeur of Holy Week.

Jesus’ view of purity ran perpendicular to that of the Jewish authorities. His cleansing of the temple was an act of aggression against the corruption of the Jewish elite (and from that moment on, he was doomed). But then he went further, saying over the bread and the wine in the upper room that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Read both in companion with the temple incident and Jesus’ history with food, he did not only mean, “here is my body, here is my blood” referring simply to symbols of his own flesh, but rather that, as one scholar suggests, “these . . . were his substitute sacrifices, replacing the blood and flesh of animals being sacrificed at the Temple” [1].

The Last Supper was thus another rejection of the Jewish temple and all the notions of purity and elite sociality that it represented. Jesus replaces this priestcraft with a communal fellowship of love, to be enacted by Christians in his memory. The emblems themselves do not transubstantiate nor are they simply symbols of an absent Christ; instead, it is the ritual partaking of this festal meal with friends and family, regardless of status, that is the real “remembrance” of Jesus’ body. As the Book of Common Prayer states, “The Lord is here,” but not in the bread and wine, but in the bread and wine partaken by the faithful. This is the miracle of transubstantiation.

St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes all of this clear: In chapter 11 he tells us that bread is Christ’s body, in chapter 12 he tells us that this body is the community of Christians. This then is the new temple, built in three days: The loving fellowship of believers. As he goes to the Cross this prophetic enactment reaches its crescendo. No longer the blood of a lamb in the temple but the Blood of the Lamb who will say “Father, forgive” and require his followers to do the same.

Next: Why Jesus was a substitutionary sacrifice, but not as an appeasement to a wrathful God .


  1. Ronan, it seems like you are saying, in part, that it is the act of communal remembrance that renders the eucharist effective. What is the role, if any, of ordination and priesthood in the event?

  2. Jason K. says:

    What Steve said. I’ve long thought that our Eucharistic theology is basically in line with Calvin’s. Would you agree?

  3. Steve,
    For rituals to work, they have to feel like rituals (wherein the “power of godliness is made manifest”). For that, one needs authority.

    Pretty much but depends what you mean by “our”. Is there a Mormon Eucharistic theology?

  4. Simply adopting the Sign of Peace before the sacrament hymn would satisfy most of my liturgical longings for Mormonism. We can have both an affirmation of community as a prerequisite of partaking, and a priesthood blessing of the emblems.

  5. Jason K. says:

    Ronan: I’d say that the sacrament prayers promise a real spiritual presence (“that they may have his spirit to be with them”). That takes some theological reading into things, but not much.

    DCL: yes to the Sign of Peace!

  6. Yo DCL!

    Yes to that and also to a shared cup. The plastic atomisation of the sacrament is poor.

  7. Very good comment, DCL.

  8. Worthy of a MSSJ alum.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Ronan: “For rituals to work, they have to feel like rituals (wherein the “power of godliness is made manifest”). For that, one needs authority.”

    While I understand why Mormons view authority as important, I’m not sure I think that’s true of ritual in general. Likewise individual Mormons can end up having religious oriented personal rituals which are deeply meaningful but which aren’t public or at least not essentially so and which aren’t tied to authority. Think of how one conducts regular family prayer or even a lot of family activities. Even fasting often has a strong ritual component for many but which is untethered to any notion of authority.

    This may seem like a trivial point, but I think it means rituals have to be considered more broadly which then affects how we view and interpret rituals that do require authority. That is how the authority plays into the meaning of the ritual. (Certainly I agree that for key Mormon rituals the place of authority is important)

    Consider for instance the typical Protestant sacrament. Clearly there’s a relationship between that ritual and Mormon passing of the sacrament. Yet the conception of authority in each is quite different. For the Protestant the authority is the faith of the believer and Jesus as instituting the practice. For Mormons it is that plus a formal priesthood and control via keys.

    I think this affects how we view the point of Paul. If we follow say some of the insights of N. T. Wright then we are being brought into a family or community and it’s that community which is a key part of judgement and justification. The righteousness of God is God keeping his covenant promises to that community. Yet in the Mormon conception that community is tied to formal organization in a way it isn’t for most Protestants. Thus in the ritual of the sacrament we can see key differences of what the Kingdom of God is meant to be even if we ignore perhaps different conceptions of how the grace of God is manifest.

  10. “I’d say that the sacrament prayers promise a real spiritual presence (“that they may have his spirit to be with them”)”

    I like this idea a lot. I have always assumed that to be a sort of individual promise of having the spirit, like a ratification of the promise of confirmation of having the gift of the holy ghost. But I like it as an immediate promise that Jesus’s spirit will inhabit in his body–that is, the church, collectively partaking of the emblems–at the very moment that the church becomes his body by partaking of the emblems.

    What can I say, I kind of have a soft spot for the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. Our church’s teachings pretty clearly reject the transubstantiation of the emblems, and I think that’s probably correct (though I’m not sure that our doctrine necessarily requires such rejection, and I’m not altogether convinced that the Mormon rejection of transubstantiation is the product of more than the heritage of protestantism). But what is attractive to me about the idea of the real presence is not the physical composition of the emblems, but the idea that Jesus is really there when we partake of the sacrament of his last supper. Now, I’m sure that a Catholic theologian would say that any understanding of the real presence that denies physical transubstantiation is a mangling of the doctrine of the real presence. That’s fair. But nevertheless, I find the idea of the real presence, divorced from the idea of transubstantiation, to be a compelling idea. That idea is more compelling to me than basically reducing it to nothing more than a nice reminder of Jesus.

    So, thanks, Jason K., for opening that way of reading the prayers to me.

    Ronan, I’m looking forward to Part II.

  11. Our ward had no sacrament cups a couple of weeks ago, and I was excited to use some sort of shared vessel, but alas, that was not to be. We started the talks, and held the sacrament portion towards the end of the meeting, when someone had a chance to grab some from a nearby chapel.

    Ronan, I find your thoughts to be compelling and expansive, and I look forward to part 2 :)

  12. Jason K. says:

    JKC: I also like the idea of transubstantiation. It really is beautiful. I’m not sure I can really believe in it though, but I can totally get behind the idea of spiritual presence. “Nothing more than a nice reminder of Jesus” was Zwingli’s position, which Calvin (rightly, in my view) was arguing against (to say nothing of all the other Eucharistic theologies that cropped up in the 16th century).

  13. Jason, I’m not as up to speed on the historical intra-protestant debates on the real presence. Something I need to educate myself on. Thanks.

    Of course, if we believe in a spiritual presence, then as Mormons, don’t we also believe in a physical presence, since “all spirit is matter,” anyway? :)

    At a really basic level, what is a “body” other than a tabernacle for a spirit? Couldn’t all this talk of “my body” (whether referring to the bread or to the church) be nothing more than a way of saying that his spirit inhabits the thing referred to? I mean, since we read his statement about “this temple” as referring to his body, its not unthinkable to read his statements about “his body” as referring to any thing that houses his spirit, whether we are talking about the bread or the church. After all, if he is “in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made,” and “the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand” is it all that far-fetched that his spirit could inhabit a piece of bread?

    (Of course, given my ignorance about all the nuances of different eucharistic theologies, I may be treading old paths, here.)

  14. J. Stapley says:

    As one who generally dislikes substitutionary atonement theory, I’m with you so far and look forward to the next one.

    We used to have the shared cup. Blame the progressives in the early 20th century and the burgeoning hygiene concerns. I generally prefer earlier narratives than the renewal of baptismal covenants that emerged during the same period. Like the individual cups, it is individualized.

    Also look out for Kris Wright’s piece on women and the emblems of the Lord’s Supper.

  15. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on Kris’s piece, J.

  16. I’m fine having the individual cups rather than the shared cup.

  17. J. Stapley says:

    Me too John!

  18. The wiping of the communal cup usually looks a little awkward, but you have to admit that modern sensibilities require some communal buy-in in order to approach it. Mormon community building is so good it hardly needs a communal cup, though.

  19. The individual cup is a Methodist thing. I think it’s a shame.

  20. the other Marie says:

    I was told by an Institute teacher that the individual cups started in George Albert Smith’s ward–he was a particularly sickly child and because of the shared Sacrament cup he was always catching every cold that went around the ward, so someone (his parents?) suggested a change. Don’t know if it’s true, however.

  21. the other Marie says:

    Not to take this further on a tangent, but I just found this article on the history of the individual Sacrament cups–interesting!

  22. IMO, a shared cup in a family sacrament meeting is reasonable. But, when you’ve got 300+ people, it’s like passing around a spoon and everyone licking it. I shudder thinking about all the backwash by the time the last person sips.

  23. Not to mention the double-sippers.

  24. Why couldnt God forgive without the atonement? Isnt he powerful enough to forgive independently of this sacrifice? Didn’t God do what Jesus did in his own world? If so then why Jesus?

    Isnt all of this just myth?

  25. Wait for part two!

  26. Clark Goble says:

    Tom, no idea how RJH will answer, but a common folk tradition within Mormonism with some textual support involves Jesus being able to comprehend everyone’s experiences. That is he gained the ability to feel what they feel. Often this is tied to the intercessory prayer at Gethsemane.

    While I think the folk tradition is far too strong (and far too many non-Mormons assume the folk traditions is the full doctrine of the Church on atonement) I feel there is something to it. That is what enables the atonement to work is not forgiveness as just some legal bookkeeping requirement by God’s bureaucrats but something that enables God to bring about a reconciliation.

    Again guessing about RJH’s followup, but I think that the OT and much of the NT focus on salvation being the salvation of an entire covenant people is important. We, especially due to the heritage of the evolution of the United States, focus primarily on individuals not peoples. The OT simply doesn’t and often the NT follows this. (I think the BoM often does as well) Thus one way to think about the atonement is God as a member of the community changes the calculus of the community. That’s not to say that perhaps a lot of writing has been done to try and explain the atonement in terms of paradigms that don’t really fit it. Once you shift it around a bit I think the notions of justification and sanctification make more sense. God can heal us, repair the damage we’ve done to other, and judge us in terms of what we’ll be rather than what we are at this moment.

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