Comment on A Sermon delivered by the Rev. Ernest Penn at the Hull Unitarian Church on Passion Sunday 16th March 1997

On A Unitarian Passion of Jesus - A Critique

Ernest Penn both takes away - and yet preserves by his focus - the evangelical view, not simply the orthodox view, of substitutionary atonement. After all, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox view is one of real presence, which is that Christ is broken in his body at every Mass.
His argument is also not against the liberal Christian view, which itself generally rejects substitutionary atonement. A liberal Christian view is about sacrifice from service, taking service for others to the final sacrificial stage, and it is a biblical view - because it relates to the suffering servant tradition, and it is likely that Jesus himself is aware of this tradition in his own understanding of Son of Man. Now this is particular, and is encapsulated by Jesus of Nazareth. This particularity is important, because Ernest Penn in his sermon states:
The drama of the Passion of Jesus does not simply refer to historical events in the past, nor is it in any way exclusive, for Jesus, here, represents humanity, every man and every woman.
It what sense then does Jesus "represent" humanity? There is a tradition which happens to be around and which makes some claims, one of which is substitutionary atonement among others. It is unclear how Jesus represents every man and every woman, here, or if they just represent themselves and coincides with this story.
Is his argument, set as it is, right? Yes, basically. The amorality of a cruel death (immorality?) is right; it is out of place by other texts and can be said to be made invalid by them. Substitutionary atonement is indeed undermined by the Hebrew prophets and by other texts. Nor is original sin established by the Bible, in the manner in which it became doctrine; nevertheless, the story of a lost paradise became one in which a second Adam was to restore paradise in the final instant - and clearly we do not (yet) have it. The death is not the final instant, but the redeemed world is, when the Kingdom of God comes to earth.
Personally, I am not convinced by arguments relating to archetypal myths; nevertheless there are many repeating myths indeed about dying gods and blood sacrifices and even virgin births. It would be odd if this myth were substantially different from mythic constructions elsewhere.
The historicity of Jesus is not simply a humanist ethic of effort, but is wrapped up in the supernatural religious views (and religion was total, like breathing the air) of last days, influenced by the same immediacy of the Essenes, Jesus, and understood by Paul. And it was Paul, and not Jesus in particular, who created salvation in Christ from the dying and rising and expected return, by God's action, of Christ. For Paul, Christ was not God but God's sole worker, the Lord and way by which God was acting. Jesus was as God's Viceroy. Paul was combining the Jewish immediacy with Greek culture, and later the Greek culture and Roman order were to provide a trinitarian tradition that Protestants were going to reform and alter. Unitarians, whether as once Presbyterians or parish Congregationalists, or once Socinians and Transylvanian ex-Calvinists, actually come after all of that theology too. Paul is all over them too, as are other New Testament concepts.
Now the inheritance of traditions, and its impact on music composition at times of general belief, can of course move anyone, but there is no primacy of Jesus here in this Unitarian view at all. It is coincidence; at worst it may even be a parasitical view. This may not matter, but the question of focus upon Jesus is pertinent for Unitarian Christians (Ernest Penn did not apply the label to himself; he was first and foremost a Unitarian, and identified himself with the breadth and purposes of the denomination).
I have always wondered in what sense for Unitarian Christians is Jesus regarded Lord, as sometimes quoted in the Unitarian Christian Association, a conservative body of liberal Christians within Unitarianism, in the sense as Jesus was with Paul. For Paul, an ahistorical Jesus Christ, dead and risen, is God's sole worker and Lord, but not trinitarian (whether or not an understanding of him was launched in that direction).
Of course some Unitarian Christians reject Paul (so do some other Christians) but rejecting Paul produces a peculiar result, leaving a last days Jewish preacher, in an ethical Judaism, and suffering servant, producing a tragedy. Such liberals might add an understanding of the gospels' claim of resurrection which is not salvic within itself, but as a very pleased Godly reward for ultimate and perfect service (synoptics), or part of the divine scheme of things (John). Pure Jewish Christianity is very incomplete, and somewhat lost now (the Kanai just about still exist: not a Jews for Jesus set up but a just about continuing real Jewish group of people who are non-trinitarian and regard Jshua as Messiah). Anyhow, if Jesus is an ethical hero for a kind of humanist Christianity then it is by degrees and where Jesus competes with Gandhi and Buddha as best in class. Paul understands the place of doctrine, bald "is" statements, not salvation by degrees, but it comes at a price.
Some Unitarian Christians call Christ Master, and the UCA does. It claims to be non-credal, but bases its allegiance on the two great commandments, and that the teaching of Christ himself takes precedence over doctrine at a later time. The two Testaments are the rule of Christian faith and duty under the teaching of Lord Jesus Christ. But the two Testaments are more than this, and the New is also a witness of the early Christian community. A Christian is someone who allies himself or herself with that community, despite the changes in beliefs and attitudes that may have take place since.
The witness is of that community to Christ, and impact on that community by Christ, is a crucial identifier. Here is a continuing community using the scriptures (becoming both Testaments) and also of a Jesus who referred to the scriptures and set himself within them as part of his self-understanding under God.
Ernest Penn said:
In many ways men and women are called upon to suffer for others, that is vicariously. Vicarious suffering is a fact of human life. Every effort to counteract evil in the world, or to uplift society, is an attempt to redeem the world to a better life, an act of substitutionary-redemption, great sacrifices being made on behalf of others. This goes on in every generation - it is not unique in one man on a cross.
No doubt this is right, and the language is taken from the Christian tradition. No doubt the Christian myth is a reflection on vicarious suffering, just as it is on the human experience of light at the end of the tunnel during its burdens and the release of leaving the tunnel when a burden gets released. But this experience stands in its own right, and is not a connection with that community as such.
Of course redemption is slow, and piecemeal, and people are agents of redemption. The God of redemption is done through people. The Jews know that. This is indeed by living and requires character. He said:
The saving power is not in the suffering and dying, it is in the effort made and the spirit of man which moves him to the effort. The nobleness of the story of the cross is missed by those who stress who stress the actual death of Jesus at the expense of the spirit he manifested in his last hours. It is service to humanity is manifest in his life rather than in his death. As for Jesus, so for all - it is salvation by character. When we affirm this we assert that salvation does not depend upon any external scheme, but on the moral co-operation of the human spirit with the Divine Spirit.
Yes, the suffering servant is not a final act, but a whole act of service that leads to a climax. People do suffer for service. The last hours are ever the most demanding, and of course it is while alive that pain is felt. But if it does not depend on any external scheme, does it also have any meaning to be in moral co-operation with the divine - an undefined human spirit with divine spirit, as in, perhaps, a living version of a Hindu-like moksha with the Atman and Brahman co-operating?
I think at the heart of this is the problem of liberal demythologising. As you get to the humanist centre of the moral case, the tradition is in the end bypassed. Its once supply of the understanding of the drama is now a few borrowed phrases in an essentially secular understanding. The theism involved (if theism it is) is entirely superfluous. After demythologising comes remythologising for religion to work.
In the end, the individual makes an identification with a community that itself identifies with a rich tradition of understanding service and sacrifice. This is located in the community's, ritual action and reflection. Essentially it is eucharistic. There is the ongoing dark and the difficulty. Then there is the coming in, and the reflective sharing of a memorial of bread and wine, assisted by texts of preparation including sorrow and peace, as well as what is good on the other side. There is the ritual act of connecting the suffering servant with one's own condition and would be one's own intended service; and then there is the light and release, the thanks, and the going away back into the community. It is using the good produce of the world, and producing your own.
The identity is with those who have done it before, and on reflection within and about that tradition. This means using the various texts, and drawing on the long resources of the tradition in a remythologising. It means when you are hurt, you relate and feel, and when you are joyful, you can relate and feel. In essence, then, it is a fellowship.
That is it, really. I don't disagree with the thrust of what Ernest Penn stated. His argument against is limited to evangelicals, and it is an anti-doctrine doctrine of effectively religiously-set humanism. His argument for is what people do. It is just that there is a rich resource of insight, of understanding, of identification and reflection, and it is done through a giving and receiving act that is a core identification with those who have done it before, and the one who showed how it was done.
My position is not doctrinal or anti-doctrinal. It is postmodern and narrative. It means joining a people and an elaborate story (of a different culture), because of my own reflection with others, and down the ages, through the eucharistic give and receive medium.


Adrian Worsfold

Link to: Unitarian Passion Sermon by the late Revd. Ernest Penn


Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful