Why Tony Jones (and other emergents) should read Amos Yong’s Pentecostal theology

I posted recently about the debacle that Tony Jones got into partly because of his statement that “the nascent Pentecostalism practiced in much of the Global South would benefit from being in dialogue with the older, more developed theologies of the West.” Well, I’ve been reading The Spirit Poured Out On All Flesh, a book by Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong, who could hardly be called “nascent.” He’s kind of like the Pentecostal Scot McKnight, well within the bounds of what evangelical sensibilities call “orthodox” while very sympathetic to postmodern concerns and critiques. And he offers a pneumatological account of atonement that seems to address a lot of the issues the emergents have with the traditional evangelical account of atonement, so he’s somebody that emergents like Tony really ought to read and learn from.

One of the things that Yong names which I had never heard articulated in quite the same way before is the coexistence of two Christologies in the New Testament. Yong calls the Christology of the synoptic gospels a Spirit Christology, which emphasizes the concrete account of Jesus’ humanity, while the Christology of John’s gospel is a logos Christology, which emphasizes the abstract account of Jesus’ divinity. Yong says that post-Chalcedon, the Western church has been left with a predominantly logos Christology because “the Synoptic Gospels were reduced to present what Jesus did, even as John’s gospel was understood to provide the definitive account of who Jesus really was” (110).

The result of a predominantly logos Christology is that the Spirit’s role in Christ’s atonement is minimized even though the Spirit is responsible for raising Jesus from the dead and “also remains present with Jesus through the passion, which ultimately separates the Father from the Son” (112). When atonement is understood in logos Christology terms, the result is an abstract transactional account (such as Anselm’s) in which the soteriological work of the cross is reduced to a math problem (e.g. infinite dishonor of sin + infinite sacrifice of Jesus’ blood = 0 debt owed).

So Yong seeks to show how a pneumatological soteriology is able to combine the best of the big three atonement theories: ransom/Christus victor, substitutionary, and moral influence. Here’s what he says about ransom theory:

How can the ransom theory remain plausible to the modern mindset, which has demythologized the idea of the devil? The pneumatological soteriology defended here not only reinvigorates the idea of the demonic… but reorients it according to contemporary sensibilities. Insofar as Satan represents the sum total of all evil and sin is thereby understood in cosmic and social terms, the ransom theory empowers a redemptive, nonviolent resistance against evil, following the example of Jesus… And insofar as the liberation of the captives accomplished by Jesus included the exorcism of demons from those held in bondage by destructive forces, so also does full salvation need to account for the triumph of Christ over the rulers and authorities of this present world. [113]

A pneumatological soteriology recognizes the power of the demonic and the need for salvation to involve the exorcism of demons from people’s lives, all of which affirms the ransom theory’s account of a need for captives to have their freedom “bought” by the blood of Jesus. This does not require believing in a literal anthropomorphic devil, only using Satan as short-hand for the evil to which we experience ourselves being enslaved.

Here’s what Yong does with satisfaction or penal substitutionary atonement:

Instead of being an outmoded notion limited to the feudal and penitential context of Anselm’s medieval period or a piece of legalistic speculation amidst the emerging Protestant city-states, I suggest that the satisfaction and substitutionary theories remain pertinent for our time. Given our increasing awareness of the web of interconnectedness that binds all life forms together to the point that human survival is always at the expense of other forms of life, including other human life, the blood guilt that is upon our own heads as survivors requires the atoning sacrifice of Jesus in order for us to engage each other, the earth, and the divine in good conscience… Insofar as the Spirit, who raised Jesus for our justification, also gives life to us, the experience of forgiveness of sins deals not merely with the covering of our past failures but also with the empowering of our future actions so that they retain their full moral and ethical significance. [115]

The key here, as I have argued before, is that Jesus is punished for the sake of our wholeness (Isaiah 53:5) and ability to act “in good conscience,” not for the sake of God’s need to spew wrath on His Son. Instead of bifurcating salvation into justification through the Son and sanctification through the Spirit, Yong understands justification and sanctification both in perichoretic trinitarian terms. The Spirit’s role in justification makes it more than a forensic legal fiction and binitarian Father/Son transaction; it is our empowerment to “go and sin no more,” knowing our forgiveness.

Last, Yong deals with the moral influence atonement theory:

A pneumatological reappropriation of the moral-influence theory preserves its central insights regarding both the necessary transformation of soul and the healing of moral character even while it locates these realities within the interpersonal, ecclesial, and sociopolitical matrices wherein Christian salvation is experienced and played out… One is converted over and over again by the power of the Spirit so as to put on the mid of Christ, embody the virtues of Jesus, and accomplish the things he did. In this way, the existential and experiential dimensions of the atoning work of Christ are retained as accomplished by the Spirit.

In other words, the Spirit’s presence within a moral-influence account of atonement precludes it from turning into works-righteousness. Again, it would be easy for Wesleyans who are used to mapping justification onto Jesus and sanctification onto the Spirit to say oh, Yong is just talking about sanctification. The problem that Yong sees with a bifurcated salvation is that justification quickly becomes the only “required” salvation while sanctification is the bonus add-on that happens if you get around to it. There is more of a necessity than that in being transformed into Christlikeness so that when we go to be in eternal communion with Christ, it isn’t an agonizing experience for us.

So basically, all this is to say that Pentecostals like Amos Yong can go just as deep as “the older, more developed theologies of the west.” Offering a fresh perspective on atonement through pneumatological reappropriation is simply brilliant and something that I haven’t heard about from the emergent world where folks seem more interested in dabbling in Zizekian materialism and “giving up God for Lent.” So your homework assignment, Tony Jones and emergentsia, is to get you some Amos Yong and let him blow your mind!

4 thoughts on “Why Tony Jones (and other emergents) should read Amos Yong’s Pentecostal theology

  1. Pingback: My Pentecostal Problem | Koinonia Revolution

  2. Agreed! I just had the privilege of listening to Amos Yong speak at a conference in Sydney this month and he really does offer some incredibly fresh perspectives on Theology and Pentecostalism. As a pentecostal who has long struggled with many of the caricatures of my tradition but yet unwilling to walk out on it, Amos’ perspective has been fantastically helpful.
    I have enjoyed and been helped in my thinking by much of the emergent discussion from Tony Jones et. al but always felt that complete abandonment of the traditions I was brought up with was not the solution. Amos Yong has rekindled my hope in bringing change from within…

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