Saved from Sacrifice – Book Review

Posted: December 12, 2011 by Todd in Books, Theology
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I just finished reading a book that I think has made a big impression on me,  Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross by Mark Heim.   I had read about the “Girardian” perspective on Jesus’s crucifixion various places, mostly, I think on Brian McLaren’s blog and was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

Mark Heim’s book seems to be a great primer on Réne Girard’s work.  The basics of it are that virtually every human community (or communities) has relied on some form of a sacrifice to make peace.  This is often at the heart of religion.  Girard is an anthropologist and from his anthropological perspective, this reliance on sacrifice in various human communities has played an important role.   Basically,  it  has brought peace to groups with differences.  Rather than continuing to let violence escalate, the groups at odds with one another would identify a third party of some sort and make them a sacrifice.   Normally,  this sacrificial  victim or victims was an outcast, a minority, or in some way defenseless.  Blame, regardless of actual guilt, was cast upon the sacrificial  victim(s).   The victim was killed and the story was mythologized and whitewashed. Those participating in the sacrifice assumed no guilt  and even posited divine sanctioning of the activity. Unified by the sacrifice, the groups once at odds are able to make peace because of the sacrifice.  It works. Except, it doesn’t work so great if you’re the sacrifice. [more…]

Christianity and the Judaic tradition, according to Girard and Heim,  reverse the sacrificial  process.   The crucifixion (and some earlier Jewish precursors) is the sacrifice of God to end sacrifices all together.  God steps in as the victim and makes plain the horror of sacrifice – it is killing.  There is no divine sanction.  God does not demand a blood sacrifice to be made to satisfy any wrath for sin.  Rather, God vindicates the victims of sacrifice, stepping into the role of the victim at the crucifixion, vindicating them through the resurrection. “We’re saved,” as Heim says, “by what should not happen.”

The book helped me to understand a substitutionary atonement in a way that I can find meaning in.  There are still many understandings of the substitutionary atonement that see God as demanding a sacrifice and/or as authoring  a  sacrifice  writ  large  that  I  and  the  author  will  continue  to  reject.   But  a  substitutionary understanding of the atonement doesn’t have to portray God in these unflattering terms, just as Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Another major insight I learned from the book is that the crucifixion isn’t a general salvation for all of “sin in general.”  Sins are specific and there’s no being saved from them in general.  We need to be saved from our instances of lying, cheating, stealing, jealousy,  etc.   The crucifixion saves specifically from the sacrificial impulse – perhaps other things as well.  Yet, all of Jesus’s life is salvific and we should look to various parts of it for the way to save ourselves from specific sins.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we can adaptively understand how Jesus would respond to temptation.  All  of this wasn’t  necessarily explicit  in Heim’s book, but was a corollary in my own thinking based on the book.

It is a long book and took me a few weeks to get through.  I do think Heim could have made his argument more concise and I had to stick with the book at points.  In the end, the payoff was big.  It’s a book worth reading as a summary here couldn’t do it justice or bring out the many beautiful theological implications, Biblical  support,  and  vivid  descriptions  of  the  problems  with  sacrifice  (in  general  and  in  Christian theologies).


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