Touching on Schwager’s View of the Atonement

Peter Leithart wrote a short post on Schwager’s view of the atonement (which borrows from Girard’s work on mimetic desire). Leithart takes issue with Schwager’s assertion that grace and judgment are not “alternative possibilities within one single appeal;” the “appeal” being Jesus’s free offer of pure grace. Leithart notes that, “Jesus begins His ministry announcing judgment. He does issue an invitation to all to enter His Father’s kingdom and to join the feast, but that entry requires repentance.” Agreed. I’d like to say a bit more though. Here’s a lengthier section of Schwager:

Whereas the preaching of the prophets contains an alternative (‘if you repent, you will find grace; if not, the judgment will be upon you’), the message of Jesus initially disregards the readiness to repent or the hard heartedness of the sinner and consequently at this level excludes the alternative ‘of rejection for not repenting.’ Preceding, and at first independent of, the actual human decision, it offers to oppressed humankind the pure mercy of God. If, nevertheless, it is a call to decision…, then the pure offer of grace must be clearly distinguished from an arbitrary offer. It does not presuppose conversion, but wants to awaken it, and where the offer of pure grace is rejected a person falls prey to all the consequences of his or her own decision. With Jesus, grace and judgment are not two alternative possibilities within one single appeal; the predominance of grace is shown by the fact that the offer of grace takes place in advance of human choice. The problematic of judgment, on the contrary, emerges from the other side, from the human decision actually made. In the framework of the message of Jesus, the judgment sayings can therefore be taken seriously – without any weakening of the salvation sayings – only if they are related to a second situation of proclamation, which is distinguished from the first by the human rejection of the offer of salvation that is given without prerequisites. The two situations are … opposed to each other not as offer and refusal of the offer. The transition to the second situation is not made by Jesus, but it results from the reaction of his hearers. Jesus only makes clear the theological consequences of their decision. (pp. 55-56) [online source here]

In short, Schwager is suggesting declaring – logically & sequentially, mind you – that Jesus’s proclamation of grace was prior to Jesus’s proclamation of judgment, and that his proclamation of judgment was only in response to the peoples’ rejection of his offer of grace.

First, I’m not sure how this can be known, certainly not to the extent that leads to an assertion. But more importantly, Schwager’s motivation for advancing this view should be called into question. On the face of it, this appears to be an attempt to get Jesus off the hook for pronouncing judgment apart from (and prior to) a rejection of grace. Schwager stops short of suggesting that Jesus cannot pronounce judgment until and unless his grace has been rejected, but this view has nonetheless been inferred by emerging church types, some of whom consider themselves ‘Girardian.’ The dichotomy between these two proclamations of Jesus (grace and judgment) is at least partly semantic, making disparate something which was intended to be straightforward. As Leithart noted in his post, “Even before Jesus, John says that the axe is already laid at the foot of the tree.”