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Finished reading: Saved From Sacrifice by S. Mark Heim


I don’t remember when this book came onto my radar, but it was already on my Amazon wishlist when my friend Daniel’s recommendation pushed it to the top of that list.

Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross by S. Mark Heim is a long-ish volume that rather thoroughly summarizes the arguments for the ‘scapegoat’ theory of the atonement as proposed by René Girard. My knowledge of atonement theories has been relatively limited up to this point; aside from knowing “penal substitionary atonement” (PSA) (and remembering a Desiring God pastor’s conference where Mark Driscoll declared it one of the fundamental truths of the faith that was a hill to die on), I’ve not dug into any. So Saved by Sacrifice was an eye-opening entry into a differing view of Christ’s death.

As an aside, here’s my summary of the condensed Wikipedia summary of Girard’s position:

it is humankind, not God, who has need for various forms of atoning violence. Humans are driven by desire for that which another has or wants. This desire increases to a point where society is at risk; it is at this point that the scapegoat mechanism is triggered. This is the point where one person is singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group. This person is the scapegoat.

Social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual, and the cycle begins again. The keyword here is “content”. Scapegoating serves as a psychological relief for a group of people.

Girard contends that this is what happened in the narrative of Jesus. The difference between the scapegoating of Jesus and others, Girard believes, is that in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, he is shown to be an innocent victim; humanity is thus made aware of its violent tendencies and the cycle is broken.

I also quoted a paragraph from Heim’s book in a previous blog post that was a key bit of explanation in helping me get my head around the idea.

Heim spends a good chunk at the beginning of the book explaining the theory and how representations of Jesus’ death from the very early church might support this scapegoat perspective. He then overviews how the scapegoat theory fits into readings of other books – including a really interesting perspective on Job – and then ties things up by addressing the key PSA texts (think Romans 3 – 5 and most of Hebrews) and how they might be read from a scapegoating perspective.

I’d definitely recommend this one as worthwhile reading if the topic is of interest. It was thick, but not dense – a very helpful read.

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