From the First Letter of Peter:
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Peter 1:18-19 (NRSV) – November 26, 2013.)
I will go on record has being not an adherent of the ransom theory of the Atonement, which holds that the death of Christ was a ransom sacrifice in satisfaction for the bondage and debt on the souls of humanity as a result of inherited sin (another theory, “original sin,” with which I have some strong debate). It is unclear to me exactly who is the recipient of the ransom. Depending on who is setting out the argument, the ransom is usually said to have been paid either to Satan, which I think makes the ol’ devil rather bigger than he ought to be, or to God the Father, which makes the Almighty considerably less than we ought to think of God.
Here in this verse from Peter’s first letter, however, I find some redemption of the ransom theory. According to Peter, the ransom is not for “original sin,” nor are we ransomed from Satan; we are ransomed “from the futile ways inherited from [our] ancestors.” In other words, we are freed from “the way we’ve always done it before.”
Some people call the way we’ve always done it “tradition,” and to a certain extent some of that is true. Tradition, however, is not a straight-jacket; it doesn’t lock us into a rigid, unchanging status quo. When tradition is used to do that, it is more properly called “traditionalism.” The church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, in a 1983 lecture entitled The Vindication of Tradition, said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Another word for the way we’ve always done it is “habit.” There are good habits, like brushing one’s teeth, and there are bad habits, like picking one’s nose in public. And there are really bad habits we call “addictions.” It is the bad habits and addictions, “the futile ways” of the past, from which Peter tells us we are ransomed by the blood of Christ.
That’s a ransom theory of the Atonement that makes sense to me. Christ sets us free from the way we’ve always done it before, free to try new things, free to experiment, free to grow.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.