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More reflections on theories of atonement…

April 5, 2010

The other week I made the statement in a sermon that the song “How Deep the Father’s Love for us” is based on “bad theology.”  I want to modify that statement.  It came across as a strident, categorical judgment.  It was shorthand, which did not communicate all the nuances of meaning and explanation that such a statement deserves. 

Perhaps what we need to say is this.  If we deliberately explore how we understand the saving work of God through Jesus Christ, we will find in scripture and in church history language that does not fit nicely and neatly into one Single view of atonement.  It is not my intent to say that there is no basis for ransom or penal subsitutionary views of atonement in scripture.  There is.  My intent IS to say that the atonement is so much more than this.  It is not just about providing a way for individuals to receive forgivenesss, to be justified, to be saved (although that is part of it).  It is about God, in Christ, setting things right in the cosmos.  It is about Love triumphing over Violent Hate.  It is better understood as God acting restoratively, not punitively. 

We could trace the development of a ransom theory of atonement through history.  We would talk about Origen (185-254), Augustine (354-430), Anselm (1033-1109).  We could talk about Aquinas (1225-1274) and the satisfaction theory of atonement.  It is fair to say that it has been these rationalist views of atonement that have captured the theological imagination of Protestants for the most part. 

We could talk about Gustav Aulen who in his book Christus Victor argues that Penal Substitution is not rooted in a biblical understanding.  In that book, he argues that the early church father’s primary model of atonement was the dramatic image of Christ overcoming sin, death, and the devil which has come to be known as the “Christ Victor” view of atonement.  see Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, (Macmillan:New York, 1977)

We could observe that a majority of Evangelical theologians, while giving primacy to the Penal Substitution view, acknowledge that Scripture has a number of ways of speaking of the atonement…that Penal Substitution and Ransom are two of many theories.

We could note that other Evangelical theologians, while still affirming Penal Substitution, have come to view the Christus Victor view of the Atonement as more central because it goes beyond dealing with human sin to speaking of God’s victory extending through the whole of the cosmos.  This is where I am speaking from.  It is about centrality, not exclusivity.  Greg Boyd (God at War) and N.T. Wright  would be others who hold the Christus Victor view as more central. 

Another Evangelical scholar writes this about the penal substitution theory:

“What I want to say is not that this theory is wrong… I want to say is that the atonement is so much more than this. And, if it is so much more than this, then it follows that using “penal substitution” as our guiding term is inadequate and misleads others. At the least, it does not provide enough information to explain what one really believes occurs in the Atonement”  —Scot McKnight

We could reference many scriptures which do not fit nicely and neatly into a ransom or a penal substitutionary view of atonement.  These scriptures usually don’t make their way into evangelistic tracts, crusade altar calls, or television preacher’s messages. 

Scriptures like…

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.'” Matthew 16:24-25

“Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'”  Luke 9:62

“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'”  Matthew 7:22-23

“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”  Colossians 1:24

“And to the angel of the church at Laodicea write:  …So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’  You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.  I reprove and discipline those whom I love.  Be earnest, therefore, and repent.”  Revelation 3:16-19

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    April 5, 2010 8:54 am

    I don’t recall we’ve ever discussed this, but my thinking goes in the same direction. I gained an insight that helped me from Albert Outler. He noted that
    2 Corinthians 5:19 states that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself” not reconciling Godself to the world. There’s an immense difference between the two concepts. It seems to me, as you imply, over-emphasis on penal atonement to placate God’s wrath distorts our vision of the nature of God’s redeeming love and undermines a richer understanding of what God wrought by Jesus death on the Cross.

  2. beinganddoing permalink
    April 5, 2010 9:30 am

    Amen and Amen! Atonement is indeed for more than a simple transaction. It is bound up in a faith journey that must be walked out.

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