25th May 2009

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Blog :: Atonement Theology

I've been interested in the Atonement for a long time. Basic to Christian belief is the idea that because Christ died, my sins are forgiven and I am reconciled to God. How exactly this occurs is not spelled out - and the New Testament uses different metaphors to describe the work of atonement.

Most modern evangelical thought has tended to emphasis just one of these metaphors. For many evangelical Christians atonement = Penal Substitution. The famous Four Spiritual Laws tract explains that sin separates man from God and "... that God has bridged the gulf which separates us from Him by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross in our place to pay the penalty for our sins."

This is the Judicial metaphor and it is usually tightly connected to the concept of Justification: sin is transgression of God's moral law, God as Judge demands the penalty of death (Romans 6:23 the wages of sin is death) and Jesus offers his own death as satisfaction of the penalty guilty humanity owes. God as Judge than dismisses the charges against us since the penalty has been paid in full.

I didn't grow up opposed to the idea of Penal Substitution, it just always seemed ... insufficient. If Penal Substitution is the wholly sufficient explanation for our atonement and justification, what are we to do with Scriptures like

Hebrews 2:14-15

14Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.


Colossians 2:13

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, 14 having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.

Clearly these passages are not using the sort of language that fits into a judicial model. But I didn't know exactly what to make of them until I bumped into the term Christus Victor. Thanks to an article by Derek Flood at sharktacos.com (very highly recommended) I began to have a vocabulary to identify the drama described in Scriptures where the Atonement is the victory of Jesus through his death and resurrection over the powers that oppress us and keep us separated from God. Christ the Victor!

The result for me of identifying the Christus Victor model in the New Testament hasn't been to challenge the Penal Substitution model as much as to emphasize the mystery at the heart of the atonement cannot be neatly packaged - the New Testament has a variety of models and metaphors to describe the atonement and each has it's contributions to make to our understanding and experience of the Christian life. I've several times done a "multiple metaphors of the atonement" style class or Biblestudy - looking at the Priestly/Sacrificicial, Financial/Ransom, Juridical/Justification, and Military/Victory metaphors for the atonement. But recent reading has left me wondering if perhaps the language we use to understand the atonement plays a decisive more role in determining our life in Christ.

I recently got around to reading Christus Victor - the 1931 work by Gustaf Aulen who coined the term. Christus Victor is basically a polemic survey of the various theological takes on the atonement with the assertion that the chief view of the atonement in the New Testament and Patristic writings has been lost since Anselm and Abelard and we've been left with the "objective" and "subjective" theories of atonement presented as the only choices. (briefly: "objective" atonement sees the passion as directed towards God; Penal Substitution or Satisfaction falls under this rubric. "Subjective" theories tend to see the atonement as aimed at humanity; the "Moral Influence" theory of atonement which sees Jesus sinless death as example of God's love to us. Presented with those two choices, of course, evangelicals rightly tend to gravitate towards the Objective theories. Aulen thinks this is a false choice and calls the narrative/dramatic account of victory over opposing powers to earn humanity's freedom from sin, death and hell the "Classic Theory" of atonement.)

I can't do justice to Aulen's arguments in this space (and really - if you're interested you should just go read the essay at sharktacos). Most interesting to me, however, were the observations that over and against Penal Substitution, Christus Victor takes into account the enemy (Satisfaction, for instance, needs no devil; God is sinned against, God demands Payment for sin), the incarnation and Jesus life of obedience, and the resurrection itself which is the capstone of Christ's Victory but seems somewhat inessential (besides being a note of Divine approval) in most atonement theology. It also suceeds in capturing the ambivalent nature of the operation of the Law in Scripture - blessed because it is true but ultimately against us and our opponent (among the powers defeated by Christ) because it cannot lead us into fellowship with God. Penal Substitution, despite being strongly associated with the reformation takes a legalistic view in which the Law's demands are immutable and cannot be broken - God will not forgive us without satisfying the demands of the Law. I have always wondered what the Penal Substitutionary model makes of Jesus' profligacy in forgiveness of sins. To the paralytic, the woman caught in adultery, the prostitute who washed Jesus feet with her tears, the thief on cross - Jesus extends forgiveness of sins without worrying about the demands of the Law.

Aulen also takes an interesting tour from the Patristic Fathers, through Medieval commentators and onto the Reformation, arguing most interestingly that Luther's atonement theory was mostly of the "Classic" type though largely misunderstood by his contemporaries and heirs. The historical treatment was mostly new to me (I haven't read much Anselm or Abelard. or Luther, for that matter) and a fairly convincing explanation of how penal substitution grew out of a medieval legal backdrop (concepts like penance and indulgences fit right into the western concept of justice).

Fresh on the heels of Christus Victor I got around to reading a gift from my sister-in-law: Joel B. Green and Mark Baker's Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (Joel is one of her Professors at Fuller). Recovering the Scandal... is a little less straightforward - in part it is also a critique of the dominant Penal Substitution model but it's purpose is not so much to replace it with another model as it is to emphasise the necessity and desirability of having multiple models for the atonement.

Green & Baker also provide a historical tour of atonement theology that covers some of the same ground. They review the language of the New Testament in regards to salvation and atonement and agree with Aulen that the Christus Victor best characterizes the Patristic writings (with a few variations). They also cover Anselm and Abelard and use Princeton Seminarian Charles Hodges as an expounder of Penal Substitution from the 20th century. Most interestingly, however, they move from a critique of existing models to relating several attempts at contextualizing the Good News of Christ's atoning work in models that communicate to a particular.

The Penal Substitution Model makes assumptions about the concepts of justice, punishment, guilt, and satisfaction that are only coherent within western cultural understandings. In Japan, for example, the judiciary operates under a shame/alienation framework that seems strange to western minds. Justice, in the west, is exemplified by the blind (and therefore impartial) goddess Justicia with scales and sword in either hand. Japanese culture as related by Norman Kraus, a missionary teaching theology in Japan in the early 80's, sees justice as the wise decision made by judges having taken into account the context and rendering the decision that will best preserve relationships in the community. Because shame, rather than guilt, is the primary cultural deterrent the ideas of forgiveness and propitiation as communicated by Penal Substitution do not resonate with Japanese culture.

Clearly Biblical truths should not be cast aside in order to conform to human culture. As Green & Baker point out, however, emphasizing the sense of sin as alienation from God and the atonement as Jesus entering into shame and dishonor in order to reconcile and restore us to God not only communicated meaningfully within Japanese contexts, it may also be closer to the scriptural depiction of the atonement as well! After all, the cultures in which the texts of the Old and New Testaments were written were also shame/honor cultures as well.

While I found the other attempts at contextualizing the meaning of the Atonement less successful, it was stimulating to think about how we can best communicate the mystery of the work of Christ in comprehensible ways. All metaphors break down at some point (if Christ effected a Ransom, to whom was the price paid? If it was Satisfaction of the Law's demands is God bound by the Law? Or did Jesus come to save us from God?) All we can do is resort to narrative and metaphor to explain the atonement. Not every metaphor is equally powerful or explicative but some do have the virtue of communicating in the "native language", so to speak, of a particular cultural group (I've been thinking, for instance, about Jesus as Trickster to communicate to the hacker/geek subculture I partially inhabit. The trickster (in the jungian archetype sense) is much revered in hacker culture (as embodied by words like "hack"). And Jesus' subversive relationship to the religious/political power structure of His day as well as the unexpected quality of His victory (achieved by submission to torture and death) and his upside-down Kingdom could communicate within this particular subculture in ways communication along the Penal Substitution lines cannot. In fact - following Gregory of Nyssa's imagery of Christ as a baited hook proffered to Evil, the Godhead concealed in humanity, Life swallowed by death which cannot contain it - the act of the Atonement might be classified as a clever hack. This will doubtless be seen as a sacrilegious characterization outside of hacker circles.

Besides being encouraged to think about how to think about the atonement Recovering the Scandal... also had the salutary effect of challenging my acceptance of the exclusive use of Penal Substitution language. About halfway through the book I became increasingly aware of my uncomfortableness with their polemic against Penal Substitution. For example:

Hodge's penal substitution model takes sin very seriously in that it presents sin as a huge barrier between God and humans. Yet it is a limited concept of sin that portrays it only in terms of moral failure or transgression of a law. Even within that concept of sin, however, the model does not intersect with the day-to-day reality of actual people. Describing the atonement as a legal transaction within the Godhead removes it from the historical world in which we live and leaves it unconnected to personal or social reconciliation. And in actuality it only addresses our reconciliation with God at an abstract level. That is to say, it is so objective, so outside of us (and in a sense outside of God) that what changes through the cross is a legal ruling. According to the logic of the model, an individual could be saved through penal substitution without experiencing a fundamental reorientation of his or her life.

Ethically this model has little to offer


Should we be doing theology on this sort of ends-oriented basis? Surely as exegetes the question to grapple with is "what does the text communicate", not "how will this work out". And it is undeniable that the concept of Satisfaction is in the Bible and in places hints at a Penal understanding (Isaiah 53, for example). It wasn't until I had moved on to other reading that I realized I had the ends-analysis exactly backwards.

J. Denny Weaver, contributing to Anabaptist Currents analyzed the ways in which atonement theology contributes (or fails) to ecclesiology. One key statement stuck out to me:

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement allows the same kind of substitution to occur in the area of theology. Defining salvation in terms of escape from guilt and deserved penalty - a legal transaction with God - provides a theological way to talk about salvation apart from considerations of discipleship, nonresistance, and love of enemies. It thus enables and reinforces an understanding of salvation that is separate from ethics.

p35, The Church, Pietism and Nonresistance

Perhaps my question needs to be reversed. Is it possible that the Church in the West has selected Penal Substitution as the primary means of understanding the atonement precisely because it does lack an ethical dimension? Jesus came to preach the Kingdom of God the synoptic Gospels agree, and yet western Churches and western theology sees the Kingdom and discipleship as an optional add-on (at best) to the core message of Salvation (always understood in a juridical sense). Salvation as a legal transaction does allow us to do away with or render optional ecclesiology, discipleship, and ethics. But for the purposes of much of the Church this has been a feature, not a bug, which allows a Christianity neutered down to become a private transaction which need not affect the present.

Phrased like that it seems to me that a primary task of recovering the New Testament vision of the Christian life is to reject with prejudice exclusive claims for penal substitution and assert the diversity of Biblical language and atonement models (with all their implications for salvation).

Update: Fixed the spelling of Joel Green's name - thanks to nothing_to_say who may now deign to comment, if she's not to busy having coffee with Joel :)

Posted on May 25th 2009, 04:50 PM

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