Dan W raised a perfectly valid point during our recent series on the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement: if we’re going to tear down a dodgy theory (as we did) what can we build in its place? Are we offering anything constructive, or merely indulging in iconoclasm?
Good question Dan. We’re going to have a go.
First we’d better lay some ground-rules. I reckon for a theory of the atonement to be viable it has to meet the following standards:
- It needs to make sense in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry – not be merely a tacked-on achievement that is basically discontinuous with his prior story. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection comes as the climax of the Gospel accounts, we should be able to take our cues for understanding that climax from within the Gospels themselves.
- It needs to make sense in the context of the Bible’s metanarrative, its big story.
- It needs to comprise both Jesus’ death and resurrection as integral to his achievement, such that it would be inadequate and incomplete if either were missing. Neither can be assigned the heavy lifting in a way that leaves the other element a light-weight.
- It must be an account that gives full and equal role to Father, Son and Spirit.
- It must be an account that give clues to the subsequent rise and shape of the community of Jesus as described in Acts and elsewhere. No other Jewish popular leader who was executed in that era left behind an ongoing community. What was it about Jesus’ death that was different?
- It must leave some room for mystery in this central mystery of our Faith. We are looking for an account of the Cross, not a full explanation. Any theory that wraps it all up too neatly, is suspect.
In my view Satisfaction Theory fails each one of these tests. It tells a story like this:
Our human sin has offended God’s honour or justice and alienated him from us. He wants to reconcile us but he can’t until his justice or honour is satisfied with respect to our sin. Someone must pay. So he sends Jesus his Son. Jesus spends his time doing miracles to proove he is God’s son, teaching God’s standards to convict us of our failure, and then he dies to bear the punishment we deserved. This death finally satisfies the demands of justice. Once Christ has died, salvation is achieved. Now we can get right with God and find a place in heaven. But he has to rise from the dead so we will know it’s true.
In terms of Point 1, above, Jesus hardly shows much interest in the need to satisfy God’s honour or justice, during his ministry. Under 2, ST works without needing the story of Israel. ‘Nuf said. For 3, ST puts all the weight on Jesus’ death, leaving little if anything for the resurrection to accomplish. For 4, ST is a transaction between Father and Son; the story works without needing the Spirit. ‘Nuf said. 5: ST provides little if anything in the way of explanation for the rise and unique shape of the early church. 6. ST seems to offer a complete explanation, it leaves little room for mystery.
So we’d better come up with something better, hey Dan?
I want to add to this, that the whole idea of a ‘theory’ of the atonement is problematic. We don’t want descriptions of mechanics worked out in the abstract environment of systematic theology but not grounded in the NT story. No matter how clever or ‘satisfying’ such a theory might be, it would remain in my view a distraction from the gospel. As ST has been.
What we want is an account of the atonement, one that restrains itself from going beyond what is written, and instead clarifies and synthesises the apostolic witness about Jesus. We don’t want something that Christians will be forced to argue over and defend or critique for centuries, but rather an account that Christian people can recognise as true and build their faith on. That might mean a degree of caution in how much we claim to know, especially about the mechanisms of the thing. It might be that a brief, general account is better than a long detailed one.
All right, after this bit of scene-setting, let’s get down to it.
Tomorrow: everybody else’s theories. In 2 paragraphs.