A better theory of the atonement

Posted: October 3, 2015 by J in Bible, General, Theology

Crosses1-e1378309830959Dan 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:

  1. 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.
  2. It needs to make sense in the context of the Bible’s metanarrative, its big story.
  3. 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.
  4. It must be an account that gives full and equal role to Father, Son and Spirit.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.

  1. Steven Hoyt says:

    irenaeus’ recapitulation and abelard’s moral influence work for me.

    by the way, i don’t see any particular reason for the things in your list. there need only be one: man fails to see himself as he is, and that’s the only problem necessary for christ to overcome.

    • J says:

      Thanks for your comments Steven,

      I have always been drawn to Irenaeus, I’ll have to revisit his atonement stuff, thanks.

      The list of criteria is a way of saying, we need an account that is biblical and compatible with the core commitments of the Christian faith. And that is expressed with epistemological humility.

      • Steven Hoyt says:

        thank you!

        i’m finding more and more, that there aren’t really any core epistemological commitments in christianity … just a commitment to forgiving, loving, and repenting.

        jews focused on the law and christians, belief. both were to establish communal bindings in the face of gaining an identity amid competing, influencing cultures. ironically, you can be an atheist jew because they have no dogma about god (they care about how they act), and christians often don’t resemble christ at all (they care about what they believe instead).

      • Steven Hoyt says:

        historically speaking, the one shared belief among christians is that christ atones. the interesting thing is, no one knows how.

      • J says:

        there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying, Steven. However, I’d suggest there has been a bit more common faith heritage than you are allowing, in the mainstream Christian tradition both East and West. I’m thinking of the Creeds, and the doctrine of Trinity they enshrine. We always say the apostles’ creed in our church, and I enjoy the sense of fellowship with believers everywhere and everywhen that it brings me.

  2. Steven Hoyt says:

    you may like hastings rashdall’s ideas of atonement in christianity. it’s free and online in pdf.

  3. I find TF Torrance helpful, especially regarding point #4. For Torrance, the very essence of the gospel is rooted in the ontological relation of being and agency between the incarnate Son and God the Father. That is, God is not different in God’s own being than God is in God’s activity in the incarnation and crucifixion of God. So for Torrance, there is no dark, inscrutable deity behind the cross of Christ, but only the God who loves us to the uttermost. See Torrance ‘Trinitarian Faith’ (pg. 8) for more.

    • J says:

      Nice, Dave. Torrance has a lot to offer doesn’t he. Does the Spirit have a place in that structure of thought about the atonement?

      • Yeah, I’ve really benefited from what I’ve read of Torrance. Re: the Holy Spirit, I think he’d say that everything Christ does in the flesh is done through the Spirit. He talks about the importance of our Doctrine of the Holy Spirit interpenetrating all our understanding of Christ’s revealing and reconciling work. Also, the Holy Spirit actualises within us what God has accomplished in Jesus in such a way that we share in Christ’s divine life (while, of course, remaining ‘creature’), and the substantiating the church as the body of Christ.

  4. a bit more from Torrance: in another book (‘The Mediation of Christ’, pg40), he believes the externalising of the gospel (eg. speaking of the atonement in forensic terms) occurred due to what he calls the ‘Latin Heresy’, i.e. that God didn’t assume our actual fallen humanity but a perfect and sinless, neutral humanity, different to our own (he believes most of protestant theology has gone done this road). Torrance goes with the Nicene theologians (the unassumed is unhealed) and so links the atonement on the cross intimately with his assumption of our fallen nature, and then understands the atonement based on a ‘Christological re-interpretation’ of the Passover and Exodus.

    • J says:

      Yup, that Latin heresy thing is a root of all kinds of evil. It’s built a kind of docetism deep into the heart of the Western tradition. Jesus was not really that human. Not like we are. God would never come that close to sin. It’s hard to retain any of the NT gospel once you’ve made that move.

      Has the Eastern church stayed with Nazianzen’s view of the incarnation, do you know?

      • Yeah, I agree. I hadn’t known about the ‘latin heresy’ before reading it in ‘The Mediation of Christ’, but I think he’s touching on something real in some protestant renditions of the atonement, and like you say, resulting in an unnoticed light-doceticism. I’d say the Eastern church has probably abided with Nazianzen’s view (considering his one of three designated ‘Theologian’ by epithet), but I couldn’t be sure.

  5. dan says:

    Jono, I’m so glad to have nagged you about this! Thanks for doing this. Looking forward to reading it.

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