Atonement for Dummies (of which I am one)

I was whisked through my theology undergraduate work at such a pace and such an accelerated specialisation I never got to properly engage the atonement. It was like taking a coach tour of London by driving the ring road (M25) and never getting off the bus!

Atonement is basically the theology of what Jesus Christ has done for us, how he has taken on and defeated our sin and made a way for us to be reconcilled to God. It can often become fairly technical, so not being an technician myself I will try to speak about it as clearly as I can muster.

Substitutionary View

The title of this view kind of gives it away, Jesus dies in our substitute, in our stead. Different versions of this claim to describe the mechanics of how this takes place, but all of the sub-views basically agree that Jesus is on the cross as an innocent dying for the guilty, those that turned from God, You and me.

Christus Victor View

The title of this one is obscured because it is usually rendered in latin, but essentially it means, Christ is victorious. Victorious over what you ask? Well, over Powers, Principalities, Evil, Death, and the Devil. This view while including the cross obviously includes the ressurection (otherwise it would be hard to argue Jesus’ victored over death you see).

Moral Example View

Not sure what the true title of this view is called. Usually it is the straw-man view of evangelicals because it is seen as the ‘Jesus-wasnt-God-but-a-good-guy’ and we should try to live like him. While I understand why we want to push back on the whole Jesus-wasnt-God thing, we miss alot of the significance of Jesus’ example to us in life and death if we concentrate on solely one or both of the previous views. They leave us with a Christ who dies and rises for us, but not a Jesus we can follow.

The difficulty of the penal substitutionary atonement view

More recently one particular view within the subtitionary atonement view has been out of fashion. Namely the penal substitutionary, this is partly because it has previously been so popular and central that it is almost the only one evangelicals could articulate. The penal substitionary view is basically that we, humans have guilt from our sin which God the Father must judge and so He sends Jesus to take on that sin and punishment in order for us to be set free.

The unfortunate thing about this simplistic explanation of penal substitionary atonement is that God the Father comes out looking like a pretty un-good God who is angry and needs a place to take out his anger, which ends up being on his son. Not the rendering of the Gospel that sits well with most.

Now I knew that smart, sincere and pious people have been involved in formulating, articulating and defending this view, so I knew that there must be a much more articulate and well-reasoned way of unpacking this view of atonement. Well, now I came across one in a quote I happened across from Miroslav Volf;

Let us beware that some accounts of what it means for Christ to have died on behalf of the ungodly—what theologians sometimes call his “substitutionary” death—are deeply problematic. If we view Christ on the cross as a third party being punished for the sins of transgressors, we have widely missed the mark. For unlike a financial debt, moral liability is non-transferable. But Christ is not a third party. On account of his divinity, Christ is one with God to whom the “debt” is owed. It is therefore God who through Christ’s death shoulders the burden of our transgressions against God and frees us from just retribution. But since on account of Christ’s humanity he is also one with us, the debtors, it is we who die in Christ and are thus freed from guilt. Christ’s oneness with both creditor and debtors leaves only two categories of “actors” and thus negates the notion of his involvement as a third party. (Miroslav Volf, “The End of Memory”, p.117)

If that left your head spinning, then here is gist; Christ is not the third party and God is the second party who is expressing his anger, God is Himself taking on the debt. Every act of one member of the trinity is an act of them all. Therefore God takes on implication of the wrong that we have done, He does not transfer it to another somehow.

Which view is the right one?

Finally, I’m sometimes asked which view of the atonement I believe in, to which I fustratingly answer, “all of them’. It seems to me you can proof text your way to back them all. This is much like the elephant that three blind men are asked to describe by touch, and then insist the part of the elephant they can feel is that inherent defining aspect of the elephant.

We read and experience aspects of the overwhelming size of Christ’s atoning work and then get stuck arguing for our perceptions. Instead of an either/or dilemma I think to many atonement theories we can say both/and.

One Comment on “Atonement for Dummies (of which I am one)

  1. McKnights’ A Community Called Atonement is a really helpful primer in atonement theory. It has at its heart the metaphor of a golf bag containing a number of clubs. You pull out the club appropriate for the situation and you can’t really play the game without a full bag of clubs.

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