As a Disclaimer this post is long. But well worth the read if you interesting in Atonement theology.
This had been an area of theology that I have spent considerable time investigating. Atonement theology is at the core of Christian Theology, and depending how you view the work of Christ on the Cross will be reflected in all the other aspect of both the practical and impractical side of theology.
The Importance of Integrated Theology.
Theology is an integrated area of study, and it works to our disadvantage by compartmentalizing its many different facets. To study atonement without the understanding of its relationship to the rest of theology would be detrimental to its significance. The atonement would be meaningless without the depravity of man; it would be powerless to display the love of God without the incarnation, and it would be hopeless without the promise of a resurrection.
The Importance of Identification in Atonement Theories.
Yet atonement theology remains one of the most vital areas of study in Christian theology. And the fact that the church has not ratified a single view of the atonement speaks to the imperative value of identification between the sacrifice and the sinner. As one commentator writes, “The use of animal sacrifice relied heavily on the idea of identification between the sinner and the animal.1” The gravity of the human need is vast, and no single theory can bridge the gap. Therefore, each individual has the opportunity to identify with Christ in a different way. To some Christ is their liberator, to others the reconciler, or purifier, and yet still to others, their ransom, victor, or vicarious substitution.
Furthermore, this concept of identification is also what helps defend unlimited atonement against both limited and universalism. The debate between these three views is one of the classic controversies over atonement. Because if Christ died for all, why are some still judged for their sin? Shouldn’t all be saved? And to defend this idea a limited view of the atonement arose that states, Christ only died for those who would be saved. However, the concept of sacrificial identification settles this dispute. It is not simply enough that a sacrifice was given, but the sinner also had to identify with that which was being sacrificed.
The Importance of the Atonement and its Many Faces.
Traditionally there are five main possible views of the atonement; ransom to Satan, recapitulation, example/moral influence, governmental, concluding with the prominent view of modern atonement theology satisfaction/penal substitution. Yet by limiting the atonement to Penal Substitution, one is left with an incomplete humanity. The human need is greater than the provision of Penal Substitution. So to understand the atonement one must re-examine the doctrine of depravity.
Dwight Pentecost describes the depravity of man saying that, “men have slipped past the point of no return. They have gone over the cataract of sin, and have been swept into the state of sin. They are slaves of a sin-nature. They are producing the fruits of sin. They are spiritually dead; they are under judgment; they are under Satan’s power. That is what it means to be depraved. Man is not as bad as he can be, but man is as bad off as he can be. He is lost.2” This is a rather comprehensive definition. Although when discussing the work of the atonement one must not forget about the falls destructive effects on creation, and the provision which was also included in the atonement. This is why the atonement is the culminating theological event that not only reshaped history, but also redefines salvation theology. As Martin Hengel writes, “No human death has influenced and shaped the world of late antiquity, and indeed the history of mankind as a whole down to the present day, more than that of the Galilean craftsman and itinerant preacher who was crucified before the gates of Jerusalem in AD 30 as a rebel and messianic pretender.3”
Therefore this paper will defend six different atonement views. The six views are Sacrifice, Justification by Grace, Penal Substitution, Liberation from Sin, Death, and Demonic Powers, the Renewal of Creation, and the Wondrous Love of God 4.
Each of these six different atonement theories were developed under unique circumstances, and those circumstances are reflected by the need that each theory addresses. Walter Rauschenbusch expresses this very idea as he writes, “It is important to note that every theory of the atonement necessarily used terms and analogies taken from the social life of that age. And that the spirit and problems of contemporary life are always silent factors in the construction of theory.5”
This is also why atonement theories circulate over time, rising and falling in popularity. The different atonement theories concentrate on a specific set of spiritual needs and their adherents identify with a particular atonement narrative as it relates most closely with their life. “Theories connect the story of Jesus with the believers in a new time and place. By identifying the needs of their context, the authors portray the saving power of Jesus in ways that draw a new generation into the believing community.6”
Another way of viewing all of these six different theories as a part of one larger united theology is by defining them by their object 7. The objects of the different atonement views are the law, sin & powers, creation, or mankind. It’s like four witnesses who testified about the same car accident. Each testimony is true but different. Likewise, the different atonement theologies are valid and correct, but different in their aim, and scope. This is possible because they have, as their foundation, the narrative theology of the Gospels, and the contextualized Epistles of the New Testament. This is why there is not one single view, but a melding of different views because each time it was written to address a different group of people, experiencing a different set of circumstances. In fact, Paul is the earliest pioneer of reshaping the purpose of the atonement to tackle the needs of his audience. In Romans and Galatians he speaks of the atonement as Justification for both the Jews and the Gentiles. And later, in Corinthians he uses the atonement to address the needs of reconciliation within the body of Christ.
Moreover, upholding these six theories is not a defense of religious tolerance or an invitation for religious syncretism. Instead it is allowing the rich multitude of Scriptures, doctrine, and Christian traditions to bless the understanding of Christ’s work that was accomplished on the cross.
The Sacrificial View of Atonement draws heavily upon Old Testament imagery and law. The two primary sacrificial treaties that are related to the death of Christ, are Passover and Yom Kippur (or the Day of Atonement). It is interesting to note that these two sacrifices accomplished strikingly different results. The Passover was done in remembrance of the 10th plague of Egypt, in which the angel of the Lord would pass over and spare the households that were covered by the blood of a lamb. On the other hand, Yom Kippur was instituted as the purification sacrifice for the tabernacle and the people. A lamb’s blood was sprinkled to symbolize the washing and cleansing of sins.
The New Testament authors fuse the imagery of the Passover lamb and the Atonement lamb. Jesus as the Atonement lamb is proclaimed by John the baptizer, saying, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)!” Yet, the imagery of the Passover lamb is self-attributed by Jesus. During the last supper Jesus initiates a new ordinance as he replaces the blood and flesh of the Passover lamb for His blood and body. This theme is even expressed in Paul’s writings as he labels Jesus the Passover lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7.
Justification by Grace Atonement.
The Justification by Grace View of atonement (and the following view, Penal Substitution), both make light use of Biblical imagery and extensive use of the legal language of justification 8. The basic outline of the Justification by Grace Theory is that sin is a violation of covenant law, which results in the separation of man and God, and heralds the judgment of God upon man. It is impossible for man to ever bridge this gap of separation, or to make peace with God. So God, in his love, sent his son to die on the cross, so that by faith (and not by works) man could be justified before God, united and spared from wrath.
Penal Substitution Atonement.
Penal Substitutionary atonement parallels this basic legal outline. The major differences being (as its title makes reference), the focus is on the divine requirements of the law. The penal law required that, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22).” Death was required from all men as their punishment for transgressing the law of God (Romans 6:23). However, God in his love not wanting to be eternal separated from man, provided his son as the vicarious substitution for all of mankind. Therefore in his death men are released from the payment of sin because Jesus paid for it on the cross.
Wayne Grudem defend that the Penal Substitutionary view is the heart of the atonement. For he writes “there is an eternal, unchangeable requirement in the holiness and justice of God that sin be paid for, “ adding, “Before the atonement could have an effect on our subjective conscious, it first hand an effect on God and his relationship to the sinner. 9” Paul Enns also labels this theory the “emphasis of the New Testament, 10” and the fulfillment of the Isaiah 53:5 prophecy that states, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.”
However, turning the page one discovers the Liberation of Sin, Death, and Demonic Powers Theory of atonement. It is said that “the New Testament overflows with references to two aspects of the saving work of Christ: forgiveness of sins and liberation. 11” The Liberation view gained ground in the wake of World War I and II, and with the rise of liberal, neo-orthodoxy, and social gospel theologies. Men like Walter Rauschenbusch argue against a cosmic or divine accounting and transference of sins to the cross of Christ. Instead he writes, “he [Jesus] did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins. 12” Moreover, men like John Howard Yoder write, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law, it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society. 13”
Liberation Theology operates under the general assumption adopted from Immanuel Kant, “that we have it within our powers to reform ourselves. 14” Yet, it should be noted that power within stems from the theological assertion that we have been liberated by Christ to live for him. And unlike the previous theories which divide and bicker over the nature of justification verses sanctification, liberation atonement expresses that salvation occurs by the incarnation of the Word of God, and sanctification, or the ability to live out God’s will, was provided in the liberating work of the cross. The Liberation view of atonement stresses the call to social action as well as personal reform. Unlike justification and Penal Substitution advocates who might have a tendency to become comfortable resting on justification by grace through faith, liberation advocates actively seek to be a force that emancipates man from evil powers.
Renewal of Creation Atonement.
The Renewal of Creation view of atonement may sound like it was created just in time for earth day, but its roots branch back to the Fourth Century, to a theologian named Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. Contrasting the four previous views of atonement, the Renewal of Creation Theory takes a completely new and different approach to viewing God’s work through Christ on the cross. The outline of this theory is that through Jesus all things were created but in the fall all had been lost, even the knowledge of God. However because of the love of God and the divine purpose of creation, God sent Jesus into the world to “renew creation” in his life, “restore life in the face of death,” forgive sins and “restore the true knowledge of God. 15”
Wondrous Love Atonement.
The Wondrous Love view of atonement affirms that the primary reason for Jesus’ life and death, and in fact all of God’s interactions with mankind, has been to demonstrate the love of God. 1 John 4:16b-17 supports the concept that love is the fundamental characteristic of God, saying, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.” And although, “some of the legal concepts of the atonement have obscured the love of God in the death of Christ. 16 ” Love still remains as one of the chief expressions of God throughout the different atonement theories. It is the common thread that intertwines all the atonement views together.
The outline of the Wondrous Love Theory of atonement is that God’s reason for creating the world was love, and the relationship between God and man is regulated by the love of God and it’s result: obedience. This unity in love that was present in the original relationship of mankind and God was corrupted by the sins of pride and self-centeredness. Therefore, in the incarnation God came to demonstrate his love and obedience, which were completed in atonement. In the resurrection, God vindicates Jesus and “makes him Lord, thereby establishing a new community of Love for the sake of the world’s redemption. 17” The basic principle of this atonement view, and the very reason for its universality, is that as God demonstrates his love, man will respond by loving God.
The Importance of Love in the Atonement: the Thread that Binds.
Today evangelicals pronouncement of the gospel is, “Jesus loves you and died for your sins.” Theologically many would affirm that the significance of this phrase is the forgiveness of sins. Yet, what stirs the heart and creates the change in people’s lives is the response to the love of God. 1 John 4:19 decrees “We love because he first loved us.” Not only did God take on the likeness of a man, dwell as a servant among his creation for 33 years, but he also submitted his life to death in the ultimate revelation of humility and love. This is one of the strongest attracting forces of the cross. The symbol of God dying for mankind (in every atonement theory) has an irresistible moral influence of the heart of man. Skeptics accuse the Old Testament to depict a God of Wrath and the New Testament a God of Love. And their criticism is not completely unmerited. The epicenter of the New Testament is the life and death of Christ, which is the greatest revelation of God’s love in all of history. Theologians want to see a systematic God that displays all of his attributes in equal proportion throughout all of his actions. Yet, God does not do this. Instead he tends to highlight only one of his many characteristics at any given time in history. And the atonement without a doubt is the demonstration of God’s love.
- Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power: Theories of Atonemnt and Forms of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishng Company, 2005). Pg 21.
- J. Dwight Pentecost, Things Which Become Sound Doctrine (Gand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1965). Pg 16.
- Martin Hengel, The Atonement: The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1981). Pg 1.
- Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power. Pg 11.
- Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock).
- Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power. Pg 7.
- J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001). Pg 70.
- Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power. Pg 56
- Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrines: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999). Pg 254
- Paul Enns, Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989). Pg 232.
- Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power. Pg 123.
- Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock). Pg 247.
- John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Willaim B. Eerdmas Publishing Company, 1972). Pg 132.
- Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power. Pg 124.
- Ibid. 170, 171.
- Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel. Pg 272.
- Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power. Pg 290.