| Sep 23, 2013
Some twenty-five years ago a friend took me to lunch to celebrate my getting into the PhD program in theology at Aberdeen University. I'll never forget his saying that he hoped I would do something relevant in theology, not spend years studying some obsolete idea like, you know, the doctrine of the atonement.
"What DO you plan to concentrate on, by the way?" he asked me.
"The atonement," I answered.
He stared at me over his chicken salad sandwich with bemused wonder. I'm sure some other friends would have done the same. The atonement is, after all, a theological doctrine not unlike Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
C. S. Lewis once said that what Christians believe about the atonement really amounts to this: What Jesus Christ did somehow set things right with God and gave us a fresh start. Lewis tended to fall back on the first century formula that originated with the church's first great theologian St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200), a formula that was utilized famously by St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), which is often referred to as the “mirifica commutatio” (the “wonderful exchange”). I will render this as Lewis did in his own very non-gender neutral language just to keep it close to his own formulation: "The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” (This is the opening passage in the chapter of Mere Christianity titled, “The Obstinate Toy Soldiers”). I prefer the way the formula has been revised in recent years, much more inclusively, to read: God became fully human in Christ that in Christ we might become fully human too.
Perhaps no one has more elegantly or more fully, described this understanding of the atonement favored by our earliest theologians than Catherine Mowry LaCugna. Her language echoes the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Colossians, as well as Irenaeus and Athanasius, when she writes: “The Christ who was always with God emptied himself of divinity and took on our humanity… and gathered together all things in himself” (God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, San Francisco, 1991, 26).
For St. Athanasius, the atonement is the incarnation. In other words, the atonement is not simply some “thing” among many other things accomplished by Jesus Christ; rather, the atonement is itself God's uniting of Godself with humanity. T. F. Torrance said it like this: “as Saviour Christ embodies the act and fact of our salvation in his own Person” (The Trinitarian Faith, Edinburgh, 1988, p. 156). Of course, Athanasius was the guiding light behind what we now call "The Nicene Creed"; and for seventeen centuries he has stood as the key figure defining orthodox Christianity.
The reason the subject of the atonement had become important enough to me that I decided I would dedicate several years of research to it (despite the consternation of friends!) was because of the intimate relationship between the various ways we conceive of the atonement and our understanding of the character of God. Who we believe God to be is closely related to what we conceive of God as doing. Every age has tried to unwrap the mystery of what God did in Christ. Metaphors, models and theories for understanding the atonement have multiplied over these twenty and more centuries of the church's existence: the Incarnational model; the Ransom theory; the Penal Substitutionary model, and its variant Mercantile and other Forensic theories; the Moral Exemplary Model, the Dramatic or Christus Victor Model, and variations on all of these. Theologians and saints from Irenaeus to Anselm, from Athanasius to Calvin, from Augustine and Abelard to Hastings Rashdall and Gustav Aulen have worked the veins of ore in this mine.
As Shannon Craigo-Snell and Shawnthea Monroe write, in their book, Living Christianity: A Pastoral Theology for Today, “all of these various views have roots in Scripture and are part of Christian liturgical traditions…. All of them are part of the multifaceted tradition we inhabit, and indeed each is deeply connected to the others. This multiplicity and fluidity is a great strength of the Christian tradition” (Living Christianity, 2009, 36).
My concern, however, as a theologian was to investigate which models might correspond best to the character of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and which models were most problematic. From time to time, the ways in which we have conceived of the atonement have done enormous damage to our understanding of who God is.
A good example of this unfortunate dynamic relates to "the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement." In this model, we are told that God's dignity has been offended by human sin. The divine dignity can only be satisfied, according to this theory of the atonement, by the punishment of those who offended God in the first place, i.e., humanity. But because God's dignity is infinite, only an infinite being can satisfy God's anger. “There must be blood,” so to speak. Capital punishment is needed in order to quench God's fury. But for this death to be effective in stemming God's anger, the one dying would have to be divine. Therefore Jesus, innocent of sin and fully divine, came to earth, became human, and offered himself to be killed to satisfy the punishment necessary to repair God's offended dignity. God is enabled by Christ's death to act mercifully toward those human sinners for whom Christ died as a substitute.
This model of the atonement draws on biblical themes of sacrifice, of course, but it recasts these biblical themes in the feudal language of medieval kings and overlays them with an understanding of justice derived largely from legal codes as old and as pagan as Ancient Rome. The character of the God who emerges in this model of the atonement is profoundly disturbing - the combination of an abusive parent and an absolute tyrant. And the damage done to a biblical understanding of the God revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth is simply incalculable. Sadly, many Christians are unaware that this model of atonement is only one of many ways to conceive of what God has done in Christ, and that it functions as a lens which, though it bring certain aspects of God’s actions into focus (a perspective of sacrifice is exemplified here) also limits their ability to see the fullness, richness, depth and breadth of what the atonement is and who the God is that acts for us in atonement.
There are those today who imply (or outright say) that if you do not hold to a "Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement," then your theology is "squishy liberalism," and your theological sensibilities are shaped by your culture. This contention re-emerged recently in a flap over a hymn omitted from the new Presbyterian hymnbook. (Read Timothy George's July, 2013 essay "No Squishy Love." Then read a response to that article from The Economist, August, 2013, "A Presbyterian Problem: Spoiling the Wrath".) In fact, there's not a single model of the atonement that is not shaped to some degree by culture as well as by the Bible. If you are human, your hearing of and response to God's Word is inevitably shaped to some degree by your culture. But this also includes the culture-shaped "Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement" which contorted certain biblical images to fit its preconceived notions of God, even as it also drew upon and emphasized some important biblical perspectives.
One of the most crucial figures for our understanding of the relationship between the atonement and the character of God was John McLeod Campbell. In what some consider to be the greatest study of the atonement since Anselm, Campbell’s magisterial The Nature of the Atonement (1856; a critical edition of which was published by Eerdmans in 1996), he reminds us that Jesus did not become human to make God gracious or merciful toward humanity, but to reveal God's love toward us. God's wrath is never soft-peddled in Campbell's theology; but God’s wrath is seen to be none other than the white, hot love of God turned against anything that would keep us from enjoying God and from becoming all God intended us to become.
Campbell was a gentle, thoughtful theologian who suffered enormously for his teachings. Tried for heresy and removed from his pulpit by a church that told him it was unlawful for him even to preach that "God is love" (The Church of Scotland at that time officially taught that God loves only the elect and hates all others), he served the poorest of the poor without official title or salary for the remainder of his days. His understanding of the atonement, resonant with the deep understandings of Irenaeus and Athanasius, and convinced of God filial love for humanity, speaks across the centuries, however, reminding us that sometimes what seems like solid orthodoxy is just mean-spiritedness and self-righteousness dressed up for church; and that sound teachings, even evangelical teachings, need not reflect bloody-mindedness to be true.
We will never fully understand the mystery of what God accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. But of this we can be sure: God is love. God's love is shared with all humanity in Christ. And the goal of this love is for our reconciliation and peace. God became fully human in Christ that in Christ we might become fully human too.
For further study: As mentioned in the blog, a great place to start would be Shannon and Shawnthea’s Living Christianity. I also devote a full chapter to the various models of the atonement in my Invitation to Theology: A Guide to Study, Conversation & Practice (InterVarsity Press, 2001).