Further Atonement Thoughts: Late to the Party

[he_qi_crucifixion.jpg]Earlier this week, kicking off Lent, Tony Jones pointed his readers to some reflections on Jesus atonement, including my recent pieces “Beyond Liberal and Conservative” and “Possible Reconstructions.” The resultant comment-conversation is largely quite encouraging, and worth reading. One of the highlights from me was this helpful summary of atonement models by Brian:

(1) Substitutionary atonement (Calvin) – Christ’s voluntarily suffers and dies on the cross as our substitute. In other words, Jesus takes the punishment of God for sinners by representing us.

(2) Satisfaction (Anselm) – Christ’s voluntary sacrifice of his innocent life pays our debt to God so God’s justice can be satisfied. In short, Jesus makes restitution for us.

(3) Ransom (Origen) – Adam and Eve sold humanity out to the devil, so God had to trick the devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom so we can be free. In the end, the devil is tricked because Jesus got resurrected after we are freed.

(4) Moral influence (Abelard) – Jesus’ life and death are characterized by his exemplary obedience to God’s love, therefore demonstrating to humanity the love of God. So, Jesus should awaken sinners to God’s reality and inspire us to be obedient to God.

(5) Governmental (Grotius) – God demonstrates God’s anger toward sin by punishing Christ. Here, God is understood as a judge who demands divine justice for sinners. In the end, Jesus suffers in order that humans can be forgiven and God’s justice can be upheld.

(6) Liberation (Boff) – Jesus’ life and death demonstrate God’s solidarity with people who are poor and oppressed. So, Jesus lives a life of care and compassion – and his crucifixion demonstrates how perverse and violent human injustice can be. In other words, Jesus lived obediently to God’s care for the poor, which brought him into conflict with an oppressive empire that killed Jesus. In the end, Jesus was unjustly executed through crucifixion by the Roman Empire. Therefore, the oppressive and violent people in the world were exposed as ungodly and immoral. In this theology, Jesus died because of sin, but not for sins. Therefore, in imitation of Jesus, ministry is about empowering the oppressed and helping the poor.

(7) Decisive Revelation (Riggs) – Jesus is the widow through which we see God. Through Jesus’ life and teachings we learn about God and what God values. Some people experienced God-in-Christ and became faithful to God. But other people were offended and threatened by Jesus and wanted to kill him. In the end, Jesus was murdered by people who hated the values and influence of God. Despite his crucifixion, the presence and ministry of Jesus continues through the lives of Christians. God is still beckoning us into faith and faithfulness. In this theology, the purpose of ministry is to share the good news of God’s love that was decisively revealed through Christ, so more people can develop a relationship with God.

(8) State Execution (Crossan) – Jesus and his disciples invited people into the Kingdom of God and out of the Kingdom of Rome. The Empire of God was about God’s love, justice, and mutuality. The Empire of Rome was about humanity’s individuality, greed, and brutality. Jesus and his disciples were rebels against Rome by living out the values of God. Romans became angry that Jesus was undermining their way of life. So, the brutal Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, hung Jesus on a cross to humiliate Jesus and terrorize his followers. Despite Jesus’ traumatic and unjust execution by the state, Christ’s presence and God’s Kingdom continues to invite people to live by God’s values – and be assured of God love. In this theology, Christians are empowered by God’s love to live out God’s values of love, justice, and mutuality.

Brian’s series on Lent & Crucifixion is well-worth reading too:
Journey of Lent (#1): “Crucifixion of Jesus as Unresolved Grief and Trauma”
Journey of Lent (#2): “Grieving the Crucifixion to Heal Our Memories of Jesus”
Darrell Grizzle’s Atonement and Emergents is great too along this theme. And finally, The Contemporary Calvinist & Friends think we’re taking a blowtorch to the Bible – alas.

18 Responses to “Further Atonement Thoughts: Late to the Party”

  1. 1 robin dugall March 1, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    good work Mike…I copied your summary! Proud to know you!

    Dr. Robin Dugall

  2. 2 zoecarnate March 1, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Thanks Robin, but just so you know, that’s not my summary, that’s Brian’s – I didn’t want it to remain buried in the comments on Tony’s post, as I thought it warranted greater consideration. I’d recommend reading he & Sara’s blog.

  3. 3 Jon Reid March 1, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Notably absent from the list: Christus Victor

  4. 4 contemplativephotos March 1, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Great list!

    If you swap #4 and #5, and you draw a line after the new #4 (governmental), then you create 2 larger more broad categories we might call “supernatural atonement” and “natural atonement”. The first four (Substitution, Satisfaction, Ransom, Governmental) presuppose literal views of ancient supernatural problems of demons, the devil, afterlife, etc. The last 4 (Moral influence, Liberation, Decisive Revelation, State Execution) presuppose the real world problems of systemic oppression, violence, and injustice. I think that categorization can help us get to the underlying theological question about substance dualism.

    Atonement wars are often a surface disguise for this deeper theological debate centered around the question of platonic substance dualism (a natural/supernatural divide of body/soul and eventually heaven/earth). Descartes unfortunately reintroduced and over emphasized that view into the modern era, so we still have to deal with it today.

    By seeing these 2 main categories of our atonement theories we highlight the real question: Are our problems a matter of our human social structures of injustice that need real world solutions, or do we need a supernatural fix for our afterlife status?

    The emergent answer has often been, “both/and”. I kind of like the inclusive politically correct nature of that answer. It helps stave off the kinds of fights common in the modern era of our parents and grandparents. Brian McLaren is a master of this both/and approach. However, I’m not yet sold on the ability for the real world problems and solutions to survive with equal priority as long as the supernatural problems continue to be part of the equation. In my mind, the jury is still out on the both/and approach, though, Like Brian, I have an affinity for it.

    This question is posed by modernity in typical oppositional thinking as… chose A or B. Is our postmodern response to politely chose A and B, or can we find a C that might entertain questions about the question itself?

  5. 5 zoecarnate March 1, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    I appreciate your analysis here, contemplative, but I wonder if there isn’t a subtle (unintentional) ethnocentrism implicit in calling the systemic stuff “real world” that’s dismissive of “the supernatural”? I mean, I wrestle with ontological positivist depictions of God and related phenomena as much as the next pomo pirate, but I also have to respect my sisters and brothers in Africa for whom demons are no triflin’ matter – or my neighbor across the street who had a tangible experience of being “washed in the blood” that led to some significant life-changes. Taking everyone’s experience and thinking into account, I have to be a “C” or a “both/and” – not to be placating or politically correct, but because my worldview has blind spots too.

  6. 6 Mike L. March 1, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    FYI… I was inadvertently logged into wordpress with my wife’s account (contemplativephotos) when I made that last response. Maybe I’ve now cursed her to hell…LOL 😉

    God, if your out there, please don’t blame my wife for my heresy. She suffers enough in the here and now with me! 😉

  7. 7 Mike L. March 1, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Mike, I agree! I entertain the both/and approach for exactly those reasons. I’m wanting/searching for some C that transcends the linear oppositional thinking, but also realizing the practical need for both A and B as long as there are those who might still see the world through that lens.

  8. 8 zoecarnate March 1, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    I understand…I think Walter Wink does a good job at taking a significant initial stab at this in his work on ‘the Powers,’ taking seriously the individual/personal and collective/institutional dimensions of evil – and good.

  9. 9 Bert March 1, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Pretty interesting to see all those listed together like that. Helps one get a good context. I don’t think there’s one specifically that can be singled out as THE true reason. It’s all pretty complicated. One time I was in a discussion group where we had to make a list of all those implicated in Jesus’ death according to the gospels. And pretty much everyone was on there, Rome, the high priests, and even
    ourselves. Personally, I’m not big on the idea that crucifixion was something that God demanded(as many have pointed out, what kind of a God would demand something like that?). I tend to view it more as Jesus was threatening the power structures of church and state, so they colluded to get him out of the way. I’m also open to the idea of his death being ransom to some sort of dark spiritual power, similar to the Witch killing the Lion in the Narnia story. But I think the idea of God himself demanding such a death distorts God’s love.

  10. 10 natrimony March 2, 2009 at 2:08 am

    Jon Reid,

    Christus Victor is basically the same as a Ransom or Primitive theory of the atonement. It’s just been slightly modernized/nuanced by first Gustaf Aulen and lately Greg Boyd (among others).

    To all,

    While I appreciate degrees of meaning; when distilled, there are really only three streams of atonement conceptualization. Objective, Subjective (of which #’s 5-8 are simply sub-headings under), and Primitive (Ransom). The human counterparts to these concepts are Anselm, Abelard, and Irenaeus. I believe that these three categories must be set firmly in our heads before discussing any type of harmonization. Working out from this understanding it is possible to see the (really) minor augmentations which others have made. We must realize that the atonement is not a dead Luna moth under glass. It is a living, active, reality which moves within peripheries apart from scholastic understanding. It is vital that we return to the biblical atonement language. For a moment, depart from our pet theologizer–Grudem, Berhkhof, McLaren, Boyd, Piper, Willard, whoever—and take a 2nd look for ourselves at how the BIBLE describes reconciliation, expiation, substitution, propitiation, victory, triumph, example, influence, warfare, and exchange.

  11. 11 Feste March 2, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Intriguing, I never knew there were so many different theological views of the atonement. I’m rather new to this area, but I tend to lean towards Boff’s Liberation viewpoint. It seems to fit best with the teachings of Jesus and the life he led.

    I hope to see more posts like this, they make for excellent food for thought!

  12. 12 John L March 3, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    Hey Mike, let’s not forget to credit that beautiful piece of art by our friend He Qi.

  13. 13 Billy March 10, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    You may scoff at the Calvanist, but I honestly don’t see how scripture, in its entirety, can lend itself to anything other than Penal Substitutionary Atonement. If Christ is not our substitute, we still owe. And then we are no longer saved by Christ alone, and thus our whole faith is in vain.

    The problem with many of these theories of atonement is that it portray the devil as the yang of God’s yin. But there is no equal to our sovereign Lord. Ranson grants Satan undue power, as if God owes him something for our misdeeds. But only God is our judge. He’s the one to whom we owe our debt. And a righteous judge does not let sin go unpunished. That’s why it “pleased the Father to crush Him” (Isaiah 53:10). Hell is not where Satan torments, but where God does—and it is eternal (Matt 3:12, among others). There are some that portraying the Cross as some kind of empirical injustice. But that seems absurd. Would Christ sweat drops of blood for fear of being hung on a cross made by men (Matt 26:39)? The cup in which He dreaded was not some chalice of human violence, but the cup of God’s wrath (Isaiah 51).

    A God who sends unrepentant souls to Hell may seem less forgiving that we are. Yet how dare we reduce God to our level. God commands us to forgive one another simply because everything we have, including our very life, is borrowed. Only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7). And He has every right to make us pay for the debt and still be a loving God.

    Most of all, we must remember that this is not our story, but HIS. We do not define Love, God does. This life is not about non-violence and peace, nor helping the poor and the downtrodden, nor even attaining a particular level of righteousness. It’s about giving glory to God. That is our purpose. And even though we often do this by doing the aforementioned, we must be careful to not use the outworking of our faith to create our own garment (Matt 22:1-14).

  14. 14 John L March 10, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Billy, I wonder if the cross isn’t intended to draw us into perennially deeper questions, rather than a mental certainty of “having all the answers?” If, as you say, we “do not define love” then how can we expect to adequately define the atonement – the embodiment of perfect love?

    I tend to agree with your wonderful statement – we do not define love. Yet we are drawn by this love, shaped and formed by this love, made faithful and whole by this love, saved by this love. And yet – we cannot define it.

    This exposes us for who we really are. All of our religious ideas and certainties are derived from That which cannot be defined. How cool is that?!

  15. 15 Nathaniel Ruland March 14, 2009 at 2:55 am


    Brother, and I really do mean brother. Brother, I also am about as Reformed as I can be right now (pastoral intern in the PCA going to seminary at RTS-Charlotte, I mean I practically wear a phylactery of the WCF) but please, if you’re going to make a penal substitutionary argument as a CALVINIST then please spell CALVINIST right.

  16. 16 Nathaniel Ruland March 14, 2009 at 3:02 am

    John L,

    Yes, God cannot be fully defined. However, He gives Himself definition. Yes, we cannot put God in a box, but, He put Himself in a body. Deeper questioning may lead to an attitude of awe amongst the sovereign evidence of our God, however, it could also become a celebrated skepticism masked as spirituality. The eye of faith recognizes that we don’t define love, or the atonement, BUT, God does. And, he does it in his Holy Scriptures.

    Grace and Peace,


  17. 17 zoecarnate March 14, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Hey Nathaniel – besides critiquing Billy’s spelling (:) ), how would you respond to his comment generally? Do you agree, from a Reformed perspective, that penal substitutionary atonement is the only game in town?

  18. 18 Rufus Sanders May 31, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Hehe am I really the first comment to your awesome writing!?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Check Out This Free Book Club


Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Abolish Slavery – Join the Movement Today!

  • Friend of Emergent Village

    My Writings: Varied and Sundry Pieces Online

    Illumination and Darkness: An Anne Rice Feature from Burnside Writer's Collective
    Shadows & Light: An Anne Rice Interview in MP3 format from Relevant Magazine
    God's Ultimate Passion: A Trinity of Frank Viola interview on Next Wave: Part I, Part II, Part III
    Review: Furious Pursuit by Tim King, from The Ooze
    Church Planting Chat from Next-Wave
    Review: Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola, from Next-Wave


    %d bloggers like this: