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Atonement, Some Basics

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Some basics on the atonement for class lecture.

The church has never creedally determined the doctrine of the atonement. Several models of atonement have dominated the landscape since the patristic period. Each of these contains an element of truth, and has some biblical grounding, though some can go in quite perverse directions if they are isolated and detached from others. Below, I list several of the main theories of the atonement. There are, of course, various ways to classify theories of the atonement, so what follows makes no pretense to canonical status. Besides, several of these function well as perspectives on the work of Christ in John Frame’s technical sense, that is, they actually require the other models to fill them out.

1. Christus Victor. This employs a military metaphor, and its leading motif is power. Jesus is the conquering king, who defeats sin, death, and the devil, and liberates us from their power. Famously, Gustav Aulen argued that this was the “classic viewEof the atonement during the early centuries of the church, lost during the Middle Ages, revived by Luther, and then lost again by Protestant Orthodoxy. It is clearly grounded in Scripture, in OT prophecies about Yahweh’s liberating, royal action, in JesusEproclamation of the coming of the kingdom, and in Paul’s emphasis on the liberation from the law and the curse (Romans 8:1ff). This model becomes problematic if it obscures issues of justice, wrath, and propitiation, all of which are biblical concepts. To put it another way, Christus Victor works so long as (with Luther) we insist that one of the “adversariesEthat is “conqueredEby the cross is the wrath of God.

2. Satisfaction. Conservatives often see this as the orthodox view of the atonement, and it certainly has been a dominant one in Western theology since the 11th century. Though this theory takes various forms, the dominant theme is justice. God is righteous and holy, and therefore punishes sin and expresses His wrath against it. He cannot simply overlook sins; His justice (or offended honor) must be satisfied in some way. Through the death of Jesus, God is both just and a justifier Ejust in that He punishes sin (in Christ) and the justifier in that He counts as righteous all who are in Christ. Since full satisfaction has been made for sin, those who are in Christ by faith do not have to fear a future punishment. Anselm is usually seen as the theologian who offered the first rigorous formulation of this theory. Many contemporary theologians object to this doctrine because it makes violence a necessary part of atonement. More on this objection below.

3. Moral Influence. Associated historically with Abelard, the leading theme of this model is love. God loves us; He is not angry with us. But we fear that He is angry because of our sins. To demonstrate His abiding love, He sends His Son to die for us, an act designed to provoke a response of love and devotion from us. Again, this model has biblical support; the cross does indeed demonstrate the love of God (Romans 5:8). The problem with this model is that the cross cannot function as a demonstration of God’s love unless Christ is doing something for His people on the cross. If a father kills his son, that hardly makes the father a winning personality who will evoke feelings of admiration and devotion. If the moral influence theory is seen as a perspective on the satisfaction theory, however, it works fine: God demonstrates His love by sending His Son to make satisfaction for our sin. Similarly, it can be a perspective on the Christus Victor model, in that God demonstrates His love by liberating us from the power of sin and death.

4. Governmental. This model of the atonement is associated with the early modern Dutch political theorist and theologian, Hugo Grotius. It’s leading theme is order (not surprisingly, given the chaos of GrotiusEtime period). God in this model is seen as the governor of the universe, who as such cannot allow sin to cause disorder in his world. The atonement, however, does not effect order so much as issue a warning against the forces of chaos; the atonement is a great deterrent, a cosmic “law-and-order-campaignEthat warns sinners about the terrible consequences of their sins.

There are several problems that cut across all of these theories. First, they all focus almost exclusively on the death of Jesus. The question of the atonement is the question of the cross, while the resurrection is left out of the picture. Second, the God who is at work in most of these theories is not explicitly the Triune God. What would the “atonementElook like if we self-consciously attempted to think it through in Trinitarian terms (as, eg, Barth does)? Third, as Wright points out, much atonement theology is developed with little attention to the events of JesusElife, other than the fact that He was sinlessly perfect. Of course, He was sinlessly perfect, and this is what qualifies Him as a sacrifice. But what does His ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, exorcism, of provocation and prophetic demonstration, have to do with the atonement? How can we integrate the historical answer to the question “Why did Jesus die?Ewith the theological answer? Fourth, and by the same token, Israel’s history plays almost no role in most understandings of the atonement. Eve thought that Cain was the Deliverer-seed promised by Yahweh. She was wrong, but why didn’t Yahweh immediately send a savior? Why the long history of failure and apostasy in the OT?

Much recent theology has objected to traditional theories of the atonement, and even to the cross in general, because of its obvious violence. Simply put, the question is how can a loving God achieve anything through the slaughter of His Son? Is there such a thing as “redemptive violenceE (Hans Boersma). Boersma (Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross) points out that while the “penal substitutionary view of the atonement . . . in particular bears the brunt of criticismEand “is often seen as responsible for the retributive character of the Western judicial system, as well as for various other forms of oppression and abuse,Ethe other historic models of the atonement also involve God in violence. In the Christus Victor theory, “we have God making a deal with the devil . . . or actually fighting with and conquering the powers and principalities on the cross.EFurther, “Even the Abelardian moral-influence theory, though it may seem to be the most hospitable, involves God in the violence of the cross.EThe only way to avoid the implication that God is involved in violence, that violence is somehow inherent in the achievement of eschatological peace and redemption, is to limit “Christ’s redemptive role to his lifeEor dissociate “God from any role in the crossE(pp. 40-41).

Let me offer two sorts of responses to this line of argument. First, in many of these treatments, Anselm’s theory of the atonement is seriously distorted. Contrary to some caricatures, he did not present God as being bound by abstract notions of justice or obsessed with His own honor. He explicitly says that in a strict sense God can neither lose nor gain honor through human action. Saying that God is dishonored says nothing about God’s status, attitudes, or feelings. Rather, sin has an impact on the world, in that it “disturbs the order and beauty of the universe.EThe cross is God’s means for putting the world back into its original order and beauty (Sherman, p. 189-90). Forgiveness will not cut it. As Anselm argues, “If the divine wisdom did not add these requirements [of satisfaction] wherever wrongdoing tries to disturb right order, there would arise a certain ugliness, derived from the violation of the beauty of order, in the very universe which God ought to regulate, and God would seem to fail in his direction of the world. Now, since both of these things are unseemly, and therefore impossible, every sin is necessarily followed either by satisfaction or by punishment.ENote that God is motivated here by the desire to vindicate His own name, so that He will not be seen to fail, and that God is motivated not so much by legalistic conformity to abstract justice as a passion to see His world beautified and ordered.

Second, it is clear in Scripture that God is involved in various kinds of redemptive violence (against Egypt; in the conquest of the land; etc.). Boersma argues that violence can be redemptive, and in fact that violence of some sort is necessary to the achievement of hospitality. He also notes that theologians who object to violence tout court are arbitrarily drawing lines between their preferred modes of (supposedly non-violent) action and the condemned modes of violent action: “By what standard would one term physical resistance to an enemy violent but physical interference to stop a person from committing suicide nonviolent? If my interference with a suicide takes the form of a physical encounter, is this not a form of violence?E(p. 46).

Robert Sherman has developed a Trinitarian theology of atonement (King, Priest, and Prophet [T&T Clark, 2004]) that attempts to synthesize various theories of the atonement by combining a Trinitarian frame with the triple office of Christ. Early in his book, he summarizes his thesis in a chart:

Father Son Spirit

King Priest Prophet

Christus Victor Sacrifice Revealer/Exemplar

Bondage Sinfulness weakness/Lostness

Each of the perspectives on the atonement is thoroughly Trinitarian. Jesus is exalted as sovereign Lord, exercising the Kingdom of His Father in the power of the Spirit. As Sherman puts it, “to affirm Christ as victorious king is to say that God the Father has bestowed royal authority upon the incarnate Son to accomplish in the power of the Spirit the proclamation and reestablishment of divine sovereignty in a world enslaved by alien and illegitimate powersE(p. 131). Sherman suggests that this royal perspective has primacy, both because of the Father’s primacy in the Trinity (p. 158) and because humanity must be delivered from the powers that enslave us to establish “conditions for the reclaiming and reconciliation of human culture in his work as priest and prophetE(p. 160).

Yet, the priestly perspective on the atonement is equally Trinitarian: “the affirmation of Christ as priest means that God the Son also reclaims us from our own sinfulness and guilt. . . . In this act, the Son accomplishes his own ‘properEwork as the triune person eternally destined to become incarnate. . . . As the incarnate one, he alone is able to enact and subsume past sacrificial practices in a new and transformative way. To be sure, this does not mean he is working alone, accomplishing this task apart from the Father and the Spirit. It is still the one undivided act of the triune God, based on the one unified divine will, and made available through the one unified divine will. In this regard, I reject any construal that suggests the Son’s will and work somehow counters and finally alters the Father’s will and intentions. Christ’s sacrifice does not ‘change the Father’s mind,Eas if the latter would vent his wrath on humanity were it not for the former’s intervention. Rather, Christ serves as the Father’s instrument, enacting in humanity through the Holy Spirit’s power the common mind, will, and purpose of the one GodE(pp. 210-11).

Trinitarian theology thus helps to address some of the criticisms that are brought against satisfaction theories: “If one understands the will and work of the Father as distinct from and in some sense imposed upon the Son, or the merely human Jesus, then concern for the fundamental injustice of the procedure is clearly warranted. . . . Yet part of the point of the doctrine of the Trinity has been to emphasize the divine equality of being between Father and Son, as well as their complete harmony of will and purpose. In such an understanding, coercion becomes impossible, because the conditions needed to enable it simply do not existE(p. 205). Thus he formulates the priestly perspective on the atonement as “in accord with the loving and righteous will of God the Father, God the Son freely takes on flesh by means of God the Spirit to become Christ the priest and sacrifice, to atone for human sin and restore creation to right relation with God and its own integrity. . . . He takes on human flesh to serve as humanity’s representative and priest, because it is humanity that stands in need of making sacrifice to GodE(p. 210).

As prophet, Jesus reveals God’s will and illumines our darkness and sets an example for us to follow. But He is never merely teacher or example. Theories of the atonement that stop with Jesus as moral instructor “do not recognize that in his prophetic office, he does not merely teach us that character of life for humanity that God the Father intends as our original and final telos. Nor does he merely exemplify that life. Rather, as God the Son acting in effect as the perichoretical agent of God the Holy Spirit, he also endows us with the power to realize that end. . . . Christ the Prophet, the Spirit’s living and life-giving Word, does not leave us to our own devices, but quite literally inspires and enthusiastically empowers us to enact what he proclaims.E

This is useful, and might even be developed diachronically. Very roughly (following Jim Jordan): Israel’s history begins in a Mosaic/priestly phase, where the human predicament is characterized by idolatry and the need is for vicarious satisfaction. With the Davidic covenant, Israel enters a royal phase, where the human predicament is enmity from brothers and others and the need is for deliverance. After the exile, Israel enters a prophetic phase of history, in which the predicament is displacement and the need is for prophetic empowerment and teaching. Jesus fulfills all of these in His own life and history, and the atonement combines all these. As the priest, Jesus satisfies the Father; as King, he delivers from the power of Sin and Death; as prophet, He proclaims the Father’s word and makes a new future. On this model, the atonement cannot possibly be limited to JesusEdeath, but stretches throughout his life. It might even be possible to see the gospel story as a sequence of priestly sin-bearing, royal death, resurrection and ascension, prophetic outpouring of the Spirit.

Yet, there are some problems with Sherman’s analysis. First, he employs traditional definitions for royal, priestly, and prophetic offices. (He discusses priesthood, eg, without any reference to the work of Milgrom, Wenham, Haran, Philip P. Jenson, or Richard Nelson.) His analysis needs to be rethought with the assumption that a priest is a household servant, a prophet a member of the divine council, and a king one who gives himself for the sake of his people. Second, the connections between Trinitarian persons and offices comes off as overly schematized.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, January 31, 2005 at 10:29 PM

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