The Atonement Has a Few Main Ingredients

The Atonement Has a Few Main Ingredients December 6, 2022

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Chinese parents are consumed with worry about their children’s grades.[1] By the time a child is two years old, parents have planned that child’s path to successfully passing the gaokao, the test that students take in their final year of high school. It is the single most significant factor determining whether students attend college. In a country with well over a billion people, competition is fierce. A Chinese idiom explains these parents’ anxiety. They are afraid their children, lacking the most rigorous education, will “lose at the starting line.”

Losing at the Starting Line

This expression aptly captures much of the debate that surrounds the doctrine of atonement. Countless books and articles start in the wrong place. They begin with certain atonement theories in mind. They look either to evaluate or reconcile those theories as they are typically presented. To the degree a person tries to harmonize different views, one effectively assumes the truth of those theories. We too quickly debate already-developed systems of doctrine. The problem, however, is that we then “lose at the starting line.”

Theories are necessary and useful. They simplify vast amounts of information. At the same time, theories often make ideas feel overly complex. They can obscure reality as much as clarify it. This is certainly true with respect to theories of atonement.

I don’t imply that traditional atonement theories are wrong and should be cast aside. Rather, it is possible to overemphasize certain parts of a theory and neglect other aspects. The virtues of a theory can blind us to its weaknesses. Taken as whole systems, atonement theories can seem irreconcilable. From the start, we limit the potential ways one might understand the Bible. We have three or four choices to pick from. In our minds, we tend to choose one outright. Or, at the very least, we rank them in some sort of order.

We are often ignorant of the role that context plays in shaping our theories of atonement. Our cultural context narrows the focus and scope of our theological questions. Because of our historical situation, we might ask too much of our theories. We expect them to provide answers not given in the biblical text. In defense of a long-held theory, we are prone to overemphasize certain parts of the Bible at the expense of others. We have a hard time separating Scripture from speculation.

What Are the Ingredients?

The law of Moses placed numerous dietary restrictions on ancient Israelites. Shrimp, pork, and various birds were forbidden. By and large, the early church did not follow these regulations. Christians today enjoy a more expansive menu.

When it comes to doctrine, however, we find an ironic reversal, especially with respect to atonement. Not only are many Christians content with a small menu of “atonement dishes,” they argue over which dish is most important or inspired by God. Historically, theologians offer a select group of atonement theories from which to choose. By contrast, the Bible never presents such systematic formulations. Biblical writers instead act as master chefs who offer a succulent buffet of truth even while using only a few basic ingredients.

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Envisage a society with only a few meal choices: fried chicken, pasta, scrambled eggs, chicken and dumplings. In this imaginary culture, factions arise that claim the superiority of one dish over another. Debates rage about the relative virtue of eggs over fried chicken. By analogy, these dishes are like the popular atonement theories we’ve inherited from history. They nourish us. We are thankful for them. But restricting ourselves to these few options looks increasingly unnecessary, even harmful, the more we look at the situation.

Someone familiar with cooking will notice an oversight on the part of our imagined society. Each food item above can be made with just a few ingredients. There is no reason that people must restrict themselves to those specific dishes. With only flour, chicken, eggs, milk, and potatoes, we have an array of culinary options. For example, one could also make chicken soup, waffles, breakfast skillets, potato soup, grilled chicken, and a basic omelet.

In this analogy, the ingredients represent a small set of biblical metaphors that can be rearranged to form numerous doctrinal theories. Nevertheless, we tend to start with a limited set of atonement theories and overlook the more fundamental elements that are common to each theory. When discussing the Bible’s teaching on atonement, we “lose at the starting line.”

The Bible provides a collection of theological ingredients, but we often don’t start here. Instead, we settle for a narrow set of doctrinal dishes. Although nourishing, they do not represent the biblical medley available to us.

A “Taco Bell Approach”

To put it another way, we need something like a “Taco Bell approach” to the doctrine of atonement. This popular, Tex-Mex inspired, fast-food restaurant urges people to “think outside the bun” and serves an impressive variety of dishes. The vast menu has tacos, nachos, burritos, and quesadillas, yet also includes original creations like the Naked Chicken Chalupa. Why do I say “impressive”? When you look at its menu, Taco Bell uses a relatively small set of ingredients and, still, it always boasts an assortment of options for customers.

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With respect to doctrine, we need to think outside the box of convenient categories. By delving deep into the Bible, we find a handful of motifs that combine to form a richer, more robust theology of atonement.

Our context largely influences how we combine biblical themes and texts. Church tradition, personal experiences, education, and culture shape our questions and assumptions. They affect what we see and what we don’t. In church history, particular theories of atonement arose to explain Christ’s death in fresh ways. Such formulations are helpful, but they are not our starting point.

Merely comparing atonement theories is a recipe for failure. We need to look back at both history and the Bible in order to savor the fullness of Christ’s atoning work.


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[1] The post is an adapted excerpt from chapter one of The Cross in Context (IVP, 2022).

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