Beyond Atonement Theories

Beyond Atonement Theories May 4, 2012

In the last decade or so atonement theories grabbed the center of theological discussion. Which theory was best? Penal substitution, the essence of the atonement for much of conservative Protestants and evangelicalism, was asked to sit down a while so that other theories could be given attention, including the classic Christus Victor theory so well sketched by Gustav Aulen. And then along came Abelard’s moral theory and Grotius’ (and Finney’s) governmental theory, and Rene Girard got folks into scapegoat theory — well, this led to much discussion. I have myself weighed in on this one in both Jesus and His Death and in A Community called Atonement.

Excepting both Abelard and Girard, this entire discussion is driven by soteriology and by “mechanics.” That is, atonement theories ask how God acts when atonement, or salvation, is accomplished.

Tom Wright thinks there’s another way on the whole atonement theory discussion, and I think it is fair to say that Tom’s chapter, “Kingdom and Cross,” in his new book How God Became King, will be the launching pad for both Tom and for many to retool how atonement theories are discussed.

Put differently, when Story becomes the driving force, when gospel emerges only from that central Story, how do we now describe atonement? Is it just a soterian gospel that needs the classic atonement theories? Does the soterian gospel demand a mechanical (and limited and de-Story-fied) atonement theory? Are there other ways?

Well, Tom says Yes. I take this chp by Wright to be a sketch, and may well entail yet another book by Tom to flesh this out in ways more complete. But right now it looks like this:

1. Instead of talking so much about how (mechanics) Wright sees the cross (and atonement) as the very core of the kingdom, and the kingdom makes no sense without the cross. These terms mutually interpret one another. This is huge — no more needs to be said.

2. But cross is not just atonement theory and mechanics. It’s bigger than that. From the baptism of Jesus to the titulus on the cross of Jesus, kingdom and cross are intertwined as the way God becomes king. Sin is forgiven, evil is defeated, kingdom comes. This chp sketches Baptism and Titulus; it also sketches Messiah confession as well as the trials of Jesus; there’s lots of emphasis on John’s Gospel but other places too. What Tom is doing is showing the interconnections of cross and kingdom.

3. What this means is that kingdom and cross are political and spiritual and social and religious all at once. Justice — justification too — are established through God becoming king through the cross (and resurrection).

4. Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus is the Son of God, both of which mean King, and the King is so by virtue not of power and might but by cross and resurrection (and of course incarnation).

5. Jesus is the new Temple, God with us, and God defines himself through the face of Jesus who is the new Temple, and he is the means by which God redeems and establishes kingdom — through the cross and resurrection and ascension.

6. God becomes king in and through Jesus’ person and work; kingdom is redefined by cross; this is God’s love; and the kingdom is for this world (not away from it or out of it but for it). This means kingdom redemption is for this world; substitutionary atonement then is defined through this Story — from Isa 40–55 — because Jesus is Israel’s representative and substitute and this work of Jesus through the cross is about disestablishing evil and establishing what is right before God.

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  • joey

    For some time I’ve thought of atonement not as an isolated moment – not as an isolated moment in the life/death/resurrection of Jesus nor in the life of a believer – but as a narrative. On the flip side, if we were to see and speak of Sin as a narrative as well, rather than isolated acts of evil by an individual, this would be complimentary to a narrative view of atonement.

  • Scot:

    Your book, A Community Called Atonement, was a big one for me (I read it back when it was first released). And Wright’s explanation in Jesus and the Victory of God was another valuable addition to my understanding. I’ve also read and re-read parts of your book, Jesus and His Death, pondering the Passover connection more and more.

    In September, I will be releasing Yeshua Our Atonement, bringing together what Leviticus says about atonement (via Jacob Milgrom’s commentary) and insight from A Community Called Atonement and other sources. I believe it will be the first time anyone has proposed some of the correlations between Leviticus (as Milgrom and Judaism understand it) and the death of Messiah.

  • davey

    On my reading of Tom Wright, he subscribes to the classic punitive substitution atonement theory, but he doesn’t stress it, instead preferentially developing other aspects of his grand narrative (story gospel) that he feels are a neglected part of the explanation of things, going so far as to state atonement cannot be understood without them (his exposition of which I find unconvincing).

    But, whereas he accepts Paul’s retelling (substantial changing) of the Old Testament story (for example, the land promised to the Jews is expanded to being the whole world promised to Israel, which includes the Gentiles), Wright remains within Old Testament categories (we actually inherit the cosmos).

    I would think ‘King’ Jesus is now a poor way of presenting Christ. We don’t need or want any kings any more. God is in charge, as he always was even in the Old Testament (before and after the Jews wrongly acquired a king).

  • Rick


    “God is in charge, as he always was even in the Old Testament (before and after the Jews wrongly acquired a king).”

    I have the same thought.

  • scotmcknight

    Davey and Rick,
    If Jesus is King… which is what the NT clearly teaches after all…
    1. Then God as king is as Tom argues: God becomes king through Jesus and the cross and resurrection. So God as king is saying Jesus is king.
    2. “now a poor way…”: not sure why that matters; counterculture isn’t what makes us reshape the gospel; but it is fascinating to me how many do resonate with Jesus as king.

  • CGC

    Hi Davey,
    One of thngs I love about Wright is he can’t be pegged down by certain traditions from the right or the left. Wright downsizes the substitute atonement theory and he’s written off by those on one side who don’t understand his views. If Wright holds onto some aspect of the substitute atonement theory then he’s written off from those on the other side.

    I find Wright convincing but despite that, I just wish people when they critique anyone, Wright or whoever would at least show why for example Wright is wrong or what he’s missing. I find it unconvincing when people just say they find someone else’s reading of Scripture unconvincing. If you want to convince anyone else of what you’re reading of Scripture is, I would think one would have to at least give a few reasons and arguments for it, don’t you?

    And since King imagery is so strong throughout Scripture, I think the answer is to contextualize it or present it in ways that modern people can grasp and understand it rather than throwing the term out. If we start throwing out all the imagery of what people don’t want anymore, we will have to throw a lot of scriptures and scriptural vocabulary out.

  • Darrell

    Sounds similar to ‘Trinity and the Kingdom of God’ by Moltmann, meaning, as summarized this is not very new. Good stuff of course, but not new territory. And I’m not convinced atonent debates are about ‘mexhanics’ as mush as about the essence of God, which is love (cross at the heart of the Trinity) verses something like sovereignty of a theistic transcendent conception of God. Thus the debate is not about mechanics, but rather propitiation verses expiation. Tom seems to argue for a classic expiation if this smart is accurate.

  • Davey and Rick:

    You said “The Jews wrongly acquired a king.”

    Not accurate. “Israel acquired a king with wrong motives and wrong understanding of Divine Kingship.” Evidence: Deut 17:14 and following; 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2; numerous passages in which human kingship in relation to divine kingship is an arc leading to Messiah. AND … “the kingdom of God is at hand,” said Jesus.

  • Davey:

    You also said Paul’s retelling of the Israel story was a “substantial changing.” I don’t agree. The “nations” (gentiles, goyim) theme was there from the beginning and throughout. Paul brought out a neglected theme in Torah and prophets rather than offer a revisionist theology of Israel and the nations. Note, for example, how James cites Amos 9:12 in Acts 15 and sees it was there all along.

  • T


    Not to pile on, but I was having the thought just the other day, which I have every election cycle, of how amazing it is how much money people give to presidential candidates every 4 years. And it’s not just the money, because truly the heart follows. The excitement and hope about one’s candidate and what he/she will do to make the world better, the man-hours, the vitriol directed at rivals–it doesn’t matter how many times they disappoint, we set new records every election for how much we give “our” candidates. Over the coming weeks and months we will be bombarded with the gospels of candidate Romney and of President Obama. The blessings of their respective kingdoms (and the banes of their rival’s) will be shouted from the rooftops. “Follow me” will be their call. Their kingdom, which will be more just, more prosperous, more safe, is at hand. Repent and believe in me!

    Now, whether and to what degree we buy that crap from pols anymore isn’t really the point. The point is that tons of us repeatedly show with our pocketbooks that the narrative has tremendous pull on us–it seems we’re eternal suckers for it. And all of us do want some degree or version of what they promise, election after election. But the gospels tell us the agenda of God’s government and its leader. Jesus tells us about his kingdom and its promises, justice, etc., and his call is “Follow me.” The tragedy and point of the OT story isn’t that they “acquired” a king, but that they rejected God as king over them. And yes, God is king, but surely there is also substance and present reality of the kingdom of darkness. There is a reason that we still pray for God’s kingdom to come, and still invite people to follow Christ. Many remain blinded by and harmfully loyal to anti-Christs. “Their god is their stomach” means something and it bears fruit–or perhaps thorns–in our world.

    In any event, I don’t think presenting Jesus as king (or “Lord”) is a weak way to do it; we just often are so conditioned to thinking about him in contemporary religious ways rather than the way the gospel writers did. “Jesus is son-of-God/Messiah/Lord/Christ/rightful-King-of-all” is the thesis of each gospel.

  • Jon G

    T –
    Re: treating presidential candidates as kings (or saviors).
    Well said! I’ve been thinking the same thing! And what happened to Israel when they did that?…

  • Rick

    Scot and Derek-

    Is not “king” an earthly title for an already eternal reality? Was not God “leader” (king) the whole time?

    I appreciate Wright, and the re-emphasis on “king”. However, is he trying to fit everything into that title? What about Jesus as the ultimate priest, prophet, brother, and God? King is an important element of the NT, but there is more than just that.

    I wonder if Wright’s own background, growing up and living in a nation with a monarchy, in which the church is submissive to (at least in a symbolic way these days), has influenced how he reads the NT, and how he sees the prominence of “King”.

  • T


    Yes, Jesus is also brother, prophet, priest, etc. But if we consider that “Christ” is a/the title for the messianic king anointed by God, do you see the relative import of Jesus as king in the NT? Every time Paul, for instance, uses the term “Christ” he has this anointed-by-God-as-messianic-king” in his head. The fact is that the jewish meaning of this title has become further and further removed from this world in its association, but our usage is very different from Paul’s.

    But the relative import of Jesus as king gets even more pronounced if we consider what Jesus’ message was centered upon: the reign of God (through himself). There is more besides, but I hope that alone begin to give the significance.

  • Rick


    But Messiah can mean more than king. Messiah also incorporated the priestly role. He fufilled the king/royal role, and the priestly role. Both are represented in that title. Agree?

  • T

    Of course, there is more there than king alone, but king is the centerpiece of the term. The Messiah is the son of David (even though he is David’s lord). Again, if we look at how often the NT refers to Jesus as “Lord” Jesus, or a host of other references, we will see kingly titles and references as central, even as others are present and significant. He was crucified under the charge “King of the Jews” which well captured the reality.

  • DRT

    T and Rick, I was leading a bible study for about a year where I emphasized the that Christ and Messiah were king. All of the people in this study were multi-year Christians, and to varying degrees they objected to my assertion. In the end most simply said that they like their own definition of Christ and not mine, and don’t want to think of it that way.

    My skeptical and judgmental mind concluded that they wanted to worship in private but not give their lives. Their skeptical and judgmental mind concluded that I did not want the full weight of Jesus as god on me.

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    Thanks, Scot, for this sketch of Wright’s view. I am much in agreement with Wright. And readers of this blog will find a similar “revisioning” approach to atonement theology–in which the key insight is that the cross of Christ is the definitive revelation of the kingdom of God, a revelation that reconfigures our understanding of justice and peace–in my new book: Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012).

  • Dana Ames

    Wright really doesn’t talk about “penal” – he will definitely talk “substitution”, but that is found as part of the larger picture. His writings in the Christian Origins series at once open up “atonement” as something larger, and at the same time narrow it down to something that looks a whole lot like Christus Victor alone. But he’s not trying to pin down any sort of mechanism; that’s not what you do with Story.

    Scot – and all,
    You’re going to get tired of me saying this – if you haven’t already, and you graciously still allow me to hang around… Your 6-point sketch is what I found in EOrthodox theology. You know I was voraciously reading Wright in the early 2000s (still do), and it was from moving into and finding myself **inside the story** as he sketches it that I encountered EO. Before that point, what I knew about Orthodoxy made very little sense. After having been steeped in Wright, I saw Orthodox theology as a “natural outgrowth” of what Wright posits as the C1 generalized Jewish worldview; I found an astonishing amount of overlap. It came out of left field and slapped me upside the head. Orthodoxy is not legalistic or mechanistic; “atonement” is not so much the dominant idea, but rather, yes, God as King through the cross and resurrection of Christ, in and through which is simply found our life, individual and corporate.

    This is so deep and meaningful for me that I hardly have words to try to describe it.

    In EO, “atonement” is not about what is done to change God’s mind about us so that he can finally accept us. No – God has been working all along, because he is good and loves mankind and is not required to punish anyone, and that never changes. God displays his forgiveness and love precisely in the humility of hanging on the cross and identifying with us **all the way down to death**. Sin is exhausted on the cross precisely because God **does not** give back as good as he gets there. In the resurrection, death is defeated and our slavery to fear of it is broken. We really don’t talk about atonement much; in general, we talk about what it means to be truly alive in Christ – and that takes in all of the 6 points and their ramifications. The fact that most of us live into that so poorly is about a lack understanding of what it all really means and a lack of trust in God’s love. The magnificence of it has been hard to cope with from the beginning…

    Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!


  • Luke Allison


    I’m always very intrigued by the EO view of atonement (I feel it carries a lot of historical weight, especially in light of scholarship from Margaret Barker and Christian Eberhart).

    Here’s my question though….the whole notion of God needing to “vindicate” his justice isn’t something we brought to the text completely…it’s taken from Romans 3:21-26. Granted, the word translated “propitiation” or “expiation” or “atoning sacrifice” is a much-debated and somewhat enigmatic one. But the notion of God’s righteousness and justice being in question because of his “passing over” wickedness is really what fuels the whole “God had to punish someone” theory.

    I don’t agree with that particular theory, but I don’t get the sense that the EO version of atonement has as much obvious Scriptural groundwork. Is that so? Please educate me further…this is a subject I know very little about.

  • davey

    We should not study the culture of the people of the Bible so that we can adopt it. Why not also adopt their cosmology? The NT doesn’t clearly teach that Jesus is King, for us.

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    I look forward to seeing your book on atonement (and reading Scot’s A Community Called Atonement, which I’ve not yet read). As it happens, my recent book — Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012) — does already address the significance of atonement from the perspective of Leviticus (as informed by Milgrom’s commentary) for understanding how Hebrews depicts Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice (cf. pp. 171-191). It’s only a sketch–it looks like your book will do even more with that, which is a welcome contribution.

    I concur with your take on Wright–he’s not for PENAL substitution but does maintain a substitutionary view of Jesus’ death. The same is the case in my book — Atonement, Justice, and Peace (Eerdmans 2012) — which, it might interest you, is substantially informed by the EO tradition’s understanding of atonement as “saving companionship” (a la Kallistos Ware) or, as I call it, redemptive solidarity.

  • DRT

    Wait, I need to look it up, but Wright does declare that penal substitutionary atonement is real. Perhaps I am misrepresenting something, but in his Justification book I thought he indeed did endorse penal substitutionary atonement. And for that matter, does he not defend it in JVG?

    Frankly I remember much more clearly the quotes that Piper made in his rebuttal to Wright’s justification and not the actual text in Wright’s justification, but I believe Piper indeed quoted Wright saying that he wrote one of the most lengthy supports for it….

  • DRT

    Having said that, I get the impression though that Piper’s and Wright’s specific definition of that phrase is quite different. Piper pretty much believes that god is the cause of the penal part, whereas Wright views that god allowed Jesus to be punished in substitution for us, but not that god was the punisher of Jesus.

  • DRT

    Dang, I have lent out all of those books…..that’s a recurring theme for me…

  • Richard

    @ Davey

    “The NT doesn’t clearly teach that Jesus is King, for us”

    Would do you make the assertion that “king” is contextual but “priest” is not? If so, why and how do you make that distinction?

  • DRT

    Being as it is Friday after 5, I can digress a bit.

    I have been thinking about he Piper and Wright view, and my own view, of Penal Substritutionary atonement quite a bit and have decided that I believe it is a good view of the atonement, but my definition is probably quite different from Piper’s.

    I am viewing that god indeed did allow Jesus to come among us knowing full well that we will kill him. There is also little doubt that this is a punishment that we inflicted on Jesus. We did the best we could to put him down, but it did not work.

    And, Jesus is clearly the representative man. The new Adam, the faithful Jew and example of what his people now stand for. He is the substitute, or representative of us. The idealized us.

    So there is little doubt that the words Penal Substitution are appropriate, but it was not god that was doing the punishing. Except if you are reformed. In the reformed tradition god had to be because he predestines all. But if Arminian, then god simply knew that we would do it of our own free will.

  • DRT

    davey, you are precisely illustrating the problem with the current soterian approach to the gospel. The whole point of the Story is that Israel’s King will be king of the world. That is the point.

  • Dana Ames

    Davey, of course we don’t need to adopt the culture of scripture. But culture is an expression of how a people thinks and what they value, and also, in this case, what they are expecting. But what Wright discusses, esp in “The New Testament and The People of God” is much bigger than simply “culture”, and he explains there what he means by “worldview”.

    DRT, Wright really tries hard to avoid that word. Don’t read him “through” Piper, please.

    Darrin, sounds interesting. I’ll look into it.

    Luke, this is precisely why I wish I knew Greek… Even before I read Wright, I was reading the “pist-” words as “trust”. Since Wright, I have been reading the “dik-” words as “faithfulness (to the way God wanted humans to be in the first place, first and foremost in relationship to Him)” from humans’ side and “faithfulness (to seeing the project of his love through)” from God’s side. (I realize Wright stresses covenant language, and I understand that; it’s just that it still has a lot of legal-sounding echoes to me.) I find that doing this makes things much more consistent within scripture, and falls pretty close to my understanding of how the Greek fathers (Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Athanasius) in general interpreted the meaning of Christ’s work.

    And anyhow, though scriptural quotes and allusions are all throughout the fathers’ works, they don’t “proof-text”, and they don’t do exegesis the way we have done since the Reformation and with the values of the Enlightenment. As you know from reading Wright, that Romans passage is talking about things in the context of what it had meant to be a faithful Jew/member of the People of God. Orthodoxy picks up on this in its expressions all throughout Lent that Christ has “called back Adam” – humanity – not to a perfect Eden, but to a relationship of trust and participation in life.

    Generally, the Orthodox view is that God doesn’t have anything to prove, doesn’t need PR, is not bound by anything to any particular action – but condescends in his love to rescue humanity. Giving himself up to death without retaliation is the demonstration and meaning of his righteousness and justice and kenosis… and glory. That’s how wickedness is dealt with. It’s not “passed over” or ignored – it’s absorbed, it’s made a public spectacle, its greatest threat is defeated – Hebrews 2.14-15. If you really want to know the biblical groundwork of “Orthodox atonement theology” you’d really have to be at O. Forgiveness Vespers and the services of the first week in Lent, and then from Lazarus Saturday (day before Palm Sunday) right through the Paschal vespers, and then the vigils of Ascension and Pentecost. You’d hear so much bible – and O. interpretation – that it would make your head swim. The services, particularly the vigils and the Liturgy, are where the theology is. And there is very much a narrative in all that.

    I’m impressed that you know Barker! I’ll have to investigate Eberhart. I’d suggest anything by Fr. John Behr; my book group is reading his “The Mystery of Christ: Life from Death” right now, and I would certainly recommend that to you.


  • T

    Oh Davey! — “The NT doesn’t clearly teach that Jesus is King, for us.” Richard makes a great point. And his question goes much farther than the priest issue alone. But goodness, Davey, the NT doesn’t teach that Jesus is King–for us? I honestly don’t know where to begin if that’s your view of the NT or of Jesus–that’s likely too large a chasm to fill with blog comments. I realize that the NT wasn’t written directly to us. But given that, I know of nothing it is attempting to teach more thoroughly than Jesus is Lord of all and for all time. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. He is Lord of the Jews and the Gentiles alike.

    Best to you.

  • Rick


    I agree with much of what you said. Those other titles do not fall under “King”, but are in addition to it. My concern is that Wright is seemingly (I have not read the book, so could be wrong) trying to fit everything under “King”. The roles, fulfillments, are bigger than just that one title.

    Also, “King of the Jews” was more of a political statement in light of the Roman actions, rather than an overarching title for Jesus.

  • The other Dana

    Quotes from NT Wright’s “Evil and the Justice of God”:

    “Having said that, I find myself compelled toward one of the well-known theories of atonement, of how God deals with evil through the death of Jesus, not as a replacement for the events or the stories nor as a single theory to trump all others, but as a theme which carries me further than the others toward the heart of it all. I refer to the Christus Victor theme, the belief that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil. Once that is in place, the other theories come in to play their respective parts.” (94-95)

    “As I said there [in a previous chapter], I am inclined to see the theme of Christus Victor, the victory of Jesus Christ over all the powers of evil and darkness, as the central theme in atonement theology, around which all the other varied meanings of the cross find their particular niche.” (114)

  • T


    I’ve not read this book of Wright’s either, though I’ve read quite a bit from him. And I agree with you that however central “King” is, there are other roles and functions that matter greatly, but I’ve always heard Wright saying that much is going on “all at once” and I agree with that.

    On the “King of the Jews,” if you read straight through Mark’s gospel, I think you’ll see that Mark uses “King of the Jews” along with several other monikers, including the theopolitical “son of God,” in climactic fashion towards his central thesis, that Jesus is the Messiah.

  • Rick


    I actually have been reading through Mark as part of my daily readings, and just happened to get to those sections yesterday and today (God has a sense of humor). There is no doubt that King is a huge theme, and needs to be re-emphasized.

    I think the Priest element/fulfillment was appreciated later, so perhaps not as emphasized during those events.

  • davey

    Richard: Jesus is neither king nor priest etc for us.

    T: Nor Lord. And I don’t see people bowing knees or indulging in all sorts of other out-dated rituals. Wright seems to be looking forward to taking part in eternal Anglican services in the New Creation – well I suppose people will find different things interesting to them to spend their endless time on! I’ll go for other things! Maybe I’ll be able to get a few chess games in with Jesus, sing a few folk songs with him, watch some good films alongside him, play a game of cricket with him and some others on his side or opposing him, study some mathematics or philosophy alongside him, do a bit of space and time travel with him etc. Or all those things with other people available, when Jesus is off somewhere else.

    Derek Leman: “Davey and Rick: You said “The Jews wrongly acquired a king.” Not accurate. “Israel acquired a king with wrong motives and wrong understanding of Divine Kingship.” Evidence: Deut 17:14 and following; 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2; numerous passages in which human kingship in relation to divine kingship is an arc leading to Messiah. AND … “the kingdom of God is at hand,” said Jesus.
    You also said Paul’s retelling of the Israel story was a “substantial changing.” I don’t agree. The “nations” (gentiles, goyim) theme was there from the beginning and throughout. Paul brought out a neglected theme in Torah and prophets rather than offer a revisionist theology of Israel and the nations. Note, for example, how James cites Amos 9:12 in Acts 15 and sees it was there all along.”

    The Jews were told they could do many things God didn’t approve of.
    Paul had no idea there was anything else that the world consisted of than the usual Hebrew idea, he didn’t even have any developed notions about further things his imagination could chew over. We have wider ideas than that. So, the new creation can be thought about by us in wider terms than Wright seems to countenance. Though what things shall be is a crazy thing to try to imagine!

  • Luke Allison


    Fascinating and helpful. Thank you! I’ll definitely check out Behr.

    Thank God for the NPP, otherwise Romans almost has to be read through the lens of guilt/innocence rather than covenant/consummation. “God’s sense of justice was in question, so he needed to punish somebody in order to show how he could be both “just and the justifier of unjust men.” That’s always a point of serious contention for many young people reading Romans for the first time.

  • “. . . and may well entail yet another book by Tom to flesh this out in ways more complete.”

    Do you think that Wright has it in him to write another book? :o)