Trinity and Atonement

Trinity and Atonement July 31, 2014

Adam Johnson’s God’s Being in Reconciliation examines the work of Karl Barth in order to show how “Barth’s understanding of God’s triune being-in-act . . . provides the proper theological framework for developing the doctrine of the atonement” (10). Johnson argues that earlier studies of the Trinitarian framework for atonement theology are inadequate, and he finds a rationale for the sheer diversity of atonement “theories” in Trinitarian theology.

He draws on Barth, for instance, to show that the atonement requires God to be both one and more than one. If God is not one, if He is not, in Barth’s terms, “one and only Willer and Doer” (67), then the work of Christ does not reconcile. It must be the work of God to be efficacious. As Johnson puts it, “the unity or oneness of God allows for the events in the life and death of the incarnate Son of God to be events in the life of the one God himself and therefore efficacious for our salvation.” The fact that God is one means that “the life and death of Jesus Christ can be genuinely revelatory of the being of God, for it is not the work of a god or part of God, but of the one God in his (triune) fullness” (68-69).

On the other hand, the cross requires as an act of God assumes that, in Barth’s terms, God exists eternally as other to Himself, in three “modes of being.” Johnson explains that for Barth, “God can manifest his wrath against humankind in the fullness of its reality while at the same time reconciling us to himself because God exists alongside himself in the person of his Son. . . . Only by God remaining God in the mode of being of the Father can he pour out his wrath upon the incarnate Son; only by his being God in the mode of the Spirit, who is the love between the Father and the Son, can God maintain his unity in this event; and only by becoming incarnate in the  mode of the Son can God bring the sinful human nature into his own life so as to do away with it once and for all” (74). The “separation” of the Son from in the cry of dereliction assumes an antecedent distance within the Trinity: Barth argues that “It is the separation or distance within the ‘otherness’ of the triune being which forms the antecedent basis in the one God for the reconciliing Gottesferne experienced by Jesus” (76).

In a more constructive vein, Johnson lays out a temple theory of atonement, which moves from the Word’s tabernacling among us, to the cross as divine abandonment of the temple, to the rebuilt temple of the resurrection. As Johnson suggests, one of the benefits of this model is “the manner in which the doctrine of the atonement naturally blossoms out into ecclesiology.” One might get the impression from other models that God is interested only in individuals, “a ‘temple’ theory of the atonement exudes the corporate nature of God’s covenantal purposes from start to finish,” in part because of the prominence it gives to pneumatology, the Spirit’s indwelling of Christ and His people (193-4).

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