Atonement theology has drawn heavily from Paul, also from the Passion narratives. In drawing on the Passion narratives, atonement theology often makes an allegorical transition from the specifics of the narrative to a more general narrative setting of “all humanity,” even a cosmic setting.
Thus, when Jesus says He lays down His life for His friends, His friends become the elect, or the church. But in the gospel, Jesus calls the disciples his friends. Within the narrative, Jesus quite literally takes the place of His friends by standing between the soldiers and the disciples in the garden. Jesus alone is taken; the disciples flee. He goes to the cross; they don’t. Quite literally, concretely, Jesus gives His life for His friends.
Calvin provides another illustration of this maneuver. In his study of Calvin’s theology of atonement, Christ in Our Place, Paul van Buren notes that Calvin explains the sinless Christ’s place-taking as sinner in his “exegesis of the trial and condemnation before Pilate. The very fact of this trial and condemnation shows us that Christ was sustaining the character of a criminal.” This is Christ’s vocation as Mediator, and “this condemnation is the ‘condition’ on which Christ ‘undertook the office’ to which he was called.” In this we have great assurance, because we see that “‘Christ was subjected to the condemnation that we had deserved and was reckoned among the transgressors, that we, who are transgressors and loaded with crimes, might be presented by Him to the Father as righteous. For we are accounted pure and free from sins before God, because the Lamb, who was pure and free from every stand, has taken our place’” (45). It was important that Jesus’ condemnation came from “a competent authority,” presumably Pilate (45).
At the same time, Christ is declared innocent by the same court: “Thus,” Calvin writes, “we shall behold Christ displaying the character of a sinner and malefactor, while from the lustre of his innocence it will appear at the same time that He was loaded with the guilt of others rather than His own.” In this way, “God wished to testify . . . to the innocence of His Son, that it might be more evident that in Him our sins were condemned” (46-7).
Van Buren is compiling several passages from different commentaries here, from Calvin’s discussion of Matthew 27 and Luke 22-23 and John 19. As it stands, Calvin’s argument makes a move from Christ’s standing as a condemned criminal before Pilate, before the Empire, to His condemnation for us. But we didn’t deserve condemnation as transgressors of Roman law. Calvin has shifted and expanded the context; Pilate’s court becomes the court of the Father, and the condemnation Pilate imposes stands for God’s condemnation of sinners.
Allegorization of the Passion narratives isn’t a mistake. Paul does it, at least when he writes about our participation in the cross of Jesus. But one wonders if the allegory hasn’t moved too hastily from the literal to spiritual senses. Shouldn’t we stop for a few moments to contemplate the fact that Jesus is condemned in a Roman court by a Roman governor before transposing the whole scene to the divine courtroom? We can certainly say, If I deny Jesus, He will meet me with breakfast beside the sea. And, If I flee, He will welcome me when I slink back. I can put myself in the place of the disciples. But before I do, I should inquire how the denial of Peter and the abandonment of the disciples is integral to the once-for-all event of the cross. Because it must be: This is part of what it was “necessary” (dei) for the Christ to suffer.
The assumption behind the overly rapid allegorical move may be that the gospels don’t offer us theology but only a factual account of the events of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. To get the meaning of the narrative, we have to go meta-narratival, we have to go to Paul. We should rather assume that the gospels are what they are called – gospels, which means that they are theologically-weighted tellings of the story of Jesus. The good news is the gospel narrative, not a second narrative running slightly above the events of that history.