Ash Wednesday: Atonement Round-Up

Ash Wednesday: Atonement Round-Up February 25, 2009

As we enter the season of Lent, here are some resources to get you thinking about alternatives to the penal substitutionary theory (yes, friends, it’s a theory!) of the atonement.

At Zoecarnate, Mike Morrell proposes that we look beyond liberal and conservative ideas of the atonement, then he proposes a revisioning of the entire issue.

Last year, Emergent Village sponsored a contest looking for new, preachable metaphors for the atonement.  I talked to Mark Baker about the contest on the EV podcast.  And last Good Friday, we announced the winners.

Finally, Mark has some great resources on his seminary website, as well as two books on the topic.

"Have you considered professional online editing services like ?"

The Writing Life
"I'm not missing out on anything - it's rather condescending for you to assume that ..."

Is It Time for Christians to ..."
"I really don't understand what you want to say.Your"

Would John Piper Excommunicate His Son?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Herb

    But then the theory of gravity is also just a theory…

  • Jim

    Maybe model is a better word?

  • Tim

    Criteria for judging an atonement theory/model… does it produce…
    Followers who are loving
    Followers who practice sacrificial redemptive suffering
    Followers who forgive because others don’t know what they’re doing
    Followers who are downwardly mobile (kenosis), counting their status in life as nothing to be grasped, but giving themselves away
    Followers who absorb violence rather than inflict violence
    Followers who exhaust hate rather than reproduce hate
    Followers who defeat lies by embodying the truth, even when it’s costly
    Followers who spread grace, gifting the people they meet with goodness, especially when they don’t deserve it
    What does it matter if you gain all the trophies of biblical, doctrinal correctness, yet lose your life?
    Duhsciple Tim

  • Scott M

    I read Narnia growing up. My exposure to Christianity was pretty broad, but not very deep, certainly not as deep as that of some other spiritualities. For years, I assumed the universal understanding of Christianity was essentially ransom as captured in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Silly me. (Brian, we have a lot of material from Origen, but we also have plenty outside of Origen developing this theory. And the fuller form sees humanity enslaved to death and the ransom of Jesus’ death freeing us from that bondage. It’s also scriptural.)
    As I converted to Christianity as an adult (with an interest in history), I found the vision of the atonement that best captured the vision I had seen of what it means to be a human being and who God is in the theory that is actually the oldest in Christianity and which did not make Brian’s list. That’s the theory of recapitulation first outlined by Irenaeus, though tremendously fleshed out by Athanasius. Penal substitution is a real latecomer in the atonement theory department and has always felt somewhat ‘icky’ to me. I’ve come to understand a lot of the reasons that’s true and the host of problems with the things penal substitution say about both man and God, but that word pretty much describes my reaction once I came to understand what people were really saying.

  • Ethan
  • I sympathetic to the desire to want to talk about these differing perspectives on the atonement as models rather than theories, precisely for the muddiness of the term theory, as evidenced by the first comment. No, in fact, the theory of gravity and the theory of atonement are not of the same type. A theory in the realm of natural science means something different than the word theory when employed in theology.
    What if we talked about these different models/theories as refractions, as in a prism? When the whole of Christ’s life, death and resurrection is explored from different angles as regards the atonement, there are differing refractions such that we are given different insights into just what God was up to when God was reconciling the world to Godself in Jesus Christ. Then, none of these theories/models are complete in and of themselves, but depending upon the context (perspective) they refract something good, true, and beautiful about Christ’s atonement as God for us.

  • Tony Arens

    Actually, it’s not a theory – it’s clearly explained in several NT passages, prophetically predicted in the OT, and aligns with the character of The Lord, God Almighty. Your philosophy is once again leading you astray.

  • Scott M

    Tony Arens, sooooo … an idea which is ‘clearly explained’ took more than 1500 years for people to come up with? Penal substitution has ‘several NT passages’. I would argue that recapitulation has the entire narrative of scripture behind it.

  • Scott M

    Erik Leafblad, I’ve been mulling your comment for some time now, particularly the idea that every theory refracts something good or true. Now, prior to becoming ‘Christian’, I was probably about as close to a hardcore relativist as most people ever meet. And unlike some, I had actually explored many different forms of spirituality and religion. I would have, in general, said that most forms of spirituality have value and provide some insight or revelation about reality. (As far as that goes, I’m probably still not willing to say that no religion besides Christianity holds any truth, beauty, or value, though I would confess that the fullness of God is made known in Jesus of Nazareth.)
    However, even for me, that was a general statement. Even then, there were religions I considered actively harmful and to be avoided. By and large, any religion, past or present that incorporated or required human sacrifice I considered out of bounds. Any religion which incorporated the abuse of children in any way as a practice I did not consider to have value. I would consider those religions that should be ended if at all possible. More specifically, there are variations of ancestor worship in Africa (as opposed to some of the far eastern forms) which do nothing to help the adherents and which are deeply oppressive to entire communities. And there are the segments within a religion in which people actively worship a ‘god’ of pure evil if such a being exists within the religion. There is something disturbed and disturbing about choosing to worship evil within your framework. I tended to think such people needed psychiatric intervention and help. This is the category in which I placed, for instance, Christian Satanists.
    I still tend toward generosity as a Christian, so I’m inclined to embrace your statement. But I hesitated. Examining it, I realized the same sort of nuanced internal reaction I outlined above was at work. As a general principle, it’s fine. There is truth and beauty in many of the theories of the atonement. I’m not deeply familiar with all the different theories out there, but I have explored many of them. And I find at least some truth in most of them.
    However, I find there are two such theories I hesitate to include in that statement. The reason I hesitate is because it seems that both of them share two fundamental problems. They both ascribe a problem to God. And then proceed to resolve that problem, in essence, by setting members of the Trinity in a sort of opposition to each other for the purposes of that resolution. I think both of those problems together dangerously undermine the ground of Christianity. They certainly undercut much about God that drew me into the faith.
    Those two theories are satisfaction and penal substitution. I understand the environment in which both arose — the former in a setting of the feudal lord and the latter within the context of an enlightenment view of natural law. However, I think their flaws are fatal. Their distortion of the Christian view of the Triune God has tended to work itself out in some pretty ugly ways. Therefore I’m really hesitant to include either as theories that add to our perception of the truth and beauty and goodness of Christ’s atonement. They seem to me, on balance, to be harmful theories.

  • Your Name

    Scott M – too much philosophy! Your luke warm… “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” I’m not trying to be a smart alec here – you guys are so tied up in the “conversation”, that the most pure and beautiful, and most life-giving message of Christ-crucified is tarnished through your deconstructing and reimagining, and reinventing… it’s really sad actually! I really mean it, I’m not putting you down… guess I need to stop reading all of these half-baked theories… it just ends up driving me nuts. Apologies if I sould like a jerk…

  • Pat

    Brian, in which of the models does Jesus’ death indicate his willingness to go through everything people go through? I always thought that was its most important feature.

  • Erik Leafblad

    Scott M —
    Thanks for taking time to actually think about my comment. Were that more blog discussions so intentional about mulling comments over before replying.
    I’d agree with you in that certain uses of a given theory of atonement have been abused and led to ugly things. But, as a professor of mine was wont to say, misuse does not lead to disuse, but proper use. If, among these theories that have at one time been and continue to be embraced among large segments of the church, there has been misuse then it is of the better part of rigorous thinking to try and work out a more proper use. I don’t tend to see the utter bankruptcy of either satisfaction nor penal substitution. I think there is a way to articulate each in such a way as to see them as an outworking of the graciousness of God’ own Triune existence, and not, as you say, pitting God against Godself. That they are not always worked out as such almost goes without saying, but again proper use, not disuse.

  • Scott M

    Recapitulation encompasses that idea and more, Pat. ‘Your Name’, I would hardly call a two thousand year old continuously held explanation of the atonement ‘half-baked’. It seems to me that a theory invented a few hundred years ago is at least a little more likely to fit that appellation, though I wouldn’t call it half-baked. I think it was and has been pretty thoroughly thought through and I somewhat understand the philosophical framework that gave birth to it. I just think it turns the beauty of the atonement and the power of the resurrection and the God behind it all into something ugly.

  • To the individual who thinks that there’s something wrong with “doing theology”: Wrestling with the Scriptures in the context of the faith community is a venerable practice within both Judaism and Christianity, and Jesus himself was a skilled participant in this holy task. I’d suggest to you that instead of being intimidated, you — to borrow a phrase from the poet Rilke — learn to love the questions themselves.

  • Scott M

    Erik, if you can provide me any example that does not ultimately impose a problem on God — a stain on his infinite honor that must be cleansed in satisfaction or an inability to forgive without payment in penal substitution — I’ll happily consider it. As I’ve shifted into Christianity and come to understand that these different theories existed, I’ve looked for examples. Just as I did when exploring and judging different religions, I prefer to judge based on the best rather than worst. But I’ve been unable to find any explanation or practical application of these two that does not require that God have one problem or the other.
    And then I also cannot find any explanation of either theory that does not ultimately make the work on the Cross the separate work of the Son resolving the problem of the Father rather than the work of the Triune God together, through the Incarnation, resolving the problem of mankind. That’s what I meant by both ultimately shattering the triunity of God.
    An extremely common Baptist (and possibly other) formulation, for example, is on the one hand to say that God can’t be around sin (an idea which is utterly contrary to the narrative of Holy Scripture) and on the other to say that on the Cross the Father poured out the punishment for all sins (which is a form of extracting payment, not forgiveness) on the Son and that during that time, the Father and the Spirit ‘turned away’ from the Son. That’s just one example, of course, but it seems to capture the place where these two theories ultimately seem to always end up.
    Once again, if you think of an avenue for explanation that does not come to either of those places, I’ll be more than happen to explore it. I haven’t been able to find one.

  • david

    how does Penal Sub pit one member of the trinity against the other?
    jesus makes it very clear that he is offering his life, not being coerced into something he wants no part of.

  • Scott M

    I think you’re asking me, not David. I never said a word about coercion. It’s the story behind why Jesus is offering his life and what is happening. Please note that I love the substitutionary elements of the atonement. But I see the substitution in terms of ransom. Jesus, fully human but also fully God in an utterly interpenetrating and mutually indwelling triune God who is as much one as three persons, offers his life in my place to free me from the bondage to death in which sin had left all humanity. In this story, through the human nature of Jesus, the entire Trinity is acting together on the Cross in perfect harmony to ransom humanity from death. Sheol, or death, cannot contain God.
    The specific theory of penal substitution alters that narrative. In it, God cannot simply forgive sin. I’ve never precisely understood why, since the idea is so utterly foreign to everything Scripture and Jesus reveals about God. But sin must be paid for in this theory. Think about every analogy you’ve ever heard to explain this theory. In every one of them, somebody has to pay. They pay for me. The debt or offense is never simply forgiven. Somebody always pays for it.
    That’s bad enough, but it’s the manner in which it is accomplished that every time I work through it shatters the oneness of God. You have one person of the Trinity (whom most people imagine to be the Father) who has a problem. There’s this big, stinking pile of sin for which someone has to pay. And often it’s stated that he can’t be around it at all, that it creates a gulf between us and God — some sort of vast distance. (This also then tends to be worked out into a part of ‘hell’ being an eternal separation from God — as if we had achieved some sort of self-existence!) So Jesus then voluntarily goes to the cross where God (again generally the Father or sometimes the Father and the Spirit together) pours out the punishment for all that unforgivable sin onto Jesus.
    It doesn’t matter if it’s voluntary or not. In this story (and in satisfaction as well, though for somewhat different reasons), you have one member of the Trinity (the Father) with a problem and resolving that problem by pouring our wrath or punishment on another member of the Trinity (the Son). How is that even vaguely still a triune God? Part of the Trinity has a problem that another part of the Trinity is able to resolve? One punishes? One receives the punishment?
    The Spirit doesn’t usually play much, if any role in either of these narratives, and that’s a problem as well. But the above is the core problem. The theories deconstruct everything Christianity has traditionally said about God. The Trinity is always, always so interpenetrating and mutually indwelling that, though three distinct persons, they share one nature and act as one, each thoroughly involved in every act. That’s a problem with a recent tendency to refer to the Trinity by role: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier (or some variation). They are unique in their personhood, but not in role. The whole Trinity creates. We see that in Scripture. Redemption is the work of all the members of the Trinity, not just Jesus. And so on in every act we can imagine. Most importantly, the Trinity is utterly self-sufficient in love. God has no problem. He’s not concerned about his honor. How can you read Hosea and imagine that? God has no problem forgiving. Jesus was constantly seeking sinners and telling people they were forgiven. If all we needed was forgiveness, it’s always been there in spades. God would have simply forgiven us. But our problem ran much deeper than that. We needed to be freed from death. But more importantly, we need to be transformed from people who essentially seek non-existence (for what else is it to seek to be other than an eikon of God) back into people who become like God. That’s what we were created to do. It’s why we bear his image.
    That’s why the cross was necessary. To redeem us from death and provide a means for us to be who and what we were created to be, not to resolve some imagined problem of God’s.

  • Scott M

    Sorry Brian, that’s one of the most ahistorical things I’ve ever read. It wasn’t the trauma of the cross that shaped either the disciples in the first century or the church through the first several. It was the resurrection. The cross wasn’t even a particularly prevalent or dominant symbol for many decades. And the resurrection was one of the few beliefs almost always recognized and commented on by those outside the faith. Heck, the earliest theory of atonement is not even particularly focused on the cross, though the cross does play an important role within it. I have nothing against alternate histories. In fact, I rather enjoy reading them and thinking about them. But I don’t confuse them with the things we know about actual historical events and developments.

  • Scott M

    I will also add that there is no attempt I’ve found in any of the early accounts to make the cross out to be something good. Crucifixion is brutal and evil and they were much more acquainted with it than we are today. Jesus was betrayed by a friend, denied by another, and abandoned by the rest. That’s also evil. There’s no attempt to dress it up.
    But the Christian God is one who specializes in bringing good out of evil, of transforming evil into good. And that’s what happens on the Cross. God defeats the evil of the powers and their ultimate weapon, death, by submitting to the worst they can do and overturning it all in the resurrection. The cross is not something God ordained or required. It’s something he foreknew. Confronting the powers as Jesus did would inevitably lead to execution by the powers.

  • Herb

    I agree with you. Any grief about the cross is overshadowed, eternally, by the joy of the resurrection. Why would I still be upset at my large credit card bill when it’s already been paid?

  • Bill

    BRIAN, You miss the point, GOD came to the earth to pay “ransom” us for our sins. He decided “hanging from a tree” is a just death to those who sin. Thus, he hung on a “tree” for us, to pay for our sins. THIS IS NOT TRAGIC, it is GOD’s plan. I do not see how a man can say GOD did an evil thing, when he payed our penalty. Don’t forget the cross, it was our sentence, only GOD can redeem us to himself, for any other payment would be for us to ask for. How do you ask GOD to die for us. We can’t. But he did it anyways because he loves you. Be thankful for the plan he made to pay for your return to him.

  • Ethan

    Tetelestai: your debts have been paid in full

  • Joshua

    Does anyone have a link that represents a good explanation of the recapitulation model of atonement – or would someone be willing to explain it?

  • Brian, I believe it to be a fallacy to find error in doctrine by stating others misinterpretation. It is, after all, penal SUBSTITUTIONARY atonement. Jesus “paid it all,” and to live in any way other than in that reality is offensive to God. Too often we attempt to supplement His gift of grace, as if we could add anything to His masterpiece of Love. Penal Substitutionary Atonment does NOT encourage people to endure unnecessary sufferings, but misunderstanding it does.
    Furthermore, many of these theories of atonement portray the devil as the yang of God’s yin. But there is no equal to our sovereign Lord. Ranson grants Satan undue power, as if God owes him something for our misdeeds. But only God is our judge. He’s the one to whom we owe our debt. And a righteous judge does not let sin go unpunished. That’s why it “pleased the Father to crush Him” (Isaiah 53:10). Hell is not where Satan torments, but where God does—and it is eternal (Matt 3:12, among others). Portraying the Cross as some kind of empirical injustice is absurd. Do you really think that Christ would sweat drops of blood for fear of being hung on a cross made by men (Matt 26:39)? The cup in which He dreaded was not some chalice of human violence, but the cup of God’s wrath (Isaiah 51).
    A God who sends unrepentant souls to Hell may seem less forgiving that we are. Yet how dare we reduce God from His exalted position. God commands us to forgive one another simply because everything we have, including our very life, is borrowed. Only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7). And He has every right to make us pay for the debt and still be a loving God. It may seem paradoxical, but our God is a God of mystery.
    Most of all, we must remember that this is not our story, but HIS. We do not define Love, God does. This life is not about non-violence and peace, nor helping the poor and the downtrodden, nor even attaining a particular level of righteousness. It’s about giving glory to God. That is our purpose. And even though we often do this by doing the aforementioned, we must be careful to not use the outworking of our faith to create our own garment (Matt 22:1-14).

  • Pingback: parajumpers long bear blogg()

  • Pingback: dameq()