December 16, 2006

How to think about atonement

Atonement is one of those theoogical concepts that sits right at the heart of the Christian faith, but somehow it seems to be something that remains implicit in a lot of biblical and theological reflection. It seems easy to take for granted that Christ accomplished something, and we probably wed our assumption to a particular way of thinking about what Christ accomlished, though we may not be aware of it. It is clear upon reading the New Testament with atonement in mind that there are a lot of different images for understanding what it is that Christ accomplishes and how we understand it to be for us.

I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about how to understand this most important of topics. I first had to teach about it, and help my high schoolers understand what atonement means and the major ways it has been understood. I've also been doing some reading, starting with David Willis's Clues to the Nicene Creed. In that book, Willis voices what has become a common discontent in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. The idea that God would demand satisfaction and would need appeasement raises some significant questions about God's character.

I've recently been reading Saving Power by Peter Schmiechen. He sets out to investigate the major theories of atonement, investiating each presentation and looking at a major proponent of each view. He echoes the problems pointed out by Willis about the penal substituationary theory, the view that many evangelical protestants seem to take for granted as the central way to understand the atonement, since the work of theologians like Charles Hodge and the Princeton school, who elevated and defended it. And I think some of the problems he carefully points out have some validity. At some other time I'll need to reflect further on the biblical background of the penal substitution theory, and how this gets translated into the usual presetation.

But what I think is of more value for the moment is noticing, though not for the first time, that there are an abundance of ways to understand the atonement. Schmiechen puts these views (he finds ten) into four major categories: Christ died for us; liberation from sin, death, and demonic powers; the purposes of God; and reconciliation. There are so many powerful ways to understand what God has done through Christ. In his New Testament Theology, I. Howard Marshall reflects on the fact that Jesus blood as an atoning sacrifice is almost absent as a theme from Luke and Acts. Now atonement certainly isn't absent, but that particuar image is in the background. That brings me to my current reading: Saving Power. I have been struck by the fact that there are a number of different ways to explore and explicate the meaning of what God did in Jesus Christ, and have further been constantly amazed at how none of the pictures seems complete without the others. If we are too focused only on the liberation in Christ, or only on the appeasment of God's wrath through Christ's sacrifice, we are missing so much of the inexpressible depth of God's love shown in Jesus Christ, and of the new life that Jesus brings to us. So there will be more thoughts to come on different approaches to atonement.

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