December 20, 2006

Paul and theories of atonement: Romans 5

Over the past hundred years, it has become common to speak of various theories or models of atonement. And on the whole I think this has been a worthwile enterprise, as we come to appreciate the variety and depth of different ways to speak about what God accomplished in Jesus Christ. We can understand Christ's death as a liberation from forces of sin, death, and evil, or we can understand his death as a sacrifice on our behalf. And there are quite a number of other ways to understand Jesus' death.

I think a truth that is absolutely essential to keep in mind during all of these discussions is that while it may be possible to classify some theories in this way to see how typical images and forms of thought are used to try put into words what Jesus accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection, it is equally as vital to see that no one of these theories is complete in itself, or is or should be isolated from others. It is detrimental to speak of the atonement in terms of say a theory of sacrifice if the image of atonement as the love of God is left completely out of the picture, for instance. And I think a good example of what it means to hold multiple theories or images together is already to be seen in Paul's writing about Christ's death in Romans 5.

A careful reading of Romans 5 shows us quite a number of images or approaches to Christ's death are being held to gether to create a picture of what his death means. Paul speaks of Jesus' death accomlishing justification by grace (which Schmiechen in Saving Power classifies as a theory of atonement), a central image to Paul's thought. But Paul ties this image closely together with God's wondrous love, speaking in 5:5 and 8 about God demonstrating his love in Jesus and his death and pouring that love into our hearts. Paul also speaks of Jesus death as effecting reconciliation, the bringing of humans back into right relationship with God. As part of this reconciliation theme, Paul also speaks of Jesus as the second Adam, fulfilling the role of true humanity and effecting a renewal of Creation, a completing of God's purposes. In addition to these images, Paul also speaks of the efficacy of Jesus' blood (5:9), which points to a sacrificial understanding of Jesus death as covering over sins and removing God's wrath and judgment. And just to complete the picture, there are also overtones of a liberation theory of atonement, as Paul writes in verse 6 that Christ died for the ungodly "while we were still powerless."

It is very instructive to look at the logic and imagery of each of these theories or models independently, to come to a deeper understanding of what it means, but this type of study becomes harmful if any one theory is used in isolation to others. This is not to say that all ways of talking about the atonement are equally correct, but instead to say that it seems clear that no set of images can contain the deep meanings of what God accomplished in Jesus.

No comments: