December 30, 2006

Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power

Theories of atonement, expressions of how Jesus' life and death convey God's saving power, stand at the center of Christian theology, and also stand at the core of what it means to be church. So says Peter Schmiechen, in this expansive work of scholarship, Saving Power, about the atonement. Schmiechen sets out to survey the important ways that atonement has been understood, and then to analyze and evaluate the various expressions, on his way to outlining some of the essential components that make up a theory of atonement and, further, to layout out some central claims made across the various theories about what atonement has to say about God and about us.

Schmiechen lays out ten theories of atonement, divided up under four major headings. He also looks at a particuar figure or writing that typifies each view.

A. Christ Died for Us
1. Sacrifice (Hebrews)
2. Justification by Grace (Luther)
3. Penal Substitution (Charles Hodge)
B. Liberation from Sin, Death, and Demonic Powers
4. Liberation (Irenaeus, twentieth-century liberation theology)
C. The Purposes of God
5. Renewal of Creation (Athanasius)
6. Restoration of Creation (Anselm)
7. Christ the Goal of Creation (Schliermacher)
D. Reconciliation
8. Christ the Way to the Knowledge of God (H. R. Nieburh)
9. Christ the Reconciler (1 Corinthians 1-2)
10. The Wondrous Love of God (Abelard, Wesley, Moltmann)

In this first part of the book, Schmiechen does a very admirable service in providing a clear exposition of each of the different views, a concise outline of the logic of the view, a rather detailed look at one figure (sometimes more) or New Testament writing that exemplifies each presentation, and then synthesises and evaluates each of the different theories. Undoubtedly one could quarrel with small points of analysis or presentation, but on the whole his outline is a thorough and clear presentation of a broad range of atonement theories.

The theory that comes under the most fire in his presentation is the "penal substitution" theory, and the presentation of it by Charles Hodge. Schmiechen sees this view as typified by an understanding that sinners stand under God's righteous judgment, and that Christ's death pays a penalty in our place, satisfying the demands of the law. The points he takes most issue with is the idea that atonement would be a transaction with God as object in some way. That is, something is done to or given to God to appease is wrath and judgment. This would mean that in God justice has won out over love as the ultimate demand to be satisfied. It also means that Jesus' death is an end in itself. Schmiechen doesn't throw out the theory entirely though, instead proposing what he sees as a radical reformulation, maintaining a recognizable outline of the theory but stressing that while Jesus death can be in some ways interpreted as being for us, it shouldn't be looked at as a "compensation offered to God to enable God to redeem us" (118). Instead, Jesus death is seen as a revelation of God's judgment against sin and a revelation of the obedience and fidelity that typify God's intention for creation, thus removing any transactional quality.

In some ways, Schmiechen's criticisms are surely on base. He insists that penal substitution is problematic if it affirms only God's justice as an ultimate characteristic of God's person, requiring the law to remain always fully in force, even over God. For formulations of penal substitution that succumb to this danger, this is a relevant critique, because it recasts the good news in language of vindication, not grace. But I don't think this attitude typifies this understanding of the cross, where Jesus is almost always understood in terms of his identity as the Son of God, following God's will even unto death. God is first and primarily subject. The value of his second critique is less clear. He sets out to counter any argument that sees Jesus' death as an end in itself, apart from his life of holiness and obedience, which he sees as ultimately a valorisation of retaliatory violence. Again, there is a good reminder that Jesus death shouldn't be understood as radically divorced from his person and life, nor that God in some way condones or enacts retaliatory violence upon those who sin out of some vindictive desire to punish those who dare to cross him. Again, there is value in being aware of the tendency to valorize suffering and to condone violence, and his word is an important critique of too much preaching and teaching that confuses this issue. But, getting to the core of the theological argument, Jesus death can and should be understood as the reason he came, the high-point and focus of his life and ministry. And was understood this way already in the New Testament (e.g. Phil 2, 1 Cor 2), as is made clear by the relative space given to the Passion narratives in the Gospels, and even seemed to be the understanding of Jesus himself, who predicted his own death on numerous occasions and who in the Gospel of John spoke of his death by saying "my time has come." I would even argue that Schmiechen's logic is almost turned on its head here, and that any atonement theory that doesn't see Jesus death as the central and defining moment in his life has a strong uphill climb to legitimacy.

After his in-depth analysis of the ten theories of atonement, which take up the bulk of the book, Schmiechen concludes by discussing the structure and role of atonement theories, and by laying out five points or dimensions to discuss when looking at atonement: 1. From image to theory; 2. God's opposition to sin, death, and demonic powers; 3. the purposes of God; 4. persons in community; and 5. God's initiative. This framework allows him to discuss the themes that carry through many or all of the theories, and also present a way to evaluate theories for their adequacy on these various points. He then concludes the book with a very insightful discussion of how theories of atonement relate to forms of church. He looks at how various understandings of atonement, with their accompanying understandings of how that saving power is bestowed, lead naturally (but not necessarily) to various shapes for the Christian community. One of the examples that best typifies this discussion is the recognition that Luther's reunderstanding of atonement in terms of justification by faith leads to church that is centered around preaching of the Word and the use of the vernacular Bible, in order to get the truth of God's Word out to the greatest number of people and incite faith. This final chapter is one of the greatest values of the book, though it is short, in that it helps us to recognize the centrality of the atonement to our life as church, and second, helps us to recognize that the same atonement theory can lead to different expressions of church when understood differently. This can be cause for fruitful dialogue and empathetic listening on the part of people from various denominations.

In Saving Power, Schmiechen has written an important study of the atonement. As he carefully presents a broad spectrum of options in a sympathetic way, he invites the reader to recognize the values implicit in each of them, and points a way toward a deeper and more powerful understanding of what it is that God has accomplished in Jesus. I know I was surprised by the power of a number of the views, and found friends in Christian thinkers from centuries gone by that will help enliven and energize my own thinking about Jesus Christ, and I trust it will have the same benefit for all who invest the time in these pages.

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