How Shall We Understand the Atonement?

814099_5It must be stated, before we even consider several of the ways Christians have traditionally understood the atonement (the meaning of Christ’s death) and its relationship to our sin(s), that all Christians believe this great central truth – Christ’s death reconciles us to God. Whatever else you read, or think you hear me saying in the next few days, please return to this statement and believe me when I say I stake my entire salvation on the death of Christ for my sins.

The word atonement is itself an English translation, as several noted in their comments on my posts last week. But the word atonement is not a bad word because it is an English translation, even though it is a word far too easily misunderstood. That Christ gave his life as a ransom for mankind’s sin is crystal clear in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). What is not nearly so clear is what this ransom (sacrifice) means. This is especially true in terms of the payment that was made and the person to whom it was made. The person who made the payment (i.e., Jesus on the cross) seems clear enough. The question about “who” it was paid to is at the heart of the issue that I introduced last week in writing about the controversy over the lyrics in a modern hymn.

To understand the broad conclusion I drew last week we must be very careful about how we attribute human (and philosophical) concepts to God. Christ died for our sins!

There is a bumper sticker that says, rather mockingly, “Custer died for our sins.” If you think about this it makes sense because the idea that you can say someone died for our sins without knowing who and why begs the question!

What Jesus did, in making payment for our sin, will always remain debatable. Let it be understood here – I personally respect all earnest attempts to plumb the depths of the mystery of Christ’s death. For several centuries this subject has produced a vast array of scholarly material. Anyone who dares to traverse this ground must be aware of the twists and turns that are ahead of them in the road. This deep mystery is at the very heart of our faith. What I do not respect, after wrestling with this doctrine for decades now, are the rhetorical flourishes which I wrote about last week. They are uncalled for and profoundly divisive. Legitimate attempts to explain the mystery of what happened in Christ’s death are important but they are not the center point of Christian orthodoxy.

Various views of Christ’s death have been emphasized by Christian theologians. Origen (185-254), and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), taught the doctrine of “Christus Victor.” This view was widely believed in the early church. This doctrine was revived in the West, in twentieth century, by Gustaf Aulèn (1879-1977). At the heart of this view is that Christ won a victory through his death. By his death he overcame Satan. The implication seems to be that God, through the death of Christ, outwitted the deceiver (Satan). By the fourth century a view closer to the one that most of us know in the Catholic and Protestant West developed through the teaching of Athanasius (296-373). In this view our sin had to be paid for because Genesis 2:17 clearly says that death is sin’s penalty.

In the eleventh century Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) wrote his now widely respected book, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man?) In this classic Anselm correctly stressed that God did not intervene with violence to gain victory over the enemy. He wrote: “God would have been doing unjust violence against the devil, since the latter was the lawful possessor of man; for the devil had not gained his hold over man with violence; rather it was man who had gone over to the devil of his own free will.”

Anselm insisted that the ransom (which itself is clearly a biblical idea) was not paid to Satan because he had no legal claim over humans in the first place. He rightly reasoned that we belong to God and nothing stands outside of God’s power. Anselm’s view of atonement developed from this thinking. His view has been called the “satisfaction theory.” In his view God’s honor is offended, because he is a holy and righteous sovereign. It is this honor that must be dealt with in Christ’s death. Thomas Aquinas (1125-1274), followed by Protestant reformers such as Calvin and Luther, maintained that the divine law required punishment for sin thus Jesus died in our (humanity’s) place. At the center of this view is what we call penal substitution.

Most historians agree that penal substitution is a theory of the atonement developed within Reformed theology. It argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of sinners, thus satisfying the demands of God’s justice so he can justly forgive our sins. It must be plainly stated, and understood, that penal substitution, at least understood in this specific way, is an understanding of the broader category of substitution. One can, simply put, affirm the doctrine of substitution without understanding the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death in this sense of divine punishment. This may come as a surprise to some but bear with me and I hope to show you how and why as I progress this week.

The great danger these more frequently debated views of the atonement is that they employ the language of penal substitution in a manner that says we have a Father whose honor is greater than his love for his own beloved Son, Jesus Christ. This theory was deeply layered, in specifically Catholic forms, into the popular movie, The Passion of the Christ, starring Mel Gibson. This view has led many to stress that God’s wrath was appeased through the enormity of Jesus’ suffering, a suffering which vindicated God’s holy anger and wrath. It is also behind a great deal of internal Reformed debate, a debate that separates Reformed Christians from other Reformed Christians!

My friend James P. Danaher, professor of philosophy at Nyack College (Christian Missionary Alliance), asks a question that I think every Christian who wrestles with this difficult subject should face squarely and honestly: “With such an image of God we may be able to obey him, or even serve him, but who would ever fall in love with such a god” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Triumph, 2006, 97).

Yes, who can, or ever will, fall in love with such a god? Who can rejoice in the Father’s heart of love for all sinners if he believes that God is a perpetually “ticked off” deity who dangles us over the pit of hell waiting to punish us in a moment’s time unless we repent and trust the One who appeased his great wrath through his penal substitution?

Several have suggested that the word “appease” is faithful to the biblical doctrine of the atonement. I doubt this idea very much. The word “appease” means to bring peace, quiet, or calm; or to soothe. Behind this word is the notion that (an enemy) is soothed or pacified through the granting of concessions. Just as one’s thirst is appeased by a drink of water so God’s wrath is appeased by his granting a just (entirely legal) concession on the basis of his having poured out his wrath completely on Jesus. Behind such thinking is a deficient view of the two doctrines that will most shape our life when they are better understood – the incarnation and the love of God. It is with these two truths before us that we must explore the mystery of Christ’s death more carefully.

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