Atonement Theories and the Big Picture

antennae 001This is not the first time I’ve discussed the atonement here, and it probably won’t be the last. It’s an issue that I think about from time to time, and while I have some opinions (some firmer than others), I am not ready to stake a theological claim at this point.

Today’s post is inspired by an article I read this week by Mark Galli in Christianity Today, entitled, aptly enough, The Problem with Christus Victor.  Christus Victor (literally, “Christ the Victor”), is a name given to the general theory that Jesus saved us primarily by defeating evil (similar to the ransom theory). By contrast, the Calvinist view of the atonement is known as penal substitution, in which Jesus had to die to satisfy God’s wrath.

Name-dropping Rob Bell

Galli begins, interestingly enough, by referencing Rob Bell’s Love Wins, in which he “advocates the use of a plurality of atonement theories.” He goes on to say, “In this, Mr. Bell is repeating decades-old arguments in our movement, arguments that seem to be winning the day.”  However, the focus of Galli’s article is not to discuss using multiple atonement theories, but to express concern that people are following cultural trends in abandoning penal substitution in favor of the nicer-sounding victor theory.

Galli does admit that “The Christus Victor model has much to commend it,” including the point that “This model also highlights big picture atonement: Christ’s death isn’t merely about me and my salvation. It’s about the redemption of the cosmos…”  He also admits that “‘neurotic substitutionary atonement’ needs to be abandoned.” However, Galli is quite concerned with the rising popularity of CV, because it’s popularity goes hand in hand with a lessening emphasis on the substitutionary aspect. After a short discussion of some of the atonement-related verses, he asks, “…one begins to wonder how much stock we should put in Christus Victor. In short, should we be so quick to marginalize substitutionary atonement?”

While Galli does point out that the Ransom or CV approach to the atonement appears to be the position of the early church (and as such, the current position of the Eastern Orthodox churches) and that substitution (along with its view of man’s total depravity) originated much later,  he seems to assume that this more western view of mankind and the nature of sin is accurate, and therefore we need to hang on to the substitution theory.

What about the Gospels?

Galli fails to deal with what is, in my opinion, the most compelling argument for the CV theory, and that is the teaching of Jesus himself. Reading through the Gospels, it is nearly impossible to miss the constant parallel between sin and sickness (Matt 5:9, for example). We also see that Jesus never condemned those who were “captives” of sin; he only chastised those who used the law or their own self-righteousness to judge others.  He proclaimed himself the “physician” who is needed by those who are “sick” with sin.

If we merely look at Jesus’ interactions with people, it would seem that Christus Victor is indeed the victor in the atonement theory wars. I completely reject Galli’s statement that CV is in any way “clearly a secondary atonement theme in the New Testament.”

But what about Paul and Hebrews?

Reading through Paul’s letters, we see that he was quite good at using analogies to explain his points (which relates to the opening cartoon… “all I know is it gives a better picture.”).  And, he didn’t always use the same analogies. For example, he says in one place that the law no longer applies to us, as we have in effect died. In another place, he says that the law was nailed to the cross. In other place, he says merely that the law is no longer needed, now that we’ve no need for a tutor. I don’t believe that any of Paul’s analogies were necessarily designed to be the only way to look at something, or that they were necessarily perfect analogies. Like Snoopy’s ears, they help to give a better picture of a reality that we may at the present only “see in a glass darkly.”

And, as Galli mentioned, Paul also references the big picture, that the atonement is not, first of all, a primarily personal thing. The plan, in fact, is to redeem all of creation (universalism alert!).

Seeing the atonement “big picture”

My approach to understanding Scripture is to try to grasp the big picture, then start putting the pieces together as you would a jigsaw puzzle. Put the pieces that fit nicely together first, and leave the odd pieces alone until you see how they fit. Sometimes you find a piece that puts other pieces in their right context, and so on.

To me, there are too many problems putting too much emphasis on any one phrase or analogy. Those theories which rely on outside influences (like Platonic dualism, for instance)  or are more recent innovations are immediately suspect, not that they may not all have an element of truth.

While I reject, at this point, the Calvinist view of mankind and sin, Paul’s comments about substitution, ransom, etc. help to paint a whole picture that I don’t think any of us can see at the moment. However, to go further than that, adding in concepts about total depravity, inherited guilt, God’s wrath, and so on, is at the least, not helpful.

When Jesus says, “The Kingdom is like…” we know that it is like that, but not totally like that.  It is difficult, at times, to simply take Paul at his word without trying to build a whole 3-D model from a 2-D sketch, but I suspect that that’s often what we are expected to do, just like we do with Jesus’ Kingdom stories.  And, with the atonement, even with the helpful analogies, it may simply be enough to know that for God so loved the world, he gave his only son…

So… thoughts?  Where do you come down on the whole atonement discussion?

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