Christianity: Theories of the Atonement

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Atonement is the name we give to an action which repairs a relationships which has been fractured by wrongdoing, so that the relationship is restored.  In Christian theology, the fractured relationship is between God and the human race, and this relationship has been restored by Jesus, and especially by His death on the cross.

As I point out in The Gospel Message 'Missing' Details, the atonement is one of the most debated areas of theology. Christians believe that we are reconciled with God through Jesus, and many believe that this was accomplished through His death on the cross, but beyond this it gets rather complicated.

I grew up in two churches, shaped by very different church traditions, but neither of them said anything much about the atonement.  One was a Calvinistic former-Baptist church, where the Reformed position was accepted as the obvious truth; the other was a Liberal Anglican church which wasn't entirely convinced that anything needed atoning for.  The next few church traditions I was exposed to didn't say anything much about the atonement, but every now and then some obvious questions were asked.

  • Why is the cross such a central feature of Christianity?
  • Why did Jesus need to die?
  • What did Jesus accomplish on the cross - and how does that help us?

These were generally regarded as difficult questions, which we tended to avoid where possible.  When someone asked, someone would say a few words, probably along the lines of Penal Substitution, and change the subject quickly.

When I tried to probe the subject, whoever I asked - and from whichever church tradition they belonged to - I was given a fairly standard response: it's a rather technical area of theology; experts in the subject have sorted it out, but we don't need to worry about the details.  But I do worry about details, so I started to read up on the subject, and was astonished by the range of theories, and by the sheer volume of material which has been produced over the centuries.  Clearly, the experts in the subject have not sorted it out yet: there are multiple competing theories, and (while parts of the Church have decided on a 'correct' answer) the Christian Church has not arrived at a common view yet.  Although, to be fair, not all the competing theories are completely incompatible with each other.

For my own part, I'm not convinced by Peter Abelard's Moral Example argument, but I do think he captures a vital perspective which is largely missing from most discussion of the atonement - at least, from most of the discussion which I am aware of.  As I said, it is a  vast topic.  In my experience, most of the arguments take as their starting point the absolute authority of God - as the ultimate Judge dispensing His justice, or as the absolute King exercising His authority.  It is all top down, explaining about things like law and justice and punishment.

While we do see God portrayed in the Bible as a judge and a king, Jesus tells us that God is primarily a loving Heavenly Father.  Law and justice matter - but only insofar as they serve love.  Justice matters, but God is not vengeful justice, seeking to punish: God is parental love, seeking to nurture.  Any account of the atonement which does not have this God at the centre cannot be an authentic expression of Jesus' intent and activity, as I see it.

In the words of Henry Lyte (in 'Praise, my soul, the King of heaven'), we have been "ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven". Christians have always known that, whatever Jesus accomplished on the cross, it was much larger than most of our limited atonement theories recognize.  The atonement is not simply a piece of theology, something to be believed, or a challenging intellectual puzzle where we try to work out what happened and why:  our understanding of the atonement inevitably affects our behaviour, how we seek to address the fractured relationships in our own lives, in our wider societies and in the world as a whole.

More needs to be said...

In the meantime, you may wish to take a look at 7 atonement theories from church history by Peter Watts for a short and readable summary of seven popular theories; for a longer informed and readable summary of the various options, I recommend Did God Kill Jesus? by Tony Jones.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a more technical article on Atonement which covers a wider range of material than the previous two sources.


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