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Problems with the Problem: What’s the Atonement For?

Part of last weekend was spent at a conference at ACTS Seminaries dealing with the nature of the atonement. Among the questions under discussion were: How is it that the work of Jesus actually saves? What does Jesus save us from? For what purpose does Jesus save us? These seemed like very appropriate questions to consider as we move toward the Easter season and beyond.

The two speakers were, I presume, brought in to offer somewhat different approaches to the question but were in fact remarkably similar. Glen Scorgie, Professor of Theology at Bethel Seminary San Diego, argued that we need to move away from an over-emphasis on penal substitution as the central meaning of the atonement and allow our understanding to be filled out by the Christus Victor (in the cross, Christ conquers death/evil) and “moral influence” (in the cross [and before], Jesus shows us an example of how to live) models as well.

Mark Baker, Associate Professor of Mission and Theology at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, CA, said virtually the same thing, although he seemed willing to move farther away from penal substitution than was Scorgie (he expresses his distaste for this understanding of the atonement more clearly in his book). Baker argued for a highly contextualized presentation of the atonement. What works in contexts with a highly developed judicial systems, for example, may not work in contexts dominated by implicit codes of honour and shame. Baker argued that we need to be willing to use the full range of biblical understandings of the atonement, and that the context we find ourselves in will have much to say about the approach we take.

This didn’t always go over so well. A sense of growing impatience was detectable from some of the attendees, especially during the Q & A following Baker’s presentations. At times, it was almost as if to say, “yes, yes, Jesus defeats death and evil and shows us a better way of living and all that, but what do people have to believe to avoid hell? How do we know if they’re in or out? What’s the minimum atonement content we have to make sure people ‘get’ so that we’re sure that their eternal status is secure?”

There are many things that could be said about this whole approach to the atonement and the presuppositions it betrays, but mainly I’m reminded of Scot McKnight’s post from a few months ago called “The Problem is the Problem.” In it, he questioned whether our presentation of the gospel betrays too small an understanding of the problems that face us. Our world is beset by huge problems that go far beyond individual human beings and their status before God. We are alienated from God, certainly, but also from ourselves, from our neighbours, and from creation. We are the victims of many things beyond our control and, ultimately, we live the bulk of our lives in the full knowledge that emotional and physical pain and death are non-negotiable elements of our future. If our theory of the atonement doesn’t address these things, then we have misunderstood both the problem and the solution provided by the cross.

In my view, the questions put forth by some at the conference revealed that they simply didn’t have big enough problems for Jesus to solve. For some, the problem the cross addresses seemed to be: How do we transfer individual human beings from the “eternally damned” category to the “saved” category? Human beings are born condemned and the cross of Christ represents our entrance ticket into the room marked “escape to heaven.”

We need a bigger problem. In the cross of Christ, God deals with the consequences of human sin, certainly, but if this represents the sum total of our understanding of the atonement something has gone seriously awry. We are not simply perpetrators of sin, but victims as well. And we are not only saved from something (the consequences of sin, yes, but also the power of death and evil) but for a purpose—we need a new vision of how to live according to the reality that the cross makes possible.

I left the conference with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I find it discouraging that people are so easily threatened and so determined to cling to such skeletal understandings of both the problem and the solution represented by the events of Easter. On the other hand, I enjoyed the dialogue and found the speakers to be two immensely encouraging and hopeful people. They had an admirable commitment to the church, a deep love for all that God has made, and a profound hope that the cross of Christ really is the deepest solution to the biggest problems we will ever face.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think that theologians near the center politically and theologically have long considered it important to include in their systematic theologies at least the three theories of atonement you have mentioned above. Donald Bloesch is an example of an evangelical theologian who does this and John Macquarrie is an example of a liberal theologian who does this.

    I have more exposure to liberal and radical theologies than I do to conservative theologies. On the left, substitutionary atonement is generally loathed and atonement does not receive a lot of attention, except to criticize the conservatives for emphasizing it. The Christus Victor theory, taken metaphorically, and the exemplar theory taken more literally, are combined on left. The idea is that Jesus was combatting the evil earthly powers of his day and that we should do the same today. Those evil powers are mainly rich people, males, white people, and businesses (especially big corporations.) Atonement means we need to overthrow them because they are demonic (metaphorically.) My impression is that this was the only acceptable meaning of atonement at the seminary I attended.

    Personally, I admire those theologians who find a way to make peace with our theological past and that find a way to recognize the cosmic dimensions of the life and death of Christ even though they are often distasteful to modern minds and moralities.

    My impression is that the speakers at your conference want to move the theology of their denominations towards the left. I know that has been the goal at Bethel-San Diego.

    Not withstanding the importance of the exemplar model of atonement in systematic theology, I don’t think we need Jesus to be moral. The atheists I know are no less moral than the Christians and their ideas about morality are not noticeably different. Modern moralities are not based on theology – they are secular.

    March 9, 2009
  2. I think your assessment of the preferred options on both sides is pretty much accurate, Ken. Whether the two speakers had the specific intent of a leftward move or not, I can’t really say. I think they were more or less trying to give expression to the full range of options found in Scripture and maybe trying to knock penal substitution off its perch as “the” evangelical understanding of the atonement (an entirely worthy goal, in my opinion).

    Re: needing Jesus to be moral, I think it all depends on what you mean. If you mean we don’t need to profess any kind of allegiance to Jesus to be moral people, I would obviously agree. There are certainly many agnostics and atheists (not to mention adherents of other religions) who are morally admirable people.

    But I would also say that the cultural and ethical influence of Christianity runs extremely deep, even if it is forgotten or goes unacknowledged. “Modern moralities” may not claim to be based on theology, but their roots are profoundly religious. Many have argued that there is a deep and necessary link between the character of Western secularism and the Christian soil out of which it has grown.

    March 9, 2009
  3. Ken #

    I agree with your assessment of the influence of Christianity on modern moralities. I would only add that I think the influence has gone both ways and that we have a tendency to project our modern ideas about morality onto the past and into theology.

    The whole idea of the atonement is morally repugnant from the perspective of modern moralities, especially the idea that God in any way was involved in the death of Jesus. I think we have crafted the contemporary versions of Christus Victor and exemplar atonement theories to minimize the moral repugnance factor. In my experience, liberal theologies don’t make much at all out of atonement – it is often only mentioned to reject the historical ideas about atonement.

    March 10, 2009
  4. I think that at times liberal theologies, just like conservative theologies, fail to appreciate the scope of the problems we face. For (some) conservatives, the problem the cross “fixes” is the eternal legal status of individual souls. For (some) liberals, the problem the cross fixes (if indeed it can be said to “fix” anything) is the lack of worthy examples of self-sacrifice or moral heroism. Neither option is good enough, in my opinion.

    The idea that God was involved in the death of Jesus may well be “morally repugnant” to some, but for me it’s more morally repugnant to imagine that the evils of history will not in some way be judged, healed, and overcome. Besides, if we take the doctrine of the Trinity seriously (a big “if” for some, I realize), there is no way around the idea that God was “involved” in the death of Jesus—in fact, it is the most important part of the atonement. If we believe that God really was “in Christ reconciling all things,” then the cross becomes about as far from divine child abuse as you could possibly imagine. It becomes, instead, God giving himself for the sake of the world he loves.

    March 10, 2009
  5. Ken #

    Yes, certainly your analysis and explanation is the way theologians have mainly viewed the atonement. I don’t have enough exposure to evangelicalism to recognize the things you have written about it. But liberal theology – that I know from long exposure and study and continuing interest.

    In my view, the best liberal theologians do not shun the ideas of atonement, even though it is not really the central concern of liberal theology, or not the way the central concern is expressed. I think that incarnation comes closer to the central concern in liberal theology.

    Radical theologies have other concerns – political power concerns. I have had significant exposure to them too and studied them for several years in seminary. I have known many people who embrace them, who say that they were once evangelicals or fundamentalists (before their conversions to radical theologies.) I have been thoroughly condemned by those who advocate such theologies. They tried hard to convert me, and they gave me a choice – convert or burn. But, intimidation does not sell to liberals – we love freedom too much. And, of course, liberals have no fear of hell and only a faint hope of heaven.

    March 10, 2009
  6. Ideally, I think, incarnation and atonement are not competing alternatives but two parts of the same package (a package which would also have to include resurrection, in my view, and probably a bit of that “radical” concern for politics, economics, etc). It’s too bad that these two themes are pulled apart and focused on to the exclusion of other important themes by both liberals and conservatives. Personally, I don’t closely identify with the term “evangelical”—too much cultural baggage and too much work to qualify it sufficiently for my liking. However, it is the broad stream in which I have swum for most of my life so I suppose in that sense it’s a term I can’t really rid myself of.

    Sounds like you’ve had a pretty interesting faith journey. You sound somewhat ambivalent to your educational experience (unless I’m misreading you). What would you say was the best part of your education in liberal theology? What (if anything) would you say was missing?

    I think it’s truly lamentable that Christians cannot find ways to disagree with one another without condemning and trying to intimidate. I’ve seen this happen several times to people I’m close to and it leaves me feeling very frustrated. I guess you’ve probably seen more of this than you’d like as well…

    March 10, 2009
  7. Ken #

    The best part of my theological education actually occurred in the Judaic Studies Program at University of California – San Diego where I studied Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible with David Noel Freedman and many Jewish students. Another best part was a couple of theology classes (a comparative systematic theology course and an ethics course) that I took at Claremont in which the professor approached the subject in an open and analytical way. In addition to the formal education I have read widely on my own – that is perhaps the best part of all. The PCUSA seminary I attended was awful – except that it allowed me to do part of my study at UCSD and Claremont, and that it opened m eyes to the horror of religious extremism (by its own example.) The seminary did not really approve of liberal theology – it advocated only radical theology. It hated evangelical theology. I often felt like I was at a fundamentalist seminary on the left instead of the right. Substantially all of the students and faculty said that they had been evangelicals or fundamentalists before they became radicals. I can only think of a couple of other students who had grown up liberal as I had.

    The missing part was and is a convincing ecclesiology. I think the reason is that in liberal theology the church is not as important as it is in others – Roman Catholic, for example. Peter Berger deals with the reasons for this, and with the reasons that one might persist in liberal theology even though it often seems to miss the mark. I find his insights quite helpful.

    In my experience, most people who subscribe to liberal or radical theologies today have roots in evangelicalism. Those of us who grew up liberal, like me, are mostly no longer interested in theology. For me, in spite of the awful seminary experience, theology remains very interesting and important. It is perhaps the most important part, among other important parts, of a liberal education. It explains so much of the cultural construction of the Western cosmos.

    March 11, 2009
  8. Thanks for sharing a bit of your story Ken—sounds like a journey that has had all kinds of twists, turns, peaks, and valleys. I appreciate the insight and perspective you bring to discussions here. A “fundamentalist seminary on the left,” eh? That’s an animal I’m not too familiar with. In some ways, it sounds preferable to its counterpart on the right, but that could simply be because I’ve not been exposed to it.

    Peter Berger’s is a voice that I’ve come to appreciate very much as well. I think that “evangelical” Christianity could profit greatly from his “inductive” approach to theology. I find myself referring back to his work often.

    March 11, 2009

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