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In My Place

As I’ve mentioned before, the nature of the atonement is generating a bit of discussion (and controversy) in our tiny little denominational corner (I’ve reflected on the matter here, and here). My friend Mike Todd has written an excellent reflection on the atonement that is definitely worth checking out, both for the main post and for the comments.  Here’s a sample:

As I see it, the penal substitution theory positions God as less than God. Our sin must somehow be eliminated before we can commune with God. It must be. It’s like God has no say in the matter, which is to say that God is less than all-powerful. This simply cannot be: God is not subject to rules. God makes the rules! And breaks them should God choose to do so. God is the Source of Everything. I can’t help myself; when I think about penal substitution I see a cigar-chomping, Edward G. Robinson-type God saying, “Look kid, I’d like to help you, see? But there’s this problem of your sin, and it has to be done away with first, see?”

Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement is proving to be a really helpful read for me on these matters.  Near the beginning of the book he says this, which I think connects very well to the general thrust of Mike’s post:

Now more than ever in the history of mankind, the fullness of atonement is needed.  Why?  Never has tension between cultures and continents been so high, and never has the reconciling work of atonement been more of an urgent need.  Do we offer such reconciliation in our understanding of atonement?  My contention is how we frame atonement will make all the difference for the world.

Did you notice the last line?  All the difference “for,” not “in” the world.  Atonement is for the world.

42 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    My impression is that the atonement has particular importance, central importance, in evangelical theology and that among the views on atonement the substitutionary view has dominated. Atonement had particular importance, central importance, in the protestant reformation. Where liberal theologies have been embraced within Protestantism I think it lost that importance. Incarnation seems to have become more important.

    If evangelicalism moves away from the substitutionary view it will be interesting to see what effect that has. I don’t think it will be easy to make that shift and keep atonement in the center. I think this shift will add to the growing fragmentation of evangelicalism. I think it is inevitable.

    (Ultimately, I think faith itself has a short life, if any, remaining in the west – persuaded by writers like Nietzsche and Eliade and many others.)

    Within many evangelical churches it seems that the current progressive mood in the west is affecting theology. It seems to me much like the mood conservatives resisted a century ago, the resistance that led first to fundamentalism and then, when that movement moderated, to evangelicalism. I am not part of evangelicalism, so I cannot see what is happening as closely as you can. I sense that evangelicals are moving into the kinds of theology in which I have spent my life and that they are thinking things will be better there. Having not been evangelical, I don’t know whether that is true or not.

    May 26, 2009
    • I think Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God is becoming a more central theme in evangelical theology. This is a good thing, in my view. For too long evangelicals (this is a term I am still somewhat reticent to embrace as a self-identifier, for a variety of reasons) have presented Jesus’ main purpose to come and deliver some kind of abstracted forensic declaration about individual human beings. Mercifully, this view seems no longer to be the default understanding of what Jesus’ career was about.

      Ultimately, I think faith itself has a short life, if any, remaining in the west – persuaded by writers like Nietzsche and Eliade and many others.

      I’m not sure I agree. I think that Christian faith has proved remarkably resilient and adaptable to a variety of cultural contexts throughout history. Just in the last two days I have come across numerous articles (here and here, for example) acknowledging the unexpected continuing vibrancy and potency of religious belief in modern western nations.

      I sense that evangelicals are moving into the kinds of theology in which I have spent my life and that they are thinking things will be better there.

      I think you’re right, there is a drift towards some emphases more typical of “liberal” theology, and in my opinion this is mostly a good thing. Having said that, I think that there remains a commitment to some of the key doctrines that classical liberal theology tends to eschew (i.e., the historicity of the resurrection, the divinity of Jesus). I think that the ideal would be to combine a preservation of some of the core doctrines of historical Christianity with the ethical impetus of liberal theology. I think this is both possible and necessary.

      May 26, 2009
  2. I think this is more about people of the “New Perspective” sort that are taking a fresh look at the Scriptures and seeing much that was assumed to be in the Bible is not in fact there. While the New Perspective focuses more on rejecting the imputation of righteousness, a new movement is also pointing out that Penal Substitution is simply not in Scripture (eg the Passover had nothing to do with Penal Sub, Ex 11:4-7).

    May 26, 2009
    • I would be hesitant to eliminate any trace of substitution in how we view the atonement. For me, it’s not necessarily a matter of getting rid of PS so much as it is of making sure we define it properly, and locate it within the broader package of biblical metaphors.

      May 26, 2009
    • I suppose I have been thinking this all along – the cross needs to be respectfully taken out of the center our theological framework. Ryan you suggest that we perhaps not move it too far away since some form of substitution is evident in this event. Is that just a fuzzy nostalgic notion that attempts not to alienate traditionalists? or do you have some sense of how this nuanced substitution might factor into a theological framework?
      I think it is very healthy for us to recognize the redemptive nature of God incarnate – showing us how to live as humans. The incarnation might well be closer to the center in view.

      May 27, 2009
    • Dale, I’m grievously offended! You think I’m being fuzzy and nostalgic? That I’m sucking up to traditionalists?! My ego is going to take some time to recover from this…

      I’m not saying that the cross should be taken from the centre of our theological framework, just that we need to embrace a better understanding of how it is the centre, and the context in which it arrives at the centre. I think incarnation, kingdom embodiment and proclamation, cross, resurrection, ascension, and consummation—they’re all part of a package that can’t just be pulled apart to get at the “salvation bit.” I don’t think any of these really make sense outside of the bigger picture.

      May 27, 2009
    • Art #

      Nick,
      Penal substitution is SO in the Scriptures:
      Romans 3:23 – 24.
      Romans 5: 9-10, 17 – 21.
      Romans 6:23
      1 Peter 3:18.
      Ephesians 5:2

      June 2, 2009
  3. Ken #

    One other thought: I think that if your denomination has focused heavily on the substitutionary view of atonement, especially in the way Mike Todd expresses, then your emphasis is certainly right. Atonement in the Bible and in the history of Christian thought has multiple facets. And my impression is that in protestantism and evangelicalism, as well as in Roman Catholicism, all of these facets have been considered important.

    BTW, in the PCUSA, where I once served, it is not acceptable to espouse the substitutionary view. It is considered fundamentalist and the liberal pastors in the PCUSA absolutely hate fundamentalists and everything they represent. They think evangelicals are fundamentalists at heart and so they put them down too (along with Catholics.) What seems to unite groups of Christians is their mutual loathing of other Christians and other Christian beliefs.

    May 26, 2009
    • Very interesting, Ken. I know very little about the PCUSA, although here in Canada we are certainly familiar with the loathing and distrust of fundamentalism. I think it’s sad that denigrating other Christians (however misguided they may be) is a unifying thing, but there is obviously plenty of evidence for this.

      Re: my own denomination, I don’t know that we’ve ever had an “official” understanding of the atonement, but I would say the penal sub model was the one that tended to come through loud and clear in my own childhood. It’s somewhat surprising to me that some folks feel so strongly that it must be defended as the metaphor. I, for one, was quite relieved to discover that there were other ways of understanding Christ’s work—ways that actually present God and human beings in a much better light.

      May 26, 2009
    • Ken #

      If some in your denomination are defending it as “the metaphor” I wonder what is at stake. I suspect this is not a pure intellectual/theological defense. I suspect something else is at stake for which this is symbolic.

      I wonder what it was about the penal sub model that came through loud and clear in your childhood that created the stress that was relieved when you heard about the other models.

      I suppose I heard the penal sub model in hymns or on television. I guess I took it as mythical – an expression of something cosmic or mystical rather than something that literally took place. I think what came through loud and clear to me was the grace of God, a kind of deliverance from all that was wrong or might go wrong in life. I guess I do remember feeling the creeps when I encountered someone used an expression like “the blood of Christ shed for our sins.” I never heard anything like that at home, or as far as I can remember, in a liberal church.

      I think an advantage of liberal theology is that it contains no terror, except perhaps the terror of nihilism combined with the terror of death that liberal theology tries to mitigate but in an ironic way affirms.

      May 27, 2009
  4. Good addition to the discussion Ryan.

    One of Ken’s comments reminded me of something I heard Brian McLaren say recently. He suggested that perhaps it was time to (respectfully) move atonement out of the centre. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but as you have implied, I think Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom is what should replace it at the heart of the Gospel. And if that is the case, if we ‘reverse-engineer’ back from there, I am increasingly comfortable with my assertion that the atonement was for our benefit, not God’s.

    May 27, 2009
    • You’re not putting words in my mouth, Mike. I absolutely agree. I like the quote you posted a while back (and return to it often):

      Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. He came to change the mind of humanity about God.

      May 27, 2009
    • Ken #

      I agree with you and Ryan on this. I think that literally the “gospel” in the gospels was that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

      While I was a campus minister, I remember being in a meeting with a staunch conservative and an equally fervent liberal and I remember saying that the gospel is that the kingdom of God is at hand. I thought that was not controversial, but they both reacted as if it was. They explained to me that it all depends on the meaning of that expression.

      What does it mean to you, and to Ryan?

      To me it meant that Jesus and the early Christians believed that the kingdom promised by the prophets was coming very soon in a big and visible way, a new heaven and earth – something like Schweitzer perceived in the gospels. I suppose, as a theological liberal, in my mind then and now that referred to something that did not happen but that nevertheless expressed the Christian hope for deliverance from all that is wrong in the world now and in the future.

      May 27, 2009
    • Hey Ken, I just realized I never attempted an answer to your question about what the kingdom of God means to me (this conversation is going in a lot of different directions—it’s sometimes hard to remember what I’ve responded to!).

      In its most basic terms, what the kingdom of God means to me is that in the career of Jesus, God decisively broke into history, and inaugurated God’s final solution to the problem of evil, death, sin, suffering, injustice, and pain. There’s obviously much more that could be said about it (i.e., what is the role of the church, how do we participate in the victory Christ won now), but in the broadest possible terms this is what the kingdom means to me. Like you, I hope for “deliverance from all that is wrong in the world now and in the future.” Unlike you, I suppose, I think it refers to something that did happen, is happening, and will one day come in fullness.

      May 28, 2009
    • Art #

      “I am increasingly comfortable with my assertion that the atonement was for our benefit, not God’s.”
      God does not NEED atonement. He did nothing wrong, Mankind did. So yes, atonement IS for our benefit.

      “Passover had nothing to do with Penal Sub, Ex 11:4-7).” Of course not. The “Passover” is a Jewish celebration of the exodus from Egypt.

      Penal substitution is not a metaphor, but a literal fact necessitated by the sinful acts of mankind ever since Adam. The birth of Jesus as a man, His life and death and resurrection, are ALL central to the Christian faith. One quite literally cannot call oneself a Christian without believing in all of it put together. Sorry if that offends some of you, but it is the truth.

      “It seems pretty important that, in response to a suffering and dying world, God chose to suffer and die among us and for us and to resurrect not only the body of Jesus but our belief in the possibility that all will be well in the end. This is how redemption is made possible, this is how death is swallowed up in victory.
      Do we not lose something important if we neglect this?” ABSOLUTELY!

      “The New (Testament) is in the Old Contained; The Old is in the New explained.” Atonement in the Old Testament was achieved through blood sacrifice of Lambs etc., but such sacrifices were in actuality not sufficient to permanently erase the sins of mankind. Jesus became THE lamb in order to permanently atone for our sins and reconcile mankind to God.

      “It does not seem logical to suggest that God was bound to the method of the cross in order to actuate his redemptive plan.” Prophecy throughout the O.T. pointed to every aspect of Jesus life, including His Birth and the method of His death. So, was God bound to the method of the cross? HE foretold it, did He not? How then could He NOT be bound to something HE promised?

      “The problem with a symbol is that it’s not really necessary, it’s only a helpful illustration of some timeless, contextless, abstract truth. That’s the antithesis of the gospel. The gospel is about the living God achieving an actual victory (in history) over sin and evil and death. If the cross is no more than a symbolic gesture, what exactly is it symbolizing? God’s intent? God’s desire? God’s promise?

      Does the cross represent God’s desire to redeem? Absolutely. But it does more than that, it actually accomplishes that redemption.” ABSOLUTELY!

      “As I said in the posts linked to above, I simply do not feel compelled to embrace such a narrow understanding of the atonement.” Then I hate to be the one to tell you,… and there is no way to sugar-coat this,… You are in error. The Atonement embraces much more than simple penal substitution, but P.S. is definitely the central theme of the atonement of mankind.

      There are many perspectives of The Kingdom Of God and the New Heaven and New Earth that are part and parcel of the Gospel, but which are not yet understood in their entirety.

      June 3, 2009
    • Well, Art, thank you for the whirlwind “correction” in doctrine. I’m not sure how best to approach a laundry list of assertions such as this, so I’ll just address this:

      “As I said in the posts linked to above, I simply do not feel compelled to embrace such a narrow understanding of the atonement.” Then I hate to be the one to tell you,… and there is no way to sugar-coat this,… You are in error. The Atonement embraces much more than simple penal substitution, but P.S. is definitely the central theme of the atonement of mankind.

      While I am grateful for your obvious concern for my doctrinal purity, how exactly do you see my willingness to embrace a broad and multifaceted understanding of the atonement as being “in error?”

      June 3, 2009
  5. Gil #

    I resonate with a lot of the dissatisfaction with the transaction model that Mike and Ryan have helpfully deconstructed but I have a few lingering questions about the ‘de-centralizing’ of the cross.

    I still see the cross (and let’s not forget the resurrection!) as central. I like the re-emphasis on kingdom theology; I think that it provides a much needed corrective particularly as it points away from exclusively confessional or quietist forms of the faith. But I think the New Testament points toward the cross as the fulfillment (and subversion) of the kingdom story that is the subject of most of the Old Testament. The kingdom is certainly prior to the cross (chronologically and theologically) but I don’t think that you can make much sense of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom without the cross that he saw that kingdom culminating in.

    If the cross truly is the moment at which God achieves the victory – if the kingdom really is inaugurated anew through Good Friday and Easter Sunday then it deservedly occupies the center of Christian theology. I think the kingdom emphasis (and even, Dale, the incarnation emphasis) speak to the character of that inauguration and they certainly set the agenda for the mission of the church, but without the cross ‘the kingdom’ would be little more than a wistful longing for some ideal past or a pining away for some utopian future. And without the resurrection there would be no genuine hope that our efforts are not in vain.

    I hope I’m not nit-picking here. I resonate with many of the current reactions against penal sub. Yet I worry, at times, that in our effort to correct the excesses and distortions of a model of understanding the cross we may inadvertently lay a cornerstone other than the one we’ve been given.

    May 27, 2009
    • Gil, I think your thoughts give evidence of just how polarizing the cross (and resurrection) can be. It seems like we either imagine it at the center or it we regard it as a throw away doctrine. I was/am genuinely intrigued at just where one positions the cross if it is not central. You do a good job of argueing that it remain at the center even if you did not intend it to. Ryan also suggested that the cross might lie just outside center but such is the terror of good theology. We may, i suspect, know where certain theological concepts do not belong but are pressed to know where they do fit.
      Here is my stab at it – see what you think…
      The cross is a symbol of the redemptive trajectory of God’s interaction with humanity. It seems to me that the cross and resurrection could have just as easily been a pancake breakfast (a really cool one)in order to have actually accomplished what it did. The event unfolded in such a way as we might make sense of it in terms of what redemption means to God but not about what he actually did. This leaves redemption as the unifiying concept of theology with the incarnation, cross, resurrection, life and ministry as evidentiary ‘pods’ that serve to enhance the meaning of God’s redemptive plan…

      May 27, 2009
    • Ken #

      I think MDaele is right to say that redemption is the unifying concept in theology. It unites us with the full range of Christians and Jews, ancient and present. I think that those who want to emphasize the atonement, and those who do not, ultimately agree that redemption is what is at stake.

      May 27, 2009
    • The kingdom is certainly prior to the cross (chronologically and theologically) but I don’t think that you can make much sense of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom without the cross that he saw that kingdom culminating in.

      I absolutely agree, Gil. Well said. I’m not recommending any kind of a de-emphasis on the cross/resurrection. Without these, the kingdom Jesus preached is just one more tragic example of an idealist with great ideas who is ultimately crushed under the wheel of history. What I do think, is that the cross has to be understood in much more expansive (and hopeful!) terms than some of the penal-sub-only types tend to have done. The cross cannot be understood apart from the kingdom—it’s not the mechanism which allows for abstract legal transactions to take place. But as you say, the kingdom also cannot be separated from the events of Easter without losing its meaning.

      May 27, 2009
  6. Gil #

    Dale, a few questions about your comment:

    “The cross is a symbol of the redemptive trajectory of God’s interaction with humanity. It seems to me that the cross and resurrection could have just as easily been a pancake breakfast (a really cool one)in order to have actually accomplished what it did.”

    I’m not crazy about the word ‘symbol’ here – especially as you add that a different ‘symbol’ (a pancake breakfast??) would have worked just as well. Is the cross as a method not significant? Or is it just the physical trace of some Platonic idea of ‘redemption’?

    Surely we are not content just to say “God likes to redeem’and it doesn’t matter whether he dies on a cross or calls us to seek enlightenment or cooks us a pancake breakfast, as long as we’re clear on the redemption part.” Surely the actual method by which redemption comes to us is significant too.

    It seems pretty important that, in response to a suffering and dying world, God chose to suffer and die among us and for us and to resurrect not only the body of Jesus but our belief in the possibility that all will be well in the end. This is how redemption is made possible, this is how death is swallowed up in victory.

    Do we not lose something important if we neglect this?

    May 27, 2009
    • again at the risk of being redundant, my suggstion is that the cross has meaning because it was an important symbolic gesture for us (ie it matched prophesy). It does not seem logical to suggest that God was bound to the method of the cross in order to actuate his redemptive plan. The best we can say, I think, is that he chose it so that we would find meaning in it.
      To suggest that God is somehow restricted to the temporal events of Easter in order to actuate his redemptive progress is to raise alot of really problematic questions about pre-cross atonement etc.
      I am curious as to whether you are suggesting that God is somehow bound to the method of the cross in any other way than to provide meaning for us.
      Because Easter is useful for meaning it allows us to de-center it and hold it parallel with the incarnation for instance.
      As for the ability of the resurrection to provide hope: The resurrection must be accepted by faith in the same way that the incarnation of God himself must be accepted by faith. the two do not logically prove each other or cancel each other out – unless I am missing something. Beleiving that God existed as a human being to demonstrate life is an act of benevolent grace and one that gives me hope that i might live my life in the fullness of that grace regardless of what comes after death. I get worried when the trump card of the Easter events seem to make the most difference in terms of eternity – eternal rescue restoration etc.
      I would agree that the cross demonstrates God’s willingness to suffer with us. It also symbolizes that he very much desires (likes) to redeem us.

      Ryan
      Help me understand this statement:
      “(Without the cross and the resurrection)…the kingdom Jesus preached is just one more tragic example of an idealist with great ideas who is ultimately crushed under the wheel of history.”
      Is it your contention that the outcome of Jesus life and ministry has been crushed un the wheel of history? Doesn’t beleiving that he was the God/Man change the significance of Jesus’ teaching?

      May 27, 2009
    • Is it your contention that the outcome of Jesus life and ministry has been crushed un the wheel of history?

      Absolutely not. But I think the outcome of Jesus’ life and ministry cannot be separated from the events of Easter. Easter (and Pentecost) are essential parts of what has made the church the transformative force that it has historically been. It’s not as though the early church just decided that Jesus’ teachings were really, really good and hey, even though he’s dead why not start a church, codify them, and watch the world change? The boldness and conviction of the early church are incomprehensible without the resurrection, the way this forced them to reinterpret the cross, and the power Easter infuses Jesus’ teachings with.

      Doesn’t believing that he was the God/Man change the significance of Jesus’ teaching?

      Why would it?

      May 27, 2009
    • One more thing Dale… In arguing that the cross and resurrection “could just as easily have been a really cool pancake breakfast” aren’t you doing the same thing as the folks who argue that the cross is just the means God happened to choose to accomplish the legal transaction of declaring us innocent? In both cases, the historical context into which Jesus arrives is irrelevant. All that matters is a) finding a way (any will do) to declare us “not guilty”; or b) finding a way (any will do) to give us a set of symbols that will communicate redemption.

      May 27, 2009
    • I am certainly not argueing that Easter has no effect-on the contrary it has a great effect. But I certainly do not think that you are arguing that the cross ought to be central primarily because of its effect as a motivating tool for the early church. Surely it is much more profound than that.
      Believing that Jesus was God changes how we view all of his actions and teachings and it displays God’s grace toward us in giving us an fleshly example. That God should choose to identify with the limitations of his own creation in order to demonstrate how he designed life to be lived – makes all the difference.
      As for your second point – I can see how you might see that possibility in the position I have posed but its not really how I intend to be understood here.
      First its obvious that not any old event will do because a pancake breakfast would certain throw a wrench in the OT prophesy dudes. We needed things to make sense so the cross fits and really there could not have been another act that woudl have had the same meaning for us. Second, if one can accept that Easter is a symbolic event (which seems like pretty big stretch) then we can say that nothing distinctly different actually occurred in that event other than the work which was begun from the beginning which was: to have the created enter a relationship with the Creator and experience the best possible life afforded by the challenges of this fleshly experience. Can that be a valid notion of redemption? Certainly not in the traditional sense but I wonder if it might be a better way to understand the God – human paradigm. So then its not about substitution or just an empty symbol. Perhaps it can become the story that evidences the grand scheme of God – that is certainly less than inconsequential.
      In the end I suppose I am not as interested in devalueing Easter as I am in allowing the incarnation to stand parallel to it and maybe there is room for some other things there as well…

      May 27, 2009
    • [I]f one can accept that Easter is a symbolic event (which seems like pretty big stretch) then we can say that nothing distinctly different actually occurred in that event other than the work which was begun from the beginning which was: to have the created enter a relationship with the Creator and experience the best possible life afforded by the challenges of this fleshly experience. Can that be a valid notion of redemption?

      I’ve never said that I don’t think that Easter is a symbolic event. Of course, it’s very symbolically powerful. I just think it that it is more than a symbolic event. This is why it is important to embrace the variety of understandings of the atonement in Scripture, as well as to locate Easter within the bigger story of God. But all stories have climaxes—moments without which both what precedes and follows them don’t make sense. That’s how I see Easter in God’s story. The incarnation, in and of itself, is not redemptive without Easter, just as Easter is impossible without the incarnation just as the new creation doesn’t work without Easter. It’s all part of the same redemptive package, but without Easter the whole thing falls apart, in my view.

      May 28, 2009
  7. J #

    Question: Why do we keep talking about the cross, and keep putting resurrection in brackets? The cross and the empty tomb are central, like 2 sides of a coin. I don’t see how you can understand one without the other (not to mention Christ’s incarnation, ascension, current reign, and ultimate return).

    I wonder if our tendency to over-focus on one atonement metaphor at the expense of others is partly a result of our tendency to relegate the resurrection to a kind of secondary status in relation to the crucifixion?

    Also, as to the Mennonite Brethren denomination’s perspective on atonement, the current confession of faith encourages a posture that holds the various atonement models in creative tension with one another. There is a sense that each one expresses a certain element of a mystery that is much too big for one model to express by itself.

    Historically speaking, Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren have tended to emphasize what is commonly known as the moral influence theory (this ties in with the Mennonite emphasis on life-changing discipleship) AS WELL AS a kind of penal substitution (this ties in with the Mennonite emphasis on Christ bringing peace through the forgiveness of sin). The tone of this emphasis on penal substitution has traditionally been quite different from what mainstream NAmerican evangelicalism of the last 100 years has espoused. This is probably due to the emphasis on discipleship.

    Ryan, your experience of having “penal sub” preached at you (so to speak) in your home church is not unique. Penal sub has been increasingly emphasized in more and more MB churches since the 1950s. However, that sort of thing does not happen everywhere (my MB church experience was quite different). I do not know to what extent your experience is currently normative among Canadian MBs (I suspect penal sub receives a much stronger emphasis among our US kin). My hunch is that many Canadian MB congregations continue to teach what our confession of faith espouses. (I know that both you and I do!)

    May 27, 2009
    • Ken #

      J, I think you have raised a very interesting question here: “I wonder if our tendency to over-focus on one atonement metaphor at the expense of others is partly a result of our tendency to relegate the resurrection to a kind of secondary status in relation to the crucifixion?” That question implies so many others to me. Why have various denominations at different times and places emphasized one aspect of atonement over others? What is at the heart of the current controversy in the MB denomination? Why do each of us tend to emphasize one aspect over others? Why is the atonement often emphasized more than the resurrection? I don’t think that these answers involve pure logic. They all involve historical circumstances and feelings as much as logic. To try to answer them is to discover who we are.

      Reading that MB have traditionally emphasized the moral influence theory and have interpreted the penal sub theory in a way compatible with its emphasis on discipleship helps me understand the MB denomination. It makes me wonder even more what is at the heart of the current controversy.

      Within liberal Christianity where resurrection is implausible and most theories of atonement are thought to be implausible and immoral, only the moral influence theory survives (although it is sometimes expressed in a Christus Victor way.)

      May 28, 2009
    • Thanks for the MB history tour, J—much appreciated. Your explanation of how and why we have embraced the moral influence and penal substitution models makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting that the Christus Victor model is the one getting more emphasis in some circles (including MBs) these days—perhaps a result of the malaise of postmodernity in general? For me, this is the metaphor that seems most capable of incorporating the others (moral influence, substitution, however understood) into it, but perhaps that’s another discussion.

      As in so many other areas, we MB’s are a diverse bunch aren’t we? It’s no wonder people find us somewhat confusing…

      May 28, 2009
    • Ken #

      I have seen a very ugly side of the application of the Christus Victor model in contemporary Christianity. Even though the radical liberal seminary I attended seldom mentioned atonement, it was embodied in the liberation theologies the professors and students so admired. In modernity, this view that God is overcoming evil and wants to deliver us from it results in people believing that God supports their cause and that those who oppose them are evil. In such minds, all means are justified in achieving God’s purposes. It becomes a justification for hate.

      BTW, because you believe that Jesus really rose from the dead, you would be considered a fundamentalist at the seminary I attended, not just by the Presbyterians there, but by the Methodists and Episcopalians and Congregationalists in the seminary cluster as well. You would be considered evil for your foolishness. You would be suspected of having sympathy for the enemy.

      I also saw this model, or ideology, applied in the local Presbytery to demonize political opponents. I had never been around such ugliness in my whole life. It is undemocratic and cruel.

      May 28, 2009
    • Hmmm, a fundamentalist, eh? Well, I’m not often beaten with that stick, but I suppose anything’s possible. I see your point about the abuses of certain theological understandings, although I wouldn’t see any kind of necessary connection between Christus Victor and the views you describe. But as you say, any good idea can be made ugly by those with enough determination to do so…

      May 29, 2009
  8. Gil #

    Dale, I’m not suggesting that God was ‘bound’ to anything. I’m suggesting that something actually happened through the cross and the empty tomb (notice the absence of brackets – thanks J for the reminder) that goes beyond what you call a ‘symbolic gesture’.

    The problem with a symbol is that it’s not really necessary, it’s only a helpful illustration of some timeless, contextless, abstract truth. That’s the antithesis of the gospel. The gospel is about the living God achieving an actual victory (in history) over sin and evil and death. If the cross is no more than a symbolic gesture, what exactly is it symbolizing? God’s intent? God’s desire? God’s promise?

    Does the cross represent God’s desire to redeem? Absolutely. But it does more than that, it actually accomplishes that redemption.

    May 27, 2009
  9. Gil do you think that whatever it was that happened at Easter had the chance of not occuring? Was Christ’s triumph not a foregone conclusion? I’m wondering…
    I guess to me the idea that Easter might be a symbolic gesture does not relegate it the status of “some timeless, contextless, abstract truth” but actually gives us a clear model of what sacrificial living ought to look like – I don’t know.
    I guess I am still a little unsure why Easter has to actually accomplish something (that was not already in action) but I’m not sure if there is a way to really get at that here.

    May 27, 2009
  10. J #

    Just to clarify one other thing. The “controversy” around the atonement among Canadian MBs is basically concentrated on the west coast, where certain Reformed influences out of Seattle (let the reader understand) and American evangelical influences of the more conservative/fundamentalist persuasion carry more freight. On the Canadian prairies, in Ontario, and in Quebec, the issue is…well…a non-issue. Part of this has to do with proximity to major US centers, and part of this has to do with the size of certain congregations.

    South of the border, the atonement is generating buzz among US MBs, and this is partly due to the fact that our American kin have been more influenced by the very strong conservative/fundamentalist evangelical currents that tend to emphasize the penal sub model.

    As to the place of the Christus Victor model, it was actually quite prominent in the earliest Anabaptist understandings of salvation. It led to some pretty extreme stuff, with some Anabaptists setting up cult-like communities (the Munster affair is the most obvious). My hunch is that’s one of the reasons why the Christus Victor model has been muted among Mennonites. However, it’s always been there. It figures quite prominently in the work of someone like John Howard Yoder, who reminds us that Christ has defeated the powers and is establishing his kingdom through the church. Also, when the MBs began in the 1860s, there was a clear sense that when someone experience conversion, they were freed from sin and death (an interesting mix of penal sub and CV, actually).

    I think it’s wonderfully healthy that CV is experiencing a bit of a revival among MBs. My fear is that the pendulum swings too far, and that we ignore important elements (such as penal sub).

    May 28, 2009
  11. Gil #

    Dale,

    “I guess I am still a little unsure why Easter has to actually accomplish something (that was not already in action).”

    I think the clearest answer to this question is to look at what the first disciples thought Jesus had ‘accomplished’ before they saw him post-resurrection. The short answer is: nothing.

    It seems that they interpreted the crucifixion as a failure of Jesus’ mission and as a cause for despair. And just under two months later these same disciples were boldly proclaiming Jesus as the one God raised from the dead in anticipation of the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21).

    In their minds at least something had been accomplished in the resurrection of Christ. So I have no idea whether or not ‘whatever happened in the resurrection could have been otherwise’. But it seems basic to gospel that, in the resurrection of Jesus, death is overthrown, sin and evil are defeated, and human beings are given the chance to participate in that victory.

    Of course all this existed already in that God wanted to rescue and redeem us. But the Christian faith is inescapably historical – the point is that all of this has actually happened in history as a first installment of what will one day be a permanent reality.

    May 28, 2009
    • Hey Gil,
      I think it is fair to say that the disciples despaired in those hours between but I’m not sure if you could summarily dismiss their ability to derive any meaning out of Jesus life whatsoever. But that lead down I suspiciously long and convuluted rabbit trail I suspect.
      I think you have nicely bolstered my argument about the need for these events to exist because We needed them to make better sense of God’s activity toward and with humanity.
      I also don’t disagree with the historical bind in which contextual understanding is derived but historicity itself is not an arguement against Easter being viewed a symbolic gesture.
      This has been a valuable interchange and I want to thank you (And everyone else) for allowing me to explore these ideas. For now though the keyboard on this side of the rabbit hole will stop tapping…

      May 28, 2009
  12. My take on penal substitution can be found in my blog post titled “The Lamb That Was Slain.”

    June 1, 2009
    • Interesting link, Ron. As I said in the posts linked to above, I simply do not feel compelled to embrace such a narrow understanding of the atonement.

      June 1, 2009
  13. Art #

    Ryan,
    I apologize if my contention that you are in error offends you, but I am not sorry I made the remark, if you understand what I am saying. You stated, ““As I said in the posts linked to above, I simply do not feel compelled to embrace such a narrow understanding of the atonement.”

    First of all, let me state firmly that I am not judging YOU,… it is not my right nor my place to judge anyone,… but I can, and will, judge anyones’ statements or doctrine according to Scripture.

    As I believe I mentioned, the Old testament is full of prophesies pointing to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The four Gospels are full of references to Jesus as being the fulfillment of those prophesies. The Epistles are full of explanations as to why and how this is not only necessary but fundamental to the Atonement, Redemption, Salvation. The cross is not a metaphor, neither is it symbolic. It is a vital necessity.

    John 3:14- 15, in reference to Numbers 21:9, says “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
    Incidentally, “Jesus” refers to Jesus’ humanity. “Christ” refers to His Divinity. Hence, if you put them together as in “Jesus Christ,” you are referring to the Man-God, and “Christ Jesus” is in reference to the God-Man. But I digress….

    Isaiah 53:3-12 in the Amplified Version: He was despised and rejected and forsaken by men, a Man of sorrows and pains, and acquainted with grief and sickness; and like One from Whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we did not appreciate His worth or have any esteem for Him.

    Isa 53:4 (AMP) Surely He has borne our griefs (sicknesses, weaknesses, and distresses) and carried our sorrows and pains [of punishment], yet we [ignorantly] considered Him stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God [as if with leprosy]. [Matt. 8:17]

    Isa 53:5 (AMP) But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our guilt and iniquities; the chastisement [needful to obtain] peace and well-being for us was upon Him, and with the stripes [that wounded] Him we are healed and made whole.

    Isa 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has made to light upon Him the guilt and iniquity of us all. [1 Pet. 2:24, 25]

    Isa 53:7 He was oppressed, [yet when] He was afflicted, He was submissive and opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth.

    Isa 53:8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who among them considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living [stricken to His death] for the transgression of my [Isaiah’s] people, to whom the stroke was due?

    Isa 53:9 And they assigned Him a grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in His death, although He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in His mouth. [Matt. 27:57-60; 1 Pet. 2:22, 23]

    Isa 53:10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief and made Him sick. When You and He make His life an offering for sin [and He has risen from the dead, in time to come], He shall see His [spiritual] offspring, He shall prolong His days, and the will and pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.

    Isa 53:11 He shall see [the fruit] of the travail of His soul and be satisfied; by His knowledge of Himself [which He possesses and imparts to others] shall My [uncompromisingly] righteous One, My Servant, justify many and make many righteous (upright and in right standing with God), for He shall bear their iniquities and their guilt [with the consequences, says the Lord].

    Isa 53:12 Therefore will I divide Him a portion with the great [kings and rulers], and He shall divide the spoil with the mighty, because He poured out His life unto death, and [He let Himself] be regarded as a criminal and be numbered with the transgressors; yet He bore [and took away] the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors (the rebellious). [Luke 22:37]

    That most well-known of Scriptures John 3:16 – 17 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

    Jesus Himself made the claim in John 14:6 “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

    I won’t quote many more Scriptures, but here are a few from the Epistles:

    1 Peter 2:24 (KJV) “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.”
    1 Peter 3:18 (KJV) “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:”
    Ephesians 5:2 “(KJV) … as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God,…”
    1 Thessalonians 5:10 (AMP) “Who died for us so that whether we are still alive or are dead [at Christ’s appearing], we might live together with Him and share His life.”

    I could go on and on, verse after verse, but suffice it to say that Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is absolutely fundamental, indeed it is the central theme of the entire Bible. His death is vital for the propitiation of mankind’s sins; the substitutionary sacrifice was made by Him, not for God’s sake but ours. His penal substitution on our behalf is the signature of God’s Love for mankind, and His Grace and Mercy towards us in reconciling us to Himself.

    If that makes me a “fundamentalist,” and thus somehow suspect, so be it. I AM a fundamentalist in some things, but very Liberal in others. I don’t care what denomination you prefer; what colour you are; what gender. It matters not to me if men wear long hair, or women wear hats and/or pants. If you dance, or drink alcohol, or smoke, or go to movies, or believe in baptism by sprinkling vs. dunking, if you “speak in tongues,” which translation of the Bible you prefer, etcetera, etcetera, matters not a whit to me. Those are all non-essentials. What does matter to me is whether or not you believe in and accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, thus believing (by Faith) in His Substitutionary Sacrifice. THAT makes you my brother and/or sister and we are part of the family of God.

    Of course, you are free to believe whatever your little heart desires. All I can and should do is point out what scripture says. Whatever happens from there is between you and God.

    Sorry this is so verbose, but I did try to be as brief as I could. Thanks for “listening” even if you do not agree!

    Have a great day!
    Art.

    June 3, 2009
    • Thanks for your very comprehensive response Art. Your contention that I am “in error” certainly didn’t offend me—I found it somewhat amusing, but not offensive in any way. I’m also not too concerned over whether or not you are judging me personally (as opposed to just my inferior doctrine). As you (so charitably and non-condescendingly) put it: I’m free to believe whatever my “little heart desires.” Like you, I’m happy to leave the bigger questions of judgment to God.

      Having said all that, I’m surprised that in all of the above you still didn’t answer my question: how exactly do you see my willingness to embrace a broad and multifaceted understanding of the atonement as being “in error?

      I can only assume that you haven’t read much of what I’ve written in the comment thread of this post or in other posts on the atonement, because I have never once said that I don’t believe in the need for substitutionary atonement or that the cross is a metaphor as opposed to a “vital necessity” (we understand the cross via metaphors, but that doesn’t mean that the cross is itself a metaphor). Embracing a broader understanding of the atonement in no way implies that penal sub isn’t an important part of the package. It just isn’t the entire package. I’ve been pretty clear about this in everything I’ve written.

      Re: your felt need to “point out what scripture says,” I’m not exactly sure who you are trying to convince of what with that list, nor am I sure that cutting and pasting twenty or so (context-free) verses is the best way to have a fruitful discussion on the matter (am I to assume that you think these verses are new to me? Am I expected to supply “my” verses and whoever has the biggest stack “wins?”). Nevertheless, if you feel that providing these verses is necessary to convince me of the importance of Christ’s death and resurrection, I can happily assure you that I am in complete agreement. Once again, I have never denied the centrality of Christ’s work on the cross. I think what Christ accomplishes on the cross is goes beyond simply paying for our sins and is located within the broader framework of God’s ultimate defeat of evil. If this makes me “in error” I will happily live in error for the rest of my days.

      June 4, 2009
  14. Art #

    Ryan,
    Having re-read your comments, I think I misunderstood your position, and read “P.S.” where you were distinctly referring to The Atonement. Hence I owe you an apology for suggesting you are in error. I also hold the view that The Atonement encompasses more than just our salvation/redemption, but includes the future redemption of creation and the restoration of God’s Kingdom among other things. Mea Culpa; I apologize profusely.

    There were others who did question the centrality of the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ however, and my “cutting and pasting of Scripture” still applies to them. I don’t really think that these were as contextless as you claim, but merely some references to what the Bible has to say on the topic of Penal Substitution. If I could think of a way to reference these verses without resorting to cutting and pasting, I would do so. I thought about merely providing the references, but I decided that some people might be too lazy to look them up.

    Not that I assumed that these verses were new to you either. I was simply emphasizing the verses I believe to be pertinent to the discussion. And, I would prefer to refer to scripture than to the so-called “experts.” I sometimes question whether some of them serve the same God I do, or are reading the same Bible.

    “I think what Christ accomplishes on the cross is goes beyond simply paying for our sins and is located within the broader framework of God’s ultimate defeat of evil.” Okay! Now I “get” your position, and I agree with you. Once again, I apologize for the misunderstanding. I confuse easily!

    June 8, 2009
    • No problem Art. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      The only reason I used the word “contextless” is because I don’t like to atomize Scripture. It’s too easy to just raid the Bible for the key words/phrases/ideas that are important to us without paying attention to the broader narrative in which these verses are located. As I’m sure you’re aware, the breaking up of the Bible into chapters and verses happened pretty late in the game. This is both a good and a bad thing; it’s good because it allows us to find our way around the text. It’s bad because we can treat verses like discrete entities that stand alone and no longer require their broader context to derive meaning. It becomes much too easy to proof-text. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you were doing this, but I’ve seen far too many arguments conducted under the unstated assumption that whoever can find the most bible verses to support their point wins.

      Having said all that, I do think that the centrality of Christ as our substitute comes through loud and clear, even when questions of literary, historical, and cultural context are used to interpret individual verses. The problems arise when those with a deep commitment to penal satisfaction use the word “substitution” as a synonym for their view. This is unhelpful, because all the theories of the atonement present Jesus as our substitute. I like the way that MB scholar Tim Geddert recently put it:

      All the major atonement theories present Jesus as our substitute.

      * Ransom: We could not buy back our own freedom from slavery to sin and death, so Jesus paid the price and set us free (free to be Christ’s slaves). Jesus did what we could not do; in paying the price, he was our substitute.

      * Conquest: We were too weak to defeat our enemies (and of course God’s); only God acting in and through Jesus could defeat the power of sin and death, could defeat the arch-enemy, Satan, and therefore deliver us from Satan’s dominion. Jesus did what we could not do; in overpowering the enemy, he was our substitute.

      * Penal Satisfaction: The penalty for sin is death; if we had needed to pay for our sins, death would have been our final fate. But Jesus paid the penalty for us; he became our substitute.

      As always, clarifying our terminology is an important step in having a fruitful conversation. I think Geddert helps us move beyond the question of whether or not Christ is our substitute (understood narrowly) to how is Christ our substitute and to what end.

      Thanks again for your response.

      June 9, 2009

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