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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

What is this thing called Atonement?

One of the basic Christian doctrines debated today is the doctrine of the Atonement. Just using that word will cause a stir of dissent in some. "'Atonement'," they will say suspiciously, "just what do you mean by that?" As it turns out, the doctrine has been debated for a long, long time. The debates go quiet at times, but then resurface. Welcome to the reemergence.

Now, those of us who are right (that's humor) would like to say, "We're simply answering from the Bible", but those who disagree will argue, "You're only answering from your understanding of the Bible", and we'd be at an impasse. So I'll show the Scriptures, lay out the possibilities, and let you decide.

First, the Scriptures. The "Atonement" concept comes from the Old Testament. "Every day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement" (Exo 29:36). Just an example. There are lots more where that came from, but you get the idea. The Hebrew word is kippur. (Yom Kippur is "the Day of Atonement".) The root word references a covering, and this word means "to expiate". There you go, clear as day. Okay, "expiate" means "to appease", "to extinguish guilt", "to make amends". That's the Old Testament version.

In the New Testament the same thought is carried into the Greek texts. Here the word is hilasterion, as in, "[We] are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith" (Rom 3:24-25). Greek word, same concept -- the appeasement of wrath. You'll find that also in Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, and 1 John 4:10. Thus, the biblical concept of "atonement" is rooted in the idea of appeasement in both Old and New Testaments. The idea there is that God's wrath is justly toward sinners, and that wrath needs to be appeased.

Note, however, that in that passage from Romans 3 there is another word -- "redemption". This term is part of the whole concept of Atonement. Now, we use the term in English somewhat loosely. We can say that something has "no redeeming value" and mean nothing having to do with any real idea of "purchase". We can "redeem coupons" by turning them in. Nothing really paid there. But that's not the case in either the standard use of English or in the Greek for this word. There are a couple of Greek words behind these instances. The one in Romans 3 is apolutrosis, which means "to pay a ransom". In Gal 3:13 we read, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us." That one is exagorazo which means quite literally "to buy off the market". That is, in this term the idea is to buy from the market so that it is no longer available for sale. So, included in "Atonement" is the concept of "Redemption". In English and in Greek, "redemption" means "to buy or pay off" or "to clear by payment." It is a purchase.

Okay, that's the Scripture, and there is a lot of it. So what about history? What have they said? Well, the original idea of the Early Church Fathers was called "the Ransom View". They suggested that when Man fell, Satan gained certain rights to Mankind (you know, as in "enslaved to sin"). Christ, then, paid the ransom for those under Satan's domain. Now, there were arguments about to whom the ransom was paid (was it God or was it Satan?), but that was the popular early version.

Anselm in the 11th century suggested the "Satisfaction" theory. Here's the basic idea. God deserves absolute obedience from His creation. We fail miserably at it. This is why Christ had to become human. The God-Man was required because on one hand a human was required to supply perfect obedience and on the other hand this satisfaction must be infinite (since it is God's satisfaction), so God was required to supply it. Thus, the God-Man, Christ, who died for sins He never committed, perfectly and completely satisfied the just demands of God for perfect obedience and, in that sacrifice, merited a reward which was the forgiveness of the sins of those who come to Christ.

In the 12th century Paul Abelard rejected Anselm's view and preferred the "Moral Influence" perspective. In this one Christ's death was an act of such supreme moral purity that it affects those who see it. When sinners see this absolute demonstration of God's love for sinners, they will respond in love to God. How this view is "atonement" is beyond me, but there it is for your perusal.

The more common view today came from Reformers. Called "Penal Substitution", it is the idea that Christ paid the penalty for my sin. The wages of sin is death, we know, and instead of me dying, Christ took that payment on my behalf.

A newer one on the scene bears a name long associated with the older "Ransom" view -- "Christus Victor". It is not the same view, but because they call it something that was associated with the old one, they say "It's the view of the early fathers." It's not. This idea surfaced in 1931 in a book by Gustaf Aulen entitled Christus Victor. He claimed that this was the original view, then went on to explain that the original view (the "Ransom" view) was inaccurate when thought of as a ransom -- a financial transaction of sorts -- but was actually the idea of the victory of Christ. Nothing was paid here. There was no transaction ("Ransom"). No satisfaction of justice ("Satisfaction") or the like was involved. It's just that Christ won. At the cross, Christ defeated the power of the Law, since condemnation of a perfect man was unjust. Victory! (I have to mention that this cracked me up. According to this account, "While largely held only by Eastern Orthodox Christians ... the Christus Victor theory is becoming increasingly popular with ... liberal Christians and peace churches such as the Anabaptist Mennonites because of its subversive nature ..." Really? Because it is "subversive"?)

Well, there you have it. First, there is the biblical content. The components you must fill are, according to Scripture, 1) the appeasement of the wrath of God ("propitiation") and 2) buying the sinner off the market ("redemption"). With those components you can decide what sort of view you will take. Perhaps you like the Ransom theory, although you'll have to decide to whom the ransom was paid. Or maybe it's the Satisfaction theory where God's just demands were satisfied in Christ. Or, perhaps, incorporating all that, you see the Penal Substitution idea as the best in that Christ paid our debt and satisfied God's just demands. Maybe you discard all these "appeasement" and "redemption" ideas and prefer just to think that we were given an amazing display of God's love in the Moral Influence theory, or maybe that Christ's death simply broke the power of sin by suffering an unjust death as in the Christus Victor concept. If either of these is your choice, you'll have to figure out on your own how you connect those to "Atonement" or "Redemption". But there are the general options. Enjoy picking your favorite. May I take this opportunity to encourage you to take a biblically-informed position?


Danny Wright said...

Which one gets me to heaven?

Stan said...

Only the one that satisfies God's justice. (I do think that there is some truth in most, if not all, of them. The danger is in excluding, for instance, the fact that Christ paid for our sin in favor of "Christus Victor". Yes, Christ was victorious, but that is not the complete or even sufficient answer. So I go with a combination of all of them (except for the "Moral Influence" concept which makes no sense in a fallen world). So, let's see ... The Atonement encompasses a Ransom paid on our behalf where Christ fully satisfied God's justice and holiness, emerging victorious over death and hell and Satan, having paid the price for sin in our stead ("penal substitution"). How's that?