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Monday, August 10, 2015

The Atonement

One of the primary components of the Christian faith is the principle of atonement and the fact of the Atonement. The principle is that humans, by their sin, have created a gulf between themselves and God. The Bible says that the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God (Rom 8:7). We -- God and us -- are not at one. Thus, the need to atone, to make amends, to repair the injury. There is a problem that has to be made right. That's the principle of atonement. The fact of the Atonement is that Christ died for our sins in order to appease God and make us right with Him. In every other religion this "make it right" process is something you and I do. We work for it. Be good and live a righteous life and follow the rules and maybe, just maybe, the deity in view will find this acceptable. Christianity alone holds that this cannot happen. The rift is too deep, the debt too large. It took a perfect man, God Incarnate, to accomplish this. In the Old Testament atonement was accomplished by a sacrificial system that prefigured Christ. The lamb was sacrificed looking ahead to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). When Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac, he told his son, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering." (Gen 22:8) That lamb provided by God for God would be Christ. (Note that in the Genesis 22 story, God did not provide a lamb for Himself; He provided a ram (Gen 22:13).) So when we speak of "the Atonement", we are speaking of Christ's sacrifice of Himself at the cross to make those who put their faith in Him "at one" with God. Thus, "at-one-ment".

You may not know this, but as it turns out there have been more than one theory regarding the Atonement. There have, in fact, been quite a few. Chronologically, they appear like this on the historical timeline:

The Ransom Theory

This is the earliest recorded theory on the topic. It holds that Christ died to pay a ransom for us. The Early Church Fathers were never quite in agreement regarding to whom the ransom was paid. Some said it was Satan, some God. (This is held by Eastern Orthodox chruches.)

The Recapitulation Theory

Introduced by Iranaeus (125-202 AD), this one played off Paul's version of Christ as the New Adam. In this version Christ undid what Adam did. Adam disobeyed; Christ was obedient. In this, Christ reversed the course of mankind. "Christ became what we are so we could become what He is." (Note: Iranaeus also subscribed to the Ransom Theory, so we don't need to go down the "The Church Fathers had an earlier view" line of argument.)

The Satisfaction Theory

This was Anselm's idea in the late 11th century. It holds that Jesus appeased God by sacrificing Himself. He satisfied God's just demands on our behalf. It is primarily viewed in a sort of financial transaction -- payment made for a debt owed. (This one is preferred by the Roman Catholic Church.)

The Moral Theory

Abelard in the 12th century suggested that Jesus's death is a moral example for the rest of humanity to emulate. The goal was to impress humanity with the extent of God's love to soften their hearts and lead them to repentance. The idea is "We should follow Christ's example of radical love, where He loved us even to His own death." This "atonement" specifically is not a sacrifice to satisfy an angry God, but the standard "God loves you so be good and you'll be okay." (This one is often preferred by liberal Christianity.)

The Acceptance Theory

A guy named Scotus circa 1300 AD offered this one. He simply held that God arbitrarily chose to remove the problem between God and Man. No payment. No rectifying the problem. God just chose. This one is popular among liberal Christianity, too.

The Penal or Penal-Substitution Theory

The Reformers in the early 16th century argued this theory as a correction to Anselm's Satisfaction Theory. That is, he didn't explain it well enough. Christ paid our penalty by dying on the cross on our behalf (penal substitution). As such, God's justice was satisfied and God's mercy replaces His wrath. (This is the leading theory for most conservative Christian groups.)

Christus Victor Theory

This one holds that Jesus voluntarily allowed Himself to be executed. This defeated the power of evil and released humanity from its sin. It was first explained in 1931 by Gustaf Aulén. He went back to the Ransom Theory and argued that the Atonement was actually the story of God in Christ triumphing over the powers of Satan and liberating humanity.

The Government Theory

In this version, God made Christ an example of suffering so that we could see that the moral government of God required wrath against sin. Christ's suffering toward that end was sufficient to God. This view was originally offered by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) but became a popular one for some like Charles Finney, Jonathan Edwards Jr (called "the younger" -- not to be confused with the famous Jonathan Edwards of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" fame), and the Methodists.

The List Goes On

Modern, non-violent theories have also been suggested primarily by African-American and feminist theologians that I don't plan to examine. Additionally, there are modifications to these primary theories that don't much matter and even anti-Christian theories such as the Accident Theory that said Christ's death was an accident and the Martyr Theory that holds that Christ died for His principles and nothing more. I'll skip over these.


So which do I hold? The answer is a qualified "Yes." I believe in the Ransom Theory because Scripture says so (Mark 10:45; 1 Tim 2:5-6) but disagree with the part that says that the ransom was paid to Satan (making Satan the victor). Iranaeus's Recapitulation Theory works based on 2 Cor 5:21 -- "For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God." -- but not if it eliminates other versions. God was certainly satisfied with Christ's death on the cross, so I'm up for the Satisfaction Theory for as far as it goes. Christ "gave Himself for us to redeem us" (Titus 2:14), a reference to a price paid, a transaction made ... the essence of the Satisfaction Theory. I certainly agree that we are to be "like Christ" including His matchless love as suggested by the Moral Theory, as long as we don't use this one to jettison the rest. I'm sure that the Penal-Substitution Theory fills out the notion quite well -- perhaps better than most -- answering to important items biblical claims such as Christ as our propitiation (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). (In Rom 3:25 the propitiation is "by His blood".) Sin has a penalty (Rom 6:23) and justice demands that it be paid. Paul says that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us." (Gal 3:13) That is "penal substitution". The Christus Victor Theory is certainly true. Christ was victorious (1 Cor 15:57). It just isn't the complete story. In other words, I don't think that any single theory covers the Atonement. Conversely, I think that most (not all) theories have something valid to say about the Atonement. My problem occurs when any given theory includes a "but everyone else is all wrong" clause. I suppose that's just me. I try to draw my conclusions on key issues like this from Scripture.

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