Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Just one acceptable theory of atonement?

Increasingly—or so it seems to me—the penal substitution theory of atonement has become reified as the sole, legitimate theory accepted by “orthodox” Evangelicals. I have seen a number writings that indicate any openness to other theories of atonement is a departure from “biblical” Christianity. This is surprising to me. My theology and history classes indicated that a multiplicity of atonement theories have been propagated by well-known and highly respected theologians. Moreover, Scripture offers up several different word pictures for understanding the death of Jesus.

The fact that the penal substitution theory has become the only “correct” theory of atonement further confounded me as I discovered it to be a later development. In fact, two sources I consulted place its origins in the second millennium of Christian history. Don’t hear me wrong, I’m not saying that the penal substitution theory of atonement is wrong. I concede that there is amble evidence in Scripture to indicate that it is a viable theory. But, is it the only legitimate possibility?


sdawg said...

Correct me if you've observed things differently, but my observation has been that the most energetic "penal-only" defenders come from the Reformed tradition. I could be way off, but often I feel that many in the Reformed tradition seem willing to defend the Reformed view of the faith and the way it shaped and developed the faith in different respects no matter what. I'll call this Reformed-ianity. Your post seems a very big example of this.

To present an exception, I have heard Tim Keller (Reformed pastor at Redeemer Presb, NYC) push for a more biblically broad gospel incorporating both diachronic and synchronic readings of the scriptures. But to be honest I've not looked at his statements closely enough to see if he actually opens up to incorporating other atonement theories to flesh out our view of atonement.

Wendy said...

sorry, if i'm late in responding to this, but i do feel compelled to answer the comment about the reformed tradition and atonement (although michael did say that he was referring to orthodox evangelicals, which many reformed-types would not place themselves as at all).

while, yes, calvin did adhere to an Anselmian satisfaction theory(of which penal-only is a subset), subsequent reformed theologians (of which there are MANY), have placed themselves elsewhere. for example, karl barth pushes past calvin to focus on the act of christ being reconciliation which is wholly based out of the love of God. shirly guthrie, a student of barth's and one of the most popular theologians in my part of the presbyterian world, states outright that the anselmian theory of satisfaction is unbiblical. that jesus did not come to change god's mind, but to express god's mind. other liberation and feminist theologians of a reformed bent will find issue with the violence of traditional theories of atonement. serene jones falls, who is very much a reformed theologian, would more than likely fall into the "moral influence" category -- although i think that is oversimplifying her. she says that (and she is speaking of) women are clothed in grace through god's reconciliating action. she rejects the images of crucifiction as too violent and further fragmenting the already fragmented selves of women. yet her idea of clothing is very reformed -- actually this time pulling from luther.

yes, calvin the lawyer really liked the idea of the satisfaction theory. it fit the way he thought. but he also gave us the three-fold office of christ (prophet, priest and king) which allows us to look at the atonement from at least the three most popular theories (christus victor, satisfaction, and moral influence). as reformed people, we can do this and not always have to stick with calvin because we are 'reformed and always being reformed.'

and yes, we reformedians do like to argue our theology -- we've spent a long time learning it, and love to get a chance to use it :)

Wendy said...

i want to apologize for the egregious grammatical and syntactical errors in my previous posting. it was late, and i apparently didn't proofread.

Steve Hayes said...

The problem is perhaps atonement theories as opposed to atonement images. There are plenty of images, but when you turn one of them into a worked-out theory and ignore the others, there is a problem.

M Crane said...

Steve, that is a good clarification. I guess the trick is to glean from each of these images in a manner that faithfully aids our understanding of the atonement without getting locked into one image of the atonement.