I will lay it down as a premise for theological thinking about the atonement that one’s theory of sin shapes (even to the point of determining) one’s theory of the atonement. I will also agree with many scholars who point out that males have shaped the discussion of the atonement. Let’s just name the major influences: Irenaeus and the recapitulation theory, the Cappadocian fathers and the ransom theory, Anselm and the satisfaction theory, Abelard and the moral influence theory, the Reformers and the penal substitution theory, Hugo Grotius and the government theory. Each theory is connected to a male. Has their “maleness” intruded into the theory of the atonement? Feminists think so. What do you think?
Rita Finger argued that the penal substitution and moral influence theories encouraged women into patterns of submission, while the ransom (Christus Victor) theory encouraged liberation. Some feminists have repudiated the cross as an instrument of powerful violence against the oppressed and powerless, and have therefore sought out a theory of atonement that is virtually cross-less (Ruether). The cross, so they are arguing, justifies violence against the weak.
Now if the premise above be accepted, we are in need of examining our understanding of sin, and we have to ask if males have shaped the discussion in light of male-ish sins and therefore male-ish atonement. Do the theories of atonement above mostly focus on the “curse” of God against Adam in Genesis 3 and do they incorporate enough the “curse” against women in Genesis 3?
Can it be said that women “sin” differently than men? That their “kinds” of sins are (while not wholly other) in marked contrast or the mirror image of male sins? Valerie Saiving Goldstein concluded in her famous essay in the Journal of Religion in 1960 that the temptations of women are not the same as the temptations of men. And Sally Alsford concludes this: “Just as ‘male’ sins are destructive outworkings of male experience and potentiality, so ‘female’ sins are destructive outworkings of female experience and potentiality” (152; see below). That is, “the male perspective which speaks of self-assertion as sin may cause women to strangle such desires as in conflict with their calling to love and service of others” (152).
To be sure, we have to be careful of stereotyping males and females, but avoiding such a stereotype does not permit us to fail to observe the realities of the male and female experiences as shaping both sin and atonement.
Here’s an example: Is the inherent power structure of the world the imposition of a male experience of how the male Eikon is cracked? In other words, is it the projection and systematizing of the male propensity to overpower? What it would it be like (I hear Aristophanes knocking at my door) if women’s experience were imposed on the world?
Alsford also suggests that because males have shaped the discussion of atonement, the cross itself is often the entire point of the atonement because it is in the cross that males find resolution to their particular problem with power. She suggests that a feminist theory of atonement will take into consideration the life, death, and resurrection.
I have recently been reading J. Goldingay, Atonement Today, and the article by Sally Alsford (pp. 148-165) is a nice survey of the theories. For another survey, see J. Denny Weaver, A Nonviolent Atonement.