This is from Embracing Grace in an earlier version. I jumped into the atonement theory conversation yesterday, and thought I’d put this on the blog today: which theory of the atonement do you believe? I have posted a new poll where you can choose which one [not all] you prefer.
A series of theologians have read the Bible and done their best to reduce this bigness down to a single story. But, that story is too grand to be reduced to a single story. In fact, the various stories are each needed, not only because each tells part of the story but because each also tells our story. They are stories of the one gospel. One can’t describe grace in one word, and one can’t describe the gospel in one word, and one surely can’t reduce the work of God for us to one story. It takes a series of stories because the atonement is more mystery than it is mechanics.
The early Church very quickly began to debate its understanding of God, and the whole Church, everywhere, came to the conclusion that God was a Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. This is what we read in the Nicene Creed. These creeds were discussed and debated and improved for more than four centuries. This may come as a surprise but the Church never sensed a need to articulate a single explanatory theory for the atonement. The wise ask why the Church never “solved” the atonement question. I believe it was because they knew it took more than one story to tell that story, and I believe also that they knew it as a reality so rich in diversity that attempts to narrow it down to manageable size were unwise.
The Church, however, has always taught that God does restore Eikons to union with God and communion with others for the good of others and the world, and that God’s work is to form a missional community. “Atonement” means “at-one-ment” with God (and others). Perhaps the first to think seriously about what the Bible says about atonement was Irenaeus.
Irenaeus: The story of recapitulation
The explanation of Irenaeus goes like this: humans are made in God’s “image and likeness.” Irenaeus believed the body and soul made up the “image” and the Spirit’s gift to us was the “likeness.” When Adam and Eve fell, the Spirit departed from them so all that remained was the image. The human condition was incomplete until Jesus Christ, who was the true image and likeness of God – body, soul, and Spirit. Most importantly, because Jesus was the true image and likeness he was given the chance to “recapitulate” the life of Adam and to do so perfectly. Building on the wonderful theology of the Apostle Paul in chapter five of Romans, where Jesus is seen as the Second Adam, Irenaeus understands the atonement as the story of Jesus recapitulating Adam’s entire life for our benefit. By recapitulating human life, Jesus can establish a new line of humans. Just as Adam and Eve established a line of cracked Eikons, so Jesus establishes a line of restored Eikons.
Irenaeus put it all together in a formula that is impossible to improve: “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” In this brief formula, that Jesus became what we are so that we might become what he is, we find everything the Church believed and will believe as it continues to explore the atonement. The story of recapitulation tells us that “God has been here before.”
Early theologians: The story of ransom
The story of ransom, usually called the “classical” theory, can’t be pinned to one particular theologian but was especially popular in the first millennium of the Church. This theory is rooted in the grandest story of the Old Testament: the Exodus and Passover when God liberated Israel from bondage. The ransom story describes a new Exodus in Jesus.
From the time of Adam and Eve on humans were enslaved spiritually to Satan and demons. To liberate them, God sent his Son but to do so he had to trick the Devil. Spying his chance, Satan snatched the Son and put him to death. But, when Satan grasped the Son, the rest of humanity escaped. As if to insult Satan, Jesus rose from the dead and broke Satan’s grip. Victoriously, he returned to the Father. To be fair, most today who adhere to the ransom theory no longer see God’s tricking of Satan as part of the mix. Instead, it speaks of the power of God being unleashed to liberate humans from sin and suffering and systemic evil. But, one must admit that the story of the early fathers was full of drama. Release from someone’s grip is an ageless story.
Anselm: The story of satisfaction
The single most influential study on the atonement came from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, who about 1000 AD and while in exile, wrote a famous book, Why God Became Human? The book explores a philosophical set of problems – why did God become human? and how can an all holy God reconcile himself with sinful humans? For anyone who takes Genesis 3 and God’s utter holiness seriously, Anselm’s story of satisfaction has something to say about the problem God was resolving in the atonement.
In essence, here’s Anselm’s theory: God’s honor was wounded by Adam and Eve’s sin. They were made to be Eikons but dishonored God through sin. God either must punish them to balanced the scales of justice or his honor needs to be restored in another way. For God’s honor to be restored, humans must offer to God a genuine satisfaction (or compensation) for what they have done. But, and here the path becomes very steep, because humans are finite, they can’t make satisfaction to a God whose infinite honor has been wounded. The God-Man, Jesus Christ, is the perfect substitute: He is both finite, Human, and infinite, Divine. He alone can restore the honor of God and he does so by becoming “like us so he can make us like God.”
Some theologians have fought Anselm’s central insight, blaming him for turning the Cross into a legal court room in which God has to work out his (rather psychological) problems in front of the whole world. But the question Anselm raises – how can a holy God forgive sinful humans with utter integrity? – will not go away easily. After all, Paul said something very much like this in the third chapter or Romans when he expressed the logical difficulty in God forgiving humans: the Cross was, Paul said, “to prove at the present time that he [God] himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” That is, the Cross shows that God can be both righteous (just) and make others righteous (justify).
Anselm’s theory tells the story of one problem (God’s honor) and how that honor can be restored (through the sacrifice of the God-Man). If we take our sin and God’s holiness seriously, we can see what drew Anselm into this story. Along with recapitulation and ransom, satisfaction also tells our story. Because the satisfaction theory and the substitution theory have been wound together by theologians, we will move to the next story and illustrate both of these with one story.
The Evangelical Reformers: The story of penal substitution
In every story of the atonement, Jesus is somehow a substitute or our representative: he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves so that we can become what he is. However important substitution is to theology in some circles today, the idea rarely comes to the surface in Irenaeus, in the ransom theory, or in Anselm. But with the German reformer Martin Luther, who preferred the bold and confrontational, and the Swiss reformer John Calvin, who analyzed doctrines with razor-like sharpness, substitutionary atonement becomes central. Because humans have sinned and wounded God’s honor by breaking God’s law, they contend, they deserve the wrath of God – which is the new emphasis given by the Reformers. As our substitute, Jesus absorbed the wrath of God’s punishment against sin, restored God’s honor, and so enabled us to escape God’s wrath. To emphasize that the work is more than deflection of wrath, the Reformers emphasized that God also imputed to humans the perfection of Christ so they would be worthy of God’s presence. They are, in other words, justified by faith in Christ. This is the story of substitution. It is the story of deflecting wrath for our benefit so that we could enjoy the presence of God.
Abelard: The story of the example
Abelard, a 12th Century philosopher and theologian, is more known today for his scandalous love affair with the Canon of Notre Dame’s daughter, Heloise, than he is for his theology. But, amidst the tohu va-bohu of his life, Abelard proposed a story of the atonement that still finds admirers today. In essence, it is this: Jesus died as an example and by contemplating his example we can learn to love God and others, and even sacrifice our lives for the good of others. Hymns such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” or the discipleship teaching of the New Testament that emphasizes following the Jesus of the Cross, or Peter’s overt statement in chapter two of his first letter that Jesus is an example each confirms that the Cross is an example.
Each of these stories – recapitulation, ransom, satisfaction, substitution, and example – does what it can to tell God’s story of the at-one-ment, the story of God drawing us into union with God and communion with others for the good others and the world.
The story who is a person
Sometimes theologians, and you may have already said this about what you have read here, speak as if the atonement is abstract theory. The story of the gospel is first and foremost and nothing if it is not first the embracing of persons. God embraces us in Jesus Christ and we embrace God in Jesus Christ. The embrace involves trust and love and commitment. God is personal; Eikons are persons; Jesus is a person. Restoring Eikons is about restoring persons so they are in union and communion. At-one-ment is a “re-unioning” and “re-communioning” of our relationships. God does all this in the context of a community and with a missional direction: so “atoned” persons can be of good to others and the world. Any theory that stops short of these other elements of the gospel fails to explain what the atonement is all about.
A big gospel takes many stories to explain.
To be sure, the gospel manages sin, declares humans right, and liberates. But more than these, the gospel is the embracing of persons: of God and humans, of humans with other humans, for the good of others and the world.