The problem for atonement theory is the problem it resolves. In other words, atonement theory is designed to “fix” the problem, and we often describe the problem as sin. But, what is sin? And with it comes the trailer: What are its effects (impacts)? And that raises the issue of total depravity.
So the problem is the problem.
Here’s my contention with you today: most define the problem in exclusively individualistic terms. To define the problem (sin) in exclusively individualistic terms results in an individualistic atonement theory and an individualistic redemption. And we are tempted over and over to define sin narrowly as individual act, but sin (as we will begin to see tomorrow) is a term for a spectrum of deed and state and consequences. We’ll be helped in our discussion by Mark Biddle’s fine book, Missing the Mark.
John Goldingay, who has more good ideas than most, has a nice piece on how “sin” is described in the Bible: rebellion, infidelity, disloyalty, ingratitude, getting dirty, wandering, trespass, transgression, and failure ( “missing the mark”). (See Atonement Today, 39-45.)
It follows then that the problem concerns the human response to God (not just his will), but the problem, as all theologies show, involves not only the individual sin but the impact sin makes: distortion of relationship in all four directions — with God, with self, with others, and with the world.
In my terms, cracked Eikons do cracked things and create cracked systemic conditions.
So big is sin that the Reformed theologian, Cornelius Plantinga #2, defines sin as “culpable shalom-breaking.” This isn’t a shallow trope — this is a profound perception. The problem, in its essence, is hyper-relational distortion in all directions that distorts everything around us.
The problem is what happens with our self, with others, and with the world, each of which reflects our problem with God. If sin, the problem, begins with our relation to God, it involves our relation to self, to others, and the world.
Now we are face-to-face with our problem: if the problem is hyper-relational distortion, then atonement “fixes” that hyper-relational distortion. If sin is relational, so also is atonement. If we define sin as nothing more than offense of the Law, then atonement is nothing more than wiping the offense clean. But, will this do? I don’t think the Bible lets us reduce the problem to offense and therefore it does not let us reduce atonement to offense-rectification.
It’s bigger than that, but we only figure this out if we realize that the problem is the problem, and we’ve got to figure out just what this problem is.