It was good to hear about your mission year and how you are following that up with an interest in the kind of lifestyle Shane Clairborne, a Protestant Francis, advocates. I have some questions for you about such matters, but I want to get to your question before I run out of time and space. You say that your mother told you that the emerging church doesn’t believe in substitionary atonement, and you’ve asked me if it does.
I say this all the time, but it is only because I have to: the “emerging church” doesn’t have a creed or a doctrinal statement that all emerging churches and Christians affirm, so the answer comes down to “some do, and apparently some don’t.” Let me explain.
The best way I have seen to express the “atonement” (the doctrine that explains what God has done for us in Jesus Christ — especially at the cross) is to say that Jesus lived and died with us, instead of us, and for us. It seems to me that we are now living in a time when Christians seem to want to rally around one of these instead of all of them.
So, some focus on Jesus identifying with us — and they talk about Jesus as God Incarnate, and they see Jesus as our Brother, and they find great solace in knowing that God became what we are. He became human, experienced pain and joy, felt isolation and companionship, knew disappointment and fellowship, suffered betrayal, and — this is where it is all headed — he went to the cross and experienced suffering at such a level that we know God knows what we are going through. I believe this aspect of atonement is very true and one of its greatest strengths is that it brings the life and death and resurrection together into the atonement. Some in the emerging movement attach themselves to this view.
Others in the Church have focused on Jesus’ cross as something he underwent instead of us. That is, he was our substitute. He died our death; he died instead of us; and the curse he experienced — God’s wrath against sin by way of death (physical and eternal) — he undertook instead of us. This is called the substitionary theory of atonement; some call it penal substitution — emphasizing wrath against us experienced by Jesus. If you combine “with” us and “instead” of us, you can also use the word “representation,” but I want you to know that “representation” has a checkered history and some evangelicals get upset when someone says they think Jesus “represents” us. I like this term, but I think we have to be careful how we explain it. He represented us both by dying with us (inclusive) and by dying instead of us (exclusive representation).
Here is how I see the emerging movement and the “instead of us” theory. Some grew up where this was the only thing taught, and some say they grew up hearing only of an angry God who poured out his wrath on Jesus Christ, and they think that gives the wrong idea. They think the death of Jesus was an act of grace and if that is not seen, then the cross is misunderstood. As a result, some have completely chucked the idea of substitution. It is a mistake to chuck substitution. If you read Romans 1-5 you will see an emphasis on death as the “punishment” (penal term) for sin, and you will see that Jesus died instead of us so that we can be saved from death and given life.
Others want to emphasize the benefits of Jesus’ death, the “for us” part — that he died to forgive us, to reconcile us to God, to give to us a new paradigm for living (learning to die to self and sin and live to God). Many in the emerging movement, I suspect, would land here — and they might think that trying to explain how God did what he did in the cross to be beyond our comprehension. They know it works; they don’t know how.
In my view, the atonement involves each of these: Jesus died with us (identification), instead of us (substitution), and for us (benefaction). We need each, so let’s teach each.
So, now I’m asking myself your question again. If we simply admit that the emerging movement doesn’t have a doctrinal statement, I think you could tell your mom that you understand there is diversity in the movement on this issue.
I’m wondering if you have heard anything in your gathering that gives you solid indication of where they stand on atonement issues?
Well, back to Shane. I haven’t read Irresistible Revolution and now wonder if I should.
About these letters: These are letters I’m cobbling together from letters, e-mails, and conversations with emerging Christians. I will pull them all together and send them to three or four persons, but they reflect conversations and letters over the last two years.