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Atonement Thinking

posted by xscot mcknight

Anyone who follows this blog knows we have have a number of conversations about atonement and the various theories associated with it, leading as it did to a recent book of mine called Community called Atonement. But a few new books have passed my way and I’d like to mention two of them:
Let us suppose we know the “problem” and we know the “result.” If we define the former as “sin” in all its many variations and connotations and the latter as union with God, etc., then we need to realize this: the way we define the problem and the result determines which image we “exploit” when we speak of atonement. Are we sufficiently varied in our understanding of the problem? Do we reduce it to sin as offense or go one step further to offense-guilt and then find ourselves constantly in need of talking one image — justification? Or, do we let each of the images come into the conversation? Do we let them play their own game and even create tension? Do we let each of them become pointers to the Deep Magic of Redemption?
There is an uncontrollable urge on the part of many to find the “central” metaphor or the “core” metaphor or even the controlling idea. I have long done my best to resist this, and so has…
Neil Livingstone in his new book Picturing the Gospel. Thanks Neil, this is a fine, fine book. Written at an accessible level, this book explores three central images:
1. Images of New Life: life – born from above; adoption – chosen in love; kingdom – a good world order.
2. Images of Mercy and Restoration: justification – being right with God; forgiveness – picking up the bill; atonement – taking away the shame.
3. Images of Deliverance: salvation – the mighty hand of God; ransom and redemption — love pays; freedom – free for life.
OK, I’d like to have seen more on the “problem” — the images of the problems — that are resolved by these images of new life, etc., but this book is a nice introductory level book on the significance of seeing atonement through the various images used for it in the Bible.
From a different angle comes Justyn Terry’s The Justifying Judgement of God. Terry wants to know the “principle metaphor” and to find this he examines British preaching — and I like this because atonement theory is inherent to any form of gospel preaching we hear.
This is an academic book that studies British atonement theology — we could give a list of names but that is probably not necessary in this brief review — and then enters into a theory by examining the ever-wordy Karl Barth.
I confess that I was disappointed Terry wanted to find the principle metaphor until I read through his study — he defines the central principle as “judgement” which surprised me but he defines the term holistically, relationally and cosmically. Judgment is not only condemnation of sin but also God’s making things right and establishing justice.



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Kent Eilers

posted September 20, 2007 at 2:54 am


Greetings from Aberdeen,
Thanks for your comments Prof. McKnight. I have been following the current debate in evangelical circles regarding atonement theories, both here in Great Britain and in the States. Another resource I have appreciated is Peter Schmiechen’s “Saving Power” because he resists the pull to identify a central image or metaphor and works instead toward a framework from which to allow various theories to function toward a more multiform witness to the cross. According to Schmiechen, for a theory of the atonement to be worthy to communicate the saving power of the cross is must satisfy the following values:
1) Symbolic – It must symbolize something about Jesus that connects saving power with some form of human need.
2) Theological – It must connect Jesus with God. The theory, with its initial image (victory, substitution, sacrifice, reconciliation, etc…) must appeal to essential affirmation regarding God as well as interpret the agency of God in the story of Jesus. (This is a big one for me because some atonement theories basically remove God’s initiative from the entire cross event – it becomes a tragedy of sorts without God’s initiative)
3) Evangelical – It must demonstrate an enduring ability to name elements of the human condition that signify our fallenness (bondage, guilt, death, alienation, idolatry) in relation to the saving power of Christ. In Schmiechen’s words, ” The evangelical value requires that the gospel proclaimed be faithful as well as relevant” (8).
From my perspective, this seems to be moving in the right direction for a couple reasons. By Schmiechen’s standards then we can incorporate the full spectrum of imagery used in the Scriptures for atonement (substitution, victory, liberation, healing, etc…) when appropriate to the context and or human need being addressed (guilt, bondage, oppression, sickness, etc…). Also, it moves us away from trying to identify one theory (penal or victory or whatever) and toward refining our use of the various theories based on the essential elements that should be present. You can’t get away from the substitution language in the NT, or the victory language, or the liberation language, or the healing language, or the language of relational reconciliation.
Your thoughts?
Kent



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James Petticrew

posted September 20, 2007 at 4:43 am


Hi from Edinburgh to Kent up the coast in Aberdeen!
In my own mind I have thought of the controlling image behind atonement as being reconciliation. This to me points towards the goal which the various other images achieve, liberation, justification, healing etc.
I think I would want to connect this theme of reconciliation achieved by atonement as both vertically with God but also horizontally with each other and communally between ethnic groups. I think one the weaknesses of Western theories of atonement (don’t know enough about the eastern church to comment on their theology of atonement) is that it has tended to be individualistic, especially in its preached form.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 20, 2007 at 5:59 am


Kent,
Thanks for this nice survey of that crucial portion in Schmiechen.
I like Schmiechen’s book and I recommend it now as the best survey of the history of this debate.
James, you are right about it being one-dimensional.



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Kent Eilers

posted September 20, 2007 at 6:25 am


James (and Prof. McKnight) – I have also moved toward the language of reconciliation as something of a “primary metaphor” for atonement as of late. Yet, I have been persuaded by Schmiechen that while reconciliation does indeed find its place among the central NT images and does in fact have evident contextial power in our current culture it is only one of several images used in the NT witness to the atonement (I have found Pannenberg’s use of the reconciliation imagery to be very compelling, ST 2, ch. 11).
I suspect that most everyone will likely default to one or two primary images in their witness to the atonement based on their setting and or background. In light of this, I am currently wrestling with how the church might witness to the mutliform work of God in Christ and not allow its proclamation to be “limited” by focusing on one image, even a very good one like reconciliation, to the exclusion of others and in so doing to lose something of the power of the Cross. What are your thoughts? Does our witness to the Cross lose the ability to articulate its multiform reality if it focuses on one particular image (relational, forensic, victory, healing, oppression, liberation, etc…)
Kent



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Scott M

posted September 20, 2007 at 6:28 am


What is the problem? “Sin” seems to be a word used to cover a host of meanings and situations. I’m OK with the term, but I’m not always comfortable with the specific meaning sometimes pulled from it. I also tend to hear more about sin as ‘offense against God’ or something similar to that. I hear less about sin as our failure to trust God and placing our confidence elsewhere. And another word for the activity involved when we place our confidence in something or someone and shape or reshape our lives accordingly seems to be ‘worship’. And when I read scripture, it seems to be a constant theme for the problem of humanity that we worship that which is not God and (as I believe N.T. Wright has said) that we actively participate in our own dehumanization.
I do think there are many faces to the question, but the multidimensional nature of both the problem and solution seem to be thoroughly intertwined.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 20, 2007 at 6:44 am


Kent (and Scott M),
Two things can helps us immensely:
1. If we preach the Bible or through books or through the lectionary, we need to let the images of a specific text say what they say and no more. If we encounter a “ransom” text, then we need to focus on being ransomed/liberated/set free. If we encounter a reconciliation text, etc..
2. It would be good to do a series on the various words for sin — and in my atonement book I give a listing of many of them — and let the logic of the problem roll itself out into the solution that problem leads to.
If we let the problem genuinely be the problem — in other words not reducing it to one image — we can put ourselves in a position to expound the full dimensions of atonement.



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Sean LeRoy

posted September 20, 2007 at 11:14 am


Scot,
Is your book available yet? I’m looking forward to it. I wanted to throw two other names out there for your feedback, based on your research – Stephen Finlan and Mark Heim…Do you recommend their work on atonement?
blessings.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 20, 2007 at 12:46 pm


Sean,
Yes, it’s available — click on the yellow book to your right.



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John W Frye

posted September 20, 2007 at 2:33 pm


Scot, it seems like your metaphor for the gospel–”the gospel is more like a piece of music to be performed than a list of ideas to be endorsed”–applies to the biblical composition regarding atonement. How boring to reduce a grand musical score to just one of its movements. Why do we have to have “one” controlling atonement metaphor? Why are we driven to reduce rather than enjoy the expansive and robust range of the biblical atonement symphony?



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John W. Loftus

posted September 20, 2007 at 5:56 pm


Let’s say that Muslims had a Savior who atoned for their sins. Let’s say the Christian faith did not. The reasons are that God is a forgiving God and does not need to punish to forgive because the Bible claims forgiveness has nothing to do with punishment. In fact, the Bible argues that to punish someone for his sins is mere retribution, which cannot be the basis for forgiveness. Let’s say there’s a Bible verse in Proverbs saying, “To punish someone for what they’ve done wrong isn’t forgiving them.” I know this would be hard to conceptualize if you’re a Christian, but go with it for a second.
Then you would be using the same exact arguments I do against the Christian concept of atonement irrespective of what methaphor is the best one for what this Savior did for us. You would feel justified in your rejection of the Muslim doctrine.
So isn’t it clear you justify what the Bible says no matter what it says, even if you cannot make good sense of it? Me? I’ve just chosen to accept what I can make sense of, that’s all.
Cheers.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 20, 2007 at 6:13 pm


John,
You’ve touched a nerve for many who don’t think hard enough about forgiveness in the biblical sense.
So, let me try:
God’s “forgiveness” can be genuine forgiveness even though he exacts justice. Here’s how I see it:
It is forgiveness because the forgiven sinner does not suffer the consequences of her or his sin.
It is justice because God exacts a fair punishment for the sin committed.
This logical problem arises because most Christians think forgiveness is simply ignoring or suppressing or getting over offense. But, in the biblical sense the Christian taps into both God’s justice against that sin/sinner and chooses, instead of further aggravating justice, to be restored and reconciled to that person.
So, as I understand it, all biblical forgiveness ultimately involves a sense of justice-having-been-done and therefore living in light of sin having been take care of — and I see this at its very core. I did not work on this in my atonement book because I thought it would raise issues in scholarship I have not yet read.



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John W. Loftus

posted September 21, 2007 at 5:38 am


Scot said…It is forgiveness because the forgiven sinner does not suffer the consequences of her or his sin. It is justice because God exacts a fair punishment for the sin committed.
Very well put! And yet forgiveness never would have been offered in the first place without punishment. Harshly put, God doesn’t forgive as a father. He punishes like a king. It just so happens God punished Jesus instead of us, and this is what you’d point to as his grace. But I’m talking about the requirement that sin must be punished in the first place.



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Bob Robinson

posted September 21, 2007 at 6:28 am


Scot,
I’ve read Neil Livingstone’s Picturing the Gospel, and also highly recommend it. The chart in the back of the book showing the different ways the Bible paints the picture of atonement is worth the price of the book alone.
I need to get my hands on Schmiechen’s book. Thanks to Kent for bringing it to our attention!
Of course, that book by a fellow by the name of McKnight does a pretty good job on the subject…



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Jim P.

posted September 21, 2007 at 8:51 pm


John Loftus wrote: “But I am talking about the about the requirement that sin must be punished in the first place.”
John, I am perhaps confused. Are you asking, if God was able to forgive sins why didn’t He just do that without punishment of anyone, including Jesus?
I believe that the death of Jesus is a propitiation for our sins. It isn’t so much that Jesus was punished for our sins on the cross, but that His sacrafice made it possible for all of to reconcile with God the Father. Yes, Jesus was punished, but it was the feeling of being seperated from the Father that was the punishment. The sacrafice of Christ on the cross is redemption only because it makes it possible for us to enter a relationship with God where He doesn’t see sin, but the sacrafice. The debt of sin was paid by Christ. We should have paid the debt, but God understood we could not. So he provided the payment.
Sin must be punished in the first place because God requires it. Of course, we can question the wisdom of God, but that sort of humanism is an entirely different issue than what you raised.



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Scott M

posted September 21, 2007 at 11:29 pm


I was just going to ignore the comment thread begun by John Loftus, since it falls within a perspective and a way of thinking about God which is largely opaque to me. However, since the conversation is being extended, I suppose I’ll ask. After all, most of us are Protestants of one sort or another. And Protestants are supposed to find a basis for their beliefs and statements in scripture. Where in scripture does it ever say that God punished Jesus in the passion? Or even connect the idea of divine punishment to Jesus and the Cross at all? Scripture, and the Law and the Prophets in particular, do have a lot to say about punishment. Heck, Jeremiah would almost cease to exist if you removed that from it. The NT also has something to say about punishment — but none of what it says is connected to Jesus being punished, at least that I can find.
Yet for something so difficult to find in scripture, it seems to be a very common theme in many discussions. I also tend to wonder how people simultaneously hold the idea of God punishing Jesus and any concept of the Trinity? I routinely hold seemingly or potentially contradictory ideas without stress. And I’ve held a lot of beliefs over the course of my life which the “typical” Western Christian would likely find odd. But that one is more than a little strange even by my standards.
I’m not even sure I grasp what people find “good” about news like that. They drew a “get out of jail free” card? I suppose I might be relieved at such an event.
Anyway, since there has been a little bit of back and forth in that direction, I thought I would throw my question out there. I don’t know that I’m necessarily hopeful that I’ll stumble into a comprehensible answer this time around, but it never hurts to ask. And I thought identifying the specific scripture(s) from which the idea of God punishing Jesus is drawn might help me gain at least a little bit of insight.



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Jim P.

posted September 23, 2007 at 7:55 pm


Quote Scott M. :”I was just going to ignore the comment thread begun by John Loftus, since it falls within a perspective and a way of thinking about God which is largely opaque to me. However, since the conversation is being extended, I suppose I’ll ask. After all, most of us are Protestants of one sort or another. And Protestants are supposed to find a basis for their beliefs and statements in scripture. Where in scripture does it ever say that God punished Jesus in the passion? Or even connect the idea of divine punishment to Jesus and the Cross at all?”
Scott, consider:
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21



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Scott M

posted September 23, 2007 at 11:03 pm


Yes? I think the larger context is more helpful:

Since we know what it means to fear the Lord, we try to help people accept the truth about us. God knows what we really are, and I hope that in your hearts you know, too. We are not trying to prove ourselves to you again, but we are telling you about ourselves so you will be proud of us. Then you will have an answer for those who are proud about things that can be seen rather than what is in the heart. If we are out of our minds, it is for God. If we have our right minds, it is for you. The love of Christ controls us, because we know that One died for all, so all have died. Christ died for all so that those who live would not continue to live for themselves. He died for them and was raised from the dead so that they would live for him.
From this time on we do not think of anyone as the world does. In the past we thought of Christ as the world thinks, but we no longer think of him in that way. If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have gone; everything is made new! All this is from God. Through Christ, God made peace between us and himself, and God gave us the work of telling everyone about the peace we can have with him. God was in Christ, making peace between the world and himself. In Christ, God did not hold the world guilty of its sins. And he gave us this message of peace. So we have been sent to speak for Christ. It is as if God is calling to you through us. We speak for Christ when we beg you to be at peace with God. Christ had no sin, but God made him become sin so that in Christ we could become right with God.
2 Corinthians 5:11-21

Now, how do you draw from that text the idea that God punished Jesus on the Cross? It never says that. As I mentioned, I can’t find any place in the NT where it actually uses the word punish in conjunction with the atonement. Moreover, this passage doesn’t even have the flavor of punishment. It’s an act of new creation. Anyone in Christ, new creation! And it makes the work of the Cross a fully Trinitarian effort. God was in Christ reconciling all to himself. Yes, Jesus was “made sin” but that isn’t presented as a punishment. Nor would that even make sin. After all, in a punishment model, “sin” is the transgression. Sin is not the punishment, but rather that for which punishment is being meted out. Rather, Jesus absorbed the power of sin and death so that God’s reconciling work of new creation could burst forth.
At least, that’s how I understand the passage.
But to keep it simple and to the point I originally raised, the whole passage taken together cannot be reasonably taken to say that God punished Jesus on the Cross without reading an awful lot into the passage that simply is not stated.
In fact, I find it a deeply Trinitarian expression of our Triune God acting in utter unity and cooperation on the Cross through the flesh and two natures of Jesus.



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Jim P.

posted September 24, 2007 at 6:27 pm


How I derived “punishment” from that scripture is from “he made him who had no sin to be sin for us”. Jesus suffered the pain and loss because of sin so that we can be righteous before God, but it is clear that He, God, “made him” to be sin… to suffer and die on the cross. Also, was pointed out earlier in this thread, we deserved punishment for our sins, but Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. Why else would Jesus have suffered capital punishment? That is precisely what he suffered on the cross: an act of capital punishment.
Consider Isaiah 53:5, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
Jesus was pierced, crushed, crucified for our sins. As stated in Isaiah the “punishment that brought us peace was upon him”.
“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit” 1 Peter 3:18
Most Christians know from scripture that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Christ died for our sins, he was put to death because of our sins. He was punished by crucifixion because of our sins, not because there was guilt in Jesus, but because he is the perfect sacrafice for all sins once and for all.
I apologize if my thoughts are a bit scattered at the moment I am fighting a very nasty cold/flu combo and really I can’t believe I am able to type out the thoughts I have! :)



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