“How then shall we speak of the atonement?” A Reflection for Good Friday

(This essay was first written in 1995 for my study of the atonement with Professor Richard Bauckham at St Andrews University in Scotland. It later appeared as a chapter in my book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. Some of the references, therefore, are dated.)

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The death of Jesus Christ was understood by the earliest church, not least by Paul himself, as a divine act of reconciliation between God and humanity. Which is to say that Christ’s death on the cross was understood from the beginning as an atoning death.

Nevertheless, there has never been an official doctrine of the atonement, no ecumenically agreed upon articulation approved by a council of the church as there is, for example, for the doctrine of the Trinity. This is not to imply that the atonement is not a central affirmation of the Christian faith; English words such as “crux” and “crucial,” which are rooted in the Latin for cross (crux), should remind us of the place that Christ’s cross held for earlier generations of Christians.

The Christian “idea”(Fiddes) or “understanding”(Dillistone) of atonement has been given shape through the centuries by Christian theologians attempting to re-describe in conceptual terms the atoning or reconciling activity of God in Christ as depicted in the biblical accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These “theories” of atonement have tended to focus on the mechanism by which atonement is accomplished, the “how” of God’s saving act in Christ.

Twentieth century theology has been heir to two main strands of atonement theories. A more conservative strand has retained the language of the biblical affirmations and cast its theories in the thought-world of an earlier orthodoxy, heedless of the hermeneutical gap that atonement faces in engaging a contemporary audience. Such theories seem overly objective, transactional and mechanical in their understanding of what God does in the atonement.  Liberal theology, on the other hand, has tended to reduce the atonement to an object lesson, an illustration of the eternal mercy of God and lost the objectivity of the atonement and therefore its centrality for Christian faith. These two tendencies, which I have drawn starkly here as ideal types, correspond roughly to the two main traditions in Western atonement theology: the more objective “satisfaction” theories using legal language typified by Anselm, and the more subjective moral theories typified by Abelard. Today’s successors to these two main types have had little opportunity to be in conversation with one another, and the great church is poorer for this.

Recently, however, there has been a flurry of renewed interest in the atonement in British theology, marked by the nearly simultaneous appearance in 1988-1989 of two significant books on the subject: The Actuality of the Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition by Colin E. Gunton and Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement by Paul S. Fiddes.  That these books represent quite different approaches and traditions in calling for a new look at atonement can only be for the good.  A third important book taking up the challenge appeared in 1991, The Atonement and Incarnation: An Essay in Universalism and Particularity by Vernon White. I have read these newer offerings as well as works about atonement in biblical studies such as The Atonement: A Study  of the Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament by Martin Hengel (1981) and The Cry of Jesus on the Cross: A Biblical and Theological Study by Gérard Rossé (1987). I have also returned to the works of earlier writers, particularly P. T. Forsyth’s The Work of Christ.

Already in the above description of two traditions in atonement theology I employed terms such as “objective,” “subjective,” “satisfaction,” and “moral” to describe different theories. The theological vocabulary of atonement needs careful scrutiny if we are to find adequate ways to think about and articulate the meaning of atonement. In addition, I have noticed in my reading that several salient issues have appeared again and again among the various writers.  These critical issues provide a framework in which to think carefully about the atonement, and offer a set of guidelines for the important task of articulating an adequate theory. They are perennial issues that reappear whenever an attempt is made to re-describe in conceptual language the truths of the biblical narrative.  I will explore these issues and the vocabulary in which they are expressed.

The first of these perennial issues is the pair of opposite tendencies called Objective/Subjective which I have already employed to describe the Anselmian and Abelardian traditions. By “objective” we mean those theories that stress the divine initiative and activity in atonement, and by “subjective” we mean those theories that stress the human response in atonement. While it is true that every articulation of the atonement that takes the biblical narrative seriously will have both objective and subjective elements, most theologies of the atonement will stress one or the other of these tendencies. What is decisive for any adequate theory is that it is objective enough to clearly affirm that God has definitively acted to deal with evil, death and sin, and at the same time contains subjective elements that address the manner of the human appropriation of the effects of that salvation. Thus both “justification”, what God does for us, and “sanctification,” the way we live in response to that divine act of salvation, must be kept in view.

A related pair of opposites is Constitutive/Illustrative. Does a particular theory of the atonement hold that the saving work of Christ on the cross is “constitutive” for salvation, the divine act itself accomplishing something for us, or is the cross of Christ merely “illustrative,” demonstrating to us the divine love or mercy that was always there for us? Theories that are constitutive can have significant features of the more illustrative theories present in them, so that, for example, the cross reveals and demonstrates the salvation that God intends for us. For them, however, it is the event of the cross itself that effects salvation whereas for purely illustrative theories it does not. A related word to illustrative is exemplarist, which refers to an exemplar or model. In an exemplarist Christology Jesus is seen primarily as a model for us to follow, and so in this view the cross then is often construed as the apotheosis of human sacrifice which we then ought to emulate in our conduct. Theories in this tradition are also called moral theories.

The next set of issues is not a pair of opposites, but rather two typical ways of referring to the work of Christ in salvation: was his death a substitution or representation?  Is it that Christ in his humanity “represents” us before God and thereby does something decisive for our salvation, or need we say more, that Christ’s death is a “substitution,” a taking of our place and thereby doing for us what we could not do for ourselves? The distinction is nuanced but frequently signals a real difference. In some theologies representation and substitution are used interchangeably, but other modern theologians prefer representation as a way to avoid the negative connotations that have accrued around the more mechanical theories of substitution. From our study of the biblical material (i.e., Hengel and Rossé·) it seems clear that substitution was an important way of interpreting Jesus’s death from the earliest days of the Christian community (in the pre-Markan kerygma and in Paul, for example)and may well have been a feature of Jesus’s self-understanding by which he taught the disciples how to understand his death (as, for example, at the Last Supper.) For this reason it seems that an adequate articulation of atonement will use the language of substitution, albeit with some care.

One highly imaginative attempt to articulate how Christ represents humanity before God was the Scottish 19th century theologian J. McLeod Cambell’s use of the term “confession.”  McLeod Campbell was attempting to break away from the rigid transactional theories of atonement typicalof the Scottish Calvinism of his day (and for his pains was deposed as a minister of the Church of Scotland for denying the doctrine of limited atonement). He proposed that Christ’s work was a two-fold exhibition, showing God’s love to humankind and of humankind’s penitence before God.

In his view Christ offers a perfect penitence on our behalf, making confession before God in our name (The Nature of the Atonement and Its Relation to Remission of Sins and Eternal Life, 1878). The question is raised of this view “how can Christ confess those sins he did not share?”  We see a related idea in P. T. Forsyth who has a chapter in The Work of Christ called “The Great Confessional,” in which it is not sin that Christ confesses, but rather “·God’s holiness in reacting mortally against human sin, in cursing human sin, in judging it to its very death·” (Work of Christ p. 150).  Forsyth’s approach is much the stronger, but in both cases they seem to be moving well out of the region supported by the biblical evidence into speculation. Clearly Christ in his humanity represents all of humanity before God, but more needs to be said about how atonement takes place. Representation, therefore, will be a necessary part of any adequate atonement theory, not as a replacement for substitution but as a related concept that enriches our understanding of atonement.

The next pair of words refers to two ways of interpreting Jesus death as a sacrifice. Was his death an “expiation” or a “propitiation?”  We will turn in a moment to the complicated issues around sacrifice, but for now the decisive question around these terms is this: is the atonement performed towards us or towards God?  Both expiation and propitiation are terms used of sacrifice, but expiation implies a sacrificial taking away of some sin or offense (i.e., Christ died for our sins), whereas propitiation implies assuaging the anger or injured honor or holiness of God. An expiation changes us, taking away our sin, whereas a propitiation changes God, satisfying whatever needed to be satisfied. These are not mutually exclusive, obviously, but again we see how different theories will stress one or the other. For example, in Abelard’s theory, nothing is offered to God, the atonement is a demonstration of God’s eternal love, whereas in Anselm’s theory the atonement is an offering to God, reconciling sinful humanity to God.  The former risks, among other things, falling into subjectivism and failing to take God’s anger, honor, or justice seriously enough. The latter is criticized chiefly for turning the anger, honor or justice of God into a third thing beyond the Father and the Son, a necessity to which God is somehow obligated.  A further criticism of propitiation language is that it promotes views of atonement that have elements of punishment in them, thereby making its view of God morally objectionable.  There is always a danger when the justice or the anger of God is separated from God’s love. It is helpful to keep in mind that the language used to describe God’s atoning work in Jesus Christ is metaphorical, borrowing its vocabulary and ways of thinking from other areas of life, principally the temple, the battlefield and the law court (and to some extent the slave market).

Since the metaphors associated with these areas are either dead, dying or have become decisively altered in meaning, they need to be examined carefully (though dead metaphors may be essential for understanding atonement, as Colin Gunton has argued about the language of sacrifice. It is also true that historical events may revivify a long dead metaphor (the term “Balkanization” comes to mind). In fact, the entire enterprise of framing an atonement theory can be seen as a direct result of the decaying of the prevailing metaphors.

The Christian writers of the New Testament and the early post-apostolic period were content to repeat the key words, “sacrifice,” “·propitiation,” “redemption,” without offering a theory of how they operated. It was quite sufficient that they stood for the truth of the Christian experience of the cross of Jesus Christ. It is only as that experience became historically less proximate and the metaphors decayed according to some unknown law of linguistic half-life, that attempts were made to explore the meaning of the metaphors more closely by means of a conceptual theory.

It is time now to turn briefly to the three most significant metaphors for atonement in the Bible, the language of sacrifice, the law court, and the battlefield.  Without going into a lengthy discussion of the nature of metaphor, let us define metaphor as the use of the language of one area of life to describe another area.  We need to remember also that the various metaphors interact with and impact one another, so that the discrete picture I now draw is somewhat artificial.

The first and foremost metaphor for atonement is “Christ the sacrifice.” By the time of the New Testament the idea of sacrifice had already undergone a complex shift in meanings. The original and literal meaning of sacrifice is the ritual slaughter of some living being for religious or social purposes. As Frances Young has pointed out, behind this idea of sacrifice was the primitive notion of feeding the gods, typical of Graeco-Roman culture. If the gods were fed, they were happy and if not, they were displeased, so that propitiation is early on associated with sacrifice. Blood was thought to contain the life of an animal in some concentrated manner and blood sacrifice was therefore assumed to have great efficacy. But animal sacrifice was by no means the only kind, and a wide variety of sacrificial practices were common to the ancient world.  Although Israel shared these ideas and practices with its neighbors the theological context of the faith of Israel transformed them. The Old Testament practices, though widely divergent, typically used animals or some substitute such as grain, and were offered for a variety of purposes such as thanksgiving, expiating sin, binding a covenant, remembering God’s saving activity or merely to express communion with God. This literal use stands behind some of the metaphors that refer to Christ’s death as a sacrifice, but the literal use by no means encompasses the rich variety of sacrificial language.

We need to note that the idea of sacrifice was already used metaphorically long before the time of Jesus, as we can see in such Old Testament texts as this: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou will not despise” (Isaiah 51:17). Here sacrifice is spiritualized, taken from the context of the temple to the context of personal piety. The metaphor for sacrifice undergoes some even more remarkable changes when used about the death of Christ.

First, his sacrifice is “once and for all” making all other sacrifices obsolete (thereby insuring the eventual death of the metaphor itself, since its original context is no longer available as a referent). Secondly, since Christ’s sacrifice is a free and voluntary act, he acts as priest as well as victim (we see this in Hebrews), demonstrating a very altered use of the idea of sacrifice. That Christ is priest as well as victim changes the whole meaning of sacrifice and remains important if we are to avoid an atonement theory that pictures God as vengeful and Christ as a passive victim. The death of Christ, now understood with this new idea of sacrifice, is not a punitive substitution but a priestly self-offering, a sacrifice only understood in a new highly altered way.  In addition, this newly constructed sacrificial language makes its way into the discourse of the early church in a wide variety of contexts relating to their life and faith. As Frances Young has noted, for the early Christian community, the language of sacrifice was used not only of the death of Christ, but of large areas of Christian worship and practice, which helped them to avoid falling into the trap of divorcing atonement theory from faith and response. (Sacrifice and the Death of Christ, p.95).

Sacrificial language, despite the loss of its original referent and its metamorphous due to the pouring into it of Christian content, remains the primary metaphor for atonement. As Colin Gunton has said, about the metaphor of sacrifice:

Does not its orientation to life, grace, and self-giving, to the concentrated love of God poured out for the creature, take us as far as any human language can into the very heart of God?  What, then, is potentially an abused and overused metaphor can also become the most living and expressive of all, the heart of the doctrine as an expression of the unfathomable power and grace of God (Actuality of Atonement, p. 141).

Any adequate atonement theory must use the language of sacrifice.

The second cluster of metaphors that have shaped the way we talk about atonement come from the language of the law court. Justification, satisfaction, and penalty, for example, are legal terms. Several of the Latin Fathers were jurists and there began a tradition in the Western church to conceive of the relationship of God to humankind in the language of legal obligation.  It was St. Anselm who gave this approach it first extensive systematic treatment, using the language of satisfaction. Previous theories had tended to employ the term “ransom” (from Mark 10:45) as the act that God had accomplished in atonement. In this view because of the Fall the devil had obtained sovereignty over human souls, and freedom from this dominion was accomplished by means of a payment in the blood of Christ. Anselm saw the dualism that this view implied and rejected it. Instead, Anselm employed the term “penal satisfaction” a metaphor drawn from law to take seriously the requirements of divine justice and the reality of human sin. The Son freely offers to the Father his life as compensation for the failure of the human creation. His death outweighs in value all the sins of humankind, so much so that the effect reaches to those who live in another place and time.

His view is often criticized as being too transactional, and there is that sense about it, but it also employs the personal language of the Trinity, and has the strength of a clear objectivity that takes both the requirements of God’s justice and the perniciousness of human sin seriously. Legal language, despite the drawback of often seeming mechanical or transactional, is a necessary means of speaking about the justice of God and will continue to be indispensable to an adequate atonement theory.

The third set of metaphors which we need to look at comes from the battlefield and provides us with the image of “Christ the Victor.” Gustav Aulen’s thesis about a “classic theory” has been called into question, but his book Christus Victor did in its time spur interest in atonement studies and offered to liberal theology a theory of atonement with the objectivity it had been lacking. Despite Aulin’s exaggerated claims for the image of victor, there is a cluster of images in the New Testament that uses the language of victory to describe the atonement. Christ’s death is a victory over the demonic powers, the principalities and powers of this age that control the world (see the seminal work of Walter Wink on this subject). To call the cross a victory is a powerful reversal of the usual meaning of the word. Once again, we see a shift in the meaning of a word, in this instance “victory” as the content of the Christ event is poured into it. To claim such a thing for the cross is to call into question the old power arrangements of the world, so that the cross is both metaphorically and actually a victory over them.

A military victory, the original meaning, is a course of action leading to a successful result.  The victory of the cross shows the course of action of Jesus going to the cross, and thereby offers a new paradigm for what constitutes victory. This image tells us what it means to talk of a God who saves, and something of the way that God goes about it. The image of Christ the victor also points beyond itself, functioning eschatologically, so that the past victory is a promised future victory as well. This addresses the “already but not yet” character of the Christian promise.

The final kind of language I wish to draw to our attention is the language of relationships. As we have seen one of the typical problems of many atonement theories is their tendency toward a mechanical view of the divine activity. God, however, is a person, and the language of personal activity seems both closer to modern sensibilities and to the biblical narrative than the various transactions that have been typical of much earlier atonement theology.

An adequate articulation of atonement will need to see the act of atonement within the doctrine of the Trinity and its emphasis on the interdependence of the divine persons. Jesus’s experience of being abandoned by God, in which he endures the condition of the sinner before God, can be viewed as arising from a Trinitarian act in history, an act for which God intentionally sent him and which in obedience Jesus accepted. The atonement is therefore a Trinitarian act of mutual consent between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. This way of seeing it rightly balances so called “objective” and “subjective” elements in a way that is congruent with the biblical narrative. The language of interpersonal relationships is crucial to an adequate atonement theory. It is after all the divine love and mercy that are the impetus for the Christ event, and love and mercy are words of interpersonal relationship.

As I have indicated above, another concern in formulating an atonement theory is that it remains faithful to the biblical narratives. If we recognize that doctrines are conceptual re-descriptions of the biblical narratives (as Hans Frei framed it), it will be important for such a re-description to be faithful to the narrative itself. Such theories do not capture and convey the truth of the narratives better than the narratives themselves. In a sense the meaning of the narratives is irreducible and must be taken on its own terms. That is to say, that however successful an atonement theory may be, it is only through interaction with the biblical account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we can understand the truth of the Christian idea of atonement. A theory can help to shed light on the meaning of the narrative by use of new metaphors to help bridge the hermeneutical gap between the biblical world and our own (or Anselm’s or Calvin’s for that matter) but such theories draw their life from and do not replace the biblical accounts. Therefore, the closest possible attention to the narratives must be paid.

At the other end of the equation is the context in which the audience of an atonement theory find themselves and how they understand their context. The way the human predicament is understood will have an important influence on the way one understands the saving act of God. What is it from which God saves us? An age that saw itself as under the dominion of hostile demonic powers would be drawn to the image of Christ as the cosmic victor. An age that worried about social chaos would be drawn to the image of Christ the upholder of the divine justice. An age that viewed social relationships between Lord and vassal in terms of honor would be drawn to the image of Christ as the one who gives satisfaction to the offended honor of God. And an age that was preoccupied with personal sin would be drawn to the image of Christ as the one who justifies the sinner.

The hermeneutical problem for the Christian communicator today is that the traditional theories of atonement offer a solution for problems that modern people do not see as problems. The Christian idea of sin reflects a realistic assessment that the life which God intended for us is perennially and profoundly distorted.  But is this a characteristic way for people today, even Christians, to view the human predicament? Do we really need to be saved from sin? More typically the human predicament is viewed as a failure to live up to human potential, or it is viewed as alienation from ourselves and others. For others there is a growing sense of human estrangement from the natural world in the ecological crisis. The quest for security, for economic advancement, is the secular equivalent of salvation for many today. To such a world view, what can the proclamation that God in Christ has accomplished for us an atonement mean to us?

The two typical traditions we have seen each in its own way have undermined the power of the idea of atonement. Objective theories couched in the language of legal obligation have made the idea of atonement sound too transactional, far removed from human life and Christian faith. The subjective moral views have lost the objective sense that God has acted decisively in the cross, and they have so individually construed their theory that any corporate meaning is lost. An adequate atonement theory that will speak to the human predicament today will need to address the need for atonement at the corporate and even the cosmic level, so that it is not merely individuals as individuals that are in need of saving, but rather all of humanity and all of creation that is in need of reconciling. Such a theory will have to take both human evil and divine justice with profound seriousness. It will use the language of personal relationships, the language of love and forgiveness and mercy.  It will keep its eye firmly fixed on the biblical narrative, on the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It will insist on the objectivity of the divine act, as well as on the necessity of responding in the faith that that act has now made possible. It will look to the future in hope and promise for the final disclosure of the atonement that has already taken place and will invite and inspire men and women to live now in its light.

These are my suggestions on how we might speak of atonement today, knowing as I do that no conceptualization will capture its truth for all time.  At the same time I am convinced that the continuing witness of the biblical narratives to the work of Christ and the abiding inspiration of the Holy Spirit will insure that the truth contained in the idea of atonement will abide.

(Copyright 2010, Richard L. Floyd)

2 thoughts on ““How then shall we speak of the atonement?” A Reflection for Good Friday

  1. Wow, quite a “reflection.” Thank you for the introduction to theological thinking. Not sure how I feel about theology as a way of interpreting the world or the Christ experience, which is to me beyond an intellectual exercise. I am not sure how contemporary humanity can stay true to the contextual framework of the original biblical narratives. I think there is an evolution at hand, and always has been, that involves both the reality of the Christ experience of Paul, Mary, and the other disciples and our modern experience. This will require new metaphors. So, much of my experience on an emotional, intimate, and intellectual level has involved a broadening of the Christian metaphors through the practice of Zen meditation and the works of Thich Hhat Hanh (Living Buddha, Living Christ), Father Kennedy (Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit), and the work of Richard Rohr (Universal Christ) https://cac.org/. I can’t even begin to approach your theological knowledge, Richard. But I can share what my heart had discovered and how it made sense/ meaning to me.

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