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Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Theories of Atonement

Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” has attracted great attention (and earned much money.) It has also generated considerable debate. Some consider it anti-Semitic. Others condemn its unseemly violence—for which it is given an “R” rating. Articles in the Standard Bearer and other periodicals have reminded of the blasphemy of any man portraying the divine Son of God come into the flesh. There is pointed out the Roman Catholic “slant” given to Christ’s death on the cross. He is portrayed as needing and having the assistance of His mother Mary (co-mediatrix) in redeeming from sin and death. His death on the cross is presented as for all.

The film, however, has not only generated many comments about its Romish view of the atonement, but the subject of atonement itself is being discussed. That discussion appears in somewhat strange places—in Time Magazine no less. Its cover story in the April 12, 2004 issue is titled, “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?”

The article in Time presents some of the different views concerning the necessity of Christ’s death. The subject is introduced:

Some modern atonement theorists maintain that only one answer—theirs—flows inevitably from Scripture. But more agree with Chicago Theological Seminary’s Theodore Jennings Jr. “The New Testament is just all over the map” on the question of why Christ died, he says. Its writers “are all persuaded that something really drastic, fundamental and dramatic has happened, and they’re pulling together all kinds of ways to understand that.”

The article continues by showing (in that writer’s estimation) that Scripture is indeed “all over the map” with respect to atonement. The claim is made that there are inconsistencies and contradictions between the New Testament writers concerning the subject. The article then presents some of the theories of atonement:

When the early church fathers did pick up on the scriptural language of Christ’s death as a ransom, the payee was not God but the devil, who some felt had legitimate claim on humanity because of Adam’s fall. But others preferred another scenario: to see the Crucifixion and Jesus’ subsequent descent into what they called Hades as a kind of divine bait-and-switch scheme, whereby the devil thought he had claimed a particularly virtuous human victim only to discover that he had allowed into his sanctum the power that would eventually wrest humanity back from his grasp. St. Augustine likened the devil to a mouse, the Cross to a mousetrap and Christ to the bait.

The article gives its idea of the teaching of the early church father Anselm, who set forth the teaching of substitutionary atonement:

Anselm too read the New Testament lines calling Christ’s death a ransom, but he could not believe that the devil was owed anything. So he restructured the cosmic debt. It was, he posed, humanity that owed God the Father a ransom of “satisfaction” (to use Anselm’s feudal terminology) for the insult of sin. The problem was that the debt was unpayable: not only did we lack the means, since everything we had of value was God’s to begin with, but also we lacked the standing, like a lowly serf helpless to erase an injury to a great lord. Eternal damnation seemed unavoidable, except for a miracle of grace. God “recast” himself into human form so that Christ, who was both innocent of sin and also God’s social equal, could suffer the Crucifixion’s undeserved agony, dedicating it to the Father on humanity’s behalf. Christ “paid for sinners what he owed not for himself,” wrote Anselm reverently. “Could the Father justly refuse to man what the Son willed to give him?” No, thank goodness.

Anselm’s formulation, often called substitutionary atonement, has been restated in countless ways over the centuries. The church eventually extended its concept of the sin for which Jesus died beyond Adam’s disobedience to everybody’s transgressions. The 16th century reformer John Calvin replaced Anselm’s feudal king with a severe judge furious at a deservedly cursed creation. Hala Saad, a contemporary churchgoer in Texas, recites a milder modern version: “All I had to do was sign up for God’s debt-cancellation plan—for Jesus to take my place!”

Arguments still rage as to which group of humans (everyone? Christians? The elect?) the sacrifice benefits and about whether our sins somehow retroactively exacerbate the agony of Christ’s sacrifice. But no other post-biblical formulation has so elegantly intertwined the Father, the Son, a wayward creation and intimations of sin and grace. None has so bound believer to Saviour in the intimacy of pain (and eventual Easter glory) and fulfilled Paul’s great work of turning the Cross, an image of ultimate horror, into the paramount Western icon of love.

But there is another theory of atonement that is so popular today: the theory of “exemplary atonement.”

From the 18th century on, however, various thinkers developed a bill of complaints about substitution, although few wanted to abandon it totally. To some Americans, Calvin’s angry, all-powerful God was too reminiscent of the arbitrary tyrant by whose overthrow the country had defined itself. In an age when Thomas Jefferson was literally cutting out all references to miracles from his copy of the Bible, substitution’s supernatural structure perturbed some Enlightment rationalists. Its scant room for human volition contradicted a growing 18th and 19th century optimism that the species could perfect itself through its own efforts. And in a religious culture increasingly defined by emotional evangelizing and the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus, Anselm’s legalistic equation struck some as a liability for those preaching to win souls. 

For relief, they turned to a source as old as Anselm. The French theologian Peter Abelard had also worked in the Middle Ages to address Jesus’ role in reducing sinful humanity’s distance from God, but he did so without recourse to tit-for-tat transaction. His atonement took place less as a compact between God the Father and God the Son and more in the hearts of believers cleaving to the message of Jesus’ life—and the love most dramatically expressed in his willingness to die rather than renounce his calling. “Love answers love’s appeal,” Abelard wrote. With Jesus’ example before it, humanity, its deaf ear reopened, could now gain salvation and reconciliation with God.

…This theory is known as exemplary atonement, and it was expounded with vigor a few weeks ago by the Rev. Shafer at Rutgers Presbyterian…. “The mission and purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry,” he preached, “was, first, to model for humankind the fullness of mercy and forgiveness that God offers to us sinners and, second, to model for us the perfection of love that God is and that those who accept God’s forgiveness are invited, by God’s grace, to become.” Thus, Shafer concluded, “it is not Jesus’ death that can save us but his life!”

The article presents then the expressed differences between the various views of the atonement. It makes an interesting observation at the conclusion of the article:

Of more concern to those interested in the health of American faith was—until last February, at least—the large proportion of Christians who really didn’t think of Jesus’ death much at all. “In most Protestant churches,” says the Chicago Theological Seminary’s Jennings, “there’s hardly anything of a Cross there. You go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter without passing Go.” The omission extends far beyond the historical Protestant aversion to crucifixes featuring Jesus’ body. Rather, says Jack Miles, author of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, it dates back to the 18th century, when “Americans tended not to linger on the agony of Jesus. It was more ‘friend of my soul, he walks with me and talks with me.'” That phenomenon, which has only accelerated, afflicts conservative Christianity as much as those in mainline churches, says American Jesus author Prothero. “If you asked Evangelicals in a Gallup poll if they had given up on the hard theology, they would say no. But in terms of day-to-day experience, atonement is not a lived reality.”

And that in turn suggests a Christianity with a large hole in it where, at the very least, some thought should go. “The Cross is the center of Christianity, and we know that it was the center of Jesus’ own thinking,” says John Stott, an Anglican preacher and the author of The Cross of Christ, who suffered a stroke last year. “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross.” He is almost pleading. “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

It is interesting that the subject of atonement should be discussed in a national news magazine. There is recognition of the differing views of atonement. At the same time it becomes very clear that the writers consider Scripture to be fallible and contradictory. The New Testament writers in particular are presented as setting forth their individual and conflicting views of atonement. One thing is very clear: the Christian must himself be well founded on Scripture itself. If he is not, articles of this nature can create confusion and doubt in his mind. Yet the article itself serves to remind us of the centrality of the atonement. It is a reminder also to us of the necessity of the proper understanding of the atonement.

The “High Moral Ground”?

I need present no quotes—though

plenty could be found. Every reader, hearing of “losing the high moral ground,” will instantly recall the pictures and reports concerning mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq. Again and again the pictures were flashed before our eyes in newspapers and news reports on television. Again and again there were described vividly to our ears exactly some of the things that had been done. Though sensitive spots on the picture were blurred out, there was hardly anything left to the imagination.

What seems to me almost equally horrifying is the hypocritical pleasure of presenting repeatedly the pictures themselves. While our country has insisted that it is contrary to the “rules of warfare” that our prisoner soldiers be displayed publicly on television, these prisoners are displayed publicly (presumably to arouse the natural disgust the observer may have toward the jailors). The prisoners are hooded—but that is all. Can you count the number of times you have seen all of this? While our country insists that the prisoner need give only his name and serial number, this nation is justified in obtaining as quickly as possible the information from these terrorists through any means.

The need to obtain as quickly as possible the information certain terrorists can provide seems obvious. The mistreatment apparent in the pictures presented likewise merits our disgust and condemnation. And all of the questions raised create fertile ground in the field of politics.

What is particularly unsettling is the repeated claim that now we have “lost the high moral ground”—at least in the Arab world. Shockingly the words are uttered, “Now we have lost the high moral ground!” Many hide their heads in shame. Others blame certain “rogue” soldiers—insisting that average Americans are hardly like them.

But surely the claim must be made in jest. Have we now lost the “high moral ground” because of this one incident?

The “high moral ground” has been lost a long time ago. What is that “high moral ground” that we have now lost? Did we have it when, by court decree, abortion was made the law of the land? Did we stand on high moral ground when it became legal to rip, limb-by-limb, the unborn from the mother’s womb? When the babe’s brain could be sucked from its head—as long as that head had not yet entered the world as we know it? The babe could provide no information concerning “terrorists” that need be extracted by this violent and inhumane treatment. The babe has not been tried and condemned to death because of any violent crime. It is judged to be a woman’s “choice” to carry out this violence only because the babe is still in her womb. It has no legal protection, not even under “rules of warfare,” until it is born.

So—when really did we “lose the high moral ground”?

Violence and sex are openly, even proudly, displayed in the drama of the movie screen and television. Video games can present that same violence and sex for the “entertainment” of the young. The Internet is increasingly a cesspool of sexual portrayals—a temptation not only for the young but for those older as well. Often even the e-mail we frequently use contains “letters” with offers of all kinds of sexual temptations.

So—we lost the “high moral ground” first in a prison in Iraq?

Add to this all, the fact that divorce and remarriage have become commonplace. Homosexual marriages have become an acceptable option—so far, in one state it has even become legal. Cursing is condoned as a matter of “freedom of speech”—though one does not have the “freedom of speech” to say the “n” word. The Sabbath, for most, is no longer the “day of rest.” Gross materialism is the order of the day.

So one could go on. When was the high moral ground lost? Was it really first in Iraq within its cruel prisons? It seems that it has been long gone in our society. “Morality” has been redefined. Though some still claim that we are a “Christian nation,” it has in reality become a nation in which each can do what is right in his own eyes—provided, of course, that the courts declare that to be part of the “freedom” of “choice” or of “speech.”

These are indeed sad, sad times. The child of God can only conclude that these signs indicate that the coming of our Lord is at hand.