Off and on over the last past few years I have been thinking about the different metaphors used in the Bible to describe why Jesus came to walk among humanity, died, rose again and etc. (the fancy theological word for this is the “atonement”). Interestingly enough I’m not the only person thinking about this issue as modern Jesus followers re-discover of the mystery of the atonement. Folks such as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, John Piper, Al Mohler and Brian McLaren are all offering their opinions on the subject – not to mention those from the mainline Protestant churches, Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church.
A big part of the reason why the atonement is such a big deal today is due to the increasing rift between neo- Calvinists evangelicals (John Piper, Al Mohler et al.) and the progressive evangelicals (N.T. Wright, Roger Olson, et al.). Add to this fire the growth of post-modern and post-post-modern Jesus followers who are looking at Christianity through different glasses/worldviews than their predecessor (Brian McLaren, David Fitch, Scot McKnight, et al.).
Knowing all this, I have every excited when I heard that Tony Jones had published an ebook on the atonement, “A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin”. Tony, for those who don’t know, was a driving force in the emerging church movement of the past few decades and the author of the book “The New Christians: Dispatches From The Emergent Frontier”, which I thoroughly enjoyed. He is also an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School – meaning that he is a post-modern theologian scholar who, I was hoping, could bring some fresh air to the conversation.
And, to a certain extent, he does deliver – even though I disagree with his final conclusion, but I’m getting ahead of myself! 😛
The outline of the book is fairly simple with the first part being more biographical in the sense that Tony shares with the reader why he started on the journey of questioning the predominant Protestant view of the atonement (i.e. penal substitutionary atonement or PSA). After the ground work is laid, Tony shifts gears into laying out all the views of the atonement the church has held since the time of Jesus (all quotes are from Tony’s ebook):
- Penal Substitutionary Atonement – First proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in 1098 AD and picked up by Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 1500’s AD, this metaphors basically states that Jesus died to appease the wrath of God the Father that was directed towards humanity due to our rebellion against Him.
- Union with God – A metaphor that was developed fairly early on in Christianity history with a strong connection to the Trinity and still held by the Eastern Orthodox Church today. In a nutshell, this metaphor views the atonement as an “invitation into the eternal, loving relationship of the Trinity – ultimately, into union with God.”
“Orthodox incarnational theology, which is at the core of the original Gospel, teaches that God Himself, the second Person of the Trinity, became incarnate, not in order to pay a debt to the devil or to God the Father, nor to be a substitutionary offering to appease a just God, but in order to rescue us from our fallen condition and transform us, enabling us to become godlike.”
- Ransom Captive – This metaphor focuses on actions of Adam and Eve who “bargained away the freedom of the human race to Satan in exchange for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Jesus, therefore, came as a ransom for the “captive human race” as stated by Jesus himself (Mt 20:28, Mk 10:45). While this metaphor has been around since the time of Jesus, some folks see “holes” in it as it seems to give the evil one too much power – or as Tony puts it in the book,
“It seems that if God is the creator of all that is, then God can act any way that God deems appropriate. And it seems rather unlikely that God would set up the cosmos in such a way that Satan could gain the upper hand and force God to negotiate a deal.” –
One good thing about the Ransom Captive metaphor of the atonement is that it has a strong emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus, which, sadly, is lacking in some of the other metaphors.
- Christus Victor – This was THIS predominant understanding of the atonement for the first thousand years of the church and is still held by billions of believers today. At its heart, this metaphor simply states that Jesus’
“…death is God’s victory over sin and death…the crucifixion is not a necessary transaction to appease a wrathful and justice-demanding deity, but an act of divine love. God entered fully into the bondage of death, turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, and thereby liberates humanity to live lives of love without the fear of death”
- Moral Exemplar – This is another fairly early metaphor with Jesus being:
“…seen as a moral exemplar, who calls us toward a better life, both individually and corporately…God sent his son, Jesus, as the perfect example of a moral life. Jesus’ teachings and his healing miracles form the core of this message, and his death is as a martyr for this cause: the crucifixion both calls attention to Jesus’ life and message, and it is an act of self-sacrifice, one of the highest virtues of the moral life. We see Jesus’ death, and we are inspired to a better life ourselves.”
- The Last Scapegoat – A recent player on the atonement scene developed by Rene Girard, a French anthropologist/literary critic who is still alive. While this metaphor is fairly complex, the root of it is this:
“In Christ, God becomes the one who is rejected and expelled. That is, the scapegoat is not one us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices.”
- Substitution, Without the Penal – To be true to fair to St. Anselm of Canterbury, we must mention that his original theory of the atonement is different than the PSA it eventually developed into. For St. Anselm, humanity
“…owe God a debt, and that debt is obedience. But because of our sin, we are incapable of paying that debt, we are incapable of obedience to God. Jesus Christ, being perfectly obedient to God, is able to pay that debt, and he did so on the cross. We are not thereby freed of our obligation to obey, but we are freed of the arrears that we owe.”
- God’s Solidarity With Us – Jurgen Moltmann, a German Reformed theologian, once proposed that common to every human being is the “experience of godforsakenness.” As such, in “act of ultimate solidarity with every human being who has ever existed, God voluntarily relinquished his godship, in part, in order to truly experience the human condition.” Because of this solidarity that was made available to humanity through the cross, we are “welcomed into the relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
[Note that it seems to me the primary difference between this theory and the “Union with God” theory is that the Union metaphor includes an element of humanity being rescued from our “fallen condition” and being transformed while the Solidarity theory is primarily about God experiencing godforsakenness with us.]
As you can see there are many, many view on how the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus effected humanity and the world at large. None of these, as Tony mentions, are “superior to the rest.” Each one developed out of the context of a particular time and place and each have a biblical foundation. Sadly though, some Protestant leaders (mostly neo-Calvinists evangelicals) are beginning to use the atonement as a measure of orthodoxy (i.e. if you don’t hold to the PSA view, you are not a Christian)…hence the rift mentioned earlier….
At the end of the ebook, Tony Jones does mention which view of the atonement he holds too as well as why he holds to it. I found this very re-refreshing as a lot of authors try to hide their personal presuppositions behind a mirage of Bible passages and philosophical arguments.
For Tony there are four main presuppositions that affect his view of the atonement:
- He does not believe in demons nor Satan as a being.
- He hold a high view of God’s freedom – meaning that God can do whatever He wishes.
- He is a strong Trinitarian which maintains that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit has to have “full volition and participation in what the crucifixion achieves.”
- Finally, Tony is interested in understanding sin as it relates to humanity both individually and socially.
The only two views of the atonement that withstand these presuppositions is the “Last Scapegoat” and the “God’s Solidarity With Us” theories. And of these two, the Solidarity one reflects his view the best.
As any long time reader would know, I happen to disagree with Tony’s first presupposition, which means that several additional atonement theories become ‘available.’ However, I do have to say that I do agree with his other three presuppositions which does knock a few of the views out to the side lines. I won’t say that any of them are ‘removed’ completely as they each bring something to the table that the others do not have. To that end, I prefer to hold all these views with open hands while recognizing the tensions caused by this mosaic view of the atonement. 😀