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The Atonement Debate – Understanding Atonement – Part3

Yesterday I met up with a some friends to discuss the 3 Atonement theories explained in chapter 7 of the book, “Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology” by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy. In the book the 3 theories summarily presented are (Penal Substitution, Christus Victor, Moral Government).

We each shared which of the theories we currently share the most affinity with. I said that I agree the most with the Christus Victor view of the atonement at this time in my life, but that I had initially grown up thinking along the lines of the Penal Substitutionary view of the Atonement (PSA). The conversation was beneficial. I learned and appreciated more about each one of the theories. I wanted to write down some of my thoughts as a way of continuing the conversation.

Quite a few in the group mentioned that each of the 3 theories have great continuity with each of the others. It’s not like only one theory is exhaustively true by itself and therefore must exclude any true aspects found in any of the other 2 theories. At their core, they all say at a minimum that God acted through Jesus’ death on the cross as the central means of reconciling people with Himself.

That’s a good enough statement on it’s own. It holds up. Maybe it’s all you need to get going. But then any kind of sustained meditation or focus on Jesus, considering what he’s done for us, will inevitably force one to think about it and start talking about it using more words and new analogies.

I needed to go into greater depths for any real meaning to take shape. I have been thinking about the significance of Jesus’ death for quite few years now. And while I do see truth in all of them, I’ve come to see clear paths of divergence between the theories. More pointedly between P.S.A. and Christus Victor, since these are the two I’ve thought through the most. I have also come to believe there are aspects of each of them of which can’t both be true at the same time.

Again, all of the theories speak of the necessity of Jesus’ sacrifice. That is an essential part of the story of course. Great. But why was it necessary? How did it actually come about? What caused it? What got Jesus killed? What did the death accomplish and how did it accomplish it? There are so many historical questions about Jesus’ death that we could ask that might help further the theological answers we land upon.

Many people think that they need to hold tight to all aspects of PSA because the theory has a huge emphasis on sacrificial language. And because we are so used to hearing that Jesus was a sacrifice, that he died for us, in our place, so on and so forth, that we think this theory is needed for explaining the foundation of atonement. For various historical reasons this is the theory that most of us has inherited. And because it is such a familiar theory to us it seems to make the most sense at first.

The following highlights one aspect of divergence that can be explored.

Proponents of PSA in their explanations often utilize the O.T. sacrificial system as a strict interpretive pattern from which they have extracted the significance and meaning of Jesus’ death, but starting with a simple observance of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system and then applying a direct point by point transference of meaning onto Jesus’ ‘sacrifice’ doesn’t work for me.

The correlation is only there in part. And, at the very places where the pattern is not the same, are the very places where we need to begin asking the questions. Why is it different? Is the difference significant? And does the differences reshape the meaning? These questions and their possible answers have the potential to help us gain a new and deeper understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross.

Here are some notable differences I have observed between O.T. sacrifice and the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Of the O.T. sacrificial/offerings that do involve death of some sort, the Priest is actually directed and instructed to do violence to the animal. It is God approved/sanctioned violence upon an animal. In Jesus’ death the sacrificial object switches from animal to human. And the one doing the violence is not a priest instructed by God, but are the Roman guards and the various collaborators that sought to kill him. We ought to ask, “who is doing the violence and is it ‘God approved’ violence or is the violence of this sacrificial event actually condemned by God”?

The various PSA view(s) make a foundational emphasis on this purported means of ‘redemptive violence’ used by God; that Jesus is taking the blunt of God’s violent wrath, which opens up our forgiveness and consequently our reconciliation.

Where as a Christus Victor based perspective strongly supports a meaning that subverts the use of violence and condemns the various elements/people that brought about Jesus’ death.

This is the central divergence and incompatibility I see between these two theories when compared. And the implications are endless and worth considering..

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  1. Hey Nick, thanks for posting this brother. especially since I’m on duty tonight and don’t have consistent access to my phone. So my instant question, isn’t Jesus both the Priest and sacrifice in this scenario. Meaning, as the Priest in the Old Testament is directed and instructed to conduct the sacrifice, I instantly was brought to Matthew 26:39, and take that as Jesus (our High Priest) accepting the Father’s will. As for the question of “who is doing the violence,” wasn’t(isn’t) Jesus more than capable of stopping this violence at any point in whatever way he would have chosen, meaning by Jesus letting the violence of the man be unleashed on him and enduring it..he in turn is doing the violence to himself?

    This was literally just a typed out version of my thought stream as I read your post. I’m obviously filled with questions, and really appreciate your insights and ability to invoke these curiosities I didn’t know I had.


    1. Christian, thanks for responding, I appreciate you input and thoughts! Yes, I too think that Jesus is spoken about both as sacrifice and as a kind of Priest here, that is a great point to bring up, especially as it relates to how I was contrasting the O.T. sacrifice pattern with Jesus’ death.

      I fall short of agreeing that he is doing the violence to himself. But I do acknowledge your point about it being a scenario that he and the Father were both wanting Jesus to enter into willingly. But for me, saying Jesus entered into a dangerous context is different than saying that Jesus is doing violence to himself. It’s a question of who does the violence, and is it a good? And in this story the two statements ought to be clearly separated and not collapsed together.

      A huge element for me in not being willing to saying that he was doing or enacting the violence (the killing of an innocent human life), is because it was wrong to have killed him. Those who choose to kill Jesus did so wrongly. Peter says as much when he speaks up to the crowd of people after Pentecost condemning them for their participation in killing the Messiah. Other wise, we are some how saying what what Judas, what Pilot, what Caiaphas, and what any and all other collaborators did to work towards terminating Jesus was actually blessed behavior, God’s work.

      The task that Jesus was given by the Father to announce that the Kingdom of God is arriving/arrived in and through the life and message of Jesus, is the very thing that moved Jesus towards the circumstance of his inevitable death. It was his steadfast commitment to the Kingdom of God ethos and lifestyle which led to the confrontation of those who would seek to eliminate him. Because Jesus lived a live that was defined by loving his enemies and speaking truth to power (both Political/Rome and Religious/Sanhedrin) is what brought about the elements which caused his death.

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