Clearly I haven’t been up to much on this blog, but my wheels are still spinning (albeit, much slower than a few years ago)… I’m struggling through concepts of the Atonement in Seminary.
As many of my seminary class discussions reveal, it’s difficult for Evangelicals to “part” with the idea of an angry God that has become so culturally-implicit in our conceptions of Christ’s atonement. Regardless of the specific theory of atonement, we have collectively canonized our models, often without significant biblical support. The language of “atonement” itself creates challenges, as it expresses the need for humanity to be reconciled to God. We read “punishment” into reconciliation, and like Paul the Apostle, we employ legal paradigms to articulate divine love and forgiveness, as if our legal system is capable of such feats.
Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy write, “For Christians, however, Jesus’ death and resurrection are nothing less than the centerpieces of world history.”
The three classic views – recapitulation, ransom, and Christus Victor – understand sin primarily as enslavement under evil powers… Salvation is a deliverance of humanity from bondage through participation in the death and resurrection of the incarnate Christ.
My definitions here are brief. The recapitulation theory illustrates how Christ succeeds where Adam failed, undoing the errors of Eden, and the subsequent curses on humanity. Just as all of creation “fell” with Adam, redemption through recapitulation anticipates the deliverance and restoration of all creation.
The ransom theory of atonement, an earlier incarnation of the satisfaction theory, posits God as a wronged subject, owed reparation for those wrongs. Either humanity would have to pay, or God would have to pay. By becoming a man and offering himself as sacrifice, God paid his own debt. This easily transitions into the penal substitution view, which utilizes a courtroom scene to describe the immovable demands of justice and retribution in the face sin.
Of the classic views, the Christus Victor theory is my favorite, but that only takes me so far. Rather than God’s wrath over sin, it is Christ’s victory in truth and love that redeems and frees us. “Christ is the cosmic champion who overcomes the evil forces that hold humanity in bondage.”
As my personal theology has developed and evolved over my years at seminary, I’ve come to believe that it is the birth and life (still living) that Christianity and the salvation of creation rest on. I have been inspired and deeply moved by the Wesleyan concept of relational theology, and I’ve found it pastorally instructive – particularly in a liberal mainline church where language of sin is difficult to even engage. I find spiritual growth and connection in the idea that sin is anything that disrupts our relationship with God, and being in right relationship with us is God’s deepest desire. I can envision how the Incarnation facilitates, exemplifies, and empowers our relationship with God. Still, I struggle with the idea that “our relationship with God and our eternal destiny depend on what Jesus did when he died and rose again…”
Boyd and Eddy assert that “all Christians have always agreed” on that dependence on Christ’s death and resurrection, but this is not entirely accurate. For example, there have been strains of universalism throughout Christianity’s two thousand years. Some universalism still relies on a traditional atonement model for its articulation of universal salvation for all. However, other Christian traditions have defined a process of temporal, systemic, corporeal salvation modeled in the life and teachings of Jesus (even Jesus Christ, the son of God) which actively mirrors pre-existent salvation for all of creation, not dissimilar in concept to the inner light George Fox recognized in all of humanity. By following and imitating Christ, we participate in salvation, we ourselves become saved, and we save others. This ethos quickly aligns with a theology of liberation that values orthopraxis over orthodoxy. As Leonardo and Clodovis Boff wrote:
Liberation theology maintains a stance of criticism. For example, the Scholastic theology of the eleventh to the fourteenth century made undeniable contributions to the precise and systematic presentation of Christian truth, but liberation theology criticizes it for its overbearing tendency to theoreticism…
While liberation theology does not uniformly reject eternal damnation, not all theological models of salvation are predicated on a literal hell, or on a differentiation between saved and unsaved “souls.” As Rob Bell illustrates in Love Wins, there is already plenty of hell on earth for our theological fodder.
An argument critical of traditional atonement models does not necessitate undermining the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. The crucifixion demonstrates what John Caputo refers to as the weakness of God. “The God of forgiveness, mercy and compassion shines like a white light on the hypocrisy of those who, under the cover of God, oppress the most defenseless people in society.” Caputo argues that God did not demonstrate might or power, but forgiveness and protest against injustice. In this model, the crucifixion is not a transaction, earning God’s forgiveness or even making us acceptable to God. Rather, it is fully realized, fully incarnated evidence of God’s already-active forgiveness. The Incarnation, at every stage of Jesus’ life, demonstrates the inherent nature of God. My conclusion-to-date (shaky, ill-formed, and still evolving) is that God did not demand the crucifixion for creation to be saved; the crucifixion was an inevitability, demonstrating the natural response of fallen creation to perfect love. Brokenness begets brokenness, and though forgiven, we are still in need of saving. These are separate concepts. In the same vein as the crucifixion, resurrection is an equal inevitability, demonstrating the powerlessness of sin and death over perfect love.
 Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in
Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 114.
 R. Larry Shelton, Cross and Covenant: Interpreting the Atonement for 21st Century
Mission (Tyrone: Paternoster, 2006), 160.
 Ibid., 164-165.
 Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 114.
 R. Larry Shelton, Cross and Covenant: Interpreting the Atonement for 21st Century Mission (Tyrone: Paternoster, 2006), 167.
 Colin J. D. Greene, Christology in Cultural Perspective: Marking Out the Horizons (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 200.
 Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008), 36.
 John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 83.