Atonement, pt 7

I’m going to skip the boilerplate text and go directly to the theories of atonement. If you haven’t been reading the series, you should go back to the previous post to get oriented.

These are theories eight and nine.


EIGHTH is PARTICIPATIONJesus’ death > burial > resurrection > ascension are together a single epoch-making event in which we participate in an ongoing basis.

This view, often referred to as “expiation”, is the dominant view in Eastern Christianity.   Eastern theology rejects the bifurcation of sacred and secular; they see spiritual significance (that’s not a strong enough term) woven through EVERYTHING.  Read Alexander Schmeemann’s For the Life of the World to get a feel for the breadth, beauty, and power of the best Orthodox theology.

  1. Problem: we were created in the image of God (imago dei).  Sin distorts the imago dei and ruins our fellowship with God, with the result that our character is warped and our lives are to varying degrees overtaken by sin.  The focus is on alienation and separation from God over personal guilt.
  2. Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension are together a single epoch-making event in which we participate.  We are incorporated into him, carried with him through the cross and tomb, and now participate in his ascended reign.  This restores the imago dei and reestablishes our fellowship with God, and allows us to participate in life with the Spirit of God who now lives through us.
  3. God is our benevolent ruler who wants us to live rewarding, healthy lives.  In this picture, God is not an angry God; although implacably opposed to sin, he is always loving and moving in our lives, something akin to the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace
  4. Metaphor: participation in Jesus.
  5. Textual support:
    1. Rom 6.3: We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
    2. Eph 2.4-6: God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.
  6. Strengths:
    1. Explicit (if not widespread) textual support.
    2. Positive picture of God, without taking sin lightly.
    3. Integrates the cross and Christian life.
    4. Balanced focus on corporate and individual.
    5. High view of scripture.
  7. Weaknesses
    1. Foreign (but beneficial) to Western minds.

NINTH: Jesus’ death is the DEATH OF VIOLENCE.  This view is central to Mennonite, Quaker, and other pacifist theologies.

  1. Problem: sin separates us from God and makes us selfish and violent.
  2. In his death, Jesus takes all the world’s selfishness and violence on himself and kills it.
  3. God is our benevolent ruler who wants us to live rewarding, healthy lives.
  4. Metaphor: reversal (i.e., a plot twist by which something is made into its opposite.)
  5. Textual support: depends less on specific texts than on an attempted holistic reading of Jesus’ teaching about violence and social justice; also depends on OT prophets (e.g., Amos 5).
  6. Strengths:
    1. Strong focus on ethical issues.
    2. Maintains a high view of Jesus and incarnation.
    3. Consistent with a high view of scripture, but …
  7. Weaknesses:
    1. Imbalanced approach to the NT; focuses on Jesus but ignores/deprecates epistles.  Most protestants view Jesus through Paul (i.e., our theology is based on the letters, and we work backward to the gospels); this approach begins with the gospels and attempts to work forward to the letters.
    2. Inadequate view of sin, sinful nature, and their effects.
    3. Tends to be packaged with pacifist theology, pacifist readings of the gospels.  Hard to evaluate the teaching on the cross in isolation.

Pastoral reflection: both of these views can be useful.

  • The participatory view speaks to cultures whose corporate story is the loss of glory previously held.  It also speaks in cultures where individual sin and guilt are NOT strong motivators.
  • The pacifist view may be healing to people who have experienced great violence, sufferers of post-traumatic stress, etc.

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