Sunday, April 10, 2011

Atonement Theories; What does atonement do?

This continues a response to Michael Martin, previously posted at CADRE Comments in spring of 2005.We have already looked at the resurrection's value as a sign; this value alone is enough reason for the resurrection to have occurred. But the matter of our atonement still needs to be discussed because of the resurrection’s role in it. Martin, oddly enough, discusses in detail only Origen’s primitive ransom theory -- a view that Jesus supposedly paid a ransom due to the devil, a theory which is not fully Scriptural. Martin passes over other theories of atonement just by listing a number of them and giving a blanket statement that he finds "all the historically important theories" do not explain some aspect of the atonement to his satisfaction, referencing his book The Case Against Christianity.

This response will not review every theory of atonement or respond to an entire book. For the moment, let us give Martin the benefit of the doubt and suppose that with every given theory of atonement, he has found some major point that is not addressed by that theory. But in his approach of taking each theory of atonement singly as if it could and should stand alone, it seems likely that Mr. Martin does not appreciate that the different theories of atonement are complementary. That is to say, the different theories do not necessarily compete with each other but instead work together to explain different aspects of our atonement.

On a Christian view, the whole of atonement requires a number of things. Here are some things that atonement involves:
  • satisfying both justice and mercy
  • causing us to despise evil
  • humbling us
  • leading us to trust in God by demonstrating God's trustworthiness
  • cleansing us from the stain of past sin
  • cleansing us from corruption and the desire to sin
  • establishing a covenant (binding agreement) between us and God as the basis for becoming God's people
  • planting the beginnings of eternal life inside us
  • making us children of God
On a Christian view, accomplishing all that involves Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot going on with the atonement. It is not a legitimate complaint to take one theory that explains one thing in particular, and dismiss it because it does not explain something else. It was probably never intended to. For example, Martin mentions the Christus Victor theory – that Jesus has won victory over the adversaries of mankind (for example, death). Given the sign value of the resurrection, the resurrection makes it plain that Jesus has won the victory over death; this is most certainly true. That one theory does not address a number of other points that need to be discussed, but that does not make it untrue. It makes it only one part of the whole picture.

Athanasius, a prominent early Christian writer, wrote a great work on atonement that is still studied today, On the Incarnation of the Word of God. In it, he refers to a number of different theories of atonement and different aspects of atonement; he does not confine himself to an either-or view of atonement theories. Mr. Martin's blanket dismissal of all atonement theories rests on a view that one view of atonement should be the whole picture, and is not allowed to be only a part of a bigger picture. My response here is that the only thing required is a simple change of perspective: the atonement accomplishes more than one theory may discuss, and it's appropriate to discuss them separately.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for summarizing what the Atonement does.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you for the encouragement.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF