Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Atonement Wars: Whose Atonement?

The Atonement Wars rage on in a blog post from last month of Ken Silva's on Al Mohler. It seems that Ken Silva and Al Mohler would divide the church over their pet theory of the Atonement: The Penal Substitution theory of the Atonement. (Yeah you heard me right Ken, I just called the Penal Substitution model of the Atonement a theory and it is. It is just one theological theory of the Atonement out of many---so get to cracking on calling me out as a heretic because if you don't I'm sure these guys or these guys will. This post was written just for you and with you in mind).

Al Mohler goes so far as to blasphemously with idolatry proclaim:
Let’s get this straight; [in the penal substitutionary atonement] we’re either seeing the truth, or a lie. This either is the Gospel, or, it is not. The dividing line is abundantly clear; we either believe that the sum and substance of the Gospel is that a holy and righteous God—Who must demand a full penalty for our sin—both demands the penalty and provides the penalty, through His Own self-substitution in Jesus Christ—the Son—whose perfect obedience, and perfectly accomplished atonement, has purchased for us all that is necessary for our salvation—has met the full demands of the righteousness and justice of God against our sin.

We either believe that, or we do not. If we do not, then we believe that the Gospel can be nothing more than some kind of message intended to reach some emotive level in the human being, so that the human being would think better of God, and might want to associate with Him. Or, we would transform all of these categories in the theological into the merely therapeutic, and argue that the whole point of the atonement is that we would come to terms with our own problems, and come to understand that there are resources for the repair of our troubled souls beyond which we previously knew.
Dr. Mohler gets it quite wrong actually as Jesus Himself is the Gospel period not someone's pet and favorite Atonement theory. Dr. Schreiner correctly states that The Penal Substitution theory of the Atonement is not the only teaching in scripture regarding Jesus' death. Although I believe that The Penal Substitution theory of the Atonement is one of many valid theories of the Atonement, I don't believe it is the only theory. In fact I believe that those who hold up The Penal Substitution theory of the Atonement as the only theory of Atonement grossly misrepresent God's character as revealed in Christ and therefore distort the true meaning of the Gospel. Harry Emerson Fosdick my personal hero under Jesus of course said it best when he stated:
Were you to talk to that fundamentalist preacher, he doubtless would insist that you must believe in the "substitutionary" theory of atonement - namely, that Jesus suffered as a substitute for us punishment due us for our sins. But can you imagine a modern courtroom in a civilized country where an innocent man would be deliberately punished for another man's crime? … [S]ubstitutionary atonement … came a long way down in history in many a penal system. But now it is a precivilized barbarity; no secular court would tolerate the idea for a moment; only in certain belated theologies is it retained as an explanation of our Lord's death… Christ's sacrificial life and death are too sacred to be so misrepresented.---Harry Emerson Fosdick, Dear Mr. Brown (Harper & Row, 1961), p. 136.
I also believe Brian McLaren raises a good point as well:
Theory of Atonement
Could you elaborate on your personal theory of atonement? If God wanted to forgive us, why didn�t he just forgive us? Why did torturing Jesus make things better? This is such an important and difficult question. I�d recommend, for starters, you read �Recovering the Scandal of the Cross� (by Baker and Green). There will be a sequel to this book in the next year or so, and I�ve contributed a chapter to it.

Short answer: I think the gospel is a many faceted diamond, and atonement is only one facet, and legal models of atonement (which predominate in western Christianity) are only one small portion of that one facet.

Dallas Willard also addresses this issue in �The Divine Conspiracy.� Atonement-centered understandings of the gospel, he says, create vampire Christians who want Jesus for his blood and little else. He calls us to move beyond a �gospel of sin management� � to the gospel of the kingdom of God. So, rather than focusing on an alternative theory of atonement, I�d suggest we ponder the meaning and mission of the kingdom of God.
This is why these two theories need their proper place along side of the Penal Substitution theory for a more holistic understanding of the Atonement:
The Moral Influence theory

This view of the atonement limits Christ's death to a radical example of His love that influences sinners morally but does not pay any price on their behalf. God's justice demands no payment for sin. First Peter 2:21 is the primary text for this view. "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example." But just a few verses later (v. 24) Peter refers to the subsitutionary aspect of the cross, "He Himself bore our sins in his body on a tree…" Even in this primary passage regarding the moral influence of Christ's death, it can't stand alone without the central message of substitution.

Christus Victor

This view attempts to limit Christ's work on the cross to the defeating of the powers of evil. Indeed, Col. 2:15 assets; "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Him." Indeed Christ's death defeated the powers of darkness. But directly preceding this statement in verse 14, Paul points to the substitutionary aspect of the cross by stating, "By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross." Here as in other contexts, PSA stands in the central place.

These two views (Christus Victor and the Moral Influence Theory) are indeed presented in scripture. But they can't stand alone. These views are only complementary to the sacrificial death of Christ. Someone over the course of my studies referred to the various presentations of the cross as a choir in which all the biblical references to the cross are harmonious. I would like to adjust the metaphor and suggest that the sacrificial death of Christ is the "soloist" and the other biblical references to the cross are "background singers" that enhance the soloist's voice.

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