A friend alerted me to a podcast series he’s doing on science and the atonement (i.e., on how recent scientific knowledge impacts, or ought to impact, traditional theories about the meaning and significance of Christ’s death on the cross). The Podcast is entitled Recovering Evangelicals and the specific episode I’ll be commenting on is #20: Atonement Theology: What Does Science Have to Say? You can listen to it HERE.
In a previous post, I discussed three ways the podcast episode resonated with me. In this post, I will offer some critical feedback on aspects that I think need refinement or perhaps reconsideration.
But first, a disclaimer:
This post turned out to be WAY longer than I had anticipated! 🙂 The issues addressed in the podcast are big and important ones, and I found myself being drawn to keep reflecting and writing. Important subject matter deserves careful attention!
So, before I get to providing some critical thoughts I had concerning the podcast, I want to reiterate how much I appreciated the discussion and resonated with its concerns. Please be sure to read my previous post before reading this one, so that what follows can be put into perspective.
I agree with Janssen and Blundell that there are real problems with the way atonement theology is popularly portrayed in evangelical subculture, and perhaps particularly how the penal substitution theory (PSA) is portrayed and prioritized. While I still believe that a revised version of PSA is warranted and important, I agree that the doctrine has been over-emphasized and often poorly and indiscriminately applied (and I agree that its Scriptural foundations are weaker that its advocates often claim).
O.K. Disclaimer finished. Let’s dig in . . .
Critical Questions & Concerns
- A Need for Greater Clarity and Depth
The podcast covers a lot of ground and raises many issues along the way. This makes it interesting and provocative, likely to pique the interests of various listeners. The downside to this kind of discussion is that it sometimes leads to confusion and over-generalization. To evaluate the arguments and views put forward, one must first disentangle and separate individual topics, examine them in depth, unpack their own inner-logic, consider various interpretations and approaches, and then begin to put the pieces together.
For example, early in the podcast, there is a conflation of atonement (the meaning and significance of Christ’s saving work, especially his death) with issues concerning the scope of salvation (Who are the people that are saved?) and the nature and form of divine judgment (How does God respond to sin? What does the final judgment entail? Existence, nature, and duration of hell, purgatory, etc.). These three theological themes tend to be lumped together, but they should be treated separately, because each is complex and subject to multiple interpretations and each can be combined with the other two in different ways. For example, Karl Barth seems to adopt a version of the penal substitution theory (in Church Dogmatics when discussing “The Judge Judged in Our Place”), yet his doctrine of salvation is radically inclusive (many would even say universalist).
Another issue that needs to be untangled and explored in more depth is the relationship between original sin (or different conceptions of it) and atonement. The hosts seem to assume that the truthfulness of various atonement theories hinge on whether or not they depend on a historical Adam and a biological notion of inherited sin. Without getting into the debate over the historicity of Adam (or the various proposals for a historical scenario amongst biblical scholars and theologians who accept evolution), I think this assumption can be challenged on two fronts.
First, some theologians hold to a historical Adam but not to inherited sin in a biological sense. Second, and I think more importantly, the atonement theories in question could be constructed without direct reference to original sin. Take penal substitution, for example. (By the way, my intention is not to defend that doctrine here, but explore it because the podcast mentions it). Rather than building upon Genesis 2-3, the doctrine could be constructed by simply asking and answering the following questions: (i) Do all human beings commit sin? (Scripture and experience indicate “Yes”); (ii) Does God condemn and punish sin? (This question is more controversial, but a reasonable argument could be made from Scripture that God does); (iii) Does the atoning death of Christ address this problem? (Again, arguably, “Yes”); (iv) if so, what images and metaphors from Scripture and experience (our contexts) can we employ to illustrate Christ’s work in this respect? We could also raise a related but separate question: How did sin and evil enter the world? Here is where some version of ‘original’ sin might get invoked, as admittedly a more speculative kind of answer that Scripture only hints at providing (Scripture is much more interested in describing sin’s nature, effects, and remedies than explaining its origin in historical or scientific terms).
- Biblical Terms, Exegesis, and Hermeneutics
Early in the podcast, a lexical observation is made about the term ‘sin’ in the Old Testament, pointing out that the English word ‘sin’ is used to render a Hebrew word that most commonly means something like “missing the mark” (like when shooting an arrow). While this is true, the conclusion that other connotations of sin are not present (e.g., things like breaking the law, offense, transgression, or incurring a debt, having a disease, and so forth) does not follow. Anthony Thiselton* observes that there is a threefold sense to the word ‘sin’ in the OT. “Missing the mark” is indeed the most common basic meaning (Hebrew word chāṭāʾ), but part of the reason for this is that the metaphor is somewhat vague and can be rendered in various ways depending on context. For example, it is used in the sense of “straying from the commands of the Lord” in Leviticus 4-5. In Numbers 5:22-51, it is distinguished from defiant sin, and so suggests careless or unintentional sin as opposed to “high handed” sin. It is often associated with defilement. A second common Hebrew word for ‘sin’ (pāshaʿ) carries the sense of ‘rebellion’, ‘offense’, ‘revolt’, ‘becoming alienated’, or a ‘breach in relationship’. It can also carry the sense of ‘transgression’. It is used not just in relationship to God, but also to refer to breaches in political alliance, social relations, and interpersonal friendships (and thus can be rendered ‘treachery’, ‘betrayal of loyalty’). The third common Hebrew word (’āwen) refers to the condition resulting from pāshaʿ: ‘iniquity’, ‘wickedness’, ‘perversion’, ‘deception’, ‘distortion’.
The New Testament uses a number of words to describe human sinfulness, including ‘lawlessness’ (anoimia), ‘impurity’ (akatharsia), ‘impiety’ (asebeia), ‘injustice’ (adikia), error (planē), ‘disobedience’ (paraptōma), ‘transgression’ (parabasis), and also ‘sin’ as missing the mark, erring, wandering from the path of righteousness or from God (harmartia).
But we have to look further, beyond word occurrences alone, because sometimes an idea or meaning can be present even though the usual term for it is missing. For example, the NT book of 1 Peter never uses the Greek word for ‘church’ (ecclesia), but it would be a mistake to conclude that the book is therefore irrelevant for ecclesiology (theology of church). In fact, the book has much to say about the church, but tends to use familial language (brothers, sisters, children, etc.) as well as OT language drawn from priestly material (i.e., people of God, God’s special possession, holy priesthood, royal nation, etc.). Similarly, there are many passages that speak to the meaning, nature, effects, and patterns of sin without referring explicitly to the word. For example, carefully reading and pondering Genesis 3-11 as a narrative reveals the brutal consequences of sin (with the Flood in the middle depicting the cosmic undoing of Creation) much better and more poignantly (and fittingly) than simply looking at verses within that narrative where the word ‘sin’ occurs.
Another way to consider the meaning of sin in the Bible is to notice the titles and terms applied to Christ and his saving work. What we find is that Christ’s saving work is portrayed in comprehensive terms, which implies that the sin (and its effects) which he saves us from has impacted us comprehensively (though the power and efficacy of God’s grace and salvation far outweigh the power of sin). Christ is High Priest and Perfect Sacrifice, Healer, Reconciler, Second Adam/Israel/Humanity, Conquering Davidic King, Sin Offering, Moral Teacher and Light, Husband of his Bride, his life a Ransom, etc. Thus, sin is implicitly depicted as a stain or impurity, disease, alienation and disunion, dehumanizing, bondage to evil or oppressive forces, incurring guilt, moral confusion and distortion (or walking in darkness), adultery or unfaithfulness, indebtedness, etc. In addition, the New Testament explicitly associates sin with breaking the Law (e.g., 1 John 3:4) and so falling under its curse, and points to Christ as the one who fulfilled the Law (e.g., Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3: 13; Heb. 10:1) and cancelled its curse.
* See Anthony C. Thiselton, “Sin,” in The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 769–81.
- Is the Moral Exemplar Theory Sufficient?
In light the above reflections on Christ’s saving work and what it implies about sin, another question surfaces. Does the moral exemplar theory provide a sufficient account of the meaning and significance of Christ’s atoning death, as Janssen and Blundell suggest? I don’t think that it does. Necessary, absolutely! The Cross is not just an important historical event, or a symbol of rich spiritual meaning; it is also a way of life and a pattern of discipleship. The Christian life is a cruciform life, a path or way of self-denial, devotion to God, service to others, sacrificial giving of one’s own privilege and resources, . . . in short, mortification (death to self and ‘the world’) and new life oriented to God’s present-yet-coming kingdom. If our exclusive focus is on atonement models that deal with the individual before God (or some part of the individual – her/his guilt, shame, personal impiety, etc.), we could potentially create a rift between ‘being saved’ and ‘being a disciple/follower of Jesus’, between being justified and pursuing holistic sanctification and Christ-likeness, between caring for the body and caring for the soul, between the individual and social implications of the gospel.
But I’d argue that the moral exemplar theory, while necessary, is by itself insufficient to account for the wholeness or comprehensive nature of Christ’s saving work. In fact, by itself, it seems to leave most of the actual saving work to us. Christ does not actually save us, he merely shows us the way to salvation. Christ is priest, but not sacrifice. Christ points us to self-care and human remedies, but does not directly heal. Christ preaches reconciliation, but he cannot (as example only) accomplish the reconciliation of all things in his own body and blood (Col 1:20-22). Christ cheers us on to achieve victory over evil and oppression, but he is not himself the victorious champion who has definitively defeated these. He shows us how to pay our debts, but is not himself our ransom. And so forth.
I don’t think this is what Janssen and Blundell are proposing, but it seems to me to be the consequence of promoting the moral exemplar theory over-against the other atonement models. In short, reducing the scope of Christ’s saving work has implications for how we understand Christ’s identity (in Christology, the Person and Work of Christ are intimately connected and mutually informing).
There seems also to be reticence to acknowledge the ‘negative’ aspects of the atonement, that in addition to being an act of love that demonstrates God’s grace, mercy, and compassion Christ’s death is also an act of judgment that demonstrates God’s righteousness, justice, and opposition to evil. I’m left wondering how these aspects of God’s character and action fit into the atonement in Janssen and Blundell’s thinking.
I understand the reaction against tendencies in some evangelical church circles to put too much emphasis on human guilt and God’s wrath and judgment against it. But for some, especially the poor and marginalized, God’s condemnation of and opposition to injustice and oppression is good news. A line I read recently from African-American theologian James Cone really bring this home:
“A God without wrath does not plan to do too much liberating . . . . A God minus wrath seems to be a God who is basically not against anybody. All we have to do is behave nicely, and everything will work out alright” [Cone goes on to ask why he, an oppressed black man, would want to worship a God like that?]
(James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation; NY: Lippincott, p. 131).
This brings me to a final thought about atonement theologies. All atonement theologies are contextual in nature. They all pick up on ideas, images, metaphors, and patterns about the saving work of Christ in Scripture (some more pervasive and central, some less so) and attempt to make these meaningful and impactful within a particular historical context. When traditionalists forget this, they sometimes fail to revise, correct, and update the theological model and thus apply it unfittingly without sensitivity to the context (like applying a sound solution to the wrong problem, an approved medicine to the wrong condition). When revisionists forget this, they can tend to pass judgment on traditional views in an anachronistic way and fail to retain important concerns and truths which they addressed (throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water).
The sinful state that hurts and distorts the human condition is something comprehensive, affecting us to the core of our being and manifesting in a wide variety of ways, though not all at the same time, at the same place, and to the same extent. Christ’s atoning work must be at least equally comprehensive (in fact, it is much more so) to address all aspects of the human condition and provide good news to all. For that reason, to bear sufficient witness to his Person and Work, we need all of the traditional atonement theologies, and inevitably new, constructive ones too, as we serve God’s mission and reach and serve people with our proclamations and our actions.