Redemption for Malcontents: Towards a Theology of Atonement
Part 1: An Introduction to Atonement Theory
Redemption. Atonement. Salvation. If you’ve ever been in a church context for longer than 10 minutes, you’ve probably heard these words. Heck, they’re part of the vernacular even outside of the Church. We often talk about literary characters being redeemed (usually through some kind of redemptive violence. More on that later). Frequently, we experience salvation of one kind or another. “I’m saved!” we shout, as some situation beyond our control is suddenly rectified. Whether we would admit it or not, most of us have some understanding of the word redemption or atonement.
Atonement is a word that comes to us from Middle English (I think it was Anselm who introduced it, but I might be making that up). Anyway, the meaning of the word is still contained in the word itself. At-one-ment. Atonement is the act of making us one with God. How such an act is accomplished is another idea entirely.
Atonement also has a unique place in the history of the Church. Of all the doctrines out there that needed to be debated, codified, and clarified, atonement was one that the ecumenical councils of the Church never attempted to decide upon. No church figure speaking from a position of true authority has ever proclaimed one model of atonement sufficient and orthodox for the Church.
That probably just blew your mind. Not the not-deciding part, but the idea that there are many methods and models of understanding atonement. You, like me, may have grown up in an evangelical context that, overtly or not, only acknowledged a form of what we theologians call ‘penal substitution,’ or ‘substitutionary atonement’ as a valid way of understanding the salvific work of Jesus Christ. Or maybe you’ve never thought about the idea that much. Jesus died for you, and that’s where you stop. But, being the rabble rouser that I am, I must admit that I am compelled to ask the hard question: how does the death of one Jewish man over two thousand years ago have any actual affects on my life in the here and now?
Welcome to a branch of theology we call soteriology, the study of salvation. I’ll admit I’m not an expert, but I have read a lot of books and talked with a lot of wise men and women about this subject. It’s a smaller passion of mine to let people know that there are many ways of understanding the life and especially the death of Jesus. None of them are entirely adequate, though I do feel some are more appropriate than others. Some are dated, some are timeless. Over the next few weeks, as often as I am able, I plan to walk through five of the most popular models of atonement: ransom theory, Christus Victor, penal substitution, moral influence, and the satisfaction theory. I will try and give all the models a fair treatment, and then in a final post, reveal my own personal understanding of atonement.
So hang around for a few weeks. Learn something new and exciting. Learn about the variety and ambiguity that exists in places that few people outside the academy are willing to acknowledge. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a model of atonement that better fits your understanding of Jesus and his purposes.
Next: Ransom Theory