#Atonement: Theology for Today

Well, it’s finally finished: that Atonement paper I’ve been promising you all for months now. It’s rather long (you can blame my professor for that)—far too long for a blog post, really. If you’re at a computer, read this formatted version for a more reader-friendly experience.

If you’re reading this on a small screen, though, and still want to hear what I have to say (bless you), I’m including the full text below.

This is a work in progress. Please let me know what you think, what you like, what you don’t, what resonated with you, what you though was stupid, etc. Because part of my grade depends on your responses, yes, but also because I’m really, truly interested in what you have to say, and comments are always very meaningful for me.

Thank you for reading!


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I don’t know a lot of people who like studying systematic theology.

Well, no. That’s not entirely true. I actually know a fair number of people who like it. A few even like it so much they decided to make a career of it.

I don’t necessarily dislike studying systematic theology. I obviously like it enough to have made it almost 2/3 of the way through seminary. And ultimately, theology is about people trying to answer the big life questions that really matter. The problem is that theology is complicated, and perhaps as a result of that, an awful lot of the books on theology are about as light and accessible as a block of lead, and given the option I would choose Hunger Games over Heidegger any day.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this opinion. While the payoff of encountering these groundbreaking theological ideas is great, I’m not always convinced it’s worth the effort required to parse them out. Theology is complicated, and complicated ideas sometimes require complicated language, but I think that on the whole, we as a church could afford to do a better job of communicating theology in clear, engaging, and applicable ways. Many people really are interested in theology, but don’t realize it because the theology they’ve approached has been so inaccessible. Perhaps some have also had experiences where the theology they were taught was considered infallible and not open to question. I would like to see a systematic theology that is lively, engaging, and open to dialogue. I would like to see a theology that is flexible and practical, but still smart and thorough.

Is that what I’m doing here? Perhaps. I am certainly taking a crack at it. I can’t say how successful I’ll be, but maybe that’s part of the point. I am starting a conversation. I’m starting from a deficit, because even a shy introvert like me knows that “Hey, let’s chat about the theology of Atonement!” is a pretty effective conversation killer.

Nevertheless, I want to try. I want to try to explore Atonement theology in a way that is fresh and accessible. I want to look at how this theology, almost as old as Christianity itself, functions in the 21st century.

I’m going to do this the best way I know how—by talking about what is familiar to me. When I started blogging, I wrote a lot about the church and the Millennial generation. I did this because a lot of other people were writing about the church and Millennials, and I thought some things were right and some were pretty off-base. I am smack-dab in the middle of the Millennial generation. I’m not exactly a “typical” Millennial—but honestly, no one is. Broad generalizations can only go so far. At the same time, I don’t entirely write off generation theory, because I think there are certain things that a lot of people my age share. 9/11 was a defining moment in our lives and probably shapes our view on the world to some extent. We’re more diverse than earlier generations in the US. We’re more educated. We’re less likely to be married, or at least to marry young. More of us live in metropolitan areas. We’re less likely to be religious or regularly attend religious services (though not much less likely to be “spiritual” or believe in a higher power). We’re also the largest generation yet, so the way we act as a group is likely to have more and more influence.

Of course, I could write an entire section on clauses and disclaimers. In some ways, my descriptions of Millennials are most applicable to white, middle-class, well-educated Millennials, both because this is largely the population referred to in others’ writings about Millennials, and probably because I am biased to seeing things that seem to apply to me. I am also cutting out a number of age groups. My intention in focusing on Millennials is not to alienate non-Millennials by default, though I know I’m doing that to some extent.

I think, though, that what I am saying, while it is focused on a rather particular demographic, has a larger application. Many non-Millennials I know relate to certain characteristics of the Millennial generation—and many Millennials I know don’t. However, a lot of the ideas I’m talking about are basic human ideas and needs, framed in the context of a particular group. I hope that what I say can be useful whether you identify with this demographic or not. And I hope that if you do disagree with something I say about Millennials, or if you have something to add, or some nuance to contribute, you will do so. I may have put some work into formatting this paper, but it is still a working draft, a jumping-off point.

What is Atonement?

So, what exactly is Atonement (in a theological sense), anyway? Maybe you’re reading this and already have a well-established and thought-through theology of Atonement—I know this is true for at least six of my readers (if they’re reading and don’t have better things to do like graduating from seminary), because I spent the semester in class with them. Maybe you have absolutely no idea what Atonement entails in a theological sense. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle. And maybe you’re all over the place, like I was. Say “Atonement” to me, and my brain would pull out any manner of things, some more relevant than others:

  • A violent, bloody death that Jesus had to die because God was mad at us and needed somebody to suffer;
  • A really great storyline about this kid who’s kind of a jerk to his siblings in this fantasy world they discover together, and who ends up getting in real trouble and is slated to have his young life cut short until a magical talking lion steps in to save the day with the “old magic”;
  • At(one)ment (pronounced at-WON-ment): An etymologically accurate but rather cutesy Christianese way of talking about reconciliation to God;
  • A story about the choices we make and the power of story that was made into a hauntingly beautiful movie (alternately: a book that I own but haven’t read.

None of these are necessarily wrong (well, I have some opinions about the first one), but jumbled together like this they don’t exactly offer the most cohesive view of Atonement theology.

To really explore my own ideas about the usefulness of Atonement theology today, I think a little bit of background is necessary. This may not be the most exciting thing in the world, so I’m asking you to bear with me. We can get through this together.

First, a really basic working definition: Atonement is the work of Christ on earth.

That’s a really broad statement. As you can probably imagine, then, there are about as many more detailed definitions of Atonement as there are people who try to define it. Answering the question of why Christ came to earth is important, but also complicated. There is no one right answer and there is no full grasp on the truth. I think certain parts of the answer have a lot to say to us today, and some are perhaps less applicable but no less important. Before I talk about the particular aspects of Atonement theology that I think are important to consider in contemporary context, I want to offer a bit of a broad view.

There are (more or less) four umbrella theories of Atonement. I blogged about them before, but want to include them here to help give some perspective on the bigger picture.

Ransom Theory (aka Christus Victor)

The Ransom Theory basically holds that original sin (Adam & Eve) placed humankind under subjugation to Satan, and that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan. In this scenario, Christ’s death was God’s victory over the powers of evil and death—hence the “Christus Victor” designation, a name drawn from Gustaf Aulén’s 1931 revisitation of Atonement theories. Ransom Theory was the dominant theology of Atonement for the first millennium of Christianity, until Anshelm’s Satisfaction Theory emerged in the 11th century. This view is often associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church today.

Satisfaction Theory

Anshelm thought it was absurd for the devil to be on par with God in such a way that a ransom could be made, so he rejected the Ransom Theory for giving too much power and agency to Satan. However, he maintained, humans did sin, and could only be reconciled to God (make satisfaction) by an act of God. Anshelm’s solution? The Incarnation. God became human to satisfy the outcome of our sin. This is the view espoused by the Catholic Church today.

Moral Influence Theory

Peter Abelard thought it was bad theology and cruel to demand blood sacrifice, and felt there should be no precondition for God’s forgiveness—God can do anything God wants, so why should God have to become incarnate and/or go to the cross to save us? In addition to this question, Abelard notes that Jesus was already forgiving people before he went to the cross. The conclusion: that the main purpose of Christ is love, and when we are not practicing love, we fall into negative ways of being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this view tends to be popular among liberal Protestants.

Penal Substitution Theory

This is a legacy of the Reformation, and (probably unsurprisingly) is the theory I was brought up with. The Reformers saw a need for law and order in a turbulent society, and as such theorized that Christ brought order our of anarchy. Penal substitution is a very legal understanding that there must be some sort of retribution for the chaos (sin) caused by humans, and the inflexibility of God’s law in this view supported the Reformed tenet of salvation by faith alone. In the perspective of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement, Jesus takes the guilty verdict on himself to spare creation so that we God’s people might learn to be not guilty and to practice something beyond chaos and disorder.

Even given how brief those descriptions are, you might find yourself resonating more with one theory than another—sheltering more under one particular umbrella. Or perhaps you’ve made it this far in and you’re still confused about what you’re reading and why you’re reading it. If that’s the case, thanks for hanging on; I promise it only gets more interesting from here.

For my class assignment, I was asked to choose a theory of Atonement and stick with it—but I found I couldn’t. At first I felt most drawn to the moral influence theory, because I’m big on love (who isn’t?). In fact, in my view “love” is probably the best one-word definition of Christianity. I was also reacting against the penal substitutionary view, because I think out of all the theories, it’s the one most likely to be interpreted in a way that is actually harmful. Abuse is never good, Christian, or loving, and penal substitution can come off as awfully violent and abusive.

Despite these early inclinations, though, I’m not sticking with one particular theology because I think the composite picture is important. These theories of Atonement reflect centuries of theologies, changing perspectives, and rich heritage. I don’t think any one theology of Atonement is perfect, and I think there are things all of them get wrong. I think the fullest picture comes by considering all these perspectives together and trusting that something true and workable can rise above the contradictions and errors.

I trust that this is the case, and I trust that Atonement theology is as valid and relevant today as it was 500 or 1,000 years ago. Before I talk about why I think this is the case, let’s talk a little about Millennials.

The Millennials

The Millennial generation is the name applied to the generational cohort following Generation X. The PEW Foundation delineates Millennials as those born between 1981 and 1997, which are roughly the same dates as those used by other sources. I was born just before the median of these dates, centering me solidly within the Millennial generation. Millennials are my peers, and I know Millennial joys and struggles because I live them.

My caveat again: I think there’s a lot of truth in generational theory, but categorizing entire groups of people—particularly groups as large and diverse as an entire generation—always, always falls short. The conclusions I draw I base somewhat on the observations of others (e.g. the Pew Research Center does some interesting generational work) and somewhat on my own experience and observations. As such, my conclusions are subjective, limited, and almost certainly flawed in a myriad of ways.

Even knowing this, though, I persist in using the generational model and my own subjective position because I think there is some value to be had there, with that particular structure and my own unique view. What follows is my window on my generation.

Millennials carry a great deal of passion—and a great deal of uncertainty.

In fact, these two traits are very likely connected. Many US Millennials entered the workforce just before, during, or just after a severe economic downturn, and also maintain the highest amount of educational (and other) debt—a great worry for many. With many Millennials unemployed or underemployed, the link between career and identity weakened, and a “passion economy” developed—“geeking out” on a particular passion (or passions) has become a new way to establish identity. The commitment to and excitement about passions strikes me as a great potential strength, but it is a strength that cannot reach its full potential in the face of constant uncertainty and worry about the future.

Millennials care deeply about relationships and community.

Relationships and community, family both of birth and choice, are of utmost importance to Millennials—but they sometimes look different than they once did. Due to the uncertainty mentioned above, Millennials are delaying life events like marriage, home ownership, and starting a family. Community is created through relationships with friends and peers. Community can also be developed online, through social media platforms and communities of interest. Sometimes these digital interactions serve to strengthen face-to-face relationships, and sometimes they lead to or entirely take the place of these relationships. While Internet-based communities and relationships might look and feel different in some ways, they nevertheless meet many social needs.

Millennials value stories and narrative, along with all the specificity and subjectivity that entails.

I will tell anyone who listens that the way to win an argument is not with data and logic but with relationship and story. Everyone loves stories, but Millennials in particular love a good narrative—to the extent that stories are the best form of marketing products to Millennials. The thing about stories is that they are subjective and specific; they have unique and individual details. This is not a problem, though, in part because of the legacy of Postmodernism that proclaims the death of the grand narrative and the reign of subjective truths, but also because of that magic of stories that leads them through specificity to touch something deep within all of us. Anyone who has been moved by a novel knows this to be true. Millennials take this knowledge and expand it to all parts of their lives. A good social media presence should have a narrative. A product should have a backstory. A brand should have plot.

Millennials are uneasy with organized religion, but still open to spiritual ideas.

While many Millennial traits resonate with me, there are plenty of ways in which I don’t fit the mold—for instance, while many of my Christian-college peers married before me, I still managed to get hitched before the current average age of first marriage for women (27). Resistance to organized religion is another instance where I clearly don’t fit the mold: I’m training to become a priest. I participate in some form of organized religion almost daily. (To be fair, though, I do fit the mold in the equivalent political sphere: I’m a registered Independent, something that prevented me from voting in the New York primaries since I didn’t get it changed early enough.)

Terms like the “nones” (no religious affiliation) or SBNR (spiritual but not religious) have arisen largely in response to this trend. A resistance to organized religion doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection of spiritual, or atheism per se—Millennials may be less religious than previous generations, but they are just as spiritual. Insofar as spirituality refers to that nebulous “something more” that makes us human (not necessitating belief in a higher power), Millennials are right on par with other generations, with about the same percentage who say they “feel a sense of wonder about the universe,” “feel a sense of gratitude or thankfulness,” and “think about the meaning and purpose of life” once per week or more.

Millenials and Atonement

So, I’ve talked about Atonement and I’ve talked about Millennials. How do they fit together?

In my opinion, quite well. Here’s why:

Atonement is, at its core, all about relationship.

What was the work of Christ on earth? It was to bring life and reconciliation to all God’s children. It was—and is—about God’s relationship with humans. This act, in turn, teaches us about relationship and reconciliation. Human relationships are marked by all manner of tension and separation. That’s why breakups, divorces, arguments, political battles, and wars mark every day of human existence. But God, through Jesus, offers us a better, more perfect, potential-filled way to love. God offers a relationship stronger than death, a love that can break down all boundaries. 

Atonement tells a great story.

Atonement is about good vs. evil. The early conceptions of Atonement theology in particular carry a strong sense of this: Jesus is good, the powers of darkness and death (a.k.a. Satan) are evil, and in the moment of crucifixion the cosmic battle between these forces is won for the good. Perhaps the defining literature of the Millennial generation is Harry Potter—we grew up with Harry—and what made page after page of witches and wizards so compelling was the messy, difficult battle between good and evil. Of course, Harry is not alone in this fight; the battle between good and evil is a key plot. Many of the stories where this battle is clearly laid out have seen great popularity in recent decades: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, reboots of Star Wars and Star Trek, Marvel and DC’s run of superhero movies. Epic stories are compelling.

Not only that, but epic stories inspire us to tell better stories about ourselves—the Atonement inspires us to tell a better story. With the love and the passion of Jesus, we can live stories of love without fear.

Atonement is specific and indelibly rooted in the person of Jesus.

At first, this might seem like a drawback: Atonement theology is decidedly, inescapably Christian. Without acceding to the narrative of the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, it doesn’t really work. The specificity is limiting—but Jesus is part of the story. Jesus’ story is specific, but it also speaks to something deeply human, and speaks deeply to the human condition—and to the Millennial generation.

Jesus has the power to incite passion—something Millennials exhibit in spades—and passion modeled after Jesus’ example has the power to change the world. Jesus also saw people as individuals, not as their society made them out to be. This points back to my discomfort with generational labels. It doesn’t matter that every Millennial is different, because Jesus sees all of us that way.

Finally, I think it is also important to note that accepting Atonement doesn’t necessitate a rejection of other paths to salvation, nor is it definitely linked to institutional religious practice. The narrative truth of Atonement theology functions very well in the context of Christianity, but it also overflows those bounds.

Atonement is about living abundantly.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” These are Jesus’ words; this is Jesus’ description of what he came to do on earth. I also think this is the very heart of Atonement theology. This is the outcome of the epic battle, the great story, the perfect love, the ultimate reconciliation. The victory won for us is abundant life, life rich with experience and community, life filled with love and void of fear, life brimming with passion and heavy with fulfillment. This is life that feeds the spirit, life that is truly alive, and it is God’s gift to us in Jesus. All we have to do is accept it and live our way into it.

Conclusion

The Atonement is not simple. It is not straightforward and easy to grasp. There is not one right theological approach. However, the potential for life, love, and reconciliation brought about by the work of Jesus in the world is vast. There is power in living into a life reconciled with God. Atonement theology is not always front and center, but it is at the heart of Christianity. Perhaps we ignore it because it is complicated, or it makes us uncomfortable, and we have trouble separating the problematic bits from what is good and useful. Perhaps, though, the risk and passion of the Atonement is precisely what we need in the Church and the world today, as we strive for full and abundant life.

 

Reading List

For those of you who are interested in what’s been discussed and want to delve deeper, I’m providing a sort of annotated bibliography of the books used in my class (which have largely formed the basis of my thinking about Atonement) and what I thought of them:

René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

Girard’s perspective on the Atonement fits very much in with the idea of an epic story and a turning point to new life, but he is also a philosopher and this is a dense and difficult book to read.

Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed

This was the book we started with, and was at least in part what inspired me to buck the assignment and not align myself with a particular theory of Atonement. It’s not an especially easy read, but it’s a relatively comprehensive one.

Adam Kotsko, The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation

This book’s perspective on the Atonement as a social and political theology draw on pre-Modern thought, but fits remarkably well in a Postmodern setting, and really goes a great distance in making Atonement theology applicable and relevant—if you have the fortitude for a heady academic tome.

Jens Soering, The Convict Christ

This is a slim volume written by a man serving a life sentence in prison that challenges the reader to consider Christ’s position as prisoner and stance towards those who are considered least and worst among us—by far the most readable text of the semester and both challenging and inspiring.

Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key

One of the most Christocentric theologies I’ve ever read, and interesting and compelling for that, but again very dense.

Atonement and abundance

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Atonement is the work of Christ on earth. Atonement is the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ. Atonement is reparation for wrong or injury, for sin.

I believe the primary work of Christ on earth was to bring good news to the poor and set the captives free. To take humankind out of the narrow, limited, fear-filled lives of sin into abundant freedom and wild joy.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I believe that reparation for sin is reconciliation with God, with life, with our truest selves, and I believe that reconciliation with God is the ultimate experience of love—the opposite of fear.

“Do not worry about your life.” “Do not be afraid.”

The hardest part of this project for my Atonement class has been, for me, choosing an issue to be my focus. We were given a laundry list of possibilities (“Divorce Rate, Muslim/Christian/Jew, Racial Profiling, Abortion, Death Penalty, Reparation for African American Slavery, Same Sex Marriage, Occupy Movement, Sexual Misconduct in Roman Catholic Church, etc.”), all of which have plenty of potential. I even have positions on most of them, but nothing jumped out at me as an area of passion that I could pursue and consider for an entire semester.

Well, there’s only a week or two left for this project, so it’s do-or-die time. And…I still don’t have a nice, neat issue. What I do want to consider with you (over the next few days, you know, since we’re short on time) is fear.

Specifically, because I can’t cover the whole grand concept of “fear” in the next week, I want to talk about a couple of manifestations of fear—one public and one private.

I want to talk about the culture of fear that has laid the foundation for the, er, giant mess that is the 2016 election season,

AND

I want to talk about the fear that leads us as individuals to live lives from a position of scarcity rather than abundance.

Now that’s a lot to talk about. I’m not totally sure yet how I’m going to pull it all together. But I think everything I’ve brought up in this post is interrelated, and I think an insight about one part of the puzzle can shed light on another. I also don’t have the answers. I’m writing my way into this.

So I need your help. I need to know what you think. I need to know your questions, what resonates with you, what you think is wrong. Tell me in comments. Tell me on Facebook. Tell me in person. Email, message, text, or tweet me. Let’s start a conversation!

Words from Jesus

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“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“Do not worry about your life.”

“Do not be afraid.”

These words of Jesus still speak powerfully today. They speak to our culture and they speak to our souls. But what do they have to do with atonement? Stay tuned—I’m going to try to answer that.

In the meantime, I would love to hear from some other voices. How are these words from Jesus speaking to you today?

God in Good Friday

I don’t typically blog sermons, mainly because sermons and blog posts are a different kind of writing. I also figured that in any case I missed the window to post a Good Friday sermon, since we’re back to alleluias. But when I heard the news of the bomb blast in Pakistan on Easter, I realized the sermon was still fitting. There are Good Friday moments and Easter moments in every day.

I’m also behind on writing blog posts (not to mention everything else), what with last week being holy week and all. So, then, find below my thoughts on Good Friday.

mosaic-jesus

Everybody knows Easter. Easter is color and light and joy. Easter is spring and new birth and new growth. Easter is Easter bonnets and new clothes and a big dinner. Easter is trumpets and songs of joy and that word we haven’t been saying all Lent. Easter is fun. Everybody knows Easter.

So where does that leave Good Friday? I mean, when you know you’re just days away from celebration, who wants to take the time to go down into the depths of suffering, abandonment, disillusionment, and death? That doesn’t sound like very much fun at all. There’s a reason Easter and not Good Friday has become a secular holiday.

It’s a mistake, though, to jump too quickly to Easter without pausing here in the dark, because in addition to being an integral part of the Christian narrative, the story of Good Friday has a lot to say to us today.

Imagine being the disciples, or others close to Jesus, on the day of the crucifixion. I mean, not everything had been a piece of cake with Jesus. He asked questions and challenged authorities and got into some trouble, and life wasn’t always comfortable for his followers. But even so, they had Jesus with them. Jesus took care of them. They knew they were part of something important.

On Good Friday, Jesus’ followers lose this assurance. The trial must have felt like a dream at first. Sure, Jesus had been saying some strange things about being betrayed and going to his father, but how could it really be happening? And what about the moment of his death; what then? These men and women had dedicated their lives to following someone who had just been executed. Where were all the things they’d hoped for, that they’d hoped Jesus would bring about?

Now, we all know how the story ends—like I said, everybody knows Easter. But Jesus’ followers didn’t know. For them, there was only death. Only chaos. Only uncertainty about the future, about their purpose, about what in their life was true and what was not.

It is important to remember this, because while we are a people of the resurrection, we are also a people of the cross. We are living in Easter, but we are also living in Good Friday—or perhaps, rather, in the space between these two days. We are not without hope. We don’t want to have Good Friday without Easter Sunday. But at the same time, we can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday.

This may seem like a bad thing, but it’s a very real thing in our world. We live with our share of fear, confusion, and disillusionment.

We’ve seen a lot of Good Friday recently. We see Good Friday in acts of terror, like the bombings in Brussels on Tuesday. If you’ve watched the news or read a paper this week, you’ve probably seen images of violent destruction, seen chaos, heard screams and cries of terror. Coverage of the attack has dominated news coverage this week. But Brussels is by no means an isolated event. In fact, there have been 71 terror incidents so far this month, resulting in over 400 deaths. Four of these incidents involved over 20 dead. And that’s just March.

We’ve seen Good Friday closer to home, too. The political dialogue as we approach the next presidential election might be humorous if it wasn’t so ugly, mean spirited, and sometimes downright scary. We talk about building actual walls to keep people out, about policing groups of people based on their religion or ethnicity. We see Good Friday in institutionalized racism and in the needless deaths of people of color.

We see Good Friday in the faces of refugees who don’t know where (or whether) they will find another place to call home, and in the stories coming out of Flint, Michigan. We see Good Friday in reports on how climate change is affecting our planet and its population. We see good Friday in hunger, in poverty.

We see Good Friday in our own lives and homes. We see it in the breakdown of relationships, and in relationships that harm instead of nurture. We see it in the death of loved ones, whether that death was expected or sudden. We see it in fertility issues and miscarriages. We see it in depression and mental illness. We see it in worry and anxiety, in the temptation to operate from a mentality of scarcity.

We all have times when we don’t feel very much like an Easter people. When we feel like the sky is coming down around our heads, like we are down at the bottom with no one to help us up. These are not pretty times, but they are as much a part of the Christian story as the times where everything seems to be falling into place, where God feels immediately present and our lives are filled with abundance.

We know how the story of Good Friday ends, but we don’t know right now how many of our own difficult stories end. In so many of these stories, we are still in the Good Friday portion of the narrative, still crying out “Lord, Have Mercy,” still saying with the psalmist, “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

It would be easy to wrap things up and end the sermon on a high note. To say, yes, things can be bad, but don’t worry—Easter is coming! The arc of the Christian story is always pointing to resurrection; just hang in there a few more days and the joy and sunshine will be back.

It is true that the Christian story is one of death and new life. Jumping to Easter too soon, though, cheapens the Good Friday part of the story, so I don’t want to end with a Resurrection message today. I want to stay here, in the depths, in the place of doubt and fear and confusion. I want to stay in this moment where meaning and words and reason fall short. I want to stay with Jesus’ followers who didn’t know how the story would end, who didn’t know if there would be any meaning in Jesus’ death, who didn’t know if they should be foolish enough to hold on to hope.

I want to stay here because God is here, too. I want to stay here because today is a reminder that nothing is beyond God’s reach and experience—not suffering, not death, not doubt, not confusion, not despair. Today is a reminder that being a Christian is not some sort of inoculation against bad things happening. It is the antithesis of a prosperity gospel: on Good Friday everything is lost.

Jesus has been tortured and executed in the clutches of a flawed political system and mob mentality. His followers scatter. They are feeling heartbreak, betrayal, confusion, and doubt. They are not just trying to hold out for three days until a joyful resurrection. They are trying to hold out as long as they can: a day, an hour, ten more seconds.

But they are not outside of God’s reach—and neither are you. That is the Good News for today. Life is full of Good Friday moments and seasons—some longer than others; some harder than others. Being a Christian does not mean having a life that is free from these seasons of suffering and confusion. Being a Christian means that these seasons are part of the story. Being a Christian means having a God who has been down to the bottom, a God who will reach us even in the darkness.

The Moral Influence Theory of Atonement

Today’s post is brought to you thanks to Nancy Hennessey, a delightful lady who I’m glad to call a friend and who is going to be a fantastic priest very soon. She has her own blog for the class, exploring the Atonement in the context of the US Criminal Justice System. It sounds super interesting and I’m excited to read. Posting her paper was an actual class assignment, but I’m glad for it, because I think she speaks succinctly and smartly to the Moral Influence Theory of Atonement. Without further ado, then, here is Nancy’s exploration:

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The Moral Influence Theory recognizes that Christ’s death on the cross was a loving sacrifice and revealed the supreme love that God had for humankind. Rembrandt’s famous painting of the homecoming of the Prodigal Son reflects the moral influence theory of the steadfast love of a father (God) towards his son (humanity) who comes home seeking forgiveness and repentance. (Luke 15:11-32)

Unlike other theories that connect Jesus’ death to the salvation of our sins, the moral influence theory understands the sacrifice Jesus made with his death on the cross as the compelling reason for us to change our sinful ways, to be and live more as Jesus. In other words, to demonstrate the same compassion and love for our fellow human being as Jesus showed for the marginalized, the poor, and the meek. As early as the writings of Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215) he recognized Jesus’ death as the enduring love that God had for us by bringing Jesus into our human world as a living example of an exemplary life. Moral influence theory is more subjective than the other theories, particularly the satisfaction theory brought forth by Anselm.

The moral influence theory was written about by many of the patristic writers including Augustine (354 – 430) who expressed the belief in Jesus’ presence on earth reflected God’s love for humanity. As with other patristic theologians, this theory was “but one element in the Christian understanding of the cross.” (p. 331, McGrath)

It was Peter Abelard (1079 -1142), known as a superior theologian, philosopher, and scholar of his time, which was primarily credited for the development of this theory. He wrote, “the purpose and cause of the incarnation was that Christ might illuminate the world by his wisdom, and excite it to love of himself.” (pg. 332, McGrath) But it has been noted that similar to Augustine, this was not Abelard’s only theological premise for atonement. Perhaps his colorful and romantic personal life of his younger years was what people were most interested in, resulting in giving him exclusive credit for this theory of atonement. J

Unlike the ransom theory, the moral theory is not a payment to Satan, or the restoration of God’s honor as in the satisfaction theory. Instead, God’s expansive love is what is important, not compensation or victory. The responsibility of the atonement is on the Christian who desires a fuller life in Christ and is being led by the example of the life and death of Jesus. His sacrifice for us should draw from us the desire to live out a life that Jesus’ pure life showed us.

It is important to note that the death of Jesus on the cross was not his sole purpose as a penalty or victory – as believed in the other theories. Instead his death is seen as a result of his actions and is within a larger context of his life, death, and resurrection.

In closing, here is a hymn written by Peter Abelard on the atonement. It may shine a additional light into his thoughts and beliefs of the moral influence theory of atonement.

Alone thou goest forth, O Lord, in sacrifice to die;
Is this thy sorrow naught to us who pass unheeding by?
Our sins, not thine, thou bearest, Lord; make us thy sorrow feel,
Till through our pity and our shame love answers love’s appeal.
This is earth’s darkest hour, but thou dost light and life restore;
Then let all praise be given thee who livest evermore.
Grant us with thee to suffer pain that, as we share this hour,
Thy cross may bring us to thy joy and resurrection power.

So…Atonement is what, exactly?

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I’ve got a pretty odd…okay, varied…group of people who look at this blog. Some of you have been hearing the word “atonement” since before you could spell it. Some of you have more theological education than I do and could be teaching me (some of you are teaching me). Some of you have heard of atonement, and could maybe attempt a definition, but wouldn’t stake your life on it.

If I’m going to be throwing around atonement for the next several weeks, I should probably try to get us all on the same page. The thing is, that’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds. Atonement tries to answer the question, “What was the purpose of Christ on Earth?” And as you can probably guess, there are about as many answers to that question as there are people trying to answer it

Soon I’m going to post my classmate’s run-down on one of the theories of Atonement, the Moral Influence Theory, but first wanted to give you all a quick overview of some of the major theories out there. Here goes:

Ransom Theory (aka Christus Victor)

The Ransom Theory basically holds that original sin (Adam & Eve) placed humankind under subjugation to Satan, and that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan. In this scenario, Christ’s death was God’s victory over the powers of evil and death—hence the “Christus Victor” designation, a name drawn from Gustaf Aulén’s 1931 revisitation of Atonement theories. Ransom Theory was the dominant theology of atonement for the first millennium of Christianity, until Anshelm’s Satisfaction Theory emerged in the 11th century. This view is often associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church today.

Satisfaction Theory

Anshelm thought it was absurd for the devil to be on par with God in such a way that a ransom could be made, so he rejected the Ransom Theory for giving too much power and agency to Satan. However, he maintained, humans did sin, and could only be reconciled to God (make satisfaction) by an act of God. Anshelm’s solution? The Incarnation. God became human to satisfy the outcome of our sin. This is the view espoused by the Catholic Church today.

Moral Influence Theory

Peter Abelard thought it was bad theology and cruel to demand blood sacrifice, and felt there should be no precondition for God’s forgiveness—God can do anything God wants, so why should God have to become incarnate and/or go to the cross to save us? In addition to this question, Abelard notes that Jesus was already forgiving people before he went to the cross. The conclusion: that the main purpose of Christ is love, and when we are not practicing love, we fall into negative ways of being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this view tends to be popular among liberal Protestants. (This is the theory we’ll explore in a bit more depth in the next post.)

Penal Substitution Theory

This is a legacy of the Reformation, and (probably unsurprisingly) is the theory I was brought up with. The Reformers saw a need for law and order in a turbulent society, and as such theorized that Christ brought order our of anarchy. Penal substitution is a very legal understanding that there must be some sort of retribution for the chaos (sin) caused by humans, and the inflexibility of God’s law in this view supported the Reformed tenet of salvation by faith alone. In the perspective of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement, Jesus takes the guilty verdict on himself to spare creation so that we God’s people might learn to be not guilty and to practice something beyond chaos and disorder.

*Tangent: I have one marginally famous ancestor: Hugo de Groot, aka Grotius. His legacy is mostly in international law, and while I knew he did some work in theology (thanks, Wikipedia), I didn’t expect to encounter him in seminary—but it turns out his governmental theory of atonement is actually more than just a footnote in the history of atonement theologies. Neat!

These are some of the major theories of atonement. They’re not the only theories (though many other theories of atonement fall under or are connected to one or more of these). I would also argue that they are not mutually exclusive, though it may seem difficult to hold them together. The complexity, while frustrating, is the result of a complex and living act, and as such is actually a good thing (though my life would be easier if it was a bit more straightforward).

That’s a LOT of information, and a pretty head-heavy post. I promise this will get more interesting, but a little background is going to make further exploration more interesting. I also don’t claim to have gotten everything right, so feel free to call me out if something seems off here, or if I glossed over your favorite view of the Atonement.

That aside, I’d like to hear what you think. Do one or more of these perspectives resonate with you? Do any trouble you or leave a bad taste in your mouth? What do you think was the purpose of Christ on earth?

I’m Baaaaack…with a series on Atonement

It started innocently enough. In addition to the core courses I was already set to take to round out my middler year of seminary, I thought “The Theology of Atonement” sounded like an interesting, if challenging, addition. The promise that “each student will implement a practical project that accentuates the relevance of atonement still in the 21st century” sealed the deal: I could do work that is relevant and practical! Total win!

When I learned this project would have a social media component, I was intrigued and a little excited. Social media? I can do that. And hey, what a good excuse to revive my blog-writing practice—never mind that my last post was almost three years ago. I’ll be a blogger again!

But then came the time to “select a particular theology of atonement and apply it to a conflict in need of reconciliation, satisfaction and redemption,” and so far I’m finding myself stuck. While I like the idea, and how it is spot-on in addressing one of the Five Marks of Mission (“To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation”), there’s not one issue that jumps out at me.

Add to that the fact that while I admire those who can speak prophetically in the sphere of politics and society, I feel much more authentically myself working through quiet conversation, listening, and stories shared.

This project is going to be a challenge, but I’d like you to join me. I might fail, but I might not. Regardless, I hope we can have some conversation about Atonement and how it works in our world today.