We’ve recently had a comment from a Armchair Discernment Ministry to the effect of:
If you OUTRIGHT Deny Penal Substitution then you are twisting God’s Word and are changing and twisting the content of the Atonement and the Gospel itself. [...]
A person who claims to be a Christian AND openly denies and reinterprets the clear words of scripture regarding Christ’s atoning work on the cross is doing the same thing that the Mormon is doing but they are doing in regard to the Gospel itself. That person is redefining the gospel and what Christ accomplished on the cross and has set up a false idol and a false gospel.
Now, besides the obvious fallacy in such thinking (since PSA, as a theory, didn’t exist for the first 1000-1500 years of Christianity), such rigid, dogmatic certainty about matters like this (particularly when used in an attempt to excise entire groups of Christians from the body of Christ) become another Gospel, entirely. So, with that in mind, I think it is probably incumbant to repost the group project from last year, where we outlined the various orthodox positions on Jesus’ atonement, and link to a key follow-up regarding exclusionary practice in adherence to PSA.
There has been a great deal of discussion lately on the subject of “atonement”, sin, and the nature of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. In many cases, adherents of specific views of atonement (particularly the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement) have taken a dim view of groups of Christians who do not hold to identical views – in some cases, suggesting that the “correct” view (theirs, of course) is required both for evangelizing and for salvation.
Fortunately for Christians throughout the centuries without such ‘enlightenment’, systematic theology does not save, but rather the Grace of God and the mysterious work of salvation made possible through the cross and the empty tomb. In reality, many theories and ‘word pictures’ have been used throughout the history of the church to describe this work, and there is room for liberty in differences of view. Despite this liberty, though, there is need for some boundaries…
In Charleston, S.C., there was a bridge that was rather narrow, and was somewhat frightening for many motorists to cross. Once, during a period of repairs, the outside rails of the bridge had to be removed. Immediately, this bridge went from 2 functional lanes to a single lane, causing all sorts of traffic snarls, because people were afraid of falling off the edge. The rails, when in place, were not very capable of stopping a determined car from going into the water, but they gave some sense of security to motorists.
One of the lessons we can learn from this is that boundaries, contrary to popular opinion, are not always restrictive. Rather, boundaries clearly delineate how far you can be without going over the edge, leaving much more functional room within their borders. Unlike those who acted as if there was only room for one lane on the narrow bridge, once guardrails were in place, there was room for multiple lanes for cars to cross. The bridge, itself, did not change – it did not become wider or narrower. In fact, it became safer AND more efficient.
In the case of atonement theory, it is important that we establish the ‘rails’ – the primary one being that Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection was required in order to bring salvation to mankind. The second rail would be that man could not find salvation by his own means. These rails rule out “all paths lead to heaven” and “if you’re good enough, God will accept you”, and other universalist/semi-universalist views of atonement.
The Views of Atonement
1) Ransom View of Atonement
This view of atonement, held as the dominant theory in the church for its first 1000 or so years, was first described by Origen. It teaches that Jesus’ death paid a ransom to Satan (whose accusation held humanity to his claim after the fall of Adam and Eve to sin).
Because Satan’s claim against humanity was just, it required God, who is a God of justice, to pay a ransom price in return for man’s release. God paid this in the form of Jesus, on the cross. However, since Jesus had not sinned, he had not earned death, so it could not keep him. Thus, man was redeemed by God and his ransom of Jesus to Satan, and Satan could no longer make a claim upon man. (If you’ve read (or seen) C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, you’ve seen an allegorical story which was written to follow ransom theory.) Christus Victor (see #6 below) is often seen as similar/identical to the Ransom View, though it (CV) takes a more holistic view.
2) Satisfaction View (Anselm’s View) of Atonement
St. Anselm, however, did not like the ransom view, because it placed God in a position of debtor to Satan. Instead, he put forth a theory of atonement called the “Satisfaction View”. In his view, man has defrauded God of the honor and glory due to Him through sin – trying take God’s place, ourselves. Jesus, though, brought full honor and glory to God in his life, and then through his death ’satisfied’ the difference due between man and God.
In this case, Jesus’ substitution is that he suffered for us. In his view, men and angels owe a debt of honor to God. This debt cannot be paid if sin has been committed in their life. Jesus, because lived and did not sin, was able to pay this debt of honor that none other could pay. By dying, though, he suffered in our place to pay that debt of honor.
This theory of atonement was further refined by Thomas Aquinas and codified as the dominant theory in the Catholic church. Even so, like Ransom Theory, it was not considered to be a required belief for salvation, but a secondary matter.
3) Penal Substitution
In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, sin is a crime against God, for which the punishment is death and separation from God. Jesus, because he did not sin, could take this punishment upon himself and absolve those whom he chose from this punishment. In this view of atonement, God punishes Jesus in our place (which is different than substitution where Jesus suffers for us rather than being punished in our place) – if we are one of the elect.
Interestingly, this is the first view of atonement in which the emphasis on Jesus’ atonement was made specific to each individual’s sin, rather than as a general atonement for the sin of mankind. Since Jesus’ crucifixion happened at a specific point in time, it could only cover the sins of people God had chosen at that time for it to cover. Thus, Calvin also had to borrow from Augestine’s theories of double-predestination. Additionally, to distinguish itself from the Satisfaction View, the Penal Substitution View teaches that Jesus was not satisfying a deficiency in mankind, but rather that he was satisfying God’s wrath.
This is the first view of atonement that was codified as a core doctrine in many churches, rather than being of secondary concern. (Thus, the full emphases on sin, punishment and hell become prerequisites to understanding what to believe before one can become a believer.) This is the primary view in Calvinist/Reformed churches, and is a driving force behind much of the criticism of the Emerging Church Movement, which tends relegate the individual’s view of atonement back to its historic place as a secondary doctrine.
4) Governmental View of Atonement
This view of most closely associated with Arminianism and found a home in Methodism. It is similar to the penal substitution view to some extent, but the biggest difference is that the cross is not seen as the exact punishment for sin, but rather it is God’s way of publicly demonstrating His displeasure with sin. So Jesus is still a substitute in this view, but what he is substituting for is different than the penal substitution view. It wasn’t a substitute for punishment, but rather a substitute for the necessity of punishment. This way the moral nature of the universe is maintained.
This may seem like a game of semantics, but it gets down to the scope of the atonement. In this view, forgiveness is available to all who turn from sin. It is as if the president would offer a blanket pardon for all criminals with the only condition being they ask to be released. A prisoner who refuses to ask to be released will not be released. Additionally, the atonement is viewed in a more communal sense im this view. The church has been pardoned, but one may freely choose to enter into or walk away from this pardon.
Not surprisingly, this view has its share of detractors, mostly from Calvinist/Reformed circles. Some common objections are that this view leads to perfectionism, moralism, or other works-based thinking. Others say that it denies total depravity because it assumes mankind is able to see Christ’s sacrifice and turn from its sin.
5) Moral Influence View of Atonement
This moral influence view is an offspring of the governmental view, to a degree. This view is often referred to as subjective, opposed to objective, because it doesn’t really attempt to answer the question of what of actually happened at the cross, as much as it tries to explain why it happened. In the view, the cross demonstrates Jesus’ self-giving, His complete abandonent to God’s will, and His complete devotion to God for the sake of the world. His death is seen as the completion of the message He spoke during His life on earth. It shows us the self-giving nature of God’s love.
When we are touched by this love, it inspires us to follow in Christ’s steps. By looking at Christ, we will naturally start to act like Him. We will be devoted to God’s plan, and we will serve other self-sacrificially. This view, along with the Christus Victor view, seems to be gaining a bit more prominence. It is not surprising, given the way these perspectives lend themselves to being told in a more narrative style.
Borrowed from the title of Gustaf Aulen’s 1931 book meaning Christ the Victor. In his book Aulen builds a historical case for the “classical” view of Atonement, more commonly know as Ransom Theory. He argues that most of the church misunderstands what the early church fathers believed about Ransom Theory. In Aulens view and definition of Ransom Theory it differs from the common view of Ransom in that Christ was not paying a ransom to the devil but rather rescuing humanity from the bondage of sin and death.
When viewed with this perspective God is no longer indebted to the Devil but rather God is sovereign over everything, including the Devil, and chooses to rescue humanity. As Aulen states it “The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil”
SUMMING UP THE VIEWS
Each of these views fits within the biblical guardrails for explaining the meaning of Jesus death, burial and resurrection, with each explaining a different aspect or ‘word picture’ for the atonement. In reality, none of these is likely to be 100% true in trying to explain the inner workings of God.
To some, the prospect of such acceptance of multiple biblical views may be troubling, and the tendency is to want to stake out a single ‘lane’ (accepted atonement theory) and place the guardrails around it – effectively attempting to add human limits to further narrow an already narrow ‘bridge’. Fortunately, it is as the Apostle Paul tells us:
if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
One of the greatest persecutors of Christians, Nero Caesar, insisted that people burn incense to him as lord, and take his mark upon them in order to be accepted into Roman society. Too often, Christians – whether of the ODM persuasion or not – tend to grasp onto one specific, systematic explanation of an aspect of God – be it atonement, grace, free will/predestination, etc. – and create their own idol of that theological explanation, insisting that it be accepted as the only way that a “true Christian” can believe.
The means to prevent this behavior, though, is not to suggest an “anything goes” mindset with no boundaries. Rather, we should establish the few clear boundaries that exist within Scripture and be gracious and accepting of those who may not agree with our most closely held theories, but whose own theories still remain within those boundaries. In many cases, like with Atonement theories, it may be that all of the theories explain a different aspect of the whole, even if individually they are holistically deficient.
[NOTE: This article was a group effort, written by Phil Miller, Chris and Chris L]