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Ransom, substitute, scapegoat, God: is there one doctrine of the atonement? 

29 March 2018

No, says Ben Pugh, there are only theories


Observers Raphael (The Mond Crucifixion) by Enzo Marra, who recorded the activities of observers in front of crucifixion and resurrection imagery at the National Gallery; it is in the “Crossings” exhibition at Southwell Minster

Observers Raphael (The Mond Crucifixion) by Enzo Marra, who recorded the activities of observers in front of crucifixion and resurrection imagery at t...

WHAT is the Nicene Creed’s doctrine of the atonement? Can you recite it? No. That is because there isn’t one.

The creed tells us that there was an atonement: that — for our salvation — Christ came down and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, was made man, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was buried, and rose again. But it does not tell us how such events achieved our salvation, or even what salvation is. The result is open season where doctrines of the atonement are concerned.

Over the course of two millennia, the question of atonement has been a chance for the brightest of minds to set to work making the gospel message intelligible to each new generation. The result is that atonement theology — in my view — is the seam within our ancient tradition which is, by far, the richest to mine.

Theories of atonement fall into four main types. In chronological order of their emergence they are as follows:

Christus Victor

THE Christus Victor theory of atonement consists of two distinct approaches, both emerging within the first couple of centuries of church history, and holding sway until the Middle Ages.

1 The ransom-to-Satan theory

This theory believes our main problem to be our captivity to Satan. The atonement is a victory over Satan which procured our release. So far so good. Difficulties arise, however, when God is depicted as deceiving the devil by letting him think that he had the “ransom money”, so to speak. When Jesus died, the devil thought that he had him firmly in his grasp. After all, that was the deal. Little did he know that Jesus could not be held by death, and would soon escape. The devil had already agreed to release all humankind in exchange for the Son of God. Now, he is left with neither. The title of the Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil” takes on a whole new meaning here.

Elaborate metaphors were used to describe the deceiving of the devil, such as the fish-hook metaphor: the frail humanity of Christ was the flesh of the bait, the invincible divine nature, the hook that caught the devil and brought him to land; or the mousetrap metaphor: his humanity was the cheese, and his divinity the trap. But, as well as the idea of God’s deceiving the devil, there is also the assumption that the devil had some kind of legal right, or authority, over humans which even God could not contravene.

There is a biblical basis for seeing the cross as a victory over Satan, although it is not extensive: Colossians 2.15; Hebrews 2.14; Revelation 12.11.

HILARY TINLEYRemember me by Hilary Tinley, is in the “Crossings” exhibition at Southwell Minster

2 Recapitulation

With this theory, it is as though Adam were the chairman of a corrupt company. He tars us all with the same brush. Humanity PLC is a dysfunctional organisation, and we are all caught up in its systemic problems. Jesus comes along and becomes the new chairman. Everything that Adam did Jesus undoes. Everything that Adam failed to do the Second Adam does. Adam was disobedient; Jesus is obedient. He even dies our death in obedience to God.

This has a much clearer biblical basis. In particular, there is the whole Pauline notion of our participation in Christ: Romans 5.12-21; 1 Corinthians 15.45-50. This participation can be read both ways: the Son of God unites himself to human nature, thus potentially renewing the whole human race; but we also become partakers of the divine nature. He descends into our humanity, suffering our frailties and dying our death, but then he takes us up into his resurrection and glorification. And so death’s hold over us is destroyed, as we now find ourselves caught up with the immortal and incorruptible God.

Objective theories

THERE are basically two of these:

1 Satisfaction

This theory was set out by St Anselm. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of William the Conqueror’s successor King Rufus. After a few years of falling out with him, Anselm took some time out and wrote Cur Deus Homo? (“Why the God-Man?”) in 1099. His argument went as follows. We have all robbed God of the honour that is due to him. For that honour to be fully repaid, something greater than all creation needs to be offered in compensation — our situation is that serious. No one but humans must pay it, but only God has the power to. Only he could offer something so valuable that it is the equivalent to everything in creation. The debt is total; the obligation to pay it is total; the power to pay it is zero.

What better solution, then, than that God should become human, and, in that human nature, pay the debt? This is the reason for the God-Man. That he should offer himself is more than enough to satisfy divine justice; so, in fact, it merits a reward. The Son has no need of such a reward; so freely bestows his merit, his reward, on all those who believe in him.

In this model, God is fully himself, both in his justice and in his mercy, fully expressing both attributes at the cross, resulting in an all-sufficient solution to the human predicament. Gone are the bargains with the devil — Anselm loathed all such ideas. God shows himself to be the sovereign of his world. The closest thing to a biblical text directly supporting the theory is Hebrews 10.12,14, where the writer emphasises that Christ’s single offering was utterly sufficient.

IAIN MCKILLOPFather forgive them, they’re so proud of what they’re doing by Iain McKillop. In a guide to the “Crossings” exhibition at Southwell Minster he explains: “This pair of paintings is intended to contrast the darkness of legalism and self-congratulation in some contemporary Christian institutions with the light, forgiveness and freedom that Christ aimed for us to enjoy. Christ died and rose to free us for an abundance of life which few of us yet enjoy, not to enslave us by a new system of rules”

2 Penal substitution

This phrase means that Jesus died to bear the penalty for my sins, hence “penal”, and that he did this in my place, hence “substitution”. The bearing of penalty implies that God needed to punish sinners, and that something actually happened to Jesus on the cross which was accepted by the Father as an equivalent to this punishment. Substitution goes beyond representation, pointing to the idea that, on the cross, Jesus was doing something without our participation — and, indeed, to spare us.

Penal substitution, which originates with Martin Luther’s Galatians commentary of 1535, parts company with Anselm’s satisfaction theory in two ways. First, the direction of travel has changed: in Anselm, the Son freely offers himself to the Father; in penal substitution, the Father pours out his wrath and judgement on the Son. Second, the aim is different: in the satisfaction theory, judgement is averted; in penal substitution, judgement is absorbed.

The clearest New Testament support for a fully penal view of the atonement would be 2 Corinthians 5.21 and Galatians 3.13, although many parts of Isaiah 53 are susceptible of similar interpretation.

Moral influence

A CONTEMPORARY of Anselm was Peter Abelard. His writings were driven by two concerns: one was an interest in romantic love. Love letters to his beloved Héloïse have been preserved to the present day. A second concern of his was with ethics. Much of his writing is on this subject. So, when he came to the atonement, the two ideas flowed together: the cross changes our ethical behaviour because there, in the crucified Christ, we come to understand something of God’s love for us. This love motivates us to change the way we live. This is how we are saved from our sins. That Christ’s death impresses us with the love of God, and inspires in us a life of dedication to him, is indeed a scriptural truth: Romans 5.8 and 2 Corinthians 5.15. The moral-influence theory was wholeheartedly endorsed by theologians within the German liberal tradition of the 19th century, who were all repulsed by penal substitution.

IAIN MCKILLOP. . . that we might share abundant life by Iain McKillopNon-violent atonement

WE NOW come to a fourth, and very recent, way of looking at the work of Christ. This last way of looking at atonement has been more or less dominated by the French literary critic René Girard, who was converted to Christianity by reading the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion. He brings two fresh insights to these accounts.

First, there is “mimetic desire”: desire that is brought about by imitating other people. We desire something, for example in an advertisement, because others have made it look desirable. We mimic other people’s desire. But Satan then puts what Girard calls “stumbling-blocks” in the way of some of our strongest desires, so that we cannot obtain those things. Mimetic rivalry ensues, in which we see others as a threat. As this process carries on, and frustrations intensify, whole communities can become enflamed with violence. It is a war of all against all.

Satan’s next tactic is to offer an answer to the cycle of violence which he himself caused, and here is the second insight. Satan presents to the community a marginal person who is slated as being the true cause of all the unrest. The whole community then turns on that person to destroy him or her. It is now a war of all against one. A temporary peace is achieved by this. This is called the “scapegoat mechanism”.

In the Gospels, we see Jesus fully absorbing all this community violence, but, crucially, it is not God who does the scapegoating. In non-violent atonement theories, God is not violent. He is on the side of the victims of scapegoating. Christ was then vindicated by his resurrection, thus fully exposing our scapegoating tendencies for what they really are.

But we are not saved by a sacrifice: people have been trying to achieve that from time immemorial. We are saved from sacrificing. We are saved from the very idea that the answer to bad violence is good violence, which we see never-endingly played out in global politics (and Hollywood) to this day.

PAUL BENNEYCorpus (2017), which Paul Benney painted after having a near-fatal riding accident in Mexico. The arm and hand on the left were added later, to give the viewer the impression that the scene is from the Good Thief’s point of view. It is in the “Crossings” exhibition at Southwell Minster

WHY did Jesus suffer under Pontius Pilate? The answer is not simple, any more than the human problem is simple. Learning the full breadth of atonement theories might be compared to learning the piano. To begin with, we might only ever play the “Chopsticks” of our tradition, but then we discover Rachmaninov. Suddenly, there are some huge, fat chords to enjoy. And a concert pianist will become attuned to a vast range of mood in a piece: some movements requiring quietness and subtlety, others requiring pomp and vigour.

Perhaps our task is not necessarily to work out which theories are wrong or right — although, undoubtedly, some are stronger than others. Perhaps our task is to listen out for what the culture needs us to play, boldly, or to soft-pedal. But only the complete range will equip us for that. I encourage you to broaden your range this Easter. Play some fat chords. Discover the soft pedal. Preach the good news.

Dr Ben Pugh is lecturer in New Testament and Applied Theology at Cliff College and author of The SCM Study Guide to Theology in the Contemporary World and Atonement Theories: A way through the maze (Cascade, 2014).

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