When I first read the word “theory” in the same sentence as the Atonement I was decidedly alarmed. Years later I understand that that is an accepted adjective for a view of the Atonement by all theologians. This is because for 2000 years the exact meaning, significance and definitive nature of the work on the cross has eluded us. And this ought not to be viewed as a negative thing but rather evidence of its brilliant multi-faceted nature. Leon Morris, an old reliable evangelical soul, suggested that the Atonement has as many applications and meanings as we have needs. Whatever it is you find that is lacking in your life the cross has already been there and met that need:
“Sometimes we read of the cross as a victory or as an example. It is the sacrifice that makes a new covenant, or simply a sacrifice. There are many ways of viewing it. We are left in no doubt about its efficacy and its complexity. View the human spiritual problem as you will, and the cross meets the need. But the NT does not say how it does so.
“Through the centuries there have been continuing efforts to work out how this was accomplished. Theories of the atonement are legion as men in different countries and in different ages have tried to bring together the varied strands of scriptural teaching and to work them into a theory that will help others to understand how God has worked to bring us salvation. The way has been open for this kind of venture, in part at least, because the church has never laid down an official, orthodox view. In the early centuries there were great controversies about the person of Christ and about the nature of the Trinity. Heresies appeared, were thoroughly discussed, and were disowned. In the end the church accepted the formula of Chalcedon as the standard expression of the orthodox faith. But there was no equivalent with the atonement. People simply held to the satisfying truth that Christ saved them by way of the cross and did not argue about how this salvation was effected.”
I like the way Scot McKnight offers the atonement views not as “theories” but as stories. It reminds me of how Jesus was explaining the kingdom of God to us by saying “it’s like…” We were never given “it is this” but always “it is like..this” McKnight says:
“This may come as a surprise, but the Church never sensed a need to articulate a single explanatory theory for the Atonement. Some ask why the Church never ‘solved’ the Atonement question. I believe it was because they knew it took more that one story to tell that story, and I believe also they knew it as a reality so rich in diversity that attempts to narrow it down to manageable size were unwise.” (Embracing Grace, p 94)
Something I was surprised to learn was that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement view, which was actually the only one I had been exposed to, had only been solidly formed at the time of the Reformation. That obviously got me thinking. How did the Church for 1500 years function with any degree of power without PSA view if it was supposed to be the central and most accurate view of what took place at the cross?
Thankfully I have found many theologians who have spoken wisdom into this debate who realize that no Atonement “theory” ought to take precedence over the others and in the final analysis confess we must all submit to the mystery. In my opinion, if the Atonement is how He saves all His creation from death and sin to reverse the curse, becoming sin and the Last Adam for us, I am well to leave it at that. Someone once said, “the most profound thing about the atonement is that… Jesus died for us!” I believe a little child will be able to understand it and so I will not allow my heart to worry that I am going to miss the target, lose the point and fall headlong into some kind of heresy. We need not fight, argue nor choose one but rather embrace the fullness of all that we know so far and look forward to the ages of learning so much more of what Jesus’ death and resurrection means for us. I do believe someday we may all be astonished at how personal the work of the cross was, identifying with each unique life and need among mankind. Most of all we must not lose sight of the heart of the Atonement: God is love and the cross was God’s most powerful demonstration of divine love to mankind.
I will end with a passage from a Good Friday sermon by Pastor Peter Hiett of The Sanctuary Downtown:
You know, we ask, “Why the cross? What is the meaning of the cross?” Scholars debate and argue with each other as if it can only be one thing but not another.
We ask, “What is the meaning of Jesus Christ and Him crucified?” and lo and behold “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” is the meaning of all things:
It is the foundation of all reality.
The hermeneutic of all creation.
It is all that we dream of.
It is faith, hope, and love.
You see, it is the plot of every movie
The meaning in every story.
The beauty in every picture.
The life in every creature.
The rhythm in every song.
The logic in every thought.
The truth in every word.
The cross is the revelation of the Word through whom all things were made, are made, and are sustained.
It’s the revelation of the Logos, the revelation of the heart of God.
It’s the revelation of what God is saying with every atom of creation,
And what He is saying is love.
“In this is love.”
And I love you.
In a word, Jesus.
And He always wins,
Even when He loses,
Especially when He loses, He wins.
He is love, and love wins.
He wins everywhere, every when, and every how.
For a profound and multi-faceted presentation of the Atonement see Peter Hiett’s sermon: “That Thing Jesus Did On the Cross”