Sunday School starts again next week (Sept 10) at 9am. We are going to do a 26 week series called the ABCs of Faith that will be a lively as any Sunday School class you have ever attended.
Many people have asked that a preview of the lesson be made available ahead of time. So for those of you who like to come prepared, here is a sample of week 1: ‘A is for Atonement’. I will also add a PDF to the bottom in case you want print it out.
The artwork for the series is by my friend Jesse Turri – you can see his other projects at his website [link]
There are many subjects that are clearly talked about in the Bible and clarified in church history. Atonement is not one of them.
This is a strange situation because the heart of the Christian story is centered around the events of Easter week when humanity and the Divine (god) were reconciled and came into a new relationship (the new covenant). It is strange, therefore, that something so central, so momentous, and so consequential would be left relatively undefined.
This works out perfectly for us in the 21st century because it allows us to introduce two helpful concepts that will radically change the way that we talk about faith and truth. The first is concept is Adiaphora and the second is the Surplus of Meaning. Don’t worry if you have never heard of them before, by the end of the ABC’s of Faith, you will be using them like a master carpenters use the tools in their woodshop.
Atonement is one of those rare words that actually works in English: people often utilize the at-one-ment memory device.
At its most basic, atonement simply means the re-pair of something that was broken or separated. Specifically here, we are saying that something had come between humanity and God – this is usually called ‘sin’ (or separation). Something was wrong. Humans are broken and live out that brokenness in bad decisions, personal struggle, dysfunctional relationship, social turmoil, societal chaos, war, and religious conflicts.
Whether you talk about humanity having lost its way, or being lost, falling into sin, or under a curse … atonement is that work of God in Christ that changed-fixed-repaired-healed-forgave the problem.
This is where it gets more complicated. Neither the Bible nor the early churches’ creeds outline or take a stance on an atonement theory. For as important a topic as atonement is, it is significant that no definitive stance is required.
This reality has led to two historical developments:
- First, many varieties of atonement theories have emerged, and subsequently evolved, throughout church history.
- Second, the theories all use different word pictures.
Depending on what you paint the problem as, the work of God in Christ will take on different metaphors. Some use a courtroom, some a hospital, some a battlefield, others a dungeon (prison) and still others an exemplar motif.
Later in this series we will get to ‘S is for Salvation’ and look at how sin and salvation are tied together. If you picture sin as a sickness, then Christ becomes a healer and church becomes a hospital. If you picture sin as a battle, then Christ is a warrior, and is the victor who conquers sin and death. If you picture sin as a debt that we owe to God, then Christ pays our debt with the richness of grace that we can never repay. If you picture sin as a bondage or a prison, then Christ liberates us and sets us free. If you picture sin as a brokenness, then Christ restores us and places us back in harmony (shalom). If you picture sin as violence, then Christ is the prince of peace and reconciles us to God and to each other.
The earliest theories are labeled ‘Ransom Theories’. A famous example is the ‘Fish Hook’ where God lures Satan – who has captured humanity – by offering the human Jesus as ‘bait’. The devil takes the bait and Jesus is killed … but the devil is surprised that inside the ‘worm’ of Jesus’ humanity is the ‘hook’ of Christ’s divinity and the devil is caught! Easter morning is thus the undoing of both Satan and death itself.
This kind of motif can also be in C.S. Lewis’ the Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe.
Later generations (and European ones) did not like that God would have to ‘trick’ or bargain with the devil. This lead to a developing of some other theories that had been around. Christus Victor and Substitutionary theories are two examples that remain popular to this day. Substitionary models are a particularly interesting example because in the second millennia of church history you can see a profound evolution of different models which line up (and are born out of) out of. You can watch the Feudal (honor) era change with the rise of legal, economic, and civil developments during the Enlightenment and Protestant Reformation.
The past century has seen the rise of two alternative (and very different) theories. One is called Moral Influence theory. Jesus models for us (exemplar) and life lived for others and to God. Moral Influence has the added attraction of not being so bloody. It is the favorite theory of many within the liberal or mainline branches of the church for this reason.
My favorite group of theories are the Anti-Violence branch. Jesus is killed unjustly but willingly submits to this fate in order to unmask the ‘powers the be’ and expose the fraudulent structures of sacrifice and scapegoating that both nations/empires and religions utilize in order to preserve their position of power. Recent books like ‘Saved from Sacrifice’ and ‘The Non-Violent Atonement’ have helped make a new generation aware of alternatives to earlier models that make God seem like a weakling or which paint God as a child-abusing monster with split-personality disorder.
When Jesus dies on the cross, he pronounces that ‘it is finished’ as if to say ‘Don’t do this anymore. Stop scapegoating people’. In this act God holds up a mirror to humanity and says, ‘do you see what you do? – you even do this to my servants and now to me.’ In resurrection, God vindicates the victim and once again stands on the side of the oppressed.
So which theory is right? Which is the best one?
Some groups have become so fond of one theory over another that they begin to say that theory is the only adequate way to understand the work of Christ. Some ‘Reformed’ camps have done this with the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory. This has led to some evangelical camps claiming that PSA is THE gospel.
This why we need to talk about the surplus of meaning and introduce another ‘A’ word: adiaphora.
Adiaphora is an ancient concept inherited from the Greeks that came center stage during the Reformation 500 years ago. Initially it meant ‘non-essentials’ and refers to practices that are neither forbidden nor commanded in Scripture. Now it more generally refers to topics that are not specified in scripture. ‘Atonement theories’ are perfect candidates for this category. Admittedly that is a difficult and odd thing to do! One would think that the Cross of Christ and the implications of Easter – which are so central to the Christian faith – would cause it to matter deeply what one believed about its details, structure, and effectiveness.
Unfortunately, as much as believers are willing (and eager) to argue about different theories, neither the Bible nor the creeds specify a particular theory and with the historical evolution of so many elaborate options … it looks like this will continue to be a lively conversation for a long time to come.
The ‘surplus of meaning’ therefore becomes a helpful tool. This approach* states that in any symbol as rich as ‘God’ or communion or the cross that there is a multiplicity of interpretations, a plurality of perspectives because they are overflowing with possibility.
When applied to atonement theories you begin to see that each theory provides a different angle that reflects a different aspect of the story. We actually need all of these different theories in order to grasp the elaborate nature of the Easter events and their religious implications for humanity.
The bottom line is that something powerful happened in the Easter story and it changed humanity’s relationship to God (or the divine). Whatever was broken has been fixed, that which was separated has been restored, and victory was won for the sin-sick world. In Christ, the gospels claim, there is a new at-one-ment and that we are no longer alienated, but have been reconciled to God. This is good news! We are to follow Jesus’ way in the truth that death is not final word because it has been overcome by life.
Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal Downing ($10 on Kindle)
Triune Atonement by Andrew Sung Park ($10 on Kindle)
*the ‘surplus of meaning’ is a concept developed by Paul Ricoeur in the latter half of the 20th century. It goes hand in hand with his concept of second naïveté where faith has to mature and pass through the desert of criticism to come out of cynicism into a more robust and adult understanding belief.