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atonement

A Constellation of Images

In the last post I introduced two of the creeds. These are recited week in week out by Christians the world over. Given that these blogs are written to support a study on atonement why take this detour into something seemingly so off topic?

Simples. These creeds were written at a time when the church was working out its beliefs – there was really only one church then, but lots of competing theories about who, or what, Jesus actually was. The creeds went some way to giving a unified set of beliefs. What is really interesting is that the ‘how’ of the atonement does not seem to feature very much in either of them. It is almost as if it was not an issue to them. Think about that for a moment. It is simply astounding!

constellation of leo

The Creeds on Atonement

The Apostles’ creed says Jesus was ‘crucified, died, and was buried’, that he ‘descended to the dead… and rose again’. The Nicene states that for our ‘salvation [Jesus] came down from heaven’ and that for our ‘sakes he was crucified’ adding that there is ‘one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.’ There is nothing about carrying our sin, suffering on our behalf, blood making us clean, God punishing Jesus instead of us, a fall, separation from God and so on. Putting it simply, you can see hints towards what I refer to as the ‘standard model‘ of how the atonement works. But only hints. And I think you can only see those hints if you have already got an answer. It seems to me that if you only had the creeds to work from, and had never had these issues explained, you would find it very hard to end up with the ideas Jesus dying in our place that is preached virtually everywhere I have ever been to church. At the risk of being even more boring – this is simply astounding.[1]

The Constellation

The New Testament does of course have more to say on the subject. Some theologians speak of a ‘constellation of images’ scattered throughout the letters, (and to perhaps a lesser extent the gospels) as the various authors attempt to ‘describe the indescribable’.[1] Behind this constellation is the idea that there is no clear, concise, agreed statement of how Jesus saves us. This constellation way or thinking is very useful, and it forms a clear way into the theories on ‘how Sin is forgiven’. See if you recognise these stars?

  1. Battlefield Images. Sometimes called ‘Christus victor’ which means ‘Christ The Champion’. Christ gains victory over sin, death and evil through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection. Ideas of ‘ransom’ play apart as do the First Adam and Second Adam as representative archetypes. Some see a ‘war between the Gods’ at play.
  2. Images of the Law Courts – this is where penal comes in. Justice is invoked. Via his obedience Christ obtains forgiveness of sins. The punishment we deserve was paid by Jesus. God’s wrath is dealt with. This is perhaps where the majority of our understanding sits?
  3. Images of Relationship. We are alienated from God. Just as alienated people can be bought together through reconciliation and forgiveness so we who are far from God can draw close to God. Ideas of participation feature as do phrases like ‘in Christ’.
  4. Images of Prison. Sin, evil and death imprison us; the NT also uses slavery images. Captives can be liberated via Jesus. Christ broke free of death & we can, through faith, break free too. Ideas of light dispelling darkness (of the prison cell).
  5. Images of Hospital. Sin is seen as an incurable illness. Jesus has tasted the full force of this illness, becoming our perfect high priest, as he fully took part in human life – right up to and including death. He is able to bind up the broken hearted and heal the dis-ease that sin is, and that it causes.

I find these images really helpful – especially since they clearly have cross overs. The fact that they exist in the NT suggests that if we over play anyone of the stars, then our understanding of the depth of Jesus becoming human is diminished. So in future posts i want to try and bring out more about each one.

Notes

  • This is not to suggest that the early church did not write about how salvation works – they did as we shall see. But the fact that it didn’t make it into the creeds is fascination.
  • Donald English, ed., Windows on Salvation (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1994), 49ff.

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