I began to think about doing a series on the ‘Atonement’ in life group as soon as life group started – sometime in September 2018. I plunged into the idea during July 2019. I began by getting the group to share testimonies, which was very good – though not as I thought it would be because there was so little atonement in their stories. Interesting.
In the meantime I had gone off and rejoined Oak Hill Library (where they train vicars…) What unbridled joy to be able to go in there again, where I used to study for my MA. I came out with an average sized pile of books to read over the summer. I sure do need a hobby.
So, a bunch of exciting looking titles then. I was looking forward to making a list of the various ideas, checking it twice, and coming up with four or five easy lessons that my chums at lifegroup would enjoy chewing over. Ah, the bliss of the innocent. It didn’t work out that way at all.
It’s a bit of a mess out there
It’s a mess out there in the wonderful world of atonement theology. The academic jury is still out, staying up late into the night, writing books and papers, and planning conferences to defend their various sides of the debate. Two thousand years on from the events that birthed Christianity you might have expected that there would be some consensus about how it is that sins are forgiven, and how the ‘at-one-ment’ we celebrate was reinstated. Surely, if this is the pivotal concept around which our faith rotates, the ‘how” would be clearly defined by now?
At the other extreme from the academy, at the grass roots level of congregations, it seems that many Christians probably do not even realise that there is any discussion going on at all about how it all works. And why should they? From what I hear in churches atonement theology mostly forms around ideas in which Jesus is punished instead of us. For perhaps the majority of my years of discipleship I would have said the same. To be honest, part of me still does… but it is a very uncomfortable part.
What are we to do with this? At there best the wonderful works of the theologians should bring light and joy to the churches they support. I can certainly attest to this. What they do has fed me! However, it seems to me that the “atonement debate” has not filtered down to the churches I have been at. Some might have reacted like me in shock when they heard a ‘rock star theologian’ dramatically reawaken the atonement debate by describing the crucifixion as ‘cosmic child abuse’. That was several years ago now, and to me it seems that the discussion hasn’t moved on very far in the churches that I have been part of – I did not even realize that not every disciple subscribes to the “he paid my debt” ideas until I did some theological study. I was very glad to discover that I was not alone in seriously questioning the my inherited understanding of the cross.
Oh, go on then
A maxim that I keep recycling concerns the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I head an Orthodox Father say, at the end of a long, complex teaching “The trinity isn’t meant to be understood, but experienced”. Priceless. It occurs to me that this maxim could well be applied to the atonement. Once again the intellect makes way for the mystical.
After a bit (actually a lot) of soul searching I have decided that I am going to look at the atonement after all with my lovely lifers. I will probably look at various models, and ask a pile of questions, many of which the books above attempt to deal with too. However it goes, we’ll have to remember that the greatest minds in the church do not have a simple, clear-cut answer. We’ll need to be open minded, and careful how we talk. (Or at least, I will!)
A Few Constellations
The curtain into the Holy of Holies apparently had stars made of gems on it.  In just the say way there is no one single theory of how the atonement works, but rather a constellations of ideas are expressed. All claim to be biblical. So….
We will look at the ancient “Christus Victor” theory with its various flavours like ‘recapitulation’ and ‘ransom’. Closely following up on these we could move onto Anselem’s ‘satisfaction of an angry God’ theory and take a road trip into the ideas of ‘moral influence’ which begins by asking ‘what if God just forgave sins?’ Should we start on the solid ground with everyone’s number one choice – “Penal substitution” and its numerous (often unhelpful but seemingly widely held) caricatures? And who can forget those funky Eastern Orthodox moving up in the outfield with their ‘participation’ theories, stressing the incarnation and the importance of train rides? I don’t know how many stops along the way there will be, or even really where its going to end.
Question or answer?
There will be a lot of questions, of that you can be sure. But will there be any answers?
My hope is that we will be left more profoundly aware of the goodness of God. It’s more about having the discussion than finding the answers, learning to experience and letting go of the need to understand fully.