Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Atonement

The etymology of atone: at + on one. But if you know even a tiny amount about Christianity and its tragic history, you know that there is no oneness at all among Christians when this vital and central subject comes up. The very word "atonement" is incredibly divisive.

Millions have been killed ruthlessly, cut down young by sword, pike, and gun, or the results of such religious fighting--all because of this word . A third of all the people in Germany died in the 17th century because of this concept and its related ideas.

So why am I attempting to deal with such a historically destructive and impossibly difficult theological doctrine? Because how one views this doctrine, dramatically affects how one views God, others, and how one will live.

So let's jump into the Grand Canyon or leap to the end of the Cosmos:-)

Enough in my past blogs has already been said about the abyssed divide between Limited Atonement versus Unlimited Atonement, so I won't repeat here but go onto the next step, to better things. Given there is universal atonement in Christ, how and why exactly did God in Jesus bring the miracle about?

Why was Jesus "slain from the foundation of the world"? (Revelation 13:8b) And what could Scripture possibly mean to say Jesus died on the cross before dinosaurs ruled, before even this solar system and earth came to be, long before humans appeared on the scene?
(Ah, and the question of evolution; no I'm not going to pull on that animal "tail" now.)

Being a Friend, I wanted to start with Quaker thinker Robert Barclay's view, but it has been years since I've read in his Apology and I couldn't seem to find a quick answer. (Please rescue me Quaker Theologians;-)

Let us go back to the good Fox himself who was wary of theological notions but had a deep sense of practical biblical doctrine:
"Soon after there was another great meeting of professors, and a captain, whose name was Amor Stoddard, came in. They were discoursing of the blood of Christ; and as they were discoursing of it, I saw, through the immediate opening of the invisible Spirit, the blood of Christ."

"And I cried out among them, and said, 'Do ye not see the blood of Christ? See it in your hearts, to sprinkle your hearts and consciences from dead works, to serve the living God'; for I saw it, the blood of the New Covenant, how it came into the heart."

This startled the professors, who would have the blood only without them, and not in them."

from The Journal of George Fox

Commenting on this and other passages related to the Atonement, the Quaker historian Howard Brinton says:
"This identification of blood and life indicates that we are regenerated, not so much by the death of Christ, as by his life in our hearts...In it symbolic meaning blood represents life...
What was more natural than that Jesus, knowing that his own blood would be shed on the morrow, should refer to the blood of the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31) which was written in the heart.

Like the blood of the old covenant, his blood would create a living bond between God and man. His was to be that third life which would bridge the gap between the divine and the human, overcoming the isolation and estrangement of the human individual. This would be at-one-ment, a uniting of that which had been separated.

So Paul writes: "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace who has made us both one, and broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:13,14)."

from Howard H. Brinton, Friends for 300 Years

In the last two thousand years, a wide variety of other views on the Atonement have been put forward. Here's two interesting outlines naming them:

Problem: We Were Cursed
Solution: Jesus Became a Curse for Us

Problem: We Were Unforgivable Sinners
Solution: Jesus Expiated Our Sin and Gave Us Access to the Father

Problem: God Hated Us As His Enemies
Solution: Jesus Propitiated God and Made Peace Between Us and Him

Problem: We Were in Slavery to Law, Sin, and Death
Solution: Jesus Redeemed and Ransomed Us from Slavery

Problem: We Were Guilty Before the Father
Solution: The Father Justified Us, Declaring Us Innocent in Jesus

Problem: We Were Unrighteous
Solution: The Father Imputed Jesus’ Perfect Righteousness to Us

Problem: We Deserved Eternal Punishment and Forsakenness
Solution: Jesus Was Punished and Forsaken In Our Place (Penal Substitution)

Problem: We Were Under the Dominion of Satan and Death
Solution: Jesus Conquered Satan and Death and Transferred Us Into His Kingdom(Christus Victor)

Problem: We Were Faithless
Solution: Jesus Was Faithful On Our Behalf, Purchased Our Faith, and Taught Us Faithfulness (Christus Exemplar)

Problem: We Were Spiritual Orphans
Solution: The Father Adopted Us in Jesus and Reconciled All Things

Listed on the Web by Darius at (I was unable to find the original source to credit the author. If someone knows the author of this lucid outline let me know. Thanks.)

Here's a second, shorter outline:

Ransom to Satan: This view sees the atonement of Christ as a ransom paid to Satan to purchase man’s freedom and release him from being enslaved to Satan...

Recapitulation Theory: This theory states that the atonement of Christ has reversed the course of mankind from disobedience to obedience...

Dramatic Theory: This view sees the atonement of Christ as securing the victory in a divine conflict between good and evil and winning man’s release from bondage to Satan...

Mystical Theory: The mystical theory sees the atonement of Christ as a triumph over His own sinful nature through the power of the Holy Spirit...

Moral Influence Theory: This is the belief that the atonement of Christ is a demonstration of God’s love which causes man’s heart to soften and repent...

Example Theory: This view sees the atonement of Christ as simply providing an example of faith and obedience to inspire man to be obedient to God...

Commercial Theory: The commercial theory views the atonement of Christ as bringing infinite honor to God. This resulted in God giving Christ a reward which He did not need, and Christ passed that reward on to man...

Governmental Theory: This view sees the atonement of Christ as demonstrating God’s high regard for His law and His attitude toward sin...

Penal Substitution Theory: This theory sees the atonement of Christ as being a vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice that satisfied the demands of God’s justice upon sin...

From (No author listed)

Other views or ones with different names:
Scapegoating, Satisfaction, Covenant, Hilasmos, Pardon, Warfare Motif, Community, etc.

Here's part of a Quaker reflection by Bill Clendineng (Plainfield Friends Meeting):

"For early Quakers atonement was not an external transaction, but an inner experience of what George Fox called the “true Cross,”. Christ is the type, allowing himself to be put to death on the cross, so that we can experience the antitype by allowing all that is outward to be put to death in us.

Barclay refers to the description of atonement in 1 Peter 2:21-24: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (KJV). The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is a demonstration of the power of God over the power of sin. We experience this power by following Christ to the true cross within."

In contemporary theological categories, early Friends would fit into the “moral example” understanding of atonement, with some qualification. Atonement for Friends was not just a theological concept. Following Jesus to the cross meant a radical personal transformation. Nothing could ever be the same again.

Religious symbols and rules (“voluntary humility”) fade into the background when living in Christ’s kingdom (“the regeneration”). Shewen describes that radical transformation in his “Meditations & Experiences.”

Check out Bill's full blog at

What is my own conclusion? I reject totally the view that Jesus had to die because God couldn't forgive humans unless he did. Not only does such a view severely limit God, but it demeans and distorts the character of God--his total holiness, absolute goodness, incredible mercy, and limitless love.

According to I John, God is love. Jesus repeatedly emphasized God is love--metaphorically, a father who loves all humans with limitless love, even loving the most heinous of us.

I find much appealing in a number of the good views. But to tell you the truth, I don't know which one is the sole Truth. I'm much more concerned with the "soul Truth."

This isn't meant to be a cop out. I am writing about the Atonement because it is so central to faith, but I don't have the spiritual maturity or the intellectual genius to know which view is the most true, or the only true.

Besides, at least in my limited understanding, the theories of the Atonement (and for that matter all theology) seem analogical, symbolic and poetic,--not literal prose, not factual, not abstract propositions (except for some theologians who try to bottle the Wind).

Furthermore, if deep-thinking Christians over nearly 2,000 years of theological speculation haven't been able to agree, and have come up with so many very different, and at times contrary, theories, there seems to be a question of whether we are meant to narrow our view to only one method.

Indeed, since the wonder of the Atonement is so limitless, maybe God encourages us instead to wrestle with the great miracle and be moved to love God more and more.

Besides, I am much more concerned with the practical results of the Atonement than with theory. Like the early Friends, I want to deeply experience and live in and for Christ much more than I want to theorize.

Having worked in various social capacities from mental hospital care worker to high school teacher and in many manual labor jobs as well, and having read too many depressing books of academic history, I am very aware of the evil that pervades humans within and without. And even if I had avoided reading about all the evil of history and not seen sin played out in many families' lives, there is still the cussed sin and selfishness in my own life.

Even if no one else ever needed the Atonement--the loving, reconciling, merciful action of God--I certainly did. And am so thankful God loved us universally with an eternal love.

My prayer is that more and more we could live in such a way as to draw the seeking, the lost, the needy, and the rebellious--all individuals everywhere--into God's eternal, limitless Ocean of Light.

In glad tidings,

Daniel Wilcox


Hystery said...

Great post! I was reading Penn's Fruits of Solitude Yesterday (which I love. Penn was so very cool) and was struck by the amount of energy he uses to describe servitude. How can you be a good master? How can you be a good servant? How is this relationship like the one we have with God? There were lots more servants (and the conditions of servitude differed) in his day than in ours. How much of our "understanding" of complicated theological concepts relies upon our enculturated assumptions and experiences of our bodies, roles, and relationships? And if this is the case, how much should we trust our clever little doctrines. What is Truth and what is notional?

Also, one's interpretation of atonement seems to be much related to one's christology.

Bill said...

I shared some thoughts on atonement in my blog on William Shewen's Counsel to the Christian-Traveller. Rather than repeat it here, I encourage you to jump there:

As noted there, Barclay seems partial to the description of atonement found in 1 Peter 2:21-24.

Ron Henzel said...

Thank you for this post. I was only able to give it a quick skim, but I will certainly be back for a more comprehensive read. I've been publishing my thoughts on this subject on the "Crux" blog for Midwest Christian Outreach ( My latest post is titled "The Lamb Before Its Shearers" (

Bill Samuel said...

The theories are at best windows into the Truth. They are not the Truth. There can be many windows into the Truth of the atonement, but we will miss the richness of its meaning in our lives if we try to box it into one theory.

See a look into several theories of The Atonement by Quaker theologian Arthur O. Roberts.

Robin M. said...

If you're still looking for more on this subject, I recommend the comments on this post: New Kind of Christian Trilogy for a survey of contemporary Quaker attitudes.

My post originally mentioned atonement in passing but other folks (including Hystery and Bill) took it quite seriously.

Yewtree said...

This is a very impressive blogpost, thanks for sharing.

I only knew about 2 of the theories of the Atonement: Christus Victor and Penal Substitution (and particular versus universal salvation), so thanks for introducing me to the extra ones. I too reject Penal Substitution utterly, it's horrible. Christus Victor is quite good, and is very prominent in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church -- "He trampled down death by death" and so on.

Jim714 said...

Dear Daniel:

I found this immensely confusing and baffling. I can hardly get my head around even one version of atonement, let alone the entire list! It seems so abstract. And I have difficulty relating these theories to how one lives one's life. I do appreciate the effort and dedication behind this discussion, but where does someone start, how does one connect with these ideas?

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Friends,

Thanks for commenting.

Hi Hystery. Excellent question. We are "clever little" devils when it comes to our convoluted concepts and notions aren't we?
Truth isn't notional but relational:-)

Hello Bill,
Thanks for the weblink and introducing me to William Shewen. Sounds like Counsel is a must read.

I felt inspired by your blog.

Hi Ron, Thanks for stopping by. I did check out one of your atonement blogs. Wow, you have an extensive historical background in church theology. I'll keep reading.

Greetings Bill S.,
Very good analogy! Yes, I've read your blog a number of times. I especially have been helped by a number of Arthur Roberts articles over the years. Years ago I read some of his fine history of the Friends Alaskan Mission.

Hi Robin,
Wow, you cracked the atonement windown open and in rushed Niagara Falls;-)

Thanks for stopping by.

Hello Yewtree,
Yes, I deeply appreciate the very glad tidings of Orthodox theology. I remember some of its blessed points from reading a book loaned to me by a Serbian priest here.

Howdy Jim,
"Immensely confusing and baffling"--You and me both!
My central take on all of these theories is first let us live out Jesus' active words--Love God and all others. The mental speculation is sometimes interesting commentary but not the heart of the good news.


Theodore A. Jones said...

"It ia NOT those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13
What is this law he is talking about?