Mike Breen writes on the atonement,
“While there have been a decent number of explanations of Atonement and what was accomplished through the Cross (see Scot McKnight A Community Called Atonement as well as Mark Baker and Joel Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross) there have been two pre-dominant and widely held views:
Penal Substitutionary (substitution in our place and forgiveness)
Christus Victor (Christ the Victor conquering all his enemies)
In a helpful introduction, Tim Geddert writes,
“There are many aspects to a restored relationship with God, and as a result discussions about the atonement can also become complicated. Theologians have put a great deal of effort into working out precisely how the death and resurrection of Jesus accomplish “the atonement.” Unfortunately, defenders of various views sometimes use the word “atonement” as though it meant their view! When I use the word “atonement,” it means simply “becoming reconciled with God.”
“Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection are not the atonement, they are the means of the atonement. “
If you get this last part, then it takes some of the emotional weight away from the conversation we need to be having these days. Geoff Holsclaw put it like this,
“Atonement language includes several evocative metaphors: there is a sacrificial metaphor (offering), and a legal metaphor (justification), and an interpersonal metaphor (reconciliation), and a commercial metaphor (redemption) and a military metaphor (ransom). Each is designed to carry us to the thing. But the metaphor is not the thing. The metaphor gives the reader or hearer an imagination of the thing, a vision of the thing, a window onto the thing, a lens through which to look in order to see the thing. Metaphors take us there, but they are not the ‘there.’”
We are prone, when we don’t recognize the way language and symbols work, to mistake the menu for the meal. It then becomes nearly impossible to actually talk about how and why we do theological work.
Ok. Moving on, here is Mike Breen’s summary of the two major views:
Penal Substitutionary: ”When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-15)
Christus Victor: ”And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (the next verse, Colossians 2:16)
The dominant view of atonement for the first 300 years of the Church was Christus Victor. The Penal Substitution view was there in Scripture, but for some reason the early church was less interested in that view. It wasn’t until Anselm in the 11th century that the Church substantially changed position, and it was the legal and forensic climate of those times that provoked the switch.
To be more provocative, the voice of the Holy Spirit did not highlight the penal-sub view for the early church. What was it about the context of the church in those days that required one approach (Christus Victor) more than the other? And is there something about our own changing world that now requires a return, or at least a much greater emphasis, on the earlier view?
Or to ask the question in reverse, why are western evangelicals so stuck on one view, and so emotionally invested in it?
It strikes me, having participated in some of this debate among Anabaptists the past five years, that those who are really emotionally tied (and that IS the reality) to the more recent view have an investment in that view because it is very much an other worldly, future oriented reality. It doesn’t push us to deal with the coming of the kingdom now, where we live. It is less weighted incarnationally.
In other words, the PS view lends weight to the sacred/secular duality we have lived with through Modernity. The PS view of the atonement has a certain resonance with a particular culture and worldview, an Enlightenment and Christendom world which is rapidly disappearing. Moreover, the PS view pushes us away from the public and evenpolitical implications of the atonement toward the private world of “my faith.” (Shades of Hauerwas, “the church does not HAVE a social strategy, the church IS a social strategy.”)
The PS view is weighted toward the private, individual life. It is about MY life and MY salvation – thus the justice picture, and the responsibility and call to work for justice, to get involved with the broken people and systems around me, is not so strong. We need not call the Empire to account when salvation is mostly an other-worldly, future oriented reality.
In other words, paradoxically, though the theology of the PS view seems all about sin, it is so inwardly oriented that it allows me to avoid really talking about the impact of sin as sin pushes me toward ego-categories and away from social engagement – a separation we do not see in Jesus, Paul or in the Gospel writers. (Anabaptists were once heavily weighted toward the Christus Victor theme, and it was reflected politically in the way they (mistakenly) withdrew from the world into isolated communities.)
Notice also how the Christus Victor theme is more readily recovered among charismatic groups, who tend to get down and dirty with deliverance and inner-healing issues. Again, because the PS view is paired with a futurist eschatology, an out-of-this-world salvation, helping people actualize the atonement in their lives and relationships is less a priority. (Note: the pastoral implications of atonement views. Mark Baker’s work pushes in this direction, but you could also reference Marva Dawn in her excellent book,Powers, Weakness and the Tabernacling of God. That the victory of God is won in weakness and not with armies is another of those political implications we could miss in only the PS view. Note also that a recovery of kingdom theology creates an atmosphere conducive to Christus Victor).
So yeah, we really need to live into both these understandings in order to avoid the worst problems of enculturation. The Gospel is so much more than life insurance, it moves us toward God’s kingdom shalom and to enacting the kingdom of justice under the Lordship of the Risen One. It leads us to pray with Jesus and all the disciples, “May your kingdom come on earth – as it is in heaven.”
See also Saving Paradise