Archive for September 2nd, 2010

Why We Need a New Model for the Atonement

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

An excerpt from my soon-to-be-discussed paper in Chicago…

The Need for a New, More Comprehensive Model of the Atonement

There are at least four major problems with the traditional models of the atonement as a group. The first is their isolationist, or sectarian, character. Each one is constructed as a kind of stand-alone theory that supposedly tells the whole story and requires the exclusion of other versions of the story. Only rarely, as in the case of Colin Gunton (The Actuality of the Atonement), does a theologian try to appropriate and integrate various traditional models.

The second problem derives from the first: the atomistic, or non-integrative, character of the traditional models. They do not naturally pull other aspects of theology into their orbit. “Atonement,” however interpreted, often stands apart, separated from ethics, spirituality, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and missiology. In some cases, atonement becomes a narrow branch of theology that is almost irrelevant to the actual life of Christian individuals and communities.

The third problem is individualism. The traditional models have a nearly exclusive focus on the individual, rather than both the individual and the community, as the beneficiary of the atonement. Scot McKnight (in A Community Called Atonement) and others have, of course, also recognized and begun addressing this problem.

The fourth problem we might call “under-achievement.” That is, the models do not do enough. We may summarize a model of the atonement in terms of its understanding of the fundamental effect of the cross on a person (or on humanity). In the satisfaction-substitution-penal model(s) the effect is propitiation, expiation, and/or forgiveness; in the Christus Victor model the effect is victory and liberation; and in the “moral influence” model the effect is inspiration. In the new covenant model I will propose, the effect is all of the above and more, but that effect is best expressed, not in the rather narrow terms of the traditional models, but in more comprehensive and integrative terms like transformation, participation, and re-creation.