Three Views of the Atonement and Why They Matter

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, New South Wales. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was invited to lead this seminar at the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly July 12-15, 2012. I was glad for the opportunity, but I also felt a bit like science writer Jonah Lehrer who’s been in the news recently for plagiarizing himself. Just as Lehrer has been accused of borrowing too heavily from his earlier work, my seminar would also borrow heavily from one of my earlier sermons that also appeared in print in Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology. But unlike Lehrer, I was not being asked for original work–MC Canada was fully aware of my earlier published sermon, and that’s what they were after.

Since this Assembly was to be a study conference, and since many attending would be pastors, teachers, and others experienced in biblical studies and theology, I decided to plan my one-hour seminar as a workshop. The first third would be intro and time for me to outline the three views of the atonement, the second third would be small groups working directly with Scripture, the last third would be discussion and conclusion. The main sessions of the Assembly had been planned presentation-style with relatively little time for discussion, so for my seminar I deliberately planned for the reverse–a very short presentation with the bulk of the time for discussion and relying on the collective wisdom and expertise of everyone who participated. What follows is a very brief overview.

Three Views
In the commentary to Article 8. Salvation, the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective says “In the history of Christian thought, there have been three major views of the atonement. Each has a basis in Scripture and contributes to our understanding of salvation.” To explain each of these three views, I used an analogy from the world of sports:

1. Christ-the-Victor, the “dramatic” view of atonement, more popular in the 2nd-6th centuries, what I call the “Pacific Classic” view of atonement. A number of years ago, a horse named Cigar was the front runner in the Pacific Classic, that was held in Del Mar, California. But late in the race, a horse named Dare and Go moved up quickly from fourth place to win! It was a hard-run race, a struggle, but Dare and Go received the victory.  In this view of the atonement, we are in a struggle with sin and death–it looks like we will lose, but God sends Jesus to join our struggle. At first, it looks like even Jesus will lose–he suffers temptation, opposition, he is arrested, and put to death. But three days later, God raises Jesus in victory over sin and death!

2. Substitutionary Atonement, the “satisfaction” view, popular in the 11th century and following, especially in evangelical circles, what I call the “National Hockey League” view of atonement. In the NHL, there are many rules against slashing, fighting, being offside, etc. If a player breaks a rule, he might be given two minutes to sit in the penalty box, but if a goalie breaks a rule, the goalie continues to play while another player takes his place in the penalty box.  In this view of the atonement, life is full of rules that we have broken, but God sent Jesus to serve our penalty. He is our substitute.

3. Moral Influence, 12th century, what I call the Olympic Inspired Spectator view of atonement. A friend of mine is a runner who says that whenever she watches the Olympics, she feels like going for a run and giving her all. Even though she is not a competitive runner, the Olympic athletes inspire her to do her best. In this view of the atonement, the life of Jesus is so inspiring that we are inspired to receive God’s love and live it out just as he did.

Group Work
Participants organized themselves into small groups to discuss the following texts and identify one or more views of the atonement: Isaiah 53:5; Acts 2:23-24; Romans 3:25-26; Romans 5:1-5; 1Corinthians 15:57; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 3:8; 1 John 3:16; 1 John 4:10, 11, 19.

Discussion
I started the discussion with some basic questions: Did you find evidence of all three of these major views? What else did you discover? Are there other texts or images for atonement that come to mind?  In both sessions of my workshop, these questions were more than enough to get us going. Here’s a sampling of the discussion:
– yes, both groups found all three views of atonement in the selected Scriptures–sometimes just one, sometimes a combination. One noted that the moral influence view did not seem to appear by itself. One said that he identified only substitutionary atonement in Romans 5:1-5, but other members of his group pointed out the moral influence; he wondered aloud if perhaps he had missed that because of his own presuppositions.
– one noted the absence of Old Testament sacrificial texts; another noted the absence of prophetic texts like Micah 6:8; others noted the absence of gospel texts like Mark 10:45 and Luke 18:18-22.  Given the limited time and particular focus of the workshop, I had selected Scriptures that illustrated the three major views of the atonement, but it was good to reference these and other texts to remind us that the discussion of atonement is much broader than these three major views.
– some wondered whether certain views were particularly western or Protestant or evangelical, or why one might be more current at a particular time of history than another; one pointed out that these three views do not seem to relate well to the indigenous worldview of harmony/wholeness
– some had resources to suggest, like Rene Girard’s work on scapegoating, Tom Yoder Neufeld’s Killing Enmity, J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement
These are just a few of the highlights, and there were many more comments.  Thank you to everyone for the stimulating discussion!

Conclusion
In some circles, talking about atonement has led to division and conflict, as some hold up one view over against another, and even part ways over it–quite the opposite of the “at-one-ment” we might envision. Thankfully, all of the participants in my workshops seemed quite collegial.
In my understanding, each of the three major views of atonement has something to contribute to the rich meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Substitutionary atonement focuses more on Jesus’ death and takes seriously salvation from sin, but focuses much less on Jesus’  life and resurrection, or on the power of God to change our lives.  The moral influence view focuses more on Jesus’ life and what it means to live out our salvation, and much less on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Christ-the-Victor view of atonement focuses more on Jesus’ resurrection, and much less on his life and death.  Each view has its strengths, and each helps to round out the others. As J.I. Packer comments,  “To omit any part of this story is to distort and damage the gospel.”

Your turn:  For those looking for spiritual practice, this post might seem overly long and like too much theology. But given the breadth of the atonement, this is a very brief treatment, and theology does shape practice. So if you’ve stuck with me this far, what do you think? Do the different views of atonement make a difference to you?



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6 replies

  1. Thanks April for a great session out in Vancouver. I enjoyed your presentation and the opportunity for discussion. I love the rich language(s) that scripture uses to speak about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. I’ve also been fascinated with how missionaries have adapted atonement concepts for indigenous communities, finding new and fresh ways to say that ‘Jesus saves’ in a variety of paradigms and using different metaphors. In John H. Yoder’s Preface to Theology, he writes something to the effect that the gospel can be translated into any culture; that Jesus’ Lordship can be made intelligible and coherent for any people group… perhaps Yoder’s words on the gospel and Jesus’ Lordship also hold true for our language surrounding atonement. This begs the question, for the Church today: is there additional atonement language, not mentioned in scripture, that God’s Spirit might give us to offer increased clarity to our culture about the nature of the good news?

  2. You’re very welcome – I was glad to see people so engaged during the workshops. And yes, I think we need many different metaphors to describe the atonement, since no one metaphor can communicate its richness, and may not communicate well to different people groups or to individuals for that matter. I once heard our new life in Christ described as “recycling” where the trash of our old life is transformed and re-purposed by God’s grace–like any metaphor, it has its limits, but it was an attempt to communicate in today’s language.

  3. I am wrestling with views of Atonement and I was sadden that more and more pop-evangelicals are denying view 2. Thank you so much April.

  4. I appreciate your comment–I’m sad too for the polarization where some focus only on substitutionary atonement while others go in the opposite direction and can’t see it at all.
    Thanks for following my blog – I will follow yours also, but instead of using email, I’ll try the rss feed since I’ve just learned how to do that.

  5. I also see the “put yourself into the other person’s shoes view as being part of “at one ment” Maybe this fits more into the indigenous world view as I have a plaque titled “Indian Prayer” in my bathroom, (which is decorated in native art, including a native creche depiction) which reads, ” Great Spirit, Grant that I may not criticize my neighbour Until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” God walked with us in our moccasins.

    Although I have not studied native ministries or anything like that, my interest was poked when I worked in Port Edward, near Prince Rupert for a summer when I was still a teenager.. Who would have thought that experience would have such a long term impact on me? In those days we did not learn about acculturation either. It was only when I tried to organize a children’s choir that I learned that “time” was something very different in their culture than what it had meant to me. My parents had taught us always to be early. Hence, I walked through the neighourhood and the children joined me on the walk and we sang as more joined us. By the end of the hike we had learned some of the songs. This worked much better than meeting “before” Sunday school.

    Thanks April for the blog. I will definitely look up the Weaver and Neufeld resources as I’ve heard about them. The nonviolent aspect triggers my recollection of what Gord Matties referred to in his presentation of the book of Joshua and its violent texts. (In my university years Liberation Theology was very prevalent…and one of the workshops I attended back then talked about our evangelical view of the atonenment and “sacrificing a son” as the supreme Child Abuse…Her presentation really made me think about that…It almost sounds like that is being looked at again, but from other perspectives. I guess my fear is that we throw out the baby with the bathwater….or eventually discard the Bible because of the “texts” that don’t work for us, or don’t make sense, or are too mysterious.) Thanks for your input.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Maria, and for bringing in other perspectives. I share your concern too about simply discarding texts that don’t seem to make sense to us, rather than wrestling with them (as Jacob wrestled with God which left him limping) or simply sitting with the mystery and not having to solve everything.