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.
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.
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.
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!
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?