Stan Grenz and How I Understand the Atonement

A few years ago, I spent two days studying the person of Jesus Christ under Stanley Grenz. It was the time that I was immersing myself in emerging church and postmodern thought and seeking to understand the good news of Jesus Christ in deeper ways. Up until that time, I had been a pretty conservative evangelical – though I had moved out from dispensationalism into a more classically Reformed theology. I was still convinced, however, that the gospel had to be articulated the way Luther and Calvin did it – as penal substitution (that Christ died to pay a legal debt that I owed to God for my sin, and that I am saved from punishment when I place my trust in that fact).

Stan Grenz, in this seminar, offered us some historical analysis on how doctrine develops.

The question that Atonement Theories try to answer is, How does Jesus’ death affect us? Theologians throughout the years have offered the following theories. Grenz contended that Atonement Theories are cultural things. They are ways of explaining the death of Jesus in ways that people could understand it in different cultures. When we are honest about it, theology is a product of both biblical exegetical work and culture. The question, “Where are we?” must be connected with the Scriptures—and that is why we have so many theologians throughout the years giving different ideas about what the Bible says. Theology is the art and science of trying to understand our faith in a way that will speak into the situation in which we find ourselves. Atonement Theories are illustrative of this—throughout history, Christians have developed different ways to articulate the Atonement so that it connects with the culture in which we have found ourselves.

Some believe that Theology is a once-and-for-all thing; that all you need to do is once get it right and then we can quit. But the history of theology shows a different pattern. If you believe that theology can be once-and-for-all, you need not read the Bible anymore. You just need to read the theologian who got it right, because that is what God would have said had he been more systematic about it!

Anyway, here is Stan Grenz's brief history of Atonement Theories:

Ransom Theory: the Patristic Church. This said that Jesus’ death is a part of an interchange between God and the Devil (either as a triumph over the devil or as a payment to the devil, depending on which church father you read). The Church Fathers thought of this as a metaphor, that this is not something that actually happened in history, but is metaphorical language. When humans sinned, they came under the sway of the devil, and therefore Jesus came to ransom us out of our enslavement to the devil. This theory finds its roots in the most important story of the Old Testament—the liberation of God’s people from enslavement to Egypt in the Exodus. This theory had a few manifestations: (1) When Jesus was killed by Satan, Satan had to release the humans because of innocence of Christ. (2) The devil was tricked—when Satan put Jesus to death, humanity escaped from enslavement. When Jesus was resurrected, it broke Satan’s enslavemnt of humanity. This theory shows the power of God liberating humans from sin, suffering and systemic evil. This theory was predominant until the Middle Ages (though many still hold it today).

Satisfaction Theory: Anselm (Bishop of Canterbury). Why did Anslem feel that a new articulation of the Atonement was needed? Because the Ransom Theory no longer worked in a Feudal Culture. Feudal Culture says that if you find yourself in a domain that is ruled by a usurper (someone who does not have rightful claim to rule), you must nevertheless honorably serve. Honor is the a priority. You must honor the person in charge, that is, until the rightful claimant returns and claims sovereignty. Think of the Robin Hood story…The Sheriff of Nottingham and all of King Richard’s vassals must honorably serve Prince John until Richard comes back and reasserts his sovereignty. So Robin Hood really is an outlaw in that culture.
So the Atonement theory that Anselm expressed reflected that culture: Anselm stated that the spiritual realm is like the Feudal realm: We owe honor to God. But in our sinful actions, we have dishonored God. For God’s honor to be restored, humans must offer to God a satisfaction for what we have done. As finite beings, we cannot possibly do this, for God’s honor is too great. Therefore, we need someone to come and restore God’s honor for us. Jesus came and lived a perfect human life (fulfilling his human duty to honor God), and when he died (which is honor above and beyond the call of human duty—the work of his divinity), he restored the honor of God for humanity. Satan was the usurper to the throne of God, and as he was in power, we had to serve him. However, when the Son of God came and overthrew the devil, we are now to follow the rightful sovereign. The combination of honor and sovereignty fits a feudal culture well.

Moral Influence Theory: Abelard (also in the Middle Ages). In his critique of Anselm, Abelard asked, What kind of a God would find merit in the death of an innocent person? That’s doesn’t seem like the God of the Bible. So, in response to Anselm’s theory, he developed the “Moral Influence Theory.” The death of Christ, according to Abelard, is the grand display of the depth of God’s love for us. When we see that grand display, our response should be humility, repentance, faith, and the desire to obey God. Christ’s death influences us into becoming obedient to God. This became very influential in the Modern era, especially among liberal Christians who favored a Social Gospel.

Penal Substitution: Proposed in the Reformation, but became the standard theory in the Puritan Movement. This theory states that God is a law-giver and a law-enforcer. The question this theory answers is this: What do we owe God? The answer: Obedience to Divine Law. Sin is disobedience to divine law and all of us, as sinners, are criminals. Disobedience to divine law must be punished. Therefore, Jesus came to take our punishment so that we do not need to be punished.
Why did this theory come into being? Because the Satisfaction Theory that was predominant to this point no longer worked. The Feudal System began to break down and was being replaced by Nation-States. The Nation was a new concept in Europe, and the primary purpose of a modern Nation-State government is to make laws, interpret laws, and enforce laws. Our modern conception of government lifts up as of ultimate importance the keeping of Law. This is drastically different from the Feudal System, in which the highest priority was to uphold honor to our superior. In modern Nation-States, to be a good citizen, you must keep the law. If you do not keep the law, you are punished. In that context, then, what does Jesus do? He is the one who takes the punishment for our law-breaking.

Many of these theories remain alive and well in contemporary evangelical circles. They are biblical and, as I've said before, make up the full bouquet of what Christ accomplished on the Cross.

The questions, then, that I am asking myself are these:

  • As a leader in a Christian organization seeking to reach a new generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ, how can we best articulate the Atonement so that a postmodern culture can best understand it?
  • Are we past the age in which penal substitution (though a wonderful and true articulation of Atonement) may not be the best primary articulation of the Gospel?
  • Is there yet another biblical way to explain the Gospel that meets people where they are in our current culture?

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Matt Wolf said...


I'd like to ask you one question after I make one comment. My comment is this: theology historically has been understood not as "the art and science of trying to understand our faith in a way that will speak into the situation in which we find ourselves" (my emphasis), but rather the study of God himself. That is what this word, theology, means.

This term has been redefined or at least expanded in its definition to the point that it has lost its original meaning. But I think you can see that the study of theology has been turned from a God centered approach to a man centered approach. You might see this as semantics, but given some thought, I think you might agree that this is a huge redefinintion.

I know this is a minor point in your post, so I don't want to appear as if I'm ignoring the thrust of your post, but I bring it up because it does point to a major paradigm shift in the study of God. Where once theology was seen as simply a study of God himself, theology is now seen as a study of man's interaction with God. Quite a significant shift, wouldn't you agree?

But that is not my question. My question is this:

Is history authoritative?

In other words, because historically things have transpired the way they have in regards to "atonement theories" as you outline by quoting Grenz, does this necessarily dictate how we should approach the contemporary culture--by developing new or recycling old atonement theories?

I contend it does not. Here's why:

Sinners, those outside of Christ, suppress the truth in their unrighteouness, which often expresses itself in the development of new worldviews such as postmodernism that allows them to accomodate their sin even to the point that it excuses their sin. So "new" worldviews such as post-modernism are just more of the same old stuff of man's making- a failure to recognize God as God, or expressing gratitude to Him. (Romans 1, right?).

To battle this tendency in man we must avoid taking the Gospel and trying to conform it to the exisiting culture in the name of relevance. Rather we take the glorious light of the Gospel as presented in Scripture into the darkness of man's futile thougths and, God willing, their eyes are opened, they repent and receive Christ. They then renounce their old, recycled worldviews, begin to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, and begin to think biblically about the world.

Matt Wolf said...

(Sorry, I published before finishing)

The point is: the problem has always been sin. It is sin that drives us to develop false worldviews such as post modernism. Therefore, to try to accomodate man's worldviews in trying to reach them for Christ only validates their worldview--in other words, we validate the fruit of their sin.

What do you think?

bill said...

First, great post and thank you for it.

While I'm neither a theologian nor do I have formal training in it, that it is molded, and even informed, by the culture of the theologian as well as his (are there any women?) experiences, seems rather obvious when social history is taken into account. And I'm glad to read your post that put this correlation into easy to understand words.

The obvious implication is that we are doomed to splinter into ever smaller denominations until some critical mass of folks decides to look outside of its pet theories. At this point, there will emerge combinations and overlaps, as believers come to recognize theologies just as what Grenz described—human attempts at explaining the ineffable. Postmodernity may be our first opportunity. The next step would be recognition that Paul was also developing a theology, an imperfect one. But that one would blow holes in most existing theologies, would it not? So we can't go there.

I'm currently reading Karen Armstrong's latest history titled “The Great Transformation” about Jasper's Axial Age and the conditions that brought the worlds great civilizations out of primitive religions. We my well be caught up in a similar worldwide, parallel spiritual change over. Toward what is uncertain. But the ability and willingness to reevaluate historically and currently held beliefs for what they truly are, is a requirement that I believe we are gaining rapidly. The friction will be great but the benefit well worthwhile.

Eric Steen said...


You said, "Theology is the art and science of trying to understand our faith in a way that will speak into the situation in which we find ourselves."

This statement contradicts scripture: "But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation." (2 Pet 1:20)

Our understanding of God and His holy nature should be based on His revelation, namely scripture - not historical perspectives, experience, or what we perceive may "speak into [our] situation."

Remember that the heart is deceitful above all else (Jer 17:9). Rather than trust your thinking, trust His word.


Bob Robinson said...

Matt Wolf,
While it sounds good to say that Theology is the simply the study of God himself and nothing else, that does not stand. In seminary, I took theology courses on Anthropology and Soteriology. These topics are theological, but they address what humanity is and how God saves humanity.
In the topic at hand (Atonement theories), we are dealing with the "Good News" for man. Good News is not good unless it benefits us. It's about us. Certainly it is primarily about the glory of God. But it is also for our good. BOTH. BOTH the glory of God and the good of humanity. If that were not true, then it would not be good news for us.

Bob Robinson said...

Matt Wolf,
Now I'll answer your question:

My contention is not that history is authoritative; my contention is that we can and must learn from history.

The historical overview in this post simply states that when the church has entered into a new cultural milieu, new aspects of the fullness of the Gospel were emphasized. In the modern age of the Nation-State, the legal aspects of the Gospel came to the fore. I am not saying this is a bad thing; I am saying it is a good thing. The gospel is big enough to speak into any culture and any era BECAUSE it has so many ways of being expressed.

What you are suggesting is that we need not develop new culturally-significant ways to share the gospel. If people do not understand 16th Century theology, then that’s their fault. What I am advocating is a missional approach: That we must not only exegete the Bible correctly, we must exegete our culture correctly as well.

Cross-cultural missionaries see their task in this way. How does the culture we are trying to engage understand things so that we can speak the Gospel into that culture in a language that they can understand? My contention is simply that we are to see ourselves as missionaries to a postmodern culture. Our task is to figure out how the gospel speaks into and can transform the postmodern culture.

I agree with you that sin does indeed causes humans to develop new anti-Christian worldviews. But I disagree that any one of us Christians has the absolute corner on the “right” Christian worldview. Our Christian worldviews are also the stuff of man’s making. So what I think we should do is this: Humbly continue to seek God’s grace and wisdom from his Holy Scriptures and not be so obstinate to think that I’ve already go it right.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for commenting. I am one who believes that Paul's letters are as authoritative as the rest of Scripture...
...so, no, we won't go there. :-)

Bob Robinson said...


Do you REALLY believe that there is no interpretation involved in Bible study and Theology? It’s ironic that you chose 2 Peter 1:20 as your proof text. The way you interpret the verse gives it this meaning: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of the reader’s own interpretation.” My guess is that you are unaware of the Greek language’s ambiguity in this verse. The Greek word ginetai is vague in meaning – it could mean “came about” or “is a matter of.” The connection of the word idias (one’s own) is also ambiguous. Does it refer to anyone or specifically to the prophet who wrote the prophecy of Scripture? The Greek participle between verse 19 and 20 can indicate a close relationship between the verses or an indirect one. You have interpreted the verse one way — that the reader must not attempt to interpret prophecy. However, the NIV interpreted this verse the other way: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.” This seems to make the most sense since Peter’s line of argument is that the believers should believe in the second coming of Christ because of two evidences: the Transfiguration and the prophecies of the Scripture (vv. 16-21). Peter is stressing that the prophecies can be trusted since they did not come about by the prophet’s own interpretations, and, in fact, “prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (v. 21).

So, your proof text may not mean what you think it means. You may have interpreted it wrong! So much for not being allowed to interpret!

I agree that “Our understanding of God and His holy nature should be based on His revelation, namely scripture.” But I disagree that this understanding occurs in a vacuum. If we deny that we come to Scripture with preconceptions that may skew what we find there, we are being either dishonest or delusional. Whether it is a theological preconception (such as Dispensationalism – since you trust the teachings of John MacArthur’s Grace to You), or our personal backgrounds, or what we’ve already been taught that specific texts must mean, we all come to Scripture with baggage. None of us is a Tabula rasa when we come to Scripture.

bill said...


I wasn't questioning the scripture-ness of Paul's writings. But a thought came to mind while reading your post that, as theology is to scripture, scripture is to a knowledge that can't be written or given.

Although the word “scripture” generically just means writing or a document, to me, 2 Timothy 3:16 says that special writing, that we refer to when we say “scripture,” is writing that is inspired by God. BTW, I'm not asking anyone to accept my definitions, I'm only trying to explain the thoughts that I had. So, if scripture is defined as writing that is inspired, rather than inspired writing getting defined as scripture, then for me, the reason for the various committees throughout history to have included writings in the canon, is that they believed them to be inspired.

Pushing this stream of thought a bit further, scripture is important not because it is inspired, but because it inspires. That is, scripture is the vessel that carries special knowledge from one inspired by God, to others. So, as the writer to Timothy says, all scripture is good for reproof, correction and “training in righteousness.” It is the result of studying scripture that's important. But merely studying it will not produce the desired knowledge. Merely knowing about scripture is not nearly as important as “knowing” what scripture is capable of conveying. The end result of study should be gaining the same inspiration as the original teacher whose teachings were written down.

So, after all this wordiness, what I wanted to say earlier is that Paul is writing not just to write, but to produce knowledge in those who would hear his words read. The end product is special knowledge, perhaps inspiration is a better word. What theologies tend to do, is to muddle that transfer process, although I'm sure that most were written to help the process, instead. But we too often study theologies to know about them, rather than for gleaning new inspiration from one who has studied scripture. Theology is only useful to the extent that it helps us know what the writers of scripture wanted us to know.

Does this make any sense.

Sivin Kit said...

For me "The full bouquet" is a wonderful picture, and I'm happy to highlight a particular theory ot "articulation" depending on the situation and questions of the individual while keeping consciously in my mind of its limitation. This gives me the flexibility and openness to enrich the conversation with the person in front of me. Thanks for the overview.

lyricano said...

Thank you Bill for your comments.

Bob, why be so sure that St. Paul's writing is beyond the embodied Paul's historical/cultural/economic/social/political context? Should we not allow that Paul was theologian speaking to people in his own time/space (and therefore deconstruct his context).

It seems to me that the will to make Paul True, is simply good ole Modern will to Power (to paraphrase Nietzsche). As you work to speak to the postmodern condition, it seems to me a flawed to insist on unnegotiable referentials.

Scot McKnight said...

Nice set of observations; Grenz's charting of theories is a broad brush approach, for even in Irenaeus and Athanasius we see a variety of images, and we can't be too sure that what survives in their writings is what that "era" thought. Still, the overall thematic approach is of value.

Here's one to up the ante: observe that Jesus speaks in terms of kingdom, Paul in terms of soteriology (various terms), Hebrews of a priestly act and ministry ... so the various language games of the NT are a model for how the Church sought to explain the biblical message of atonement, with each attempt in the Church a clear and enduring interaction with the Bible itself.

Becky said...

Scot: your comment leads me to a (hopefully related) question and scenario.

A number of interpreters agree that the gospel accounts were addressed to an immediate cultural context. This immediate context does not distract from the Good News of the Gospel, but provides a kind of dual significance to each account. In the same way, as you have mentioned, the foci of Paul, the writer of Hebrews, Jesus, etc. utilize different "language games" to address the Gospel message and its requirements to a particular congregation. We, however, manage to benefit from the employment of the language games. Broadly speaking, these accounts provide a dual significance as they speak into their culture and into ours as well.

What prevents contemporary Christian thinkers from assuming the same kinds of things about the practice of and topics in systematic theology? Viewing the atonement theories from a historical perspective, as Bob has communicated here, indicates to me that these function as the lens through which a community at a time viewed the atonement. While these spoke directly to a community at a time, we benefit from knowing all of them and have access to multiple ways of understanding the significance of Christ's sacrifice.

Scot McKnight said...

I agree. I think what needs to be said, and I'm sure Bob would agree with this, is that it is not like the penal subst theory was invented by Luther and Calvin, but it has roots in the NT and also in the early fathers -- and the ransom theory lived beyond the patristic period. So, while those theories have a favored era, they have timelessness because of their rootedness in NT texts. Ransom is not a 2d century idea but a 2d century expression of NT ideas.

Paul Fiddes' book on atonement does a nice job of showing the same connection that Bob relates here (from Grenz) about how each theory had its favored time.

Bob Robinson said...

Becky and Scot,

I think you are articulating in an even better way what this post is trying to drive at.

I love the way you both said it:

"These function as the lens through which a community at a time viewed the atonement. While these spoke directly to a community at a time, we benefit from knowing all of them and have access to multiple ways of understanding the significance of Christ's sacrifice."

"While those theories have a favored era, they have timelessness because of their rootedness in NT texts."

Bob Robinson said...


I have no problem with seeking to understand Paul within his historical/ cultural/ economic/ social/ political context. In fact, that is what good exegetical work is all about.

However, I take issue with your assumption that since I believe Paul was inspired of God and thus has incredible things to say to me and my situation, that I am somehow “Modern.” It is the modernists that have done all they can to make Paul irrelevant, even to the point of pitting Jesus verses Paul. However, if I were to characterize my stance on Paul, it would be a more pre-Modern or post-Modern view. Paul’s letters are authoritative for me because I have experienced those words as such. With every turn of the page of his letters, I am encouraged in my faith, I find deep theological understanding, and I am given practical advice on how to live in a way that reflects the Jesus I seek to follow and His Spirit that I experience in my life. To characterize my love for Paul as something like a Modernist “Will to Power” denies my experience and belittles my faith.


Bob Robinson said...


What you're saying makes sense to me! I agree that studying Scripture and/or theologizing about it is not the end in and of itself. We are trying to get to something deeper.

The "knowledge" that you are speaking about is not merely getting our facts right, it is the actual knowing of God - an interpersonal knowledge that does not treat God as an object to be studied but a person to be loved.

lyricano said...

I certainly I do not intend to belittle your faith at all. In fact, I see faith as gaining meaning when it is done in the spirit of seeking knowledge as you've articulated it. This does not, however, diminish Nietzsche's observation that when anyone asserts a priviledged knowledge position (whether Science, Faith, Reason, Revelation, Flying Spaghetti Monster) they are (also) asserting power. So if the objective (as I suspect it is) remains "to explain the biblical message of atonement" there remains a will to power. This may be perfectly acceptable, but as the pomo outsider of sorts in this conversation, I am simply observing that the nuance you add to the atonement narratives is not quite enough for my skeptical pomo ears. Just a little focus-group info for you. :-) Nothing more.

Bob Robinson said...


You get it. This is exactly my point. Thanks!

Eric Steen said...


You responded to my post with, "Do you REALLY believe that there is no interpretation involved in Bible study and Theology?"

In fact, I heartily agree that Bible study requires interpretation. (Why attempt to obfuscate my statements with a straw-man argument?) My point remains: our understanding of God should be based on an objective reading of His word, not bogus historical perspectives or what you think may “speak into [your] situation,” as you put it.

Thank you for taking the time to school me in Greek grammar. Very helpful. Let's now work from the premise that the NIV has 2 Pet 1:20 translated correctly: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation.” My point stands. God has a specific intended meaning when it comes to scripture! Whatever the prophet writes is God inspired (2 Tim 3:16). The author conveyed God’s unadulterated message, and I should approach scripture with the intention of understanding the specific meaning of that message which God conveys. Because none of us is a blank slate we must “long for the pure milk of the word” that is unaffected by our preconceptions. This is basic hermeneutics, Bob.

What if you wrote a letter to a loved one and someone were to take your message and twist it to, “speak into [his] situation?” No doubt you would protest to the distortion of your ideas. Why are you willing to twist God’s word to fit personal circumstances?

What it all comes down to is this, Bob: you claim that a soteriology that insists on Penal Substitution is not big enough or grand enough. To justify this position you neglect God’s authoritative word and rely on historical perspectives that have been dismissed by godly men as heresy and contradict God’s word. Then you claim, quite piously, that Penal Substitution diminishes the gospel. The fact is, Bob, by circumventing the atoning work of the cross, you diminish the blood of Christ and lead men astray.

Bob Robinson said...


You say two things here: (1) “I heartily agree that Bible study requires interpretation.” (2) “Our understanding of God should be based on an objective reading of His word, not bogus historical perspectives or what you think may ‘speak into [your] situation’.”

I’m sorry, Eric, but I don’t think that we can say both these things. In our hermeneutical endeavor, we must admit that there is no such thing as an “objective reading of God’s Word.” We all come to the text with preconceptions, and those preconceptions are based on our historical perspectives. You and I are heavily influenced by a perspective that is based in the Reformation.

Now, we agree that God’s message is “unadulterated,” and that we “should approach scripture with the intention of understanding the specific meaning of that message which God conveys.” Yes, this is “basic hermeneutics.” I honestly believe that this is exactly what I am attempting to do.

I just don’t get why you have a repulsion to my saying that God’s Word should “speak into our situation.” Does God want his Word to only mean something and have power and effectiveness in the 1st Century and not in the 21st Century? I know this is not what you are saying. You are saying that we must first discern the original meaning and then bring that meaning into our contemporary lives.

But that’s the point you are missing. You say, “To justify this position you neglect God’s authoritative word and rely on historical perspectives that have been dismissed by godly men as heresy and contradict God’s word.” If the Reformation taught us anything, it is that we should not trust any sort of “magisterium” (be it the Roman Catholic official teaching body, or any evangelical group that posits a single interpretation for us). Who are these “godly men,” and why are you relying on the word of man to interpret Scripture for you? Are you saying that Calvin got it right, and we need not do anything other than carry the Bible and his “Institutes” around? Or are you saying that if I own a McArthur Study Bible, that’s all I need (since MacArthur’s a “godly man,” I can therefore trust that he’s interpreted the Bible correctly)? Again, I know that this is not what you are saying, but when you make statements like this, you leave yourself wide open.

Eric, I think that the charges you are so easy to throw at me (“you neglect God’s authoritative word and rely on historical perspectives that have been dismissed by godly men as heresy and contradict God’s word”) are not fair. Since you presume that since I do not name Penal Substitution the whole gospel, everything else I write must be heresy.

Eric Steen said...

Hello again, Bob.

I am not repulsed by the idea of God's word speaking into our situation. However, I have a serious problem with the statement, "Theology is the art and science of trying to understand our faith in a way that will speak into the situation in which we find ourselves."

Theology, by definition, is the science of God, the study of our Maker and Redeemer. As we get to know God, our understanding and our worship of Him eclipses the worldly circumstances that once dominated our thoughts. Our picture of Him enables us to see our circumstances in light of His holiness, love, omniscience, sovereignty, goodness, mercy, justice, and kindness.

This approach begins with an objective reading of His word. God's word is truth, which outlasts the 1st, 21st, and 31st centuries: "For, "ALL FLESH IS LIKE GRASS, AND ALL ITS GLORY LIKE THE FLOWER OF GRASS. THE GRASS WITHERS, AND THE FLOWER FALLS OFF, BUT THE WORD OF THE LORD ENDURES FOREVER." (1 Pet 1:24-25)

Bob, you said that I leave myself wide open when I make the following statement: “To justify this position you neglect God’s authoritative word and rely on historical perspectives that have been dismissed by godly men as heresy and contradict God’s word.” If I omitted the phrase, "and contradict God's word," I would agree with you. I certainly cannot abide with everything that Luther and Calvin said, take their different perspectives of communion for example. But my point is that the atonement theories that you are fond of have been dismissed by godly men, and their rationale for dismissing them as heresy is biblically sound.

Lastly, I can't possibly know whether everything you write is heresy. To quote Kip (from Napoleon Dynamite): "Like anyone can even know that." :) But I do know that God has a specific view of the gospel that He desires to be safeguarded and communicated faithfully. My conviction is that your soteriology is heretical, specifically your treatment of penal substitution and your view of shalom. (But this is the subject of your latest post.)


Bob Robinson said...

Here is the "Definition of Theology" that is offered by one of evangelicalism's most respected theologians, Millard J. Erickson:

"'The study or science of God' is a good preliminary or basic definition of theology. The God of Christianity is an active being, however, and so there must be an initial expansion of this definition to include God's works and his relationship with them. Thus theology will also seek to understand God's creation, particularly man and his condition, and God's redemptive working in relation to mankind.
"Yet more needs to be said to indicate what this science does. So we propose a more complete definition of theology: that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily upon the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life."
(Erickson, Christian Theology [Baker Book House, 1985], p. 21)

Now, THAT is a good definition of Theology! Notice how it differs from Eric's definition, in which he adamantly states, "Our understanding of God and His holy nature should be based on His revelation, namely scripture - not historical perspectives, experience, or what we perceive may 'speak into [our] situation,'" and takes issue with my saying it is "trying to understand our faith in a way that will speak into the situation in which we find ourselves."

Erickson clearly says that Theology must be based primarily upon the Scriptures (with which I whole-heartedly agree), but then he adds that this is not done in a vacuum: theology must be "placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life."

eric steen said...


The Bible and culture are not on equal footing. When the cultural prism through which we view the Bible distorts God’s word, we run into big problems. The atonement theories that you are fond of may be “cultural things” as you put it, but they are not biblical things.

Nonetheless, referencing Erickson is a wonderful idea. While I prefer Grudem’s systematic theology text, I am content to use Erickson’s work as a guide for our discussions.

I’d be particularly thrilled if we used his text to define our understanding of the atonement. In chapter 37, you can read about the atonement theories. At the end of that chapter Erickson says that each of these theories only, “Possesses a dimension of the truth.”

He goes on, “Which of these [atonement theories] is the most basic? Which one makes the others possible? We will turn to that question in the next chapter. As we do so, it will be with a profound appreciation for the full measure of what Christ did to bring us into fellowship with the Father.”

Do you know what the next chapter is about? You guessed it, Penal Substitution! For your edification, I have excerpted portions of chapter 38 below, which you can read in full on pages 822-823:

“The substitutionary theory of the atoning death of Christ, when grasped in all its complexity, is a rich and meaningful truth… The penal-substitution theory confirms the biblical teaching of the total depravity of all humans. God would not have gone so far as to put his precious Son to death if it had not been absolutely necessary. Man is totally unable to meet his need… [God] is righteous, so much so that sacrifice for sin had to be provided. He is loving, so much so that he provided that sacrifice himself… There is no other way of salvation but by grace, and specifically, the death of Christ. It has an infinite value and thus covers the sins of all mankind for all time…”