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?
technorati: emerging church, spiritual formation, theology, atonement