Models of the Atonement

I remember a conversation which I had at the University of Cambridge, about 30 years ago. I was a student of physics, and I was talking to a friend who was studying theology, and was like me an evangelical Christian; his background was more “Reformed” than mine.

I explained to my friend how in physics there were many things, such as the nature of light, which could not be understood directly but which were studied by means of models. For centuries there was debate over whether light was made up of waves or of particles. It is now understood that light is in itself neither one nor the other, but something more complex which goes beyond direct human understanding. For some purposes it is helpful to use the model that light is waves, and for other purposes the model that it is particles. But neither model can explain everything about light; each model is useful within a certain field but becomes misleading if pressed to logical conclusions outside that field.

I suggested to my theological friend, in the context of a debate on some theological issue, that we should not expect to be able to understand it fully, because it is too deep for human understanding, but we should look at it through models, in the sense used in physics. I remember my friend suddenly catching on to what I was talking about and realising its significance for his own studies.

My friend later became a professor of theology, indeed for a time he held a highly prestigious chairs in theology at a very well known university. He has been described, admittedly by his publisher, as

one of Britain’s finest systematic theologians and teachers of dogmatics.

I hope that the insight I gave him about models helped him to attain such distinction. But I mention this not to boast or drop names (in fact I am deliberately withholding his name!) but because it seems to me that other “Reformed” Christians also need to understand models. Read on…

The Atonement, the way in which God dealt with the problem of sin through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, is the great and central mystery of the Christian faith. As mortal and sinful humans we cannot hope to understand it completely. Nevertheless, from what has been revealed in the Bible and with the help of our God-given human reason, we can get some way towards understanding it. And to use the language of physics, we do that by using models. The Bible provides us with the starting material for these models.

Theologians have put forward at least four major theories of the Atonement (see this Wikipedia article, which is convenient although not necessarily reliable): “Christus Victor”; satisfaction or substitutionary; moral influence; and governmental. Each of these has various flavours. And there is some support for each in the Bible. The “Christus Victor” theory was favoured by the early church, and has also had modern proponents (and I rather lean towards it). But the satisfaction theory has been dominant in western theology since the 11th century.

As careful theologians have long realised, no one of these theories fully encapsulates the truth about the work of Christ. Each of them, if pushed to their logical conclusion as if they were literal descriptions of what happened, ends up in conflict with the Bible – just as treating light simply as a particle, or simply as a wave, ends up in conflict with observations. It is impossible to get around this completely by adjusting the description; instead one is forced to realise that the description is only a model, and not a literal description of the truth.

The problem comes when some theologians and Bible scholars try to insist that their favoured view of the Atonement is not just a model but literally and objectively true. Among those who have been guilty of this are many in the “Reformed” tradition. For example, according to Adrian Warnock, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his book Great Doctrines of the Bible, discussed and rejected “false theories of the atonement“. As I don’t have this book I can’t be sure which theories the Doctor was so confidently rejecting and on what basis. But he should be very careful about claiming that such theories as “Christus Victor” are objectively false. No doubt he can find Bible verses which don’t entirely support “Christus Victor”, but in response others can find for him Bible verses which don’t support his own favoured substitutionary theory. For it it seems that if any one of the theories of the Atonement is pressed beyond the biblical evidence to its logical conclusion, it leads to absurdity.

This is what we have seen in the recent debate over whether God killed Jesus. Careful and well-trained theologians have agonised over theories of the Atonement. Those in the “Reformed” tradition have been especially attached to the substitutionary theory. But the best of them have realised that this is only a human model and approximation of a divine truth which is beyond human comprehension. As a result they have been careful with their statements, avoiding pushing the model to logical conclusions beyond the limits of what is clearly supported in the Bible. The unfortunate problem is when less careful students of the Bible, or students of “Reformed” writings, treat descriptions of models as if they were literal truth, go beyond what is written in the books they are studying, and start to teach things which clearly cannot be the truth about our just and loving God. This becomes an especially serious problem when in the process they manage to confuse outsiders into thinking that their repulsive teachings are the true Christian message.

“Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6 TNIV).

15 thoughts on “Models of the Atonement

  1. Peter,
    Then shouldn’t the conclusion be that the true Christian message is unknowable?

    From what I have witnessed on the discussion threads here, at Adrian Warnock’s blog and at the Daily Duck, the theology surrounding the Atonement is hopelessly convoluted and confused. Your analogy to models from physics is enlightening, but shouldn’t that give you pause to think that maybe there is something wrong with the theory from the get-go? As you say, taking any theory to its logical conclusion ends with absurdity.

    Would God require as necessary for salvation the acknowledgment of a doctrine that even trained theologians cannot come to agreement on? If the people who think about this matter for a living are so confused about it, how is the average believer on the street supposed to feel about it? Wouldn’t you think that God would be capable of revealing His truths in a way that His average human child would be capable of grasping without finding it absurd?

    My biggest problem with this doctrine is that, post atonement, salvation is granted based on having the right theology, rather than on the merits of how a person lived his life. Sin is really irrevelant, it is all about acknowledging the correct doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice. This is the biggest absurdity.

  2. Duck, it is indeed an absurd idea that “salvation is granted based on having the right theology“. This is not what the Bible says. This is not what Christians say (at least most of them, although I accept that the so-called Athanasian Creed, a later document which has nothing to do with St Athanasius, does say that “This is the catholic faith. One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully. “). There is certainly no requirement to understand anything like the full meaning of the Atonement. The only requirement is to accept that Jesus Christ has done what it takes to save us, to turn from our sins and accept him as Saviour and Lord.

    Nevertheless, some theologians have thought it helpful to delve into the depths of such matters. Maybe it is helpful, but it is certainly not necessary for salvation.

    Physicists try to understand what light is, using wave and particle models. But it is not necessary to understand this theory to use a light. That is good for otherwise the world would be a dark place! Similarly, it is not necessary to understand the Atonement to benefit from it.

  3. Peter, you both condemn and then reinforce the same absurd statement. First you say: Duck, it is indeed an absurd idea that “salvation is granted based on having the right theology”. This is not what the Bible says.
    Then you say: The only requirement is to accept that Jesus Christ has done what it takes to save us, to turn from our sins and accept him as Saviour and Lord. But this statement, in itsels, is theology. A Jew won’t be saved under this doctrine, neither will a Hindu, or an Athiesit like me.

    I don’t expect to be saved, so it really doesn’t matter to me (I don’t expect to burn forever, either. To paraphrase Auric Goldfinger, I expect to die). But what does it say about your theology that a good Jew or Hindu will be damned to eternal suffering but a bad Christian will be saved?

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  10. According to the apostle Paul the apostles’ message is the only valid model for salvation, but then Jesus agrees with him too. The Duck is right in assuming that there is something wrong with the theory from the get go. All contemporary models of atonement have the same basic assumption of Jesus’ crucifixion being a sacrifice “in place of”. “In place of” is the common error of all contemporary models of atonement.

  11. All contemporary models of atonement have the same basic assumption of Jesus’ crucifixion being a sacrifice “in place of”.

    This is an interesting observation, but I don’t think it is an accurate one. The currently best known models of the atonement have this substitutionary element. But I don’t think “Christus Victor” or the moral influence model are fundamentally substitutionary, even if substitutionary language is sometimes used in connection with them.

    Also those who hold to substitutionary models would not accept that this is “a basic assumption”. Rather they would derive this from biblical teaching like 2 Corinthians 5:21 and 1 Peter 3:18.

  12. Pete you have limited every one else to the limit of “Do not go beyond what is written” but for yourself anything goes. There are not models of the way Jesus has perfected by being crucified for getting into the church he is head of. For the gate, as he says is small and narrow, and it is only by the faith of using this gate that anyone gets into his church. But only a few ever find this gate. Since you think that there are valid models to explain why Jesus has been crucified your belief system has gates instead of one small narrow gate. This perspective you have goes beyond what is written and also shows partiality in a matter of judgment. Just as there is only one small narrow gate into the church Jesus is head of there is only one correct interpretation to explain how his crucifixion has perfected this gate. Since you find it plausible to embrace any gate to be socially acceptable to obtain the approval of men but you are lacking the approval of God. No person has been given the latitude to decide the ‘better’ way for himself to get to God from his choice of choosing for no child of God has ever been born again by human decision. Jn. 1:13 For this reason there are not models of why Jesus has been crucified. As for 2 Cor. 5:21 and 1 Pt. 3:18 is an incorrect interpretation.

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