Friday, May 07, 2010

Is Atonement Essential for Christianity?

Ken Pulliam asks if penal substitution theory makes sense, which I think may be the wrong question for Christians to be asking. Of course, not being a Christian, perhaps I shouldn't opine. But there are Christians who seem to be able to live without it (or any atonement theory) easily enough, and on the basis of the bible itself.

A preliminary remark about penal substitution theory, however, which states that Christ died to satisfy the demands of God's justice. It is biblically based, to be sure, but so are satisfaction theory (that Christ died to satisfy the demands of God's honor) and ransom redemption theory (that God tricked the devil by offering Jesus as a payment, and Satan was foiled by the resurrection). It's not terribly hard to shoot down a theory based strictly on justice (which is what Pulliam's post is all about), but the bible on whole is more complex, and as we know, the demands of honor often oppose those of justice.

But must any of the three atonement theories be taken as essential for Christianity? Stephen Finlan rejects all of them, believing that the Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity, while atonement is something Christianity can and should do without. In place of atonement, he suggests the principle of theosis, whereby "the Word became man so that you might learn from man how man may become God" (see his Problems with Atonement, p 121). He emphasizes that he's not advocating gnosticism; in his opinion, "those who teach that every person is as divine as Christ is (such as the gnostic gospel of Philip) lose sight of the Incarnation, and cannot really be called Christian" (ibid, p 4). He's simply advocating what orthodox thinkers like Athanasius and Clement of Alexandria maintained, that people may be deified on account of the "the Word becoming man". He writes:
"Theosis has a biblical basis, and this should not be forgotten. There is the promise that 'you may become participants of the divine nature' (II Pet 1:4); there is the command to become perfect, Godlike (Mt 5:48); there are the prophecies of doing greater things than Jesus did (Jn 14:12) and of revelations yet to be seen (Jn 1:51). Theosis means each person incarnating divinity in his or her small way, inspired by the direct Incarnation of divinity that took place in Galilee and Judea." (ibid, pp 121-122)
So perhaps, ironically, the bible carries within itself the seeds for transcending/rejecting atonement theories. In which case forgiving freely becomes divine indeed.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Finlan's theosis seems line line with how Eastern Orthodox think about the issues. The focus on the aspect of atonement tends to be a Western concern.

Blogger Gary said...

There seems little doubt to me that the NT speaks about substitutionary atonement in places. The idea seems to be in place in the Pentateuch, and Hebrews claims that Jesus death makes further blood sacrifices unnecessary.

To me the question is one of proportion. Many American Xians today equate the term "gospel" exclusively with substitutionary atonement, and this seems quite misplaced to me.

I prefer to see union with Christ as the controlling metaphor for how men come to God. This seems to include nicely some of the ways Paul spoke about Christ's death:
-Christ suffered and was sacrificed
-We are *IN* Christ
-Therefore we are, or should expect to be, suffering up to and including death long with Christ.
-As Christ suffered and died *for* us, so should we suffer and die for others.

Blogger Mike Z. said...

Agreed that the Orthodox place great emphasis on theosis, though I am surprised to learn that they have no doctrine of atonement at all.

FWIW I find that the "ransom redemption theory" has strongly gnostic overtones, granting a power and authority to Satan that some believers (Catholics, for example) would find surprising. It might be different for conservative Protestants, who I find to be slightly Manichean in their theology at times.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cave -

Of course the Orthodox have the idea of atonement. Orthodox theology is just patristic theology. That's like saying none of the Church Fathers believed in any kind of atonement concept. Now that does not mean that Orthodox buy into a fully developed penal substitution theory as understood in the late medieval west: that's another matter altogether.

If you read Irenaeus, Cyril or Athanasius, you've got Orthodox theology. In a real sense, other than interest in argument and history, there's no fundamental reason to turn to modern interpreters. Honestly, if you are interested in theology and don't understand the Orthodox Church, you really need to step back, you risk being disconnected from the root teachings of Christianity.


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