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A New Approach to Atonement Theory, Contra Typological or Combinational

Categories Theology

Locating Atonement, Edited by Oliver Crisp and Fred SandersA decade ago, two theologians controversially suggested some atonement theories border on “cosmic child abuse.” A few years later, another offered a more congenial, but no less forceful, communal approach to atonement doctrine debates.

Both perspectives represent a new groundswell of attention toward this ancient doctrine, and also something of a sea-change. Because as Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders point out in their new edited volume, Locating Atonement, rather than producing particular models or accounts, “modern literature has been directed toward denying that there is any single account or model” that completely or adequately explains Christ’s work. (13)

We could categorize this modern Quest for the Historic Atonement as both typological and combinational. Yet Crisp’s and Sanders’s edited work isn’t so much interested in the direction either of these conversations have taken atonement theorizing—whether one type of atonement is more adequate than others, or a combination of motifs is more appropriate. Their book takes the conversation in a different direction, asking:

How does the redemptive work of Christ relate to other load-bearing structures in dogmatic theology? (14)

Rather than mapping out atonement typologies, the trajectory of this book is synthetic, in that it examines the relationship between this doctrine and others in Christian theology.

The twelve essays engaging this question arose out of the Los Angeles Theology Conference. I'm sure you'll appreciate the compelling, exciting, innovative approach they offer not only to atonement theory engagement specifically, but theological engagement generally.

Typological and Combinational Approaches to Atonement

Crisp and Sanders begin by establishing the current field of atonement engagement, which we could label typological and combinational. They term the latter the egalitarian approach to atonement doctrine:

For a number of those writing on the topic today, the way of proceeding is to map out the various atonement models in a typology and then weave together some synthetic understanding of the doctrine from elements of various extant models, showing how no one approach can do all the work of giving an account of this facet of Christ’s work. (13)

Another approach is both a negation of existing atonement types and ratification of new ones. On the one hand, feminist critics have fostered “a decided turn away from those traditional accounts of atonement that privilege notions of satisfaction and penal substitution.” (13) On the other, such a negation has fostered a ratification of non-violent approaches to the atonement, where “Christ’s work on the cross is part of a much larger work in the incarnation,” through healing and victory. (14)

Crisp and Sanders grant typological and combinational approaches to the atonement are “an important feature of contemporary theological work on this topic.” (14) Yet they believe exploring the synthetic relationship between atonement and other topics in dogmatic theology to be both unattended and important.

A Synthetic Approach to Atonement in Dogmatic Theology

Contra this modern approach is what could be called a synthetic approach to atonement theory, for it seeks to examine the one doctrine of atonement in combination with and alongside another doctrine. Crisp and Sanders offer a supposition to illustrate:

Suppose someone painted a portrait of Christ. Given the subject, getting the colors, shapes, forms, and relationships between the parts and the whole exact is vital.

Now suppose instead she painted a portrait of Christ situated within the event of the Last Supper. Not only is getting Christ right important. So too is getting the twelve others, as well as the surrounding context, interrelationships, lighting, and everything else that makes a painted scene “work.”

Such is the scope of this endeavor.

These two examples pick out relevant differences between theological work on a given doctrine (akin to painting a single portrait) and research on the relation between one doctrine and another in the wider framework of Christian belief encapsulated in systematic theology. (15)

There are several benefits to this approach:

  • Relating one doctrine to others gives us a different vantage, showing how the part is one element in a larger context. (15)
  • One doctrinal portrait no longer dominates, but reveals “a greater, more harmonious whole.” (15)
  • Enlargement of vision fends off “obsession with doctrinal minutiae at the expense of the larger theological canvas.” (16)
  • This approach helps us understand how various doctrines relate to one another. (16)

“Although the comparative, synthetic work of examining one doctrine in light of another is demanding, it also often throws new light on how we regard the doctrine with which we began.” (15) The editors and essayists believe this approach to be a fruitful one.


What we think about the atonement impacts what we think about other aspects of theology—the trinity, incarnation, ordo salutis, etc… Crisp and Sanders hope Locating Atonement extends the discussion of this important doctrine and its place within dogmatic theology in a way current approaches aren’t.

Engage this resource yourself to discover the theological implications of the atonement and find new appreciation for Christ’s atoning work.

Registration is now open for the 4th Annual LA Theology Conference: The Voice of God in the Text of Scripture. Click here to see a list of the announced plenary speakers and details on registration.

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