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Context is Essential - An Excerpt from Locating Atonement

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locating atonementMuch has been written of late on the doctrine of atonement. At the beginning of Locating Atonement, the editors explain how this doctrine can be understood more fully in context with other doctrines. In a compelling way, they illustrate this concept in everyday life, and apply its benefits in understanding the atoning work of Christ.


In the last decade there has been a renewed interest in the doctrine of the atonement. Weighty tomes have rolled off the presses, and there appears to be no sign of this abating. Whereas the historic literature on the doctrine has tended to produce particular models or accounts of the doctrine, much of the modern literature has been directed toward denying that there is any single account or model of the atonement that proffers a complete or even an adequate account of this aspect of Christ’s work taken in isolation. Instead, many modern writers aver, there is a range of atonement models.

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 the various extant models, showing how no one approach can do all the work of giving an account of this facet of Christ’s work. This we might call the egalitarian approach to atonement doctrine. On this way of thinking, no single model of atonement subsumes the others or is superior in its explanatory power. In fact, each has its own particular contribution to make, though none has a monopoly on the truth of the matter. The theological task, so this way of thinking goes, is to pick the right combination of conceptual elements from existing models, recombining them into something both constructive and useful for the church and academy today.

In addition to this egalitarian approach, there has been a decided turn away from those traditional accounts of atonement that privilege notions of satisfaction and penal substitution. Here the influence of certain feminist critics of such models has been widely felt, alongside the philosophical objections to key aspects of such models suggested by the work of philosophers like René Girard. Those influenced by this way of thinking maintain that God the Father cannot be wroth with God the Son, punishing him for our sin in our place as our substitute. That would constitute a sort of cosmic child abuse, the misuse of divine power on an almost unimaginable scale.

Such worries have led a number of contemporary theologians to abandon satisfaction and penal substitutionary accounts of atonement for alternatives that do not appear to suffer from the same debilitating drawbacks. One widely canvassed family of alternatives has to do with so-called nonviolent approaches to the atonement, according to which Christ’s work on the cross is part of a much larger work in the incarnation. This larger work has to do with the healing of fallen human natures by means of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the Devil, not with the satisfaction of divine wrath or the exercise of divine retribution.

The debate about which typology of atonement models is most adequate, as well as about which combination of atonement motifs is most appropriate to a contemporary synthetic understanding of the atonement — even whether there is such a thing as an adequate combination of atonement motifs — continues to rage. No doubt this is an important feature of contemporary theological work on the topic. Nevertheless, this volume is not a contribution to that trajectory in the atonement literature. Instead, speakers at the third Los Angeles Theology Conference were asked to address a rather different question. This has to do with the relationship between the doctrine of atonement (however that is conceived) and other related topics in Christian theology.

Suppose the doctrine of atonement is placed beside, say, the doctrine of the external works of the Trinity, or the doctrine of creation, or the image of God, or the notion of human suffering witnessed to in Scripture, or whatever (take your pick of the central topics in Christian theology). What would be the result of such an exercise? How does the redemptive work of Christ relate to other load-bearing structures in dogmatic theology? This is an important task, though one not attended to with the same zeal in the recent literature as mapping out atonement typologies and placing a constructive view within such typologies.

No doubt theologians should focus on giving a proper account of particular doctrines, their shape, their dogmatic function, and so forth. But theologians should also pay attention to the relationship between different doctrines in the wider scheme of Christian theology. Surely that is what it is to be a truly systematic theologian. Focusing on a particular doctrine presents its own challenges, and rigorous work still needs to be done on analyzing and explicating the atonement, and the work of Christ more generally. However, exercising a judgment about how one central Christian doctrine relates to another — how, say, atonement relates to the ascension or the Eucharist — these are matters that are in some respects much harder to address in an adequate manner. At least part of the reason for this is just that there are more moving parts, more issues and concepts to attend to, as well as a larger picture of the scope and cohesion of theology that must be considered.

Suppose someone decides to paint a portrait of Christ. Getting the color, shape, form, and relations between different elements of the figure will be important. In portraiture, the relations between parts (e.g., parts of the face to the whole face) and the whole (face and figure in relation to the parts and to the surroundings in which the figure is placed) are vital. Getting these details just right is a matter of fine work and careful aesthetic judgments. Now consider someone who is not just painting a portrait of Christ, but painting a portrait of Christ at the Last Supper. Now there are actually thirteen portraits to worry about — not just Christ but also his twelve apostles: thirteen postures, thirteen figures with complex interrelationships, as well as the matter of the context and surroundings in which they are placed by the artist, the light that falls upon the scene, the colors chosen, and so on. 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 (akin to painting the Last Supper scene).

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. In a similar fashion, the artist who begins by painting a portrait of Christ, and then broadens out to paint the other figures in the Last Supper tableaux, finds that at the end of her task she sees her initial work on the Christ-portrait rather differently. It is now part of a larger, more complex whole in which it is situated. Or, more precisely, its relationships to the larger, complex whole are more evident. In painting the whole with all its complex parts, working out the particular relations of those parts to one another and to the whole, the artist is left with a different view of the portrait with which she began. (Pgs. 13-15)


You can order your own copy of Locating Atonement from Zondervan Academic today.

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