We Believe: Soteriology Achieved
Atonement theology is one of my favourite topics. Here’s what Bruxy had to say in the main message, continuing our We Believe series at The Meeting House:
He did a great job with how he categorized the theories. Generally these three groupings are how I’ve seen them broken down, although with different labels. Bruxy uses the three different offices of Jesus: prophet, priest, and king. Usually I’ve seen in terms of who is the object of the cross: God, humanity, or Satan. They map to each other nicely, but Bruxy’s way of phrasing it is probably better in that it keeps the focus on Jesus.
More on Ransom
My other minor point was when he was talking about ransom theory. He was right in that it was the prominent approach early on. However, from my reading at least, pre-Constantine there were more themes of Jesus’ death defeating evil in this world, not just a cosmic hooking of Satan (see Denny Weaver’s Nonviolent Atonement). After the church and state became allies, atonement theologies understandably became less critical of power.
Also, Bruxy said something offhand about nobody using that language anymore. It may be a minority, but the language is still used. Just look at “C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Somebody did point this out to him in the After Party. That is exactly what happens in the story and Lewis seemed to view the cross primarily in this way (without contradicting others). The first Christian I met who explained a theory other than penal substitution to me? It was ransom theory.
The obvious big thought to follow is that many of the theories covered, as well as many variations not covered like Denny Weaver’s Nonviolent Atonement or scapegoat themes, are compatible. Bruxy presented them primarily as being compatible. My atonement theology involves most or all of them to some degree or another.
Even penal substitution is sort of logically compatible at first with the rest but does run into a lot of problems. For example, penal substitution essentially gives God the role that Satan plays in Christus Victor/ransom theories and throughout Scripture: the one who is always trying to find things wrong with humanity and dole out violent punishment. If you’re in a Calvinist framework where Satan is no more than a pawn of God – Satan’s violence and judgement is what God really wants – then it isn’t incompatible, but I reject that framework.
From there we could ask similar questions about what kinds of justice God is looking for: in penal substitution, God is interested in retribution and that’s pretty much it. In Christus Victor, the various priest theories, and expiation, God wants something much bigger: a restoration of the world with as many of his creation as possible. And they are incompatible. Eventually you have to ask why God can’t forgive without unleashing his flamethrower of wrath (John Piper’s language) on somebody else. If God really wants to restore the world, why is he demanding his pound of flesh first? That isn’t grace, isn’t forgiveness, and isn’t justice – not even retributive justice.
At our Waterloo After Party, Dan (Lead Pastor) brought up N.T. Wright’s imagery of all of the atonement theologies as pieces of a puzzle and that we need all of them to get a full picture. I countered that sometimes the pieces from another puzzle get mixed in. In the case of atonement, I think every one discussed is an important piece of the puzzle except for penal substitution. I think that trying to shove penal substitution into the puzzle where it does not fit gives us the wrong picture of God, in this case one that looks much more like Satan.
This Satanic view of God generally doesn’t make sense to those without power. It is a theology that encourages using force to maintain the status quo and has often been used in that way to keep others oppressed. This is a prime example of why I think The Meeting House is missing out by being predominately white, predominately middle-to-upper class, predominately straight, predominately male-taught. Most if not all who Bruxy has cited throughout the series have been in the same categories as well. We’re generally not the ones hurt by it – usually we’re the ones benefiting from it.
Wrapping up our Waterloo After Party, I said something to the effect that the reason I get so passionate against PSA is that I have seen it result in harm. I generally take the position that if a theology is directly leading to harm instead of love, it is a bad theology since God is love. Of course, I also believe that PSA has no biblical evidence – at best, there are some texts that support the idea if you already believe it, but nothing convincing – but it was the lack of love which it led to which first got me to question it and is the reason why I push to “PSA is wrong” instead of just “I don’t agree with it.”