Reconciling Atonement Theories

The law of Moses placed numerous dietary restrictions on ancient Israelites. Shrimp, pork, and various birds were forbidden. By and large, the early church did not follow these regulations. Christians today enjoy a more expansive menu.

When it comes to doctrine, however, we find an ironic reversal, especially with respect to atonement. Not only are many Christians content with a small menu of “atonement dishes,” they argue over which dish is most important or inspired by God. Historically, theologians offer a select group of atonement theories from which to choose. By contrast, the Bible never presents such systematic formulations. Biblical writers instead act as master chefs who offer a succulent buffet of truth even while using only a few basic ingredients.

Envisage a society with only a few meal choices: fried chicken, pasta, scrambled eggs, chicken and dumplings. In this imaginary culture, factions arise that claim the superiority of one dish over another. Debates rage about the relative virtue of eggs over fried chicken. By analogy, these dishes are like the popular atonement theories we’ve inherited from history. They nourish us. We are thankful for them. But restricting ourselves to these few options looks increasingly unnecessary, even harmful, the more we look at the situation.

Someone familiar with cooking will notice an oversight on the part of our imagined society. Each food item above can be made with just a few ingredients. There is no reason that people must restrict themselves to those specific dishes. With only flour, chicken, eggs, milk, and potatoes, we have an array of culinary options. For example, one could also make chicken soup, waffles, breakfast skillets, potato soup, grilled chicken, and a basic omelet.

In this analogy, the ingredients represent a small set of biblical metaphors that can be rearranged to form numerous doctrinal theories. Nevertheless, we tend to start with a limited set of atonement theories and overlook the more fundamental elements that are common to each theory. When discussing the Bible’s teaching on atonement, we “lose at the starting line.” The Bible provides a collection of theological ingredients, but we often don’t start here. Instead, we settle for a narrow set of doctrinal dishes. Although nourishing, they do not represent the biblical medley available to us.

To put it another way, we need something like a “Taco Bell approach” to the doctrine of atonement. This popular, Tex-Mex inspired, fast-food restaurant urges people to “think outside the bun” and serves an impressive variety of dishes. The vast menu has tacos, nachos, burritos, and quesadillas, yet also includes original creations like the Naked Chicken Chalupa. Why do I say “impressive”? When you look at its menu, Taco Bell uses a relatively small set of ingredients and, still, it always boasts an assortment of options for customers. With respect to doctrine, we need to think outside the box of convenient categories. By delving deep into the Bible, we find a handful of motifs that combine to form a richer, more robust theology of atonement.

Our context largely influences how we combine biblical themes and texts. Church tradition, personal experiences, education, and culture shape our questions and assumptions. They affect what we see and what we don’t. In church history, particular theories of atonement arose to explain Christ’s death in fresh ways. Such formulations are helpful, but they are not our starting point. Merely comparing atonement theories is a recipe for failure. We need to look back at both history and the Bible in order to savor the fullness of Christ’s atoning work.

To what extent do common theories of atonement reflect biblical logic?

Theology is not equivalent to biblical truth. Hopefully, these two have much overlap. However, we cannot assume that our theology—our understanding of Scripture—wholly captures the Bible’s teaching.

We all have limited perspectives. We live in particular cultures and historical periods. No one studies the Bible in a vacuum. Our cultural, historical, and personal contexts influence how we interpret the Bible. In this sense, all theology is contextualized.

“Context” is not just culture; it also includes history. Different historical ages are different contexts. How does context influence our theology? Specifically, how do our assumptions and history shape the way we understand the atonement?

Different historical periods and subcultures have varying perspectives on Christ’s death. Sometimes these views complement one another. At other times, they contradict. In every case, people’s historical context influences how they explain atonement.

As I write this, the world wrestles with Covid-19. Before the pandemic, if my daughter developed a small cough and fever, we’d have given her some medication, kept an eye on her, and thought little about it. But in the context of the Covid-19 virus, we now fixate on her symptoms with new seriousness. The only thing that’s changed is the context.

Of course, every generation has a limited vantage point. We all have blind spots. This is as true for theology as it is with medicine. Just a hundred years ago, doctors recommended drinking radium to cure arthritis and impotence. We need people from other generations to give us an alternative perspective. They challenge our modern assumptions and priorities. By studying history, we dialogue with historical thinkers. Historical views of atonement inevitably affect our interpretations. Even seemingly novel perspectives resemble older views in some way.

Taken from The Cross in Context by Jackson W. Copyright (c) 2022 by Jackson W. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.