Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Baking the atonement

As I've read through many debates over the atonement on the internet recently, I've been intrigued by how different people combine the various ingredients.

There are four main atonement theories that people seem to hold to:
  • Penal Substitution
  • Christus Victor
  • Moral Exemplar
  • Satisfaction
Most people combine different views together, each with different emphases. It's like baking with a recipe: "Add 60% Penal Substitution to 20% Christus Victor and 20% Moral Exemplar and Voila!"

The other thing that adds to the confusion is that there seems to be a continuum between Penal Substitution and Satisfaction. At one end of the spectrum is a very "hard" / "strong" version of Penal Substitution which holds to double-imputation etc. The continuum passes through many varients of "weaker" Penal Substitution right through to versions of Satisfaction, where Christ still appeases God and turns away wrath, but does so without being punished. Thus, there needs to be as well a measure of how far along the Penal Substitution <---> Satisfaction continuum any given person is, measuring the "strength" of their Penal Substitution (high being a strong version of PS, low being some form of Satisfaction).

Hence people like NT Wright and Steve Chalke are probably using a recipe which looks something like:
40% Christus Victor
30% Penal Substitution / Satisfaction at 40% strength
30% Moral Exemplar

They have commented that a model of (what I would describe as) 90% Penal Substitution at 90% strength looks "sub-biblical" and like "divine child abuse".

Traditional defenders of Penal Substitution seem to have had a range of recipes. Some of them held the strongest version of penal substitution all the way. Whereas John Stott for example uses a recipe that looks something like this:
70% Penal Substitution / Satisfaction at 80% strength
15% Christus Victor
15% Moral Exemplar

What I find interesting about this is the question of where do you draw the line? The UCCF and Evangelical Alliance have gotten quite upset at Chalke for his words strongly attacking views which I would characterize as 90% Penal Substitution at 90% strength. They have insisted that their statement of beliefs teaches Penal Substitution. That assertion I found curious, since this recipe
50% Christus Victor
25% Penal Substitution / Satisfaction at 0% strength (ie totally Satisfaction)
25% Moral Exemplar
would be in clear and entire agreement with their statement of beliefs.

A lot of people on the internet seem confused as to how Chalke can say he adheres to their statement of beliefs. Well the above example demonstrates how. The statement of beliefs makes no distinction between Penal Substitution and Satisfaction - allowing someone who totally rejects Penal Substitution but does hold to Satisfaction to adhere. It also implies that the person should hold at least partially to the Moral Exemplar and Christus Victor models, yet sets no upper limits for the proportion of those used in the recipe. Thus someone who holds strongly to those models and yet partially to the Satisfaction model could easily sign that declaration of beliefs in good faith.

But anyway, I want to observe here that the complexity of the recipes makes drawing a clear line in the sand virtually impossible. A pretty complex formula would be required to state clearly which levels of and combinations of ingredient are and aren't acceptable. Evangelicals span a large range of different recipes.


Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for this, and for your two more recent posts on the atonement.

But I am not at all sure about your idea that different views of the atonement can be combined as percentages in a recipe. After all, you can't use this kind of measure of beliefs about Jesus, that he is for example 70% God and 30% man, that would be clearly heretical! Nor would a physicist say that light is 60% particles and 40% waves. For in both cases we are talking about looking at an issue from different, orthogonal directions. And I think we should think about different models of the atonement in the same sort of way. For the truth about the atonement is not some kind of blend of our theories, rather each of our theories is a more or less clear and valid view of a truth which is beyond our full comprehension. See this post of mine, from nearly a year ago, on models of the atonement. But your list of these models is a great improvement on the summary I gave there.

Blogger Andrew said...

I think there is validity in combining the ideas a percentages, because they can be used to measure emphasis. When I think of someone as holding to 50% Christus Victor, I don't mean they hold half of the Christus Victor paradigm - eg that they believe the devil rules over us but they drop the part where Christ defeats him - that would be rather inane, of course they believe the whole paradigm and not a part of it, just as Christians teach that Jesus was fully God and fully man. The usefulness of the percentages comes in thinking about how much emphasis and how important a person considers different atonement views to be.

For example, someone might think that the really important thing of eternal significance that Jesus did was be our penal substitute. They might also be happy to say that he taught some good stuff, and did a bit of defeating Satan, but view those as a kind of side-issue and bonus. Thus, when they think or talk about the atonement and what Christ did, they place 80-90% of the importance on Penal Substitution and only a little bit on Moral Exemplar and Christus Victor.

Whereas someone else might think that the really important thing that Jesus did was teaching us virtue, and that while other stuff might have been going on too (such as defeating Satan and Satisfaction) that what's important to us in our everyday lives in a practical way is to live righteously as Christ taught. Hence their emphasis would be on some form of Moral Exemplar, and we could expect perhaps 70% of their thinking and writing to be about that topic.

So, while people hold multiple atonement theories in entirety simultaneously, the level of importance that the place on different models varies and that is what my percentage system is attempting to analyze.

Blogger Theodore A. Jones said...

There are two other problems your idea exposes. You have stated that you believe that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is false. But if there is validity in combining the contemporary ideas of atonement and substitutionary atonement is in the mix you have combined a false proposition into a mixture which does not allow a falsehood.
The second part of your assumption, "drawing a clear line in the sand (is) virtually impossible" is a direct contradiction against Jesus' promises that the truth can only be discovered by continuing in his words and that it is the spirit of God that will guide you into all truth. The truth about these various positions that you endlessly discuss is that they are all false.


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