Angles on the Atonement

I have chosen, in prayer (of course) during Lent and approaching Easter Sunday, to preach through different angles on the atonement, or what academia calls, models or theories. We mustn’t be confused by how the idea of “theories” is being used here. It is not a way to shoe-horn in a text into an abscure or concocted formula, but rather, a working method or structure for how to legitimately view a biblical text.

And this is the point. The Bible is gloriously rich and offers several deeply insightful ways to understand the scope and depth of the atonement. Throughout Church History we see how different models come to the fore and gain prominence, largely due to emphasis shaped by cultural needs and situations. It’s not a deliberate strategy to obscure texts and meanings, but a way to show how the Bible speaks to so many historical and cultural situations that are so vastly different from our own.

Talking of our own… Today, the Western evangelical Protestant tradition has a particular focus or emphasis on the compound-model of the atonement that is popularly called Penal Substitution. This is all well and good and an entirely biblical model, but what is often assumed is that this is the only way to talk about the Cross of Christ, or the only way the Bible speaks of atonement generally. It isn’t. Furthermore to this current emphasis, it is often either misconstrued or misunderstood or mis-applied to deeply antithetical ways that the Bible does not mean. Failure to allow other interpretive frameworks to speak to atonement, is to fall foul of hermeneutical foreclosure: the idea that we consciously or subconsciously prefer certain texts over others, therefore foreclosing on parts of Scripture that should feed into the overall framwork of Atonement. We all do to some degree or other.

When one “model” dominates at the expense of the others, we get a truncated understanding and for wont of a better phrase, a limited atonement (I don’t mean in the Calvinist sense of the term). The first order of things of to make sure the definitions are clearly defined and robustly applied to the method. This might sound rather complicated, but if it does, it might mean you will need to take stock and find a humble path that seeks to speak to your angst and why this might be the case. The Reformed Evangelical Tradition is wonderful in so many ways, but in others ways, it can have obvious blindspots towards viewing the Atonement in a wholistically biblical way. In other Words, it isn’t the only way to understand Scripture or theology. And this is good news for the Good News.

In a book called Preaching the Atonement (which I don’t own nor have read as yet), the publishers write about this intermingling, or competing or multi-layed approach to allow the text to speak and to prevent “foreclosure” (all my words about their descriptions). They write,

Preaching the Atonement explores some classic texts which throw light on the atonement. Each chapter focuses on a key Biblical passage, offering a theological commentary which will help both preachers and church members gain a deeper understanding of the atoning work of Christ. Each chapter contains a sermon on the chosen text, illustrating how these themes may be communicated to contemporary congregations. Seeking to be sensitive to the literary forms of the chosen texts, these sermons employ a range of homiletical strategies. The sermons are drawn from the works of preachers on both sides of the Atlantic. Preaching the Atonement assumes that the preacher’s role is not to squeeze every passage of Scripture into the same mould. Each passage bears witness to another aspect of the many splendoured work of Christ; as the preacher invites the congregation to listen to the testimony of this cloud of biblical witnesses.”

This is no easy task. But one that will enrich the Body of Christ in ways we can barely understand. It is time we moved from a mono-view of offerring one model at the expense of all the others, but allow all of them to be seen from different angles, as like looking at a diamond or viewing a mosaic (another book on the atonement which I do have). The Bible doesn’t shy away from it, and so neither should we preachers and churches, because as much as it enriches believers as it should, it is also the answer to the deepest needs of all people everywhere, and all the problems of the world, for as deep as they are, the Cross of Christ is deeper still.

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