The “Heart” of the Atonement (Part 1): The Problem

Sacrificial Lamb betterTheological discourse lends itself well to the development of a mutual affirmation club. One theologian says something clever and it gets quoted hundreds of times by adoring fans, most of whom haven’t given much thought to the validity of the expression – it just sounded cool. Theologians pat each other on the back left and right. There are whole books dedicated to praising the theology of specific other theologians, hagiographies of a sort. I am very wary of this sort of theological fanboyism. It’s easy for me to be wary because I am not famous. It’s also easy because I’ve always been stubborn and rebellious. If everyone was going to jump off of a bridge I was most assuredly not, and if everyone was going to defend a certain theological position I was going to take a long time to adopt it (if at all). This tendency has served me well in some respects and kept me accountable to search out the truthfulness of doctrinal claims. Recently, that’s what I’ve been doing with some claims about the atonement. The idea that there is a singular “heart” to the atonement raises certain concerns for balanced theology.

It’s important that I make clear where I am going in this short series at the outset. I am going to come down at the end of this series reaffirming the uniqueness and even centrality of the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. But I feel it worthy to set up the problem I have with this language and work my way through the nettles with my readers. I want to reveal the importance of wrestling with doctrines, and also the ways in which we can do that. I also want us to think more carefully about the doctrine of the atonement, the value of all the pieces of it, and the uniqueness of penal substitution (PSA).

The doctrine of the atonement is much bigger than PSA, though in some Reformed circles you’d never know it. The Bible actually speaks of Jesus’ death on the cross in diverse ways. We will look at each in more detail in a later post, but it is fitting to list some of the ways in which the Bible talks of Jesus’ atonement. We are told that Jesus’ death cleanses us from sin and redeems us. We are also told that His death is a victory over Satan, death, and hell. His death is described even as an example for believers. Yes, he takes the wrath of God in our place too, but there are a variety of ways in which we may speak of Jesus death and do so with Biblical force. It is Biblical, then, at one level to see Christ’s atoning work as a kaleidoscope of accomplishments. It’s important, then, that we as the church celebrate all the angles of this doctrine.

People tend to emphasize one doctrine over all the others because it is what fits best with their experience or tradition. They tend to downplay other aspects of the doctrine, some even go so far as to criticize other’s who don’t express the doctrine solely in the language they are comfortable with. This is where my red flags start shooting up. We affirm only what our theological heroes say, only what they write, only what our tradition acknowledges, and we downplay all the rest as if it were less than Biblical. The consequences of such myopic conformity to men are serious. When we elevate one doctrine to the exclusion of others we are not only distorting the testimony of Scripture we are also missing out on the fullness and beauty of that doctrine. So it is with the atonement when we only emphasize PSA, we miss out on exploring how the cross is the defeat of Satan and the victory of God, or how it can serve as an example and motivation to us as believers. We miss out on seeing the beauty of reconciliation achieved at the cross. We must look at the cross from all its many angles to appreciate its beauty, it’s like a rare diamond in that way. In their refreshing, gritty, and practical book on the atonement Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears write:

One theologian has called the cross the great jewel of the Christian faith, and like every great jewel it has many precious facets that are each worthy of examining for their brilliance and beauty. Therefore, you will be well served to see each side of this jewel shining together for the glory of God in complimentary and not contradictory fashion. Most poor teaching about the cross results from someone’s denying one of these facets, ignoring one of these facets, or overemphasizing one of these facets at the expense of the others, often due to an overreaction to someone else’s overreaction. Such narrow and reactionary theology has tragically caused the beauty of the cross to become obscured by the various warring teams that have risen up to argue for their systematic theology rather than bowing down in humble worship of the crucified Jesus. (Death by Love, 10)

I want to say all that the Bible says about the atonement, and I am very skeptical of those who would seek to diminish the accomplishments of the cross. Penal substitionary atonement is a part of that picture, but it is not the only part. There is so much depth, beauty, and glory in the cross, the church needs to embrace it all. A kaleidoscope view, then, seems the most attractive to me.

Again, I am going to go on to defend the centrality of PSA, but I want to start here. I want to start with push back. I want to start with caution and then move forward in working out how I have come to the position I have. The problem for me is that in speaking of a “heart” we can tend to suggest that the other aspects of the atonement aren’t important, aren’t beautiful, aren’t worthy of our time. That is not, however, how the author’s of the New Testament felt as they unpacked the myriads of accomplishments of Christ on the cross. We ought to take our cues from them and from their writings and not first and foremost our traditions and our experiences – as valuable as those are. The cross is a many-faceted jewel, and even for those who see PSA as central we ought not miss the beauty of the other aspects of the cross.

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