Atonement questions

I have been thinking lately about the atonement, and especially about the substitutionary atonement, as it is clasically understood in most Evangelical circles (of which I am a product, even if I moved on). I heard some good questions about this:

  • Did God have to kill Jesus in order to forgive me?
  • If God was unable to forgive me without killing his Son, then how come he asks me to forgive others?
  • He doesn’t ask me to forgive my wife, and then go and beat the dog.
  • Is God asking me to do something that he is not capable of himself?

I think these are all good questions. Here are some quotes from John McLeod Campbell, a celebrated Scottish theologian of the mid nineteenth century, in his book, The Nature of the Atonement. I found him very helpful in this area:

“The atonement, I say, presupposes that there is forgiveness with God; and in doing so has a response in conscience… An atonement to make God gracious, to move him to compassion, to turn his heart toward those from whom sin had alienated his love, it would, indeed, be difficult to believe in; for, if it were needed it would be impossible. To awaken to the sense of need of such an atonement, would certainly be to awaken to utter and absolute despair. But the Scriptures do not speak of such an ateonement; for they do not represent the love of God to man as the effect, and the atonement of Christ as the cause, but – just as the contrary – they represent the love of God as the cause, and the atonement as the effect (John 3:16)…

Now, we know that where all general urging of God’s mercy and clemency, and willingness to pardon and to save, fail to give peace, or quicken hope, the presenting of the atonement for the acceptance of faith does both. Awakened sinners who are finding themselves unable to believe that God… can pardon their sins and bestow on them eternal life, are found able to believe in such pardon, and to receive the hope of eternal life, when these are presented to them in connection with the sacrifice of Himself by which Christ put away sin, becoming the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.

This fact is surely deserving of the serious consideration of those whose objection to the atonement is, that it should be enough for man’s peace and hope to be told, that the Lord God is merciful and gracious and ready to forgive, and to relieve all who call upon him. Here there is manifested an inability to believe in God’s forgiveness as meeting man’s need, when presented simply as clemency and mercy: – but, presented in the form of the atonement, it is believed in. Not surely because less credit for love and mercy is given to God now; for on the contrary the conception of love simply forgiving, and of love forigiving at such a cost to itself, differ just in this, that in the latter, the love is infinitely enhanced.” (p. 46-48)


7 thoughts on “Atonement questions

  1. Thanks for the link, Nik. A very interesting discussion. I agree that human language cannot explain away the meaning of the cross, and that we can only understand in part.

    I did not bring this up as a merely intelectual exercise. I’m not all that interested in cerebral theological speculation anymore. I AM interested however in the pastoral implications of doctrines such as atonement. I like to focus on practical theology.

    My wife is a counselor and she tells me that the majority of her clients are struggling with guilt. Isn’t this amazing? I think to ‘know’ you are forgiven is very different to ‘feeling’ that you are forgiven.

    This is why I was attracted by J. McLeod Campbell’s perspective. He focuses on the experience of forgiveness, rather than on its objectivity. This, I think, is the context in which the atonement should be understood. To look at it from a penal perspective, as a lawyer like Calvin did, is to miss the point of atonement.

    Plus, I believe atonement is only one of the effects of the cross (by dealing with the problem of debt), and certainly not its cause. In this I agree with Campbell. Of course, since I believe the Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom, and not the Gospel of Salvation, this perhaps is not surprising…

  2. Have a look at McGrath Iustitia Dei, a historical overview how the understanding of atonement developed and changed throughout the history. It helped me see (when I studied the subject in the mid 1990s) that the meaning of this doctrine was often a construction based on historical and cultural context.

  3. Since you mentioned you are interested in the practical implications of atonement and atonement theories, I’d recommend browsing through Mark Driscoll’s “Death by Love”. (I’m sure you’ve got plenty of negatives to hurl at Driscoll. Matter of fact, if I’ve read you correctly in your fury against fundamentalism, you’d probably say that Driscoll is sort of a hip-fundamentalist 🙂 But, then again, this is in the area of speculation). Seriously now, “Death by Love” is a series of 12 letters he has written to real persons within his pastoral reach, in each one outlining a specific effect of Christ’s death on the cross as it relates to that person’s existential situation. I think it’s a good pastoral approach to atonement.
    Enjoy! (ignore the weirdly gloomy promotional video)

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