Saturday, February 18, 2006

Who tells the best atonement story?

Scott McKnight has a posting over at Jesus Creed, where he looks at some of the atonement theories.
A series of theologians have read the Bible and done their best to reduce this bigness down to a single story. But, that story is too grand to be reduced to a single story. In fact, the various stories are each needed, not only because each tells part of the story but because each also tells our story. They are stories of the one gospel. One can’t describe grace in one word, and one can’t describe the gospel in one word, and one surely can’t reduce the work of God for us to one story. It takes a series of stories because the atonement is more mystery than it is mechanics.

The early Church very quickly began to debate its understanding of God, and the whole Church, everywhere, came to the conclusion that God was a Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. This is what we read in the Nicene Creed. These creeds were discussed and debated and improved for more than four centuries. This may come as a surprise but the Church never sensed a need to articulate a single explanatory theory for the atonement. The wise ask why the Church never “solved” the atonement question. I believe it was because they knew it took more than one story to tell that story, and I believe also that they knew it as a reality so rich in diversity that attempts to narrow it down to manageable size were unwise.

The Church, however, has always taught that God does restore Eikons to union with God and communion with others for the good of others and the world, and that God’s work is to form a missional community. “Atonement” means “at-one-ment” with God (and others).
The theologians he talks about include:
Irenaeus: The story of recapitulation
Early theologians: The story of ransom
Anselm: The story of satisfaction
The Evangelical Reformers: The story of penal substitution
Abelard: The story of the example
Each of these stories – recapitulation, ransom, satisfaction, substitution, and example – does what it can to tell God’s story of the at-one-ment, the story of God drawing us into union with God and communion with others for the good others and the world.
McKnight, then continues under the heading
The story who is a person
At this point he is right on. The atonement, unlike the impression you get from reading some theologians and commentators, is NOT an abstract theory.
The story of the gospel is first and foremost and nothing if it is not first the embracing of persons. God embraces us in Jesus Christ and we embrace God in Jesus Christ. The embrace involves trust and love and commitment. God is personal; Eikons are persons; Jesus is a person. Restoring Eikons is about restoring persons so they are in union and communion. At-one-ment is a “re-unioning” and “re-communioning” of our relationships. God does all this in the context of a community and with a missional direction: so “atoned” persons can be of good to others and the world. Any theory that stops short of these other elements of the gospel fails to explain what the atonement is all about.
A big gospel takes many stories to explain.
To be sure, the gospel manages sin, declares humans right, and liberates. But more than these, the gospel is the embracing of persons: of God and humans, of humans with other humans, for the good of others and the world.

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