Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Classic Atonement Theories throughout History

Warning: This is a LONG recap, since I am including the handout verbiage I gave each student.

First, however, I want to highlight the purpose of the lesson today and make a few points about how it went. This is not going to be the typical chronological review of most weeks' summaries.

1) I wanted the students to be exposed to classic Christian atonement theories over time - to see how theologians have framed the atonement in various ways. In a way, I approached this lesson as a condensed college class in Atonement Theory 101.

2) I wanted the students to realize that Mormon theology, in practical terms, does NOT have "the one true atonement theory" - that, rather, the way we talk about the Atonement encompasses all of the official theories to some degree. Our framing is much more a comprehensive puzzle or mosaic of all recorded theories than it is a distinct theory of its own. It is kind of the "we seek after these things" version, in which elements can be taken from otherwise competing theories.

3) I wanted the students to think about each of the seven theories we discussed and see which one resonated the most deeply with each of them individually. Interestingly (and gratifyingly), when I summarized each of them at the end and asked the students which one was their favorite, six of the theories got at least one vote - meaning only one theory (the "ransom theory") didn't receive any votes. (That theory didn't get any votes simply because none of them liked the idea that our sins brought about a payment to Satan as our captor. One student said that he couldn't accept that Satan was successful in kidnapping us and getting rewarded for it.) Also of interest is that the penal substitution theory received only one vote.

With that overall summary, the following is the material from the printout I gave each of them. We read most of it and discussed it as we read.
From Wikipedia - one case where it does a good job of presenting accurate information:

In theology, atonement is a doctrine that describes how human beings can be reconciled to God. In Christian theology the atonement refers to the forgiving or pardoning of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which made possible the reconciliation between God and his creation. Within Christianity there are, historically, three or four main theories for how such atonement might work:

The ransom theory / Christus Victor (which are different, but generally considered together as "classical", it being argued that these were the traditional understandings of the early Church Fathers);

The moral influence theory, which Aulen considered to be developed by Peter Abelard (called by him the "idealistic" view),

The satisfaction theory developed by Anselm of Canterbury (called by Aulen the "scholastic" view),

The penal substitution theory (which is a refinement of the Anselmian satisfaction theory developed by the Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin, and is often treated together with the satisfaction view, giving rise to the "four main types" of atonement theories - classical or patristic, scholastic, and idealistic - spoken of by Aulen).

There are other theories of atonement, but the above are the main ones. Other theories include the recapitulation theory, the "shared atonement" theory and the scapegoat theory.

The English word 'atonement' originally meant "at-one-ment", i.e. being "at one", in harmony, with someone. It is used to describe the saving work that God did through Christ to reconcile the world to himself, and also of the state of a person having been reconciled to God. Throughout the centuries, Christians have used different metaphors and given differing explanations of the atonement to express how the atonement might work. Churches and denominations may vary in which metaphor or explanation they consider most accurately fits into their theological perspective; however all Christians emphasize that Jesus is the Savior of the world and through his death the sins of mankind have been forgiven. The four most well known theories are briefly described below:

The earliest explanation for how the atonement works is nowadays often called the "moral influence" theory. In this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this variously through his teachings, example, founding of the Church, and the inspiring power of his martyrdom and resurrection. This view was universally taught by the early church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, along with what is called by Aulen the classical or patristic view, which can be variously interpreted as Ransom or Recapitulation, or under the general heading of "Christus Victor". The moral influence theory also enjoyed popularity during the Middle Ages and is most often associated in that period with Peter Abelard. Since the Protestant Reformation it has been advocated by many theologians, including Kant, Hastings and Tillich. It remains the most popular view of atonement among theologically liberal Christians.

Chronologically, the second explanation, first clearly enunciated by Irenaeus, is the "ransom" theory. "Christus victor" and "ransom" are slightly different from each other, since in the ransom metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to sin and Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom sacrifice. (Matthew 20:28) Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind). The "Christus Victor" theory sees Jesus not used as a ransom but rather defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor. This theory 'continued for a thousand years to influence Christian theology, until it was finally shifted and discarded by Anselm'.

The third metaphor, used by the 11th century theologian Anselm, is called the "satisfaction" theory. In this picture mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to the sovereign God himself. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign he cannot if the state has been dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy, and that Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Therefore, the doctrine would be that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for many”, to God the Father himself.

The next explanation, which was a development by the Reformers of Anselm's satisfaction theory, is the commonly held Protestant "penal substitution" theory, which, instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honor, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), penal substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus' saving work being his substitution in the sinner's place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Galatians 3:13). A variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius’ "governmental theory", which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.

The less prominent atonement theories include:

The “recapitulation theory”, in which Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to eternal life (including morality). According to William Barclay, man’s disobedience the process of the evolution of the human race went wrong, and the course of its wrongness could neither be halted nor reversed by any human means. But in Jesus Christ the whole course of human evolution was perfectly carried out and realized in obedience to the purpose of God.

The “shared atonement theory”, in which the atonement is spoken of as shared by all. In this view, God sustains the universe. Therefore if Jesus was God in human form, when he died, we all died with him, and when he rose from the dead, we all rose with him.

The “scapegoat theory”, in which Jesus took the place of the tradition goat that was loaded with the sins of the people and driven into the wilderness to die with those sins – which, therefore, could not return to the people. In this view, Jesus took upon himself the sins of the people (going backward and forward in time to encompass all who ever have lived) in such a way that their sins cannot return to them.

Kevin Barney’s post “Atonement Stew” on By Common Consent  (March 2009)

When I was young, I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t have any idea how the Atonement worked. So far as I could tell, I was the only one who suffered from this malady. Others would say how glad they were that we had the perfect understanding of the Atonement, and I would always wonder what they were talking about, because I just didn’t understand it. I still remember feeling embarrassed about this ignorance of mine and wondering why everyone else seemed to have a handle on this doctrine that I just couldn’t grasp. This state of my (non)understanding continued throughout my mission.

At some point after my mission I read the chapter on the Atonement in Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, and my eyes were finally opened. What had always seemed to me a meaningless jumble of ideas and concepts actually reflected discrete theories (or metaphors) that developed historically over time. People acted as though there were a single Atonement theory that we understood well, and I could never see it. But now I knew the reason I could never see it is that it didn’t exist. People would mix and match concepts and vocabulary from these different concepts as though they were part of a coherent whole, apparently without realizing that they were doing so.

(We skipped Kevin's summary of the main theories, since we had discussed them from the Wikipedia article.)

After I learned about this, I still didn’t really understand the Atonement, but at least now the way we talked about it made sense to me, and I could appreciate the historical development of the different ideas people tossed around. I at least understood why I hadn’t understood it before.

While I was in law school, my EQP was Michael Hicks (now a professor of music at BYU), and he had a terrific handout in which he illustrated each theory by snippets from different LDS hymns. The handout was maybe three pages long, and each theory had about 3/4 of a page (single spaced) with illustrations devoted to it. I wish I still had that handout, but I looked and couldn’t find it among my papers. But it scarcely matters; anyone could go through our hymns and create one for oneself.

Next time you’re sitting there singing the sacrament hymn in church, think about this. For example, “Behold the Great Redeemer Die” is immediately followed by the lines “a broken law to satisfy/he dies a sacrifice for sin,” mingling concepts from the satisfaction and substitution theories in adjacent lines.

So I no longer feel so self-conscious about my ignorance concerning the Atonement. But I’m also not overly impressed by occasional expressions of our supposed greater light and knowledge on this subject. Sure, we have some insights on the margins, such as a greater emphasis on Gethsemane. But as far as I can tell, we dip our ladle from the very same pot of Atonement stew of theories that all Christians do.

Comments from the post:

1) “It seems like there are two competing ways of approaching the Atonement – the inquisitive approach such as you manifest here, vs the approach that says that the Atonement is inherently mysterious and paradoxically unapproachable. Those who ascribe to this second approach almost make it a point of pride to not look to closely at the Atonement, like giving away the magician’s secrets or something. I confess I waver between the two approaches; sometimes I want to know exactly how it works, sometimes I just want to bask in it.

2) “I’m also of both minds simultaneously. On the one hand, of course I would like to understand the mechanics of how the Atonement works. A Jewish peasant was killed 2,000 years ago–how exactly does that have anything to do with me and my salvation? Part of me would like someone to be able to walk me through the mechanical steps of how that all is supposed to work.

But, despite the various theories and metaphors, I don’t think we really have a handle on the mechanics of it all. Mormons generally aren’t big on the concept of mystery; like curious boys who subscribe to Popular Mechanics, we want to know how things work. And this is one where we don’t really know. I’m at peace with that.

Not all Mormons are, however. A few years ago I taught a lesson on the Atonement in EQ, and one of the quotes I used was from Talmage to the effect that in the end the atonement is beyond the capacity of our finite human minds to grasp. And I almost had a riot on my hands; the elders were highly offended that any part of the simple plan of salvation should be beyond our ken.”

3) “The four theories of atonement seem to present a ‘blind men and the elephant’ problem with each theory grasping different elements of something too big to be described by the smaller pieces, and in some senses the differences may seem to contradict, yet all part of a bigger whole.

I’m drawn to the ‘mystery’ approach, if just because I’ve found so much I don’t understand, I’ve grown comfortable in my cluelessness.”

4) At a Sunstone West many years ago, I heard Lorin K. Hansen deliver a version of what he later published in Dialogue vol 27 n1 (Spring 1994) as “The Moral Atonement as a Mormon Interpretation.” After surveying the various interpretations, he noted that he could divide them into “Objective” theories and “Subjective” theories, that is, “The Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories of Christian Orthodoxy were predominantly objective interpretations: man and woman, according to these views were, are redeemed by God’s works, not their own works, for they are morally incapable of contributing to their own redemption. And the Moral-Influence theory (the predominant example of a “moral” theory of the Atonement) was a subjective interpretation; that is, man and woman are morally autonomous and are redeemed through their own initiative, responding to the moral example of Jesus Christ. So the polarization in Christian theology is primarily one of moral-subjective interpretation versus transactional objective interpretations.” (Hansen, 201)

So he made the case that the Book of Mormon uniquely includes both objective and and subjective atonement. (Hansen, 209). It’s a provocative piece that I’ve thought deserves more attention.

Recommendations to the students of interesting treatments of the Atonement:

Nibley’s “The Meaning of the Atonement"
Ostler’s “Com-passion Theory"
Eugene England’s “Shakespeare and the At-One-ment of Christ”
Margaret Barker’s “Atonement: The Rite of Healing”
Truman Madsen’s “The Olive Press”
Rene Girard’s “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning”

1 comment:

Dallas said...

Thanks for interesting material. Didn't think Skousen's work is worth a mention (the happy intelligences)?