Not too long ago here at the Thang we were arguing about Blake Ostler’s atonement theory. In the course of that discussion, more than one person made a statement to the effect that some particular question was the central question of atonement theory, or, on one occasion, that a given theory did not really qualify as such unless it resolved a certain problem.
When you get focused on some specific problem it is easy to start thinking this way, but I don’t really buy into it. The atonement is the central element of the gospel, and as such, it gets its doctrinal tentacles into nearly everything. The result is that a theory of atonement needs to answer a lot of questions, and many of them feel pretty “central.” The following list provides a good start:
Why was the atonement necessary?
Why was Christ the only one who could perform the atonement?
Why would we have been hopelessly lost without the atonement?
What caused Christ to suffer?
What did Christ suffer?
What did Christ’s suffering accomplish?
What is the meaning of justice and mercy?
What is the nature of sin and sinfulness?
How does the atonement satisfy justice?
How did the atonement bring about the resurrection?
How is the atonement related to forgiveness?
How is the atonement related to repentance?
How do we account for the various things scriptures say about the atonement?
How was the atonement efficacious before it was performed?
How is the atonement related to the fall?
How did the atonement make us free?
Now, any one of these questions can prove difficult, but a theory of atonement is supposed to answer them all. When evaluating a particular theory, each one of the answers given to the questions above must be considered for its strengths and weaknesses. How well is everything accounted for? Where are the holes? Which answers are strained, or inadequate, or have unacceptable implications?
After that, we still have to ask how well a given theory of atonement can be integrated into the rest of the gospel. As I mentioned, the meaning of the atonement ends up having implications on almost everything. So, we must ask what implications there are on the Godhead, what it says about the plan of salvation, how well it fits our overall cosmology, and on and on.
Here’s the thing: I have yet to come across a theory that comes through such an analysis unscathed. We can hope that a theory will be forthcoming which answers all of these questions in a satisfactory way, but until then, I don’t really look at any one of these questions a the all-important question. Instead, I take more of an “all things considered” approach. If a theory can answer most of these questions in a compelling way, that puts it in the running for me.
Further, I find that I care more about the implications on the rest of the gospel than I do about some of the technical problems. For example, the problem of backward causation is one which I find intractable, for reasons I explained during the aforementioned debate. Being inclined to worry about philosophical problems, I am actually bothered by this problem, as strange as that will seem to some people. Nevertheless, when evaluating a theory of atonement, I am not likely to give as much weight to the resolution of this problem as I do to the implications on repentance and forgiveness.
The most disturbing thing to me about the current widespread acceptance of the penal-substitution theory is that it conveys wrongheaded ideas about the problem of sin, the nature of repentance, and the meaning of forgiveness. I find it troubling that so many people believe suffering is the key aspect of repentance and that God cannot forgive them without punishing someone innocent. These ideas have real effects on how people live, how they seek forgiveness, and how they approach God. That is why getting the “big picture” right is far more important to me than resolving the more technical problems. It is also the reason I really like Blake’s theory, despite the fact that I have disagreements with him on some points. Those disagreements are overemphasized in the previous thread because in debating a theory of atonement we focus on the differences and on the problems. But I think Blake is right on track when he describes the relationship of the atonement to other gospel principles and when I read his chapters on the atonement I was cheering for the vast majority of the points he made. For the same reason, I like Mark Butler’s theory of atonement (as described on that big thread as well, in the 200s) despite some disagreements I have with Mark on what the atonement is. Again, on the issues of how the atonement fits with other key gospel principles I find Mark to be right on track. By contrast, I think the penal-substitution theory is a disaster which gives us an incorrect perspective on justice, mercy, forgiveness, repentance, the fall, and the plan of salvation. I guess that is why I wrote my Dialogue article despite my inability to answer some of the questions on the list above. Our current theory is pretty poor in my opinion, so it does not require a perfect theory to improve upon it.
So, what is the most important part of atonement theory for you? Is there a central question of atonement theory? How concerned to you get over the more “technical” problems like backward causation?