This week our class had a number of readings that allowed the different theories of atonement to be presented by those who hold to each. I will be evaluating each of these representations and offering my appreciation and critique for each of the theories as I find them.


“The Atonement Debate” chapter in Across the Spectrum by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy:

Penal Substitution

  • Negative: I am not convinced that Jesus’ death was needed to solve God’s issues concerning holiness. If Jesus is divine then he could not have “become sin” for us in this model of atonement. The incarnation works against this view’s dogged assumption that God cannot put up with sin. It would seem God could not put up with sin ravaging Creation and therefore was dealing with the sin issues in Creation by willfully dealing with sin in the body of King Jesus.
  • Negative: The critique of Wright on the common usage of this model still stands. It is far to focused on individual benefits rather than the communal reality brought into existence through the cross. Furthermore, that individuals benefit is usually the escapist hope of not suffering in Hell for eternity and rather living eternally in the pleasures of heaven. The Cartesian “soul” spirituality aside, this fear of suffering and hope in pleasure usurps the reality of the cross and condemns this popular view as feeding into, and possibly born out of, a cultural obsession with pleasure and happiness as the ultimate good of life.
  • Positive: I still agree that King Jesus was giving himself as a sacrifice on our behalf so that the punishment of sin would not fall on those who find life through and in him. In as much as punishment is still being removed and the king is representatively protecting his kingdom then there is some merit elements of penal substitution.


Christus Victor

  • Negative: The idea that salvation is secondary to the cosmic battle God is having against Satan does not seem to be compelling to me. This could easily be reworked to be understood as through salvation for humanity God overcomes Satan. This would make sense of King Jesus’ statement that when his disciples went out and participated in his ministry of exorcism he saw Satan fall from heaven (Lk. 10:17-20).
  • Positive: This view locates salvation as manifest first for and through humanity, but not only about humanity. The focus of salvation is the redemption of all things, Creation itself, and humanity is called to participate in this salvific reality.
  • Postive: Christus Victor locates atonement, and the salvation that pours forth both in humanity and into the whole cosmos, within the historical realities of the story of God in relation to Israel. The theological implications of atonement and salvation only find their sense and power within the manifested history of Israel that culminates in the long awaited coming of the Davidic King, Jesus of Nazareth.


Moral Government

  • Negative: The focus of this atonement theory is on form of outcome that God desires, a holy people. The problem is that the form of holiness revealed in King Jesus is not enough to empower or reshape the realities of humanity lost in sin and death. If the law taught Israel anything it was that they were not able to live up to the standard of holiness as the people of God, even with the gracious forgiveness of God continually offered in the sacrificial system. The cross must actually have effect and cannot simply be revelatory in order to be the cross which brings salvation for the kingdom of God. Furthermore, what it the point of the cross if propitiating God’s anger against sin is not for forgiveness? Saying King Jesus died to show God is seriously angry about sin does not seem to actually deal with sin.
  • Positive: This theory does place a high value on learning to live in the way King Jesus revealed by the example of his own life. King Jesus is the truly human one who makes it possible to live in relation to God eternally and if we wish to participate in that reality then we are to live as he lived in this world (1st John makes this pretty clear I think).


“Redemption and fall” by Trevor Hart, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (1997)

  • Good Warnings: First, not all atonement metaphors seem to be given equal weight in the New Testament. Something is to be learned from each but the amount of emphasis each metaphor deserves should be varied and scrutinized.
  • Quote: “Whenever the story which the church tells appears to dovetail neatly and without wrinkles with the stories which human beings like to tell about themselves and their destiny, it is likely that the church is cutting the cloth of the gospel to fit the pattern laid down by the Zeitgeist rather than the heilige Geist.” p. 191
  • Quote: “What the metaphors and models all have in common, if they are faithful developments or translations of the apostolic tradition, is a specific focus in history; namely, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They do not drift freely across the plains of history as universal truths of reason, or recurrent religious myths in which the global hopes and aspirations of humankind are expressed. They are rooted here, in the awkward particulates of God’s dealings with actual men and women, inseparable from the specificities of time and place to which the Christian scriptures bear witness, although transcendent of these in their significance. There, indeed, is the rub for many whose sensitives are finely tuned to the wavelengths of modernity with its historical consciousness and relativistic outlook. God, the Christian gospel insists, has acted decisively for our salvation here rather than elsewhere. It is in the personal particularities of the story of Jesus, a historically and culturally remote figure for most of the human race, that our own personal stories collide with God’s story, that they are somehow take up into his story and transformed. Here particularity and universality refuse to be prised apart.” pp. 192-193
  • Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory: Hart skillfully explains Anselm’s theory as God fulfilling through the incarnation the lacking of human duty and faithfulness due to God because of willingness to sin. Only the fullness of divinity enfleshed is able to properly fulfill humanity before and toward the Creator. I would easily call this a form of representative substitution on account of the representative nature of the incarnation for all of humanity and also because King Jesus is willing to suffer in any way to fulfill the obedience of humanity towards God. As Hart explains, God’s anger is not the driving motivation for God’s satisfaction though punishment is inevitable for humanity on account of sin. God makes atonement through King Jesus precisely because there is punishment for sin and he loves us thereby making a way to God when humanity could not.
  • Modern Enlightenment’s Atonement: Hart explains that in the midst of the Enlightenment’s modern developments Anselm’s Satisfaction theory forged through penal-substitution’s individualistic assumptions led to an idea that King Jesus came to reveal and unleash the latent good and potential within humanity. There was no inherent evil within humanity that needed to be removed by the atonement as much as sin needed to be removed so it was no longer as an impediment to the human condition. The individual and subjective influence of penal substitution created the expectation of an existential experience. This experience of “meeting God” would then allow the person to move “beyond” sin for them to fulfill all that King Jesus intends for the person. This idea of individual fulfillment and self-fulfillment as God’s intent on the cross unmoors atonement from the historical context of the gospel and makes it a Platonic “spiritual” salvation that is nearer to religious therapy than historic Christian theology. Sadly, the only collective thought available within this theory is the cultural notion that humanity is progressing getting better, which is bolstered by the idea that in the cross God is moving humanity towards its truly realized end.


“The Nonviolent Atonenment” by J. Denny Weaver, Stricken by God (ed. Hardin, 2007)

  • Positive: This last reading was interesting. The high level of historical focus, meaning Weaver’s dedication to allowing the context of texts give meaning for theology rather than later Christian developments, is refreshing. But sadly, nothing I liked about this essay had anything to do with the proposed atonement theory of a “narrative Christus Victor”. Weaver also was intellectually honest throughout. He is open that if God intended for Jesus to go to the cross then his method is not an option for atonement.
  • Negative: Weaver is so dedicated to his a priori interpretation of Jesus as God cannot “touch” violence in any capacity that much of the New Testament becomes unintelligible. Paul’s insistence on the cross as God’s wisdom and power, the writer of Hebrew’s insistence on forgiveness through sacrifice by God’s appointment, James’ belief that suffering is redeemed (coherent only by interpretation in light of the cross), even Jesus’ own words when he reveals why the incarnation takes place (John 12:23-28) makes no sense if we follow Weaver’s presuppositions.
  • Negative: The most damning element of Weaver’s atonement theory is his openness that for him, and his theory, the cross is not central but rather a byproduct: “The victory of the reign of God over the forces of evil, symboliszed by Rome that killed Jesus, occurs through resurrection.” “The saving element of narrative Christus Victor is resurrection…” “I have emphasized resurrection as the saving event, the sine qua non of this narrative.” “If Jesus’ mission was the life-bringing, life-affirming mission of witnessing to the reign of God as I proposed, then I cannot say that his death was intrinsically necessary to the divine will.”[1]
  • Negative: Because of this dogged allegiance to a self-imposed hermeneutic Weaver makes a philosophical and theological claim I find hard to get past. In his Christus Victor scope of focus he sees the powers and authorities as demonic forces with actual power, and this I do not begrudge him. But he believes it is within their power to destroy the very existence of humans through death as their weapon.[2] In such a statement there are a number of philosophical problems but I would like to focus on the inevitable conclusion that there exists a power in reality that is able to rival God’s creative and sustaining work. To believe that something has the power or right to extinguish existence is to counter God’s power and work effectively. In reality there is another god, one of evil and chaos that is able to destroy our very life. But such a power is only attributed to the Creator God of Israel by none other than King Jesus (Mt. 10:28). Weaver must push this demoted concept of God because if God were the ultimate divine of Christian tradition it would mean all things, even evil only exists by his gracious sustaining and even their behaviors are allowed within God’s intent and purposes. Weaver believes if God allows for the will of God to be accomplished by evil then God is morally bankrupt and therefore restricts himself from an orthodox view of God’s reality.[3]



[1] J. Denny Weaver, “The Nonviolent Atonement: Human Violence, Discipleship and God,” in Stricken by God? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 330, 340, 347, 351–52.

[2] Weaver, 330.

[3] Weaver, 342–43.

Posted by Justin Gill

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