Sunday, January 14, 2007

Theories of the Atonement - Which One is Right?

Although Christian traditions which descend from the Reformation era share a common view of the Atonement, there is a noticeable difference when one compares traditions from the East and West. Nevertheless, there is common agreement among Christian churches that Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day is central to salvation, and that a chief benefit of that salvation is forgiveness and new life. Beyond this, though, views differ as to the emphasis of certain aspects of our Lord's sacrifice and the reasons for its occurrence.

It is interesting to discover that over time no one dominant view of the Atonement has predominated. While the Early Church worked out distinct language and formulae to describe the nature of Christ and the Godhead against the onslaught of destructive heresies, and codified it in creeds which the Church still confesses, the Ancient Church did not establish one solitary view of the Atonement as the "orthodox" doctrine. Thus a plethora of 'theories' abound, some better than others, some helpful, but inadequate by themselves.

Lutherans, with the doctrine of Justification by Grace through faith as a central core of their theological orientation, would favor what could be called the Penal Substitution Theory. The idea in this theory is that Christ becomes our substitute in death, paying the price that sin has exacted on humanity through Adam. This view of the Atonement naturally involves the wrath and justice of God and how Christ satisfied this by his own sinless life and his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. This view of the Atonement is certainly not the only one used by Lutherans, but the Penal Substitution Theory, it is safe to say, predominates. It is the theological under girding of the Lutheran view of confession and absolution as an application of the Atonement to the individual.

For Christians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition the above view is avoided. Part of the discomfort here no doubt comes from a differing view of original sin, with Reformation era believers viewing original sin as disease and depravity inherited from Adam (AC, Art. II). Eastern Christians view original sin as being born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good (K. Ware).

Mark Dever, in "Nothing But the Blood" (Christianity Today, May 1, 2006), offers what I think could be a succint summary of the overall Orthodox view of the Atonement:

"The Eastern Orthodox have long accepted theosis as the main result of Christ's death. Reflecting on 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 4:13, 2 Peter 1:4, and other passages, many have suggested that God's work in us through Christ is best understood not by language of penalty, payment, ransom, and satisfaction, but by language of love, inclusion, growth, and deification."

Fr. Kallistos Ware also notes in his book The Orthodox Way: "The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification...the Incarnation...is a doctrine of sharing or participation. Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is." (97)

Part of the difference between East and West is certainly the point from which the Atonement is approached. Lutherans, admittedly, approach the Atonement with a predominant Pauline view, looking especially to his writings on the wrath of God (esp. Rom. 1) and the justification of the sinner. The Orthodox approach the matter from the Incarnation and emphasize the spiritual relationship between Christ and the believer.

One common area between the two traditions, in my view, would be the Victory Theory of the Atonement (Christus Victor). Here Christ's death and resurrection is celebrated as a victory over the power of evil and death itself.

In contemplating the differing views of the Atonement between East and West, I have come to appreciate that at least from a Lutheran perspective, it is helpful to remember that there is more than one way to approach the Atonement biblically, and as noted before, the ancient church did not codify one single view. However, recognizing the themes of sin and God's wrath and the judicial language of Paul in describing the Atonement, it is perplexing to a Lutheran why the Orthodox may appear so put off by any view of the Atonement which views Christ's death as substitutionary payment for sin. Perhaps we do not understand each other well enough in this area. Perhaps it is that we are reading the same passages differently. And perhaps there are even more complex issues left unaddressed by such a short article. I know I am still working at understanding the differences.

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