The trouble with atonement

I’ve been helping to lead an adult Sunday School class at our church using a video series for “progressive” Christians. I have some problems with the theological positions taken by the series and the way they’re presented, but it at least stimulates discussion.

The segment we watched today was about violence and its relation to theories of Christ’s atonement. This is something that really seems to perplex people in our group, but I wasn’t particularly happy with the way the video present the issue. It contrasted the (bad) satisfaction, ransom, and substitution theories with the (good) moral exemplar theory. As I tried to point out, though, the moral exemplar theory doesn’t really explain how human beings can change. After all, we hardly lack inspiring moral role models.

The claim of Christianity has always been that in the death and resurrection of Jesus God does something that changes our fundamental situation and makes new ways of living possible. I don’t think a moral exemplar theory–at least as it’s usually presented–adequately accounts for that. And pushing it as the alternative to the supposedly bad satisfaction/substitution/ransom theories (which I agree have problems) strikes me as another case of self-styled progressive Christianity’s failure to adequately grapple with the tradition.

I talked to our pastor about it a bit after church, and he recommended S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice, which outlines a theory of atonement based on the work of Rene Girard. I’d been meaning to read this for a while, and we discussed the possibility of doing a group study of the book at some point in the future. I think a lot of people who reflect on it are unhappy with traditional presentations of atonement, but sense that there is still something important there which shouldn’t just be tossed out or replaced with a simplistic moralism.

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3 thoughts on “The trouble with atonement

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