I was thinking a bit more about Clark Williamson’s question whether Jesus “constitutes” our reconciliation with God “such that we cannot be reconciled to God without him” or “disclose[s] to us that we have always been reconciled to God.” And I wonder whether there might not be some convergence of positions here, at least at the practical level. My reasoning has to do with the scope of Christ’s saving work. A question often asked of satisfaction-type theories where Jesus has to die in order for God to forgive us or to restore our relationship with God is: What happens to people who lived before Christ? Was God unwilling to forgive sins prior to the death of Jesus? And the best answer to this is that Christ’s work has effects that, in some way, apply to those who lived before this work was accomplished. Its scope is not bound by time or space. (If I recall correctly, Anselm makes a move like this with respect to Mary.)
But how, practically speaking, does this differ from saying that God was always willing to forgive and that the Incarnation is the decisive historical manifestation of that forgiving, reconciling love? In both cases, God’s steadfast love is the cause of the Incarnation, and its effects transcend its particular historical manifestation. Which is not to say that the history is unimportant or unnecessary: how would we know what God was like unless it was revealed to us? But once you stop thinking that there was some time before which God wouldn’t or couldn’t forgive sin and that his forgiveness had to be secured by means of some transaction, the differences between the various atonement theories start to seem less significant.