Apr 212009

About this time last year I posted some thoughts on substitutionary atonement. At the time I expressed my concern about some of the problems with it. In light of another blog discussion I ended up diving into, I reread what I’d written and realised my thoughts needed refined.

In hindsight, there have been a number of issues that have prompted me to revisit the subject and, in particular, it was a discussion about the theology of The Shack over at the Parchment and Pen Blog. But there have been other influences, not least some of the questions arising out of my dissertation and, strangely enough, about a workshop at the recent Candidates’ Conference on different expressions of spirituality.

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Mar 212008

I said I probably wouldn’t blog this one as it was my own minister, but it’s probably worth noting something in particular from his sermon. The sermon itself drew on a couple of his recent sermons in our own church on the run up to Easter, so, in a sense, there was nothing new. But I was struck by his emphasis on one aspect of the cross, or rather the cross as a means through which we are saved – soteriology, in other words. His focus was on the idea of ‘substitutionary atonement’. This was his theme last Sunday as well and I was chatting to a retired minister after the service and we got round to discussing the ins and outs of substitution.

Substitutionary atonement is just one of many models that seeks to describe how the cross brings salvation, but it’s one that I have a few issues with. These are principally ethical, by which I mean the ethics of punishing one in place of many however ‘willing’ they may be to accept that punishment. In a very real sense, having a substitute lets us off.

Soteriology is not simply about saving from, but saving to. We are not saved from punishment, rather we are saved to a right relationship with God. Most of the classic atonement models are ‘transactional’ where we are uninvolved. Everything is done by Jesus, with God. Substitution can fall into this category. It says, “we can’t do anything to get right with God, it needs someone else (Jesus) to rebuild the relationship”. That, in itself, I don’t have a problem with but all too often it stops there. Standing alone like that it reduces our role to nothing, but our role isn’t nothing. We are required to respond to the cross and whether we see atonement as substitution, moral influence, ransom or whatever, the crucial thing is that each of these demands a response from us.

To focus on one limits our ability to respond; to acknowledge the range of metaphors does justice to the breadth of God’s salvation; to demand a response should underpin all of them.