Models of the Atonement
I remember a conversation which I had at the University of Cambridge, about 30 years ago. I was a student of physics, and I was talking to a friend who was studying theology, and was like me an evangelical Christian; his background was more "Reformed" than mine.
I explained to my friend how in physics there were many things, such as the nature of light, which could not be understood directly but which were studied by means of models. For centuries there was debate over whether light was made up of waves or of particles. It is now understood that light is in itself neither one nor the other, but something more complex which goes beyond direct human understanding. For some purposes it is helpful to use the model that light is waves, and for other purposes the model that it is particles. But neither model can explain everything about light; each model is useful within a certain field but becomes misleading if pressed to logical conclusions outside that field.
I suggested to my theological friend, in the context of a debate on some theological issue, that we should not expect to be able to understand it fully, because it is too deep for human understanding, but we should look at it through models, in the sense used in physics. I remember my friend suddenly catching on to what I was talking about and realising its significance for his own studies.
My friend later became a professor of theology, indeed for a time he held a highly prestigious chairs in theology at a very well known university. He has been described, admittedly by his publisher, as
one of Britain’s finest systematic theologians and teachers of dogmatics.I hope that the insight I gave him about models helped him to attain such distinction. But I mention this not to boast or drop names (in fact I am deliberately withholding his name!) but because it seems to me that other "Reformed" Christians also need to understand models. Read on...
The Atonement, the way in which God dealt with the problem of sin through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, is the great and central mystery of the Christian faith. As mortal and sinful humans we cannot hope to understand it completely. Nevertheless, from what has been revealed in the Bible and with the help of our God-given human reason, we can get some way towards understanding it. And to use the language of physics, we do that by using models. The Bible provides us with the starting material for these models.
Theologians have put forward at least four major theories of the Atonement (see this Wikipedia article, which is convenient although not necessarily reliable): "Christus Victor"; satisfaction or substitutionary; moral influence; and governmental. Each of these has various flavours. And there is some support for each in the Bible. The "Christus Victor" theory was favoured by the early church, and has also had modern proponents (and I rather lean towards it). But the satisfaction theory has been dominant in western theology since the 11th century.
As careful theologians have long realised, no one of these theories fully encapsulates the truth about the work of Christ. Each of them, if pushed to their logical conclusion as if they were literal descriptions of what happened, ends up in conflict with the Bible - just as treating light simply as a particle, or simply as a wave, ends up in conflict with observations. It is impossible to get around this completely by adjusting the description; instead one is forced to realise that the description is only a model, and not a literal description of the truth.
The problem comes when some theologians and Bible scholars try to insist that their favoured view of the Atonement is not just a model but literally and objectively true. Among those who have been guilty of this are many in the "Reformed" tradition. For example, according to Adrian Warnock, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his book Great Doctrines of the Bible, discussed and rejected "false theories of the atonement". As I don't have this book I can't be sure which theories the Doctor was so confidently rejecting and on what basis. But he should be very careful about claiming that such theories as "Christus Victor" are objectively false. No doubt he can find Bible verses which don't entirely support "Christus Victor", but in response others can find for him Bible verses which don't support his own favoured substitutionary theory. For it it seems that if any one of the theories of the Atonement is pressed beyond the biblical evidence to its logical conclusion, it leads to absurdity.
This is what we have seen in the recent debate over whether God killed Jesus. Careful and well-trained theologians have agonised over theories of the Atonement. Those in the "Reformed" tradition have been especially attached to the substitutionary theory. But the best of them have realised that this is only a human model and approximation of a divine truth which is beyond human comprehension. As a result they have been careful with their statements, avoiding pushing the model to logical conclusions beyond the limits of what is clearly supported in the Bible. The unfortunate problem is when less careful students of the Bible, or students of "Reformed" writings, treat descriptions of models as if they were literal truth, go beyond what is written in the books they are studying, and start to teach things which clearly cannot be the truth about our just and loving God. This becomes an especially serious problem when in the process they manage to confuse outsiders into thinking that their repulsive teachings are the true Christian message.
"Do not go beyond what is written" (1 Corinthians 4:6 TNIV).