Some Modest Thoughts on the Atonement


The doctrine of the Atonement, that is, the doctrine of how exactly it is that Christ has reconciled us to God, is a matter of much discussion. For some, particularly among conservative Protestants, the Atonement is defined by the model of the penal substitution (Christ bore the wrath of the Father that we deserved and thus made propitiation for us). Some have rejected this model as either bound too strongly to a model of God’s wrath and justice that cannot be supported by the Fathers or Scripture. There are other models of the atonement (I think particularly of the three different models that Gustav Aulen described in his magisterial work Christus Victor). There is some excellent work being done today that examines again the model(s) of the atonement found in Scripture (here I think primarily of Finlan’s Problems with Atonement) and offers the observation that there are a fair variety of images used but still looks primarily at the image of union with Christ.

What I offer today is something far more modest, to say the least. And it is in saying the least that I find the greatest hope in discussions of the atonement.

Though there are early discussions of the atonement, none are particularly conclusive. None of the early councils of the Church focused on this as a matter of critical debate. The various anaphora of the Church (the prayers of the Eucharist) all offered language that described the atonement, but even there some variety can be found (even in a single anaphora).

Though the Nicene Creed was not placed in its final form until 381 (not including later Western changes that carry no weight in the East) it nevertheless represents one of the earliest statements of faith of the Church. Indeed, I would argue (and I’m not alone in this) that Creedal statements (what St. Irenaeus would call the hypothesis of Scripture) predate the Scriptures themselves. Had not such hypostheses existed, Scripture could not have been written in a manner that agreed with itself.

We can find early evidences of such stated hypotheses in places such as St. Paul’s 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (3-5).

Here St. Paul uses the very specific language of Tradition. “I delivered,” (literally “I traditioned”) “what I received” (what had been traditioned to him). What follows is clearly some echo of the Baptismal Creeds that were part of the Church’s life from its beginning. These statements of the faith represented the Apostolic hypothesis, the summary of the faith, the scaffolding on which all Christian thought would be erected.

In the Nicene Creed we have a very short summary of the ministry of Christ:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man. And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried. And the third day rose again in accordance with the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Please forgive the elipsis, I do not mean to treat that statement of the Creed with any less importance – but my focus here is on atonement. My modest suggestion is that the Creed in no way ignores atonement, but simply offers this short summary of the economy of our salvation as the very hypothesis by which we are to approach Scripture and its interpretation.

Thus, all that Christ did, from the incarnation to His ascension and judgement itself, is “for us men and for our salvation.” God has not acted in any way other than for our salvation.

Is this asking us to say too little? Should the details of the atonement be described more fully?

There are numerous models to be found in Scripture. Indeed, Finlan notes that sometimes St. Paul will include more than one model in a single sentence. But all of them are in agreement with the hypothesis we hear in the Creed. Why should more be required?

More may be said, if it agrees with the Creed and if it does no damage to the hypothesis offered there, but none can be enshrined as “the doctrine of the atonement.” Such a modest proposal as mine leaves us free to discuss “problems with atonement” and to see strengths and weaknesses of various images, from the point of view of the Apostolic hypothesis.

The Church’s use of councils through the centuries has ever been only to defend the understanding of salvation as given us in the Apostolic teaching. The use of councils to multiply doctrines where no need exists is an abuse of our conciliar life. Councils should be seen as “necessities” but only for purposes of crisis and where the understanding of our salvation is endangered. Thus the Eastern Church has relatively few Councils.

We do better to pray than to argue doctrine unless the latter is of utter necessity. For many, it has become something of a parlor game, and this has been to the detriment of Christianity and even of our salvation. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes less is enough. This is my modest proposal.


  1. says

    Councils were held to settle doctrinal disputes when something was clearly wrong. There was no need for closer definition until someone questioned what was generally accepted, as Arius did. The “hypothesis” or “rule of faith” was enough.

    The problem with the Western atonement theory propagated by Anselm was that his work was published after the Great Schism, and therefore did not really impinge on the Eastern consciousness. It was not even on the agenda of meetings held to try to heal the schism, but it also made attempts to heal the schism more difficult, because it moved the sides further apart without their even realising it. It gave rise to a different mentality in the West so that the common ground gradually shrank.

    My own simplistic way of describing this is to say that Western theology tended to see sin and evil primarily as something God punishes us for, while the East saw and sees sin and evil primarily as something God rescues us from.

    Aulen picked this up, of course, and perhaps it was he who drew the discrepancy or the gap to the attention of Western theologians, but Western theology is dominated by the satisfaction model,