James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy [Editors]. 2006. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Renewed interest in the atonement of Christ arises today partly because it has become so common to meet “atonement deniers” in the church today. Atonement deniers refuse to talk about sin believing that we are basically good and have no need for Christ’s death on the cross to mitigate that sin. Already in 1937, Richard Niebuhr observed this problem:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.”
No cross, no resurrection. Jesus cannot have been divine and his claim on our lives is merely nice to know. Christmas morphs from the birth of Christ into winter solstice; Lent morphs from a season of reflection on sin into a season of self-help followed by spring break. So exactly what was the work of Christ if not to die for our sins, as reported throughout the New Testament? (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3) Was the atonement “cosmic child abuse,” as some feminists have alleged? (10)
The authors of The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views work to explain the atonement rather than to justify it. The four views are:
Christus Victor view (Gregory A Boyd)
Penal Substitution view (Thomas R. Scheiner)
Healing view (Bruce R. Reichenbach) and
Kaleidoscopic view (Joel B. Green).
Each of the views has its champion who describes the view and rebuts alternative views in the style of statement and response drawn from philosophy. The first three of these views argue that they have priority over the others, while the fourth argues against any such priority (21).
The editors, James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, teach theology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota and write the introduction. They define atonement as a uniquely English theological term meaning: “a reconciled state of ‘at-one-ness’ between parties formerly alienated in some manner.” (9)
Christus Victor View
The Christus Victor view asserts that spiritual warfare is the common thread running through scripture. In Jesus Christ, God broke into history to destroy the power of Satan that has kept us in bondage to sin and restored humanity into their rightful position of guardians of the earth (27-29). In this context, sin is both an individual behavior and a communal problem, which suggests why the power of sin cannot be broken without divine intervention. If evil is embedded in folkways and cultural institutions, then individual choices cannot bring full forgiveness, restauration, and healing.
This view has priority over the others because it ties together all strands of scripture and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry work together to break the powers of the destructive systems and evil forces of Satan. Once Satan is defeated, the kingdom of God is established once again on earth (39-40). This is why the Christus Victor view has been the dominant view throughout the history of the church (46).
While some ask how a loving God could not just forgive us all. The response is that God could, but Satan, the accuser, would not allow it. This is why Satan must first be overthrown in order for God to allow forgiveness through Jesus Christ (103).
Penal Substitution View
Penal Substitution view starts with an observation:
“Our fundamental problem as human beings is not that outside powers victimize us. The root problem is that we ourselves are radically evil and we are wrongly related to God himself.” (68)
This view has priority among evangelicals today because the root cause of the problem is not that Satan has enslaved us, but the we ourselves are flawed—bad seed. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23 ESV). This view is accordingly easier for modern people to accept, in part, because they want to be in control, as with original sin. Still, you do not need to believe in God to understand that even Mayberry has a problem.
The Healing view begins with the idea that salvation is effectively the healing of the sickness brought about by sin—the wages of sin are death (Rom 6:23). We read:
“Both Isaiah 53 and Romans 8:3 make a symbolic connection of Christ’s atonement with Israel’s national atonement ritual (Lev 16). The sacrifice had two steps. One was the slaughter of animals for the sin offering; the other was the release of the sin-laden goat into the wilderness. The first brings atonement through suffering and death; the blood symbolically purifies the community, consecrating it from its state of uncleanness. The second symbolically bears the sins of the community away from the community.” (136)
Of course, Jesus in his healing ministry often started by telling those being healed that their sins had been forgiven. We read:
“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Rise, take up your bed and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”– he said to the paralytic—I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” (Mark. 2:9-11 ESV)
The priority of healing is hinted at by the etymology of the word, salvation, which in the Greek is associated with medicine (152).
The Kaleidoscopic view begins by asking why we assume that Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection should have only a single meaning. If his life touched on many social, political, and religious currents, then the meaning of his death must also have a more nuanced meaning (163). This is perhaps why the confessions of the church do not highlight only one meaning of the atonement.
The authors of The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views parse four views of the atonement: the Christus Victor view, the Penal Substitution view, the Healing, and the Kaleidoscopic view. Each view is presented and contrasted with the other views. I learned a great deal from this discussion; perhaps, you will too.
Richard Niebuhr. 1937.The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
Dive Deep into the Atonement
Other ways to engage online: