Gospel as Atonement Theory

In a characteristically pithy essay, Robert Jenson has decried the “two paired errors” of traditional atonement theory. On the one hand, the cross is separated “from its future, in the resurrection” and, on the other, from “its past in the canonical history of Israel.” For the apostles, crucifixion is “anything but beneficial” without resurrection, while for Anselm “God and humanity are reconciled when Jesus dies, and the Resurrection tidies up.” Ignoring Israel’s history leaves the impression that “the Creator could just as well have sent his Son to reunite humanity with himself . . . without having done any of the works described in the Old Testament after the first chapter of Genesis.” Abraham, Exodus, exile and return have retained some role in the preaching and liturgical celebration of the cross, but, Jenson points out, “many powerful systems” of theology “make no use of the Old Testament except as witness to Creation and sin and as religious background for Jesus.”[1]

To those complaints I add a third that Jenson mentions but does not develop: Jesus’ death is often isolated from the life that precedes it. As with Jenson, my complaint is not about theologians who deny that Jesus lived the life depicted in the gospels; they have their reward. My complaint is against theologians for whom Jesus’ career has a minimal role in explaining how he achieves salvation. Michael Root has argued that the soteriological task is always “creation of a new version of the story” or “narrative redescription or augmentation,”[2] but the question is always: What story is being redescribed and augmented? My question can be put this way: Do traditional atonement theories work if Jesus had not been a prophet, an itinerant rabbi, healer and exorcist who collected and commissioned disciples, who disputed with and enraged scribes and Pharisees in Galilee and Jerusalem, who ate and drank with sinners and befriended outcasts? Would the gears of traditional atonement theories mesh smoothly if Jesus had remained a sinless carpenter in Nazareth until His arrest, trial, and death?

For some classic theories, the answer appears to be Yes. Anselm makes passing reference to the “works, so many and so great” that Jesus performs, which testify to his majesty (II.13). He describes Jesus as a teacher who taught sinners how to live by His word and example (II.11). These references to the life of Jesus provide proof of the fittingness of the incarnation, but are not integral to Anselm’s understanding of the cross.[3] Jesus must live a life of free obedience in order to present the Father the infinite gift that exceeds every debt (in David Hart’s lovely phrase), but the specific shape of that life never comes into focus.[4]

Calvin thinks the Apostles’ Creed is right to move from Jesus’ birth to His death and resurrection because “Scripture ascribes [salvation] as peculiar and proper to Christ’s death.” Calvin insists that the cross is useless apart from the life of obedience. Christ “abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us” through “the whole course of his obedience.” Citing Romans 5, Calvin says that Jesus obeys to “pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us” (Institutes 2.16.5). By “obedience,” Calvin appears to mean conformity to the moral law of God. Could Jesus have been an obedient plumber and accomplished the same? One expects Calvin’s discussion of the threefold office to help answer this question, but Calvin’s treatment of prophet, priest, and king is largely tropological. Jesus’ prophetic office, for instance, is important because He shares His anointing with the whole of his body, “that the power of the Spirit might be present in the continuing preaching of the gospel” (Institutes 2.15.2). Jesus’ life as a prophet is not clearly linked to Calvin’s understanding of His death.

Thomas analyzes the Passion and death of Jesus after a long series of questions about episodes from his life. He recognizes that Christ’s works are themselves saving, since He delivers the demon-possessed and works “miracles for the good of man and principally as to the salvation of his soul” (ST III, 44, 1). Yet many of Thomas’s observations on Jesus’ life tend toward the tropological. Jesus’ was tempted to “strengthen us against temptations” and to give us an example of “how to overcome the devil” (ST III, 41, 1). Or the events of Jesus’ life prove his divinity. Miracles confirm His teaching and make God’s presence manifest (ST III, 43, 1), thus providing a “sufficient proof of His Godhead” (ST III, 43, 4). When Thomas turns to the Passion itself, he remains a theological commentator, asking about the suitability of the time and place of Jesus’ death, the fittingness of His death between thieves, as well as the depth of His sufferings. Some of Thomas’s answers are little more than edifying typologies and tropologies, but the attentiveness to the specifics of the crucifixion strikingly contrasts to the more abstracted treatment in Anselm. When he addresses theoretical questions – questions about the necessity, effect, and mechanics of the atonement – he does not lose track of the evangelical history. “Did Jesus slay Himself or was He slain by others?” is the first article of question 47; Thomas answers by distinguishing between direct and indirect causation, concluding that “Christ’s persecutors slew Him because they inflicted on Him what was a sufficient cause of death,” and yet Jesus also lay down His own life because He did not prevent them from killing Him, which he had power to do (ST III, 47, 1). Thomas fares best of the three, but it is still not clear why Jesus’ life had to take the form it did.

To use language that may be somewhat anachronistic, Jesus’ life is treated under the rubric of Christology, the cross in the loci of Soteriology. In modern theology, the situation is worse, as theologians leave the texts recording the history of Israel and the life of Jesus to historical critics and have to make do with whatever scraps of history and tradition are left as residue.

To clarify before moving on: I am not attacking atonement theory. To be sure, the church survived and flourished for many centuries on a steady diet of the kind of atonement theology that Anselm described as “pictorial representation,” which Anselm thought unbelievers regarded as nothing more than “painting on a cloud” (I.4). Schleiermacher seems to have introduced the phrase “atonement theory,” and Harnack was one among the first to describe “models” of atonement. Yet long before the nineteenth century and far from German universities, theologians felt a need to explain the divine rationale of the cross. Atonement theory might be dismissed as an effort to subject the saving work of God to theoretical reason, to rationalize the mystery, but it is hard to fault the project. Our message of human and cosmic salvation is so strange, so unexpected, that it demands explanation. Its very folly, not to mention the challenges of cultured Hellenists and post-Kantians, forces us to ask why God chose to do as He did. A “theory” is needed not mainly, as Harnack thought, to explain the “necessity” of the cross. It is needed to explain the how, “mechanism” of the atonement, and that is needed to show how the cross can be a plausible or convincing account of how God heals what Paul Griffiths hauntingly describes as “the Devastation.” Atonement theory seeks to explain how the blatant injustice of Jesus’ death can be a divine act of salvation.

Yet, as Jenson says, after they disembed the cross from the history of Israel and Jesus, even the best theologians are compelled “to find some other framework that can make sense of the cross.”[5] All atonement theories must harmonize divine and human intentions, but those “other frameworks” inevitably skim lightly over the psycho-historical dynamics of the dramatis personae to tease out a narrative logic that may work at a different level altogether (cf. Anselm’s concern for filling in missing angels). If I may channel Jenson for one moment longer: If Israel’s history identifies the living God, then atonement theory that ignores that history does not quite know what God is at work in the cross. Theologians wheel out what Jenson calls “unbaptized” theology, ill-fitting clothing for a crucified God. Finally, detached from Israel and the life of Jesus, atonement theory cannot make good on de Lubac’s claim (which, given time limitations, I must simply assert) that “Judaism passed on to Christianity its concept of salvation as essentially social.”[6] Successful atonement theory must explain how the church is the telos of Jesus’ work; it must also recognize that the church is on the stage during the accomplishment of atonement.[7]

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This is the introduction to a paper delivered at the Wilken Colloquium, Baylor University, March 26, 2016.


[1] Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014) 128-31.

[2] Michael Root, “The Narrative Structure of Soteriology,” Modern Theology 2:2 (1986).

[3] The paragraph where Anselm describes Jesus as a teacher begins with the claim that there are “many other reasons  . . . why it will be extremely appropriate for him to bear a resemblance to mankind and have the behavior belonging to mankind” (I.11). The works of Jesus require that Jesus be omniscient and all-wise, but the argument is about omniscience, not about the soteriological role of Jesus’ works. Katherine Sonderegger (“Anselm, Defensor Fidei,” IJST 9:3 [2007] 352-3) cites these passages to argue that “Anselm deftly ties Christ’s omniscience to his life of prayer, exorcism and healing” and thus stresses the “importance of Jesus’ exemplary life.” This overstates the role of the life of Jesus in the treatise, partly because of a misleading translation. Sonderegger cites Anselm’s comment that it was “necessary and wise . . . for him who was to redeem mankind, and lead them back by his teaching from the way of death and destruction into the path of life and eternal happiness . . . to set an example himself of the way in which they ought to live.” By itself, this suggests an “exemplary” notion of atonement, and it makes the teaching of Jesus instrumental to His redeeming work. The Latin is must less precise about the relationship between teaching and Jesus’ redemptive work: ille qui homines erat redempturus et de via mortis et perditionies ad viam witae et beatitudinies aeternae docendo reducturus. Docendo might simply be taken, as it is in some translations, as incidental: He lives in company with human beings and “while he was teaching them verbally how they should live.”

[4] Harnack’s judgment is too severe, but not entirely without justice: “perhaps no one can frame a better [theory], who isolates the death of Christ from His Life, and wishes to see in this death something else than the consummation of the ‘service’ which He rendered throughout His life” (History of Dogma, Vol. VI [trans. Neil Buchanan; Grand Rapids: CCEL] 70).

[5] Revisionary Metaphysics, 131.

[6] Catholicism, 23.

[7] This is not an immanentization or secularization of the cross. Immanentization is objectively in a world created and sustained by the Triune God who is always the chief dramatis persona: Nothing operates by merely immanent cause and effect. We may believe otherwise, but that is forgetfulness at best, idolatry at worst.