There is something both encouraging and frustrating about Paul's confidence in Romans 1:16-17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek….” The strong impression is given that we are supposed to know what the gospel is. Here is strong encouragement for the pastor, teacher, or theologian: Each can take confidence in the fact that there is indeed a core element to the Christian faith about which we need not be ashamed. And yet this assurance comes with a high degree of tension, for we are also meant to know how the gospel works. Indeed, we could say that these two verses constitute the very core of Romans and the rest is simply an unpacking of what this means and how it works!
While most of us are confident about what the content of the gospel is, with the thorny questions concerning how it works we become unglued. For at the heart of the Christian gospel is the belief that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. As such, what we believe about the gospel is driven by how it came about in the first place. Thus, if the doctrine of the Incarnation lies at the center of what our gospel is, then it is our doctrine of Atonement that lies at the center of how the gospel works.
It follows, then, that who we are and what we believe go hand in hand with our understanding of how our gospel actually works. Contrary to popular (mis)perception, there is no one doctrine of atonement in the Scriptures; rather, the language of atonement was rich and diverse. There are several images, each seeking to make sense of the one reality: the death of Jesus Christ and the God's vindication of him through resurrection. What makes each distinct are the specific questions being asked or issues being faced by the early churches. Admittedly, over time, one or two models take center stage, but what they all have in common is the desire to make the death of Christ meaningful for their various listeners.
Over time the questions changed as the gospel grew in foreign soil, requiring different models to address the issues of the day. One model took priority over all others in the West, despite an Enlightenment with its more liberal and humanistic perceptions. This was the penal substitutionary model of Anselm of Canterbury, which was further developed by John Calvin. This was a theory where sin requires punishment and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, endures such punishment for us so that we, in turn, may be free from the penalty of sin. Of importance to note here is the simple fact that Anselm sought to make the gospel credible to his contemporaries, doing so by deconstructing a previously aristocratic model of atonement, but one deemed inadequate. Its longevity reflects both its relevance to the culture around and its connection with the original events of Jesus' death.
However, this interpretation is no longer dominant in our western culture. The challenge, then, is not simply to identify an appropriate doctrine for today but also to outline how we may go about achieving Anselm's goal of making the gospel understandable, even credible, to our contemporaries. It is with the latter that we concern ourselves. Call it an introduction to Christian thinking, but the fact remains that if the questions being asked change, then the imperative is to find fresh ways of answering. Nice thought, you might say, but how do we go about it? What follows is not another how-to-in-seven-easy-steps response, but rather an attempt to identify some of the tools and skills necessary in developing a contemporary doctrine of atonement.
Step One: Identifying the Problems
The first issue is quite simple: What is the point of having a doctrine of atonement in the first place? Simply put, it is to answer an underlying problem. This, then leads us to the second question: What is the problem our doctrine of atonement seeks to solve? Of course, the answer is quite simple: sin! However, sin is a theological term that lies outside the vocabulary of most postmodern people. It has been highjacked by calorie gurus tempting us with that chocolate hot fudge sin! Yet, in atonement terms, the diagnosis will determine the solution. Thus, if sin is breaking the law, then the solution is to keep it, or at least find someone who can do so vicariously for you. If sin is ignorance or wrong thinking, then education becomes the savior: Jesus becomes a model to be followed and to follow one must be taught.
However, in this postmodern turn, when people increasingly reject many of the assumptions upon which our modern faith is built, we are forced to rethink our basic assumptions. Just what is sin? Why is it such a problem? What's all the fuss about? The exciting thing about asking these questions today is that not only are they central to the Christian story but that they are also center-stage in present culture. True, people are not using the “S-word,” but the issues are the same. And what are they? They have to do with the “R-factor.” Our contemporaries are seeking relationship—connection—in multiple forms. It is they who understand that the problem is not something they do, but something they are: It is a relational thing. Put bluntly, sin is relational dysfunction. The good news today is that we are rediscovering the meaning of life to be indeed relational. And this is what Moses (Deuteronomy 6), Jesus (Mark 12), and Paul (Galatians 5) all affirm. Human beings find fulfillment to the degree they love God with the entirety of their being, and love their neighbor in the same way as they love themselves. In an increasingly therapeutic culture, this understanding of the primary and biblical nature of sin opens up huge vistas of opportunity. It makes sense of the human condition. As such, then, the gospel becomes relevant because it scratches at the relational itch, an itch for which so many people seek therapeutic counseling in the hope of salvation.
From the “what” of the atonement, we can move to the “how.” If the problem we identify as sin is relational malfunction, then there is an imperative to show how Christ's death resolves it. Here Scripture serves us well. Put simply, the problem is identified through the lens of our doctrine of creation and subsequent covenant with Israel. These perspectives provide both the grammar and the boundaries of our story. Human beings exist for explicitly relational reasons, and have been called into relationship with the living God. Thus, what we believe about God's relation to creation matters because it informs the very fabric of the Christian story. Why? Because whatever God does in Christ, God does in order to restore what has been lost and to put it in order. And it is our understanding of what creation was created to be that sheds light on the meaning of Jesus' death. Again, here we confront a postmodern condition: the need for authentic relationship with self (thus meeting the criterion of personal fulfillment), with neighbor (meeting the criterion of constructing an ethic for a global village: the farmer in Burkina Faso is as much my neighbor as the person next door) and God (finding the meaning of life).
Step Two: The “Where”
The final tool required for communicating the doctrine of atonement to a postmodern audience is to recognize the context into which our doctrine of atonement is going to be addressed. The first is an internal church issue: As the culture changes, there will be seismic implications within the church. Thus, it is necessary to recognize that the outgoing model of atonement (namely, a sub-stitutionary view) holds significant importance for many people within the church. Therefore, any shift from this to another requires careful strategizing. Again, the postmodern context helpfully allows us to talk about different perspectives and thus regain the biblical horizon of several models of atonement without falling into relativism.
Second, there is an external context that demands engagement, namely, what takes place outside the church. Our gospel will not make sense to the listeners if it does not connect with their humanity, if it does not scratch their itches. Whereas the modern itch was explicitly rationalistic and individualistic, the postmodern equivalent is located elsewhere. Are you up to speed with what is going on “out there"? Would you be able to engage with the unchurched on their terms as Paul does in the Areopagus, or Jesus did in the village square or hillside? How many magazines do you read solely with the purpose of being able to size up today's 30-somethings or 10-year-olds? Would you be able to hold down a conversation with a postmodern agnostic who quietly aches for intimacy and a sense of location without turning her off? How many publicans, prostitutes, and sinners do you hang out with in an average week? (Jesus certainly associated with too many according to the Pharisees.)
Step Three: The Solution
Perhaps Paul's confidence is not so infuriating after all. In order to be an effective communicator, certain givens have to be in place. We are not called to regurgitate a first-century doctrine of atonement. After all, how many people go up to the local temple to sacrifice a goat? Yet, the same methodological principles remain. We must identify what the problem is that we are trying to solve in the first place; we must do so with a lucid understanding of creation and how God relates to it; we need to know our story (hopefully by living in it and touching base with its handbook); and we need to be able to identify contemporary manifestations of the malaise in order to target them. After all, Jesus simply went for a drink of water and someone spilled her beans. That's what he died for—to give water (not beans). Our challenge is to do likewise.
Graham McFarlane is Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology and Assistant Director of Research at the London School of Theology. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider.