Some Modest Thoughts on the Atonement
- By Fr. Stephen Freeman
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
*). 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
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
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.
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