Peter Schmiechen makes a straight-forward claim in his final chapter of Saving Power: “theories of the atonement do in fact inspire particular forms of the church” (354). In other words, what a particular church believes about the nature of the atonement, and which language it uses to witness to it, influences the way that church does life together and lives for the world around her.
The connection between the two, atonement theology and church life, is formed by the way in which one understands “what God in Christ does and how the benefits of this event are transmitted to us” (355). Because most people think of atonement theories as only dealing with what Christ has done, how the benefits of God’s saving power are communicated to believers is neglected. Theories remain abstract without considering their impact on church life and mission.
Schmiechen points out 6 modes of transmission (356-57) and contends that each atonement theory contains implicit or explicit references to a particular mode of transmission. You might say (my words, not Schmiechen’s) that the DNA of transmission is included in the atonement theory itself. Schmiechen believes the adoption of one theory over another hinges on whether a given community places more emphasis on justification (grace) or sanctification (power). In other words, some theories rely more on the affirmation of justifying grace as the sole basis for acceptance (e.g. penal substitution) and others more on sanctifying power that gives rebirth and draws them into a life of holiness (e.g. liberation). He explains that,
No matter what theory one advocates, it if is cast in the language of grace (justification), then the basis for the church will be seen in terms of the Word of promise and sacraments; but if the language of power (sanctification) is the basic vocabulary for interpreting the cross, then the church will be based on some combination of faith and practice (362).
To see how this plays out, look at the 6 modes of transmission for saving power in the church, divide them by the justification/sanctification rubric Schmiechen provides, and note what receives emphasis.
[Justification/grace] Sacramental participation in Christ – Emphasis on Baptism and the Eucharist.
[Justification/grace] Faith as trust of the heart in response to the grace of God in Christ – Emphasis on faith decision.
[Sanctification/power] Rebirth by the Spirit – Emphasis on living the new life by the Spirit.
[Sanctification/power] Participation in the new community by Christ – Emphasis on participation in the work and witness of the new community.
[Sanctification/power] Acts of love and justice – Emphasis on engaging in works of love and justice.
[Sanctification/power] Solidarity with Christ, who suffers with the oppressed – Emphasis on participation with Christ in the suffering of the oppressed.
So, what does all this mean?
If this is the case, that atonement theories directly impact forms of the church, then Schmiechen’s case is all the stronger that the church must witness to God’s saving power with a multiform and multidimensional message. The church’s proclamation of the cross must use the language of more than one theory of atonement. I tend to agree.
Also, I wonder if this doesn’t shed a different light on why certain groups within contemporary Evangelicalism, both in N. American and Britain, are rejecting the penal substitution theory in favor or other models such as Christus Victor. I recognize that multiple factors at are at work here, but could another factor be that theories such as Christus Victor carry within them the implicit reference to action, mission, liberation, and solidarity about which groups such as the Emergent Church are so passionate (and rightly so)? And that the penal substitution theory places more emphasis on the faith decision and is therefore less able to motivate mission? Unfortunately, I don’t hear anyone talking about this in the current atonement debates. Perhaps, if we take Schmiechen’s argument to heart, we could embrace a more multiform witness to the atonement without simply discarding certain theories because we find them ill-equipped to motivate mission (or less palpable to modern sensibilities)?
Questions: (1) What is the primary theory of the atonement used in your church community? (2) Do you believe this theory influences church life (community practices, mission, etc…)? How? (3) Do you find yourself drawn to certain theories because of what they say about the atonement or because of their implications for church life?