Let’s walk through the main elements of our reading and I will pose some questions at the end. Think of the questions as catalysts for thought. Reply to any or all of them if you wish, or open up an entirely new thread of discussion. Here we go.
Behind Schmiechen’s aim in writing this book lies a problem he identifies early on: “If one cannot find a way to confess the saving power of the cross, then Jesus becomes irrelevant and the church has no good news” (1). He adds later,
“At the heart of the churches’ struggle to find their identity and mission are the Christological questions posed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When ordained and lay leaders are not clear about atonement, there can be no confidence regarding vocation, ministry, or the future of the church” (345).
Toward enabling the church to more clearly articulate the saving power of God Schmiechen provides values and criteria with which to evaluate and utilize not one but multiple theories of the atonement. For those of us whose theological gears have been milled on the penal substitution theory, we may find ourselves most comfortable with that view and without knowing it we may suppose it is the only valid way of witnessing to the atonement. In the faith statements of many Protestant Evangelical churches and institutions in America, you will find substitutionary language related to the work of Christ. Schmiechen is keen to push segments of the church that have dedicated themselves to one view (or “limited” depending on your perspective) to broaden their language and theology in order to proclaim the multiple theories of the atonement: “The church, as well as the spiritual life of individuals, needs this variety in order to comprehend fully the nature of sin and grace” (340).
In order to evaluate the atonement theories we find in the New Testament and in the tradition, Schmiechen identifies three values that should guide us as we take stock of the various theories:
1. Symbolic Value – An atonement theory should employ an image in order to symbolize something about Jesus that connects saving power with some form of human need. Images might be metaphors (Lamb, Bread, Vine, Shepherd) or a title (Lord, Word, Suffering Servant) or a proper noun (Teacher) a word describing some thing or event in Jesus’ history (cross) or a phrase (“Jesus died for us”) (5).
2. Theological Value – A theory must connect Jesus with God and appeal to central affirmations about God as well as interpret the agency of God in the story of Jesus. (6)
3. Contextual/Evangelical Value – Atonement theories carry the burden of connecting Jesus’ story with believers in new times and places – identifying needs in unique contexts and portraying the saving power of Jesus in new ways. It must name elements in the human condition that signify our fallenness in relation to the saving power of Christ. Put simply, ” The evangelical value requires that the gospel proclaimed be faithful as well as relevant” (8).
Finally, and most importantly it seems to me, Schmiechen offers five criteria for evaluating both the form and substance of different atonement theories and the use of those theories in the proclamation of God’s saving power. All five criteria incorporate the symbolic, evangelical, and theological values previously stated at the beginning of the book. Thus, these five criteria function both as “essential components” of atonement theology, serving a normative role, and also as evaluative tools. For those of you in my class this summer, you will remember the question I asked at the end of our discussion of atonement: What are the essentials of our atonement theology? At the time, I was working from a “theological hunch” that the diversity of material in the Biblical witness should move us toward a synthesis of atonement essentials rather than fighting over which theory is “most true.” Having now read Saving Power, I wish I could have used it for our discussion in class to give us a framework for that process of identifying essentials while not sacrificing coherency.
1. From Image to Theory – An atonement theory must be able to develop a particular image into a comprehensive interpretation of Jesus Christ. The image must correlate a specific problem (guilt, bondage, sickness, etc…) with God’s saving power (sacrifice, liberation, healing, etc…) and do so in a manner that demonstrates precision in language.
2. God’s Opposition to Sin, Death, and Demonic Powers – In light of the great struggle described throughout the Bible – the tension between a holy God and sin, Satan, demonic powers, and death – an atonement theory must show the correlation between the problem and God’s saving power. In other words: In light of the problem what does God do about it. Perhaps a critical thing to note here is Schmiechen’s worry about any theology that looks to human capacity to save over against God’s power to save. Notice:
“To the extent that sin, demonic powers, or death as a tyrant are non-existent, then there really is no need for atonement. The same conclusion may be reached if the problems are resolved by human agency or mind or will” (319).
3. The Purposes of God – Against a theology in which the only two characters of the story are God and the individual, an atonement theory must witness to the purposes of God in the entire creation: “Human needs and interests are relevant but are not the only issue and certainly not the ultimate issue” (333). Clearly Schmiechen has segments of the American church square in his sights for he explicitly refers to the “egocentric perspective of American religion.”
4. Persons in Community – Atonement must be proclaimed in the context of and toward the end of community in Christ. “The greatest American heresy is that one can be Christian without belonging to a community of believers bound by Christ” (335).
5. God’s Initiative – Theories must be assessed by their ability to affirm God as the primary subject, rather than the object. This means the rejection of any theory in which God is made the object of action by Jesus Christ or humanity in general.
Question 1: Do you agree that the church needs all the theories of the atonement in order to proclaim the cross effectively? Why or why not? Should a church or institution witness to God’s saving power without committing themselves wholly to one view? Is that possible?
Question 2: To which of these criteria do you find yourself most drawn? Why? Or, which of the above criteria do you think is most relevant for your setting?
Question 3: Related to #2, what does this criteria offer us as we evaluate atonement theories and what worries does it address? How might this particular criteria speak to the current cultural setting in which we witness to God’s saving power in America?
Question 4: Related to #3, has this vision for the atonement been a part of your experience either in your faith formation or in your theological education? If not, why do you think that is the case? What might it look like for that to change?
Question 5: As we think about ministry, this is an issue in which our theology and ministry are intimately connected. Every time we talk about the cross, whether consciously or unconsciously we use language that trades on certain images or that gives prominence to certain themes. What would it look like for our witness to the Cross to be more multiform, drawing on multiple images of atonement? Since we cannot make use of every theory in every opportunity we have to witness, preach, or teach how do we go about choosing which image/theory is best for a particular occasion (assuming we are not teaching from a text that uses certain images)? Perhaps even more messy, if we believe one image/theory is deficient in witnessing to God’s saving power how do we deal with those concerns in ministry settings when that theory is being used?