(Saving Power, Ch. 12) How does atonement theology influence the forms of the Church?

steeple_cropped.jpgPeter 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.

  1. [Justification/grace] Sacramental participation in Christ – Emphasis on Baptism and the Eucharist.
  2. [Justification/grace] Faith as trust of the heart in response to the grace of God in Christ – Emphasis on faith decision.
  3. [Sanctification/power] Rebirth by the Spirit – Emphasis on living the new life by the Spirit.
  4. [Sanctification/power] Participation in the new community by Christ – Emphasis on participation in the work and witness of the new community.
  5. [Sanctification/power] Acts of love and justice – Emphasis on engaging in works of love and justice.
  6. [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?

15 thoughts on “(Saving Power, Ch. 12) How does atonement theology influence the forms of the Church?

  1. This is a very challenging chapter as described by Kent. The break point of the Christian Faith has always been the missional passion of its people. Belief is easy, action has always been difficult. Belief is personal, whereas action requires engagement of others. Maybe it is a direct result of the bondage that the Reformation wrought in protestants to champion justification above all else. Anti-Nomialism (sp.?) is just as alive today as it was 300 years ago. To most reformed churches (of which I claim a certain theological heritage) sanctification theology is scary and dangerous. I will admit that my justification theology is much more succinct and developed than my sanctification theology, much to my discredit.

    I think that most of us would agree that the majority of church parishioners today act without thought for theology or with a thought towards Jesus. I would even attest that I myself fall too often into this camp! Even worse, in my estimation, the church herself does not often mention theology in its preaching or teaching. It seems to be in vogue today to have a minimalist approach to theological distinctives in hopes of creating a more interdenominational church. Ergo, theologically informed preaching and teaching is not emphasized in hopes of being more “accepting” of others religious backgrounds and traditions. Therefore, I do not know how to respond to Kent’s first question.

    As to Kent’s second question, I think that our atonement theology should inform our church life. However, due to the dirth of theological education on the parishioner level, I do not see this working out. It would be one thing if let’s say our celeberation of the Eucharist was done once a month for theological reasons but let’s be honest – it is done for practical purposes (too many people, takes up too much time, etc…). Or take even our missional approaches. How many churches see missions has a subset of church activity on par with the homeless ministry or the youth ministry rather than seeing it as the theological reason behind our ministry?

    I agree with Kent and the author in seeing the need for theology to motivate our action. And yes, an emphasis on a more Sanctification view of the Atonement does seem to motivate us to action as based on the definition given in the blog. However, can Justification exist without or interdependent of Sanctification? Or is it our human need to have definite categories for theology that allows for such a thing to occur?

    I think that it is pretty obvious that I tend to be drawn to certain views of theology that have a practical hold on life. I will freely admit that I am not as skilled a systematic as others or those who are the main bloggers. However, I am greatly concerned that the church have a biblical and theological apology for its actions. Our view of the atonement needs to be a large motivating if not the motivating factor for church praxis – or at least more of a motivating factor than Aunt Edna’s fried chicken.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Derek –

    I couldn’t agree more that we need to continue exploring new ways to bring theological depth to the preaching and worship that fills our weekly church gatherings. Somehow we think the choice is between “substance” or “relevance” – while what we really need is both.


  3. I’m working my way through “A Community Called Atonement” by Scot McKnight where I believe he is inviting the same look at multiple ways of seeing the atonement. Your article has helped me over a small hurdle in my own thinking about this issue. Thanks!

  4. Dean –

    Glad to hear you are reading “Community.” Let me know what you think when you are done. I will be posting some comments along with I. Howard Marshal’s recent work on atonement later this spring. It would be nice to get some feedback before doing so.

    Related to your “hurdle”, tell me more if you want. I am still working this issue out.


  5. In response to your questions: My church, a conservative evangelical ‘mega-church’, has been built upon a justification/grace perspective of Christ’s atonement and therefore constantly battles with apathy and inactivity amongst its congregation. I have noticed a certain apathy is often created by an ‘imputed righteousness’ perspective in the lives of many Christians. This troublesome tendency has caused me to look into other perspectives of the atonement because, imo, any theology that doesn’t breath life into the community and empower it is an erroneous theology.

    I have by no means concluded my search, and honestly don’t think I will find a single absolute view but instead hope to amalgamate a more holistic paradigm. It has proved to be an interesting journey thus far.

  6. Earl –

    I relate very closely with your experiences. Many evangelical churches have found themselves in the same situation – proclaiming a powerful reality of forgiveness and reconciliation but having to look outside of their atonement theology for resources to motivate action (engagement, compassion, etc…).

    Schmiechen point is not that these problems invalidate those atonement theologies. Substitutionary atonement models do indeed proclaim a reality of the atonement: forgiveness. However, he argues that because one theory is unable to proclaim the multiform reality of atonement that the church must proclaim God’s saving power in the cross through multiple theories.

    I am drawn to this way of thinking over the current debate that often revolves around which one theory should the church employ. This isn’t about embracing contradictory ideas, but about listening to the biblical testimony and proclaiming God’s saving power through multiple images.

    What worries me is this: In search of an atonement theology that motivates action (“empowers it” in your words) we would discard those realities of the atonement testified to in the scriptures rather than drawing other theories along side of the one we currently leverage most often.

    Do you see what I mean?


  7. I think I understand and agree. Assuming I understood you properly, the concept of treating various views of atonement as ‘images’ depicting aspects and attributes of the greater reality is quite a good idea. But to make sure we’re on the same page can you clarify what you mean by:

    “…we would discard those realities of the atonement testified to in the scriptures rather than drawing other theories along side of the one we currently leverage most often.”



  8. Earl –

    Happy to clarify. I simply meant that I find it problematic (the wrong response) to discard those atonement images used in scripture that perhaps do not motivate action as well as others(in Schmiechen’s words, do not “inspire those forms of the church”).

    Better? I hope I didn’t muddy the waters further.


  9. oh ok. Yes, I also concur. Although I prefer theological studies I believe they ALWAYS need to be submissive biblical studies.

    Thanks for the conversation.


  10. Earl –

    I have appreciated the dialogue as well. Related to your comment about the submission of theological studies to biblical studies, I would like to explore that more. I will be doing a post later in the spring on the relationship of systematics to the bible. I am going to use Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay in the volume “Always Reforming.”

    I hope you will jump in and participate. I would value your thoughts on that.



  11. “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    To be made a member of the Church of The First Born of which the Lord Jesus Christ is the head. It is mandatory to obey the law which God has added to his law.
    “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.”
    Rom. 5:20 and ref. Heb. 7:12b.
    With these three work out salvation for yourself.

  12. Pingback: Views of the Atonement « Signposts 02

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