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.
Put yourself in the following situation: You have the cure for a desperately painful disease of which everyone suffers. Yet, in order to explain the disease and prescribe the cure it requires you to find a language with which everyone can relate – a language that enables the diseased (alienated) to find touchstones that relate to them.
This is the situation into which H. Richard Niebuhr believes he must speak: A modern world that has no use for religious language, diverse faith communities unable to relate to one another, and those outside of or alienated from Christian faith. So Niebuhr writes “for the unbeliever and those in the faith community who still engage in the struggle for faith” not using language dominated by doctrinal or religious usage but places the conversation in the “tension of belief and unbelief, trust and mistrust” (Saving Power [SP], 263). Continue reading
We turn our attention now to Peter Schmiechen’s appraisal of Athanasius (Chapter 5).
As it relates to atonement theology, Athanasius is good for North American Evangelicals for at least two reasons (both of which are emphasized by Schmiechen). First, Athanasius moves our focus away from personal forgiveness and freedom from sin. Certainly these are powerful marks of the new life in Christ, but the presence of God in Christ is “not simply the means for accomplishing liberation and forgiveness.” Continue reading
Kent has kindly invited me to comment briefly on the ‘traffic’ on your blog this month, and I’m glad to do so. What I have to offer are mostly questions, questions you may find of interest and/or bizarre:
- When the subject of theological inquiry is atonement, or salvation more broadly, it is right and proper that emphasis falls upon ‘the saving power of God’. This emphasis is reflected in a good deal of the discussion so far, coming to expression in particular ways in the concern that atonement theories be rhetorically effective, contextually apt, and bear down upon actual ministry situations. Would there be any merit, however, in contemplating what else might come to the fore is the emphasis was shifted from the ‘the saving power of God’ to ‘the saving power of God’? Continue reading
At Kent Eilers’ invitation I welcome the opportunity to participate in the discussion. He has summarized in a very accurate and helpful way themes from the book. I hope my responses will not be an intrusion into the discussion.
1. One purpose of the book is to overcome the imperialism of claiming one view is the only right view. Therefore it will not be a step forward to substitute a new one for the preferred view of your tradition. So I am open to the language of “fully orbed” or a more “comprehensive” view of atonement.
In theory, we ought to be able to go off to some wonderful place (e.g., at the foot of the Rocky Mts) and construct a unified view. I think that ultimately they all fit together but we are also called to be faithful in particular situations. In fact, that is why we have many theories.
Perhaps we have to live with the glorious variety for a while-the same way we live with four gospels and many letters in the NT. Certainly there are “priorities” but they usually mean different things in different places. Context does not mean relativism. There may not be one priority for all times and places, but in certain situations there may well be a priority. So I am reluctant to say one theory is most adequate or even that they are all equal. If theories are valid it is because they witness to some aspect of saving power. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Our first discussion finds it’s starting point in Peter Schmiechen’s work on atonement theology, Saving Power. Schmiechen is a professor of theology and president emeritus of Lancaster Theological Seminary.
In Saving Power, Schmiechen looks at a wide range of atonement theories developed during the course of church history, including the penal substitution view, and examines how they reflect their proponents broader vision of the church and its ministry in the world. Rather than championing one particular view, he overviews and evaluates ten distinct theories finding positive aspects of each along with offering his own critiques.
Through the process, Schmiechen hopes to demonstrate that while most Christians assume the basic theme of atonement to be sin and forgiveness, other powerful themes such as liberation from oppressive powers, reconciliation in the face of division, and the hope of resurrection in the face of death, also deserve to be studied and preached. Most importantly for our discussion, Schmiechen works toward developing a framework by which one can evaluate the sufficiency of the various atonement theologies.
It is this later thrust of Schmiechen’s work that will likely occupy much of our discussion early on: What are the central components of this framework? Does it incorporate the biblical “essentials” of atonement you deem necessary? How might Schmiechen’s framework serve as a template for your own framework for evaluating atonement theories? etc…