Views on Christian Atonement

An outsider to the Church might assume that Christians agree on all of the details concerning Jesus-saved-us-from-our-sins. Things are not as simple as they appear. I recall a podcast episode in which investor Peter Thiel pushed back against the idea that the New Testament is tidy or straightforward. Thiel said “I think Christ is a very complex, very ambiguous figure in many ways, which makes the interpretation quite difficult.”

Some of that complexity is captured in an excellent new article “The Atonement Wars“. This explores exactly what happens to Christians and their guilt of sin, in light of Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection. I recommend the whole article.

Here is a view from the Greek Orthodox tradition that might be unfamiliar to American Protestants who are used to thinking about Atonement in dry legal terms.

“Ontological theories” is a broad term to comprehend the teachings of many Greek-speaking church fathers, mainly in the eastern half of the old Roman Empire and mainly from 180 A.D. onward….

This scheme is an “ontological” (whole being) substitution by Christ to deal with the entire power of sin in humans, rather than primarily a legal substitution addressing the guilt of sin before God’s justice. It is sometimes characterized as a “medical” model, stressing the healing of sick humanity rather than the judicial acquittal of a guilty humanity. Much of subsequent Eastern Orthodox theology, such as stressing the Incarnation and Resurrection, and experientially participating in the divine “energies” so as to become more and more God-like (“theosis”), is an elaboration of this ontological approach pioneered by Irenaeus. As with the Ransom Theory, the various flavors of Ontological atonement were subsumed by Aulen under the “Christus Victor” or “classic” rubric.

The Atonement Wars

If you read modern theology books and blogs, you probably have not had many opportunities to hear what the Church Fathers have said. The church fathers are people such as Ignatius of Antioch whose writing did not make it into the Bible but who were writing much closer to the time of Jesus than we stand today. “The Atonement Wars” explores the views of early Christians on salvation. I also recommend a separate blog devoted to the church fathers on the Letters to Creationists site.

Whether you attend church twice a week or never, I recommend this clear writing on ideas that shaped our civilization.