Prolegomena for the Atonement

October 28, 2022

Meaning of the Term: Atonement
The theological meaning of the word can be explained by a simple cliché that is at the same time accurate, atonement means “at-one-ment”; to atone is to reconcile a broken relationship on behalf of another. The state of being at one or being reconciled by the work of another. Atonement is reconciliation. Thus in theology it is used to denote how christ saved us. Particularly, the effect which flows from the death of Christ. Some comments should be made about how we are to rightly approach the doctrine, much of the debate that surrounds the doctrine centers on four questions.

Approaching the atonement in Four questions.
These four questions get at the basic assumptions behind a discussion of the atonement.

  • The Foundation Question: Does the atonement need to be rooted in History?
  • The Interpretation Question: How can a historical event have a definitive meaning?
  • The Integration Question: What other doctrine(s) are in the background and frame any discussion of the doctrine in view?
  • The Existential Question: On a personal level, why should I study this doctrine?

We will look at each question in turn. The first two questions have a history of debate surrounding them. A little expiation is in order. Yet space will not permit a full dialogue. I chose to simply state my answer rather than give the arguments and counter arguments. I stated my position with some ability for the sake of brevity.

1. The Foundation Question
Does the atonement need to be rooted in History?

Some hold that theological ideas are free from Historical obligation. They see the actual verification of historical fact as unnecessary and modernistic. Religious ideas don’t have to be rooted in historical reality to be theologically valid. The epistemological justification of a religious idea comes directly from experience, for religious feeling is the essence of faith. Those in this camp, think it does not matter if the event happened as it is recorded or if it happened at all. Religious truths don’t need a historical foundation to be reliability. What maters is the religious tradition and the scared myths of the religion. Those tradition and myth are enough for theological foundation.

My answer: An actual death, not an abstract concept.
For the historical Jesus, theory and practice were made one in mission. The cross had to be carried before it could be preached. It had to be endured before it could be proclaimed. Jesus came to be the sacrifice, not clarify the concept of sacrifice. He did not come to wax poetic about the cross, but to be nailed to it. Jesus did the heavy lifting so there would be a gospel to preach. Any discussion about the atonement must take into consideration that Christ’s work is a historical reality, an actual death not just a intellectual concept.

More centrally, atonement is viewed in Christianity not as a conceptual problem for human speculation, but an actual event in history with eternal repercussions. The Christian teaching of atonement is not just about the general idea of dying for others, but about an actual, horrible, death. A death that happened to a man from Nazareth on a particular hill on a particular day. Most theories through the history of the church until the modern period held this aspect in common.

2. The Interpretation Question
How can a historical event have a definitive meaning?

Some sophisticated doubters, I mean theologians, believe we attach meaning to events and events don’t have meaning in themselves. They divide the historical act from the message applied to it. Such people posit that in-between an objective historical event and the subjective human response is an interpretation of the act. Such thinkers slyly suggest the meaning of the act can never been known for it could have many interpretations. They would say, any view of atonement is Jesus’ death but our interpretation of Paul’s meaning. Thus we can’t understand the cross in any meaningful way.

They ignore the idea that an event can be a call to response. Event are speech acts and that demand a response of us. I “direct” message that need not be interpreted for it demands a response of acceptance or rejection. They create space for interpretation where they’re is no space for the Event is a word to humanity. The cross is a massage as much as it is an actual redemptive death.

My answer: A Message in blood
Christianity proclaims not merely that Christ died, but that his death had inestimable significance. It is a word spoken to us from outside ourselves. A word that God speaks to us through an event. An event unlike all other moments in history, an event that is as inescapably concrete and irreversibly permanent, as it is undeniably distressing. The meaning of the event is it’s message. This message can be stated as simply as “He died for us.” “He died” is a historical fact. “For us” is the meaning of that fact. The cross is a word to every sinner and the means of salvation for those who respond in trust to it’s message.

3. The Integration Question
What other doctrine(s) are in the background and frame any discussion of the doctrine in view?

My answer: No separation without deviation
The doctrine of Christ is needed to view the cross rightly. From that doctrine we learn of the personal union of deity and humanity, which is the incomparable nature of the person we call Christ, our Savior. The doctrine of Christ’s atoning work focuses upon what this “incomparable” person has done for us. The two doctrines can’t be separated. The person of Christ is inextricably linked to the work of the cross. You can’t divide one from the other without draining the cross of meaning. For what the work of salvation required, the person of the Mediator supplied. This is the economy of salvation. Salvation requires a Savior. But not just any Savior, this unique work could have only been done by this unique person. This salvation can only be accomplished by this Savior—not just anyone on any cross. Christ the God-man had to die on that cross for it to be salvation.

4. The Existential Question
On a personal level, why should I study this doctrine?

My answer: Grace begs for clarity
It must be acknowledged, that it is more important for the believer to know that they are saved by the cross than precisely how. Yet, St Ambrose taught that saving grace “begs the question”. The recipient of saving grace is compelled, by that same grace, to ask how and why of the cross. (1)

We are not given all there is to know about the cross, for all that happened in those dark hours are far too terrible and far too wonderful to be compressed into one mold of human comprehension. Yet we can confess that what is given for us to know, in whatever degree, is meaningful. Scripture is clear enough on this point that we can be assured a meaningful answer is possible. By faith, we hold with warmth the truth, “He died for me” while acknowledging we will never exhaust, what those four words mean for us. Even when we don’t understand we can still worship for In the place of ignorance the Spirit imparts awe and wonder.

The atonement is a well that never runs dry, for in our thirst we come to a God who understands and calls us by name. A God who takes from us the sin tainted tar-like dredges of our soul, that unspeakable darkness within and gives to us light, hope and a home. In this exchange, he draws out refreshing water for us, saying, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters”. And as Isaiah reminds us, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Isaiah 55:1a, 12:3).

“Sin dug a gulf in a relationship. The cross bridged it. Sin resulted in estrangement. The cross reconciled it. Sin made war. The cross made peace. Sin broke fellowship. The cross repaired and restored it.” - Thomas C. Oden (2)

Glory Be to the Cross bearer!



NOTE: This blog is brought to you by The Remnant Radio, a theology broadcast that exists to educates believers on Theology, Church History and the Gifts of the Spirit. If you would like to know more about Remnant Radio. Here is a short video. If you like this content and you want to know more about Atonement Theory. We have a video with an overview of five different atonement theories [Here]. As well as interview videos on the subject from William Lane Craig and another with Bruxy Cavey. In the next blog, we will take a short look at various theories.



[1] Ambrose, Of Christian Faith 2.11
[2] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity



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