AJ: Answering this question is a lot like asking: “when people talk about education, what do they mean?” As it turns out, there are lots of answers. Some folks think of education as a means to the end of getting a job. Some think of it as a form of daycare or imprisonment by society. Other think about it as a life-long vocation to grow in wisdom and understanding. When it comes to the atonement, there is a similar range of meaning. Some think of it primarily in terms of the Hebrew word kipper, used throughout the Old Testament in describing the role of blood within the sacrificial system. Others think about it as an explanation of the death or crucifixion of Christ. In this sense, the atonement answers the question: “Why did Christ need to die?” My own preference is to use this word to sum up the work of Christ: pulling together the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, to explain how Jesus Christ brought about the reconciliation of all things (Col. 1:20).
The biggest temptation we need to fight against within this doctrine is reducing it – making it smaller than it really is. And one of the worst ways of doing this is to omit the resurrection. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15 (and Athanasius builds on this powerfully) that if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, we are still in our sins. The resurrection, in other words, is a vital and powerful part of our reconciliation with and justification before God.
Based on the Pauline witness, the doctrine of the atonement is a matter of exploring the way(s) in which the events in the life of Christ are the triune God’s chosen way of bringing about the full range of his purposes for creation—overcoming the power of sin, and bringing his creation to fulfillment in fellowship with him.
SV: Could you tell us a little bit about Karl Barth, his understanding of the atonement, and how the atonement shaped his thought?
AJ: Karl Barth, of the theologians I have studied, is the one most determined to do theology in continuous interaction with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Whereas some theologians give you the impression that to understand a doctrine, you simply need to work on that doctrine and its many sub-topics, Barth constantly reminds us that to understand any doctrine of the Christian faith, we must do so in continual dialog with the doctrine of the atonement—the work of Christ. The reason for this is that Christian proclamation or theology must take its reference from Jesus Christ – this is what makes it specifically Christian theology.
But to do so demands that we not compromise when it comes to certain doctrines. What is creation? The work of Jesus Christ, which serves as the external basis of the covenant God made with his people, and fulfilled in Christ. Who is God? The Father, incarnate Son and Holy Spirit, made known to us in the life and work of Jesus. What does it mean to be the church? It means to be the people of Jesus Christ. Barth, more than anyone I know, allows the atonement to shape every other doctrine. This makes him one of the most dynamic and exciting theologians to read (not to say that he is one of the easiest!)
This doesn’t mean that Barth is talking about the atonement on each of the 100,000 or so pages that he wrote. Barth is best read in 100 page chunks (and if you want a recommendation for where to start, my personal favorites are Church Dogmatics in Outline, a summary of the Apostle’s Creed, and Church Dogmatics IV.1, one of the best books ever written on the atonement).
SV: What is the current state of the doctrine of atonement among contemporary theologians? What are some of the issues being talked about?
AJ: At present, theologians are rejecting older views that reduced the atonement to a handful of theories. Diversity, abundance and multiplicity are all the rage, as theologians are appropriating the range of images, metaphors and theories throughout Scripture and the history of the church. This is an important development, as the last century was pretty strongly indebted to the work of Gustaf Aulén, which (wrongly) held that there have been (only) three main views of Christ’s saving work throughout the history of the church.
The question is: what to do with this diversity? Many embrace it – I definitely fall under this camp, seeking to explain the diversity of atonement theories within the greater diversity of the character of God. Some use the diversity as a way of discarding traditional theories, and developing their own, whether in a non-violent direction or some other avenue. Many theologians working constructively with the doctrine to take it in new directions favor some form of Christus victor (theories emphasizing Christ’s defeat of Satan), and many of these demythologize Satan, leaving a great deal of flexibility in how they develop the dramatic material.
Another (related) trend consists of critiques and responses to the challenge of (non)violence within the atonement. According to some, Christ’s death on the cross, if willed by the Father, is an abomination that perpetuates cycles of violence in our churches and culture. More conservative theologians have used these critiques as an impetus to develop the trinitarian logic of the atonement, exploring ways in which the doctrine of the Trinity provides the basic structure of theological commitments which undergird our account of how Jesus’ death is both effective for us, and does not simultaneously commit God to an ethically atrocious course of action.
Beyond that there are a range of issues, including the legitimacy of penal substitution, the work of René Girard, and a host of historical works re-appropriating church history in contemporary thought, much of which I find tremendously helpful.
SV: You have written two books on the atonement, God’s Being in Reconciliation and Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed. Could you please tell us about these two projects? What is the argument that you are making in these books, how are they different, and what do you hope your readers will take away from these books?
AJ: God’s Being in Reconciliation uses the theology of Karl Barth to explore some of the ways in which the doctrine of God (Trinity and divine attributes) provides the underlying logic for the doctrine of the atonement. In other words, if you want to get your doctrine of the atonement right, the place to start is with the Trinity and character of God. The premises provided by those doctrines up in the heights shape all the key features down in the valleys below. This book delves deeply into Barth’s theology, and isn’t intended to be an introductory text.
The Guide to the Perplexed takes this thesis, and expands it in two ways. First of all, I incorporate the thought of a host of theologians, so that it is a much more well-rounded work, serving as an introduction to the history of the doctrine in many ways. And for those who don’t like Barth very much, I should mention that I learned the doctrine through all of these theologians, and used Barth in my first book as a helpful way to unpack the thesis. In other words, the Perplexed volume is still influenced by Barth, but perhaps even more so by Athanasius, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Edwards, and others who taught me so much.
Second, I have developed the thesis in new directions, exploring how the atonement works out from the death and resurrection of Christ to include the incarnation, life and ascension of Christ. I also explored the ways in which Christ’s is a cosmic work, affecting all of creation, ranging from the angels in heaven to the demons below, and everything else in between. These two chapters (5 and 6) were probably the most challenging and interesting ones to write, given that I was breaking new ground not previously explored in my first book.
My hope is that the Guide to the Perplexed will equip and energize further study of this doctrine. If, after reading this book, someone were to read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation or some other classic text, and find himself or herself equipped not only to read and appreciate it, but also critique me for what I left out, that would be a real joy to me. My primary goal is to help people see how expansive and complex (though simultaneously simple and beautiful) the work of Christ is. If, through my book, the reader will be better able to appreciate Scripture’s manifold witness to this doctrine, or find the same in the history of the Church’s theological reflection, I would be grateful.
Adam Johnson earned his Ph.D. in theological studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He currently teaches theology and Western Classics at Biola University.