Debating Atonement Theories: The Whole Truth is in the Whole Church

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Revisiting atonement theory is a hot topic these days. The passions around it are hot too!

Soccer Referee Showing a Player the Red CardSometimes, I think we read John the Baptist like his: Behold the Lamb of God, who appeases God’s anger, and satisfies His visceral need for justice.

Of course, that’s not it. It’s: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

It has always been about removing sin and forgiveness of the same. Can it get any plainer than that?

Now, bantering and jousting around the coffee-table in the family of God about the nuances of atonement theory is fine. But when it turns mean and ugly it says something about us.  When someone who disagrees with me on atonement theory is portrayed as not being committed to truth/the scriptures, or is “blind” or “deceived,” or worse yet, throwing the “H” word (heretic) at each other, it just shows that we don’t know a blessed thing about the reality of the supposed doctrine we are so “right” about. It is all weariness of spirit–a betrayal of the Person and Spirit of Christ.

The Protestant forefathers were overwhelming lawyers and humanist scholastics. What do those kinds of people like to do? ARGUE AND DEBATE. WIN OR LOSE AN ARGUMENT! They do that FOR A LIVING!

When scholastic intellectualism hijacks the scriptures, combat inevitably results. That is NOT the essence of Jesus’s kingdom. Jesus’s kingdom is not about winners and losers as people, us versus them. It is the opposite.  When an alleged passion for the scriptures or “truth” degrades into “us versus them” we make Judas look like an angel. “Us versus them” is antithetical to Christ’s kingdom.

I am not demeaning scholarship. I have written elsewhere in this blog about that issue. Neither am I endorsing  naive ignorance as if it is the tenth fruit of the Spirit (A malady common in my tribe of the family of God!). The problem is mistaking intellectual scholasticism as the Highway of Life instead of the helpful guard rails. Theology is the bank of a river, not the river itself. That’s where we lose our way.

I am saying that the kingdom is not helped by having a lawyer’s mind and approach to the matter’s pertaining to Jesus. I have written elsewhere at length in this blog about the implications of having lawyers as spiritual forefathers. You can read it here: Lawyers or Lovers.

Many of us are still infected with the same spirit that drenched Europe in blood. Being the “most right” about the Bible while standing in a pile of my brother’s blood was justified then. Being more sophisticated today, we just slander each other: standing on the pile of my brothers’ reputations, beating my theological chest as “conqueror,” “intellectual vanquisher of the infidel”, “defender of the purity of truth” . . . this is as spiritually defiling as it can get. There will never be a shortage of Biblical proof texts to justify reprehensible actions.

Much of the furor these days on the atonement is not really about a passion for truth at all. Oh, it is presented that way, but it is really about hegemony of one particular view over all others: “whose is the ‘most rightest,’ the most important.” That is how we can tell that even if we have our facts right, we will still be wrong: it’s a spirit of hegemony.

Sure, each of us can hold to our convictions with passion. We can forcefully present them. We can do no less. Yet truth is like a diamond. It is a faceted unity. It is most permissible to strongly advocate for one’s facet. It is not permissible to believe you are the whole diamond. The former is liberty, that latter is idolatry of the intellect: mistaking confidence in my understanding of scripture for confidence in the scripture itself. I hold to His Person in resurrection tightly. I hold to my understanding of the same . . . loosely . . . very loosely.

Someone once said that the West treats the scriptures like a lawyer and the East like a philosopher. Wouldn’t it be great if they could get along? I will close with a thought from the East. Gregory of Nyssa said it well centuries ago. In the light of today’s furor over atonement debates, I think we would do well to follow his lead:

Concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.

People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.


Copyright 2013,  Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references.  For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact

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6 comments on “Debating Atonement Theories: The Whole Truth is in the Whole Church

  1. The atonement is one of those issues likely to get us labeled as a heretic. It is one of the issues we have taken for granted and never thought through completely as the church. It amazes me how the idea of an angry vengeful GOD has worked its way into many areas of theology. Misrepresenting God is one of those things I get passionate about. Excellent post. Well said.

    • Yes, Chad. right on. Most people don’t even know other views/perspectives exist other than the penal substitutionary view, because of the hegemonic dogmatism about it for 500 years. Now that the hegemony of that view is being challenged, the long knives are coming out!I share your passion about misrepresenting God. It’s epidemic and left over from medieval fear-based control of an illiterate population.

      • Hegemonic
        ruling or dominant in a political or social context.
        “the bourgeoisie constituted the hegemonic class”

        Its always fun when I have to go to a dictionary to find out what you’re saying. Love it!!
        Thanks for the encouragement

  2. If I was a God hating atheist, my chief strategy would be to bury the preciousness of Christ’s finished work on the cross under a pile of sad, hopeless, ideological theomania, but it appears that the religious lawyer types have done a good job all by themselves. Good article, Steve. (Bonus if you can find an acronym in the sentence.

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