Thesis 14 From Our EC Book: Theories of the Atonement, and Our Ontological Theory

My last post only briefly only touched on our Thesis 14 from our Evangelical Calvinism book. In this post I will provide the quotation of the whole thesis from the book; here we go:

crucifixionThesis 14. The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.

While Evangelical Calvinism upholds what is essential in a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, it does not limit the atonement to juridical metaphors. Instead it prefers to see the atonement through the multifaceted New Testament perspectives, in addition to the many Old Testament antecedents, and speak of an ontological, personal, relational, and even mystical union, centered in Christ, by which any atonement model inheres.55

The language which the New Testament uses to set this out is drawn from the long history of God’s dealings in revelation and reconciliation with his covenant people Israel. That language is used in the sovereign freedom of the New Testament revelation, in the sovereign freedom of the Son of God who, as he comes into the situation prepared for him in Israel, acts both critically and creatively in fulfilment of the Old Testament patterns of understanding and worship provided within the covenant. We must seek therefore to examine that language, and through it and by means of it, seek to understand what the New Testament teaches us of the death of Christ. And yet we must pass beyond the Old Testament language to the actual person and work of Christ himself and allow his person and work as mediator to remould in our obedient understanding of him, even the language divinely prepared in the old covenant, for here it is with the new covenant in the blood of Christ that we are concerned.56

It is this embodied aspect of the atonement in Christ that becomes the centrum wherein an Evangelical Calvinist understanding of the atonement takes full shape. The imagery and liturgical activity of atonement found throughout the canon of Scripture is grounded and orientated ontologically in the cruciform life of Christ. This means that Evangelical Calvinists believe that penal-substitution is an aspect of the atonement, and a fundamental one at that; that both forensic realities are present, but that they find their nexus deeper down as Christ takes on the full weight of sin in his very being. Torrance beautifully describes the implications of such an atonement model when he writes:

Jesus did not repudiate the preaching of John the Baptist, the proclamation of judgement: on the contrary he continued it, and as we have seen he searched the soul of man with the fire of divine judgement, but in Jesus that is subsidiary to—and only arises out of—the gospel of grace and vicarious suffering and atonement. In the incarnate life of Jesus, and above all in his death, God does not execute his judgement on evil simply by smiting violently away by a stroke of his hand, but by entering into from within, into the very heart of the blackest evil, and making its sorrow and guilt and suffering his own. And it is because it is God himself who enters in, in order to let the whole of human evil go over him, that his intervention in meekness has violent and explosive force. It is the very power of God. And so the cross with all its indelible meekness and patience and compassion is no deed of passive and beautiful heroism simply, but the most potent and aggressive deed that heaven and earth have ever known: the attack of God’s holy love upon the inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil, upon all the piled up contradiction of sin.57

If the forensic/juridical components are the primary components of an atonement theory, then the concern is that atonement will not have dealt with the real reach of sin; to use the language of Scripture, the juridical/forensic, alone, does not have the capacity to deal with the “heart.” Instead, juridical/forensic themes can only provide “payment” to God for legal crimes committed against him; yet the primary issues—the cause of the symptoms—remains untouched. Evangelical Calvinists advance the ontological theory of the atonement that helps correct the imbalance left by the classic understanding. [Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, Chapter 15: Theses on a Theme, 449-50.]


54. Cf. Thesis 8. According to Torrance, When Christ Comes, 188, “That is why we are afraid of God—because He wants to give Himself to us in love, and His love is our judgment. Because we are afraid, our guilty conscience distorts the face of God for us and makes us afraid to look upon Him. We are trapped in the pit of our own fears, and run away from the very One who really loves and the only One who can forgive us.” Torrance proceeds to exposit the “wonderful exchange” wrought by God in Christ whereby Christ takes our judgment and our place that we might be given his place (184).

55. See Torrance, Atonement, 99.

56. Ibid., 1.

57. Torrance, Incarnation, 150.

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