If you are an evangelical Christian, when it comes to thinking about what happened during the atoning work of Jesus Christ, you are most likely familiar with one understanding of that: i.e. the so called Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory. Once, I read this book by a scholar named Stephen Strehle titled: The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel. If you can get your hands on this
book I would suggest it (it is an academic title so it is quite cost prohibitive), but even if you can’t, for the purposes of this post, the title itself is highly suggestive. Evangelical Christianity has a past (I hate to break the news to you!), and most of evangelical Christianity’s past (in the free church movement), at the theological/doctrinal level, comes to her through her forbears in the Protestant Reformation (and a dominant thread of that to boot). One of my mentors and former seminary professors, Dr. Ron Frost (a historical theologian and Puritan expert), had this little genealogy he would sometimes refer to in regard to tracing the ‘evangelical past’ I am referring to, he would string it out this way: Francis Turretin (and his Elenctic Theology), Charles Hodge (an “old Princeton Seminary” professor who would teach his students Turretin’s theology and even have them translate it from Latin to English), and then the appropriation of Hodge’s ‘Turretino’ theology by subsequent conservative and evangelical theologians (even ones in the ‘free church’ evangelical movement like Ryrie, et al. when it comes to things soteriological). Now whether this genealogy is reliable, you’ll have to figure that out for yourself. Point remaining though, one way or the other what was emphasized for the Covenant/Federal theologians of the scholastic Reformation (or Post-Reformed orthodox) period in regard to a theory of the atonement – Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) – became the emphasis for much (if not most) of evangelical understanding of atonement theory (into the present).
Thomas F. Torrance in his posthumously published (by his nephew Robert Walker) New Lectures as Incarnation&Atonement (Vol. 1&Vol. 2) gets into things atonement and more. In his Volume 2, Atonement he even provides an index for the various ways Christian theologians have conceived of the atonement, and its various theories, respectively. In his index he covers the theory we just highlighted – PSA – among the other various theories (in a broad manner). In his coverage he introduces us to a theory that I would venture most evangelicals have never considered, because they have never heard of it (it is the theory that we as evangelical Calvinists see as the framing theory for the others, something of a centraldogma in regard to the web of atonement theories in relation). Since we have been discussing this already, why don’t I just quote Torrance’s index at length, and then on the other side we will about it a little more.
(i) The dramatic aspect of atonement
This has tended to fall into a ‘ransom to the devil theory, or at best a Christus victor concept. This theory is mostly patristic and early mediaeval, but it has its modern counterparts in certain Lutheran and Anglo-Catholic circles, not so much in Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic theology. When the dramatic aspect of the atonement narrows in this way, it has a distinct tendency towards dualism and that provokes ‘demythologisation’. It is worth noting that while historians frequently speak of this as patristic and mediaeval, in actual fact it is found only in a small part of patristic thought, in Origenism and in certain areas of monastic thought where dualism prevailed. It was not held by any of the great fathers (except by Gregory of Nyssa) and we find it again in mediaeval times, in popular and monastic thought, but it is not so evident in the theologians – it was effectively destroyed by Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux.
(ii) The cultic-forensic aspect of atonement
This has tended to fall apart into two notions:
a) a cultic notion of the atonement, without the element of justification, found mostly in liturgical texts and context. It tended to be carried forward in the thought of the west mostly in connection with the sacrifice of mass, without adequate relation to Christ himself in his saving activity. Yet this is by no means exaggerated in the great theologians. For example, of the twenty questions devoted by Thomas Aquinas to the eucharist, only one is devoted to the notion of eucharistic sacrifice. A much better concept is to be found in Anselm’s prayers and meditations.
b) a penal notion without the priestly aspect – a satisfaction conception of atonement. This derives in the west mostly from the basic thought of Tertullian – and has in it a distinct tendency toward legalism, with little notion of redemption from the law, of salvation ‘apart from law’. The development of the penal and satisfaction notions in atonement owes a great deal to the Latin language and highly Latinised concepts as we can see when we compare the western development of these notions, either in Roman or Protestant thought, with the exposition of the penal and satisfaction aspects in the thought of Cyril of Alexandria especially. It was the penal-substitution notion, together with a narrowed understanding of justification, that became dominant in the centuries of so-called Protestant Orthodoxy and today in so-called Evangelical Protestantism.
(iii) The ontological aspect of atonement
This again has tended to fall into two notions:
a) an incarnational notion, where the saving element is through knowledge and mystical union with Christ. This is evident very early in the Greek fathers, for example in Clement of Alexandria, and earlier in Ignatius of Antioch – but contrast the Epistle to Diognetus. It became one of the main strands of development through the mystical tradition, the stress being laid sometimes more on union with God through mystical vision, sometimes more on union with God through the incarnation.
b) a subjective notion of atonement, where the moral influence of the sacrifice of Christ or knowledge of what God has done for us in his love is the saving element – for example in Abelard or in Socinus. Yet this has a profound and moving development in the liturgy, for example in the Stabat Mater, or prayer of Mary at the foot of the cross – cf. here Haydn’s Stabat Mater and the immense power of contemplating the wounds of Jesus.
Thank you professor Torrance!
As you can see I emboldened the section in ii where TFT reinforces what I had asserted earlier in regard to PSA and Post-Reformed Orthodoxy as well as evangelicals. And then I emboldened the part of iii where TFT highlights the type of ontological theory that he actually endorses, and that we do as well as evangelical Calvinists.
I am pretty much at my word count for an acceptable length for a blog post (1000 words) so I will cut this one off here. Maybe next time we will reference this index and get into why I as an evangelical Calvinist believe that TFT’s (as well as Barth’s and Athanasius’) view on the ‘ontological aspect’ of the atonement ought to be emphasized in the way we think about the place of all of the theories of the atonement. Until then you can click here.
 Thomas F. Torrance ed., Robert T. Walker, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 56-8.