Progressive Christianity and the Atonement

by Rev. Kevin Daugherty

Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.

For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:1-8)

When I saw this passage in the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday, and I saw that the Southern Baptist Convention recently voted to reaffirmed the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, I knew that I needed to write about the atonement.

Virtually all Christians confess the words of Paul above. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The apostles, church fathers, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, liberals, conservatives, and so on all confessed that Christ died for us. However, while we can all confess this basic truth of the Christian faith, we do not all agree on how to interpret it. 

My background is primarily Reformed and Presbyterian. The penal substitutionary atonement was simply assumed. It was what all our greatest theologians subscribed to. It sounded like what the Bible taught. You look at all the Old Testament laws of God requiring an atoning sacrifice for sin, and then you look at the New Testament passages that talk about Jesus being a sacrifice and even a lamb. It all seems to make perfect sense, but there is something very ironic about the penal substitutionary atonement. Even though it sounds very Biblical, in reality, penal substitution is actually one of the most recent atonement theories to develop in the life of the church.

This illustrates one of the more humorous aspects of Christian theology. On the atonement, “conservatives” tend to hold to a more modernistic approach, while “progressives” often look to the earlier approaches.

The penal substitutionary atonement is a very legal, or forensic, approach. This makes complete sense when you remember that John Calvin was a lawyer, and he was one of its strongest advocates. This theory is simple. God, being a just God, required death for humanity’s sin. In the Torah, this was found in the sacrifices made by the priests on behalf of the people. Christ, being a sacrificial lamb, stands in the place of each and every one of us. Christ received our penalty as a substitute for us.

There are obviously problems with this theory. It makes God out to be a vengeful monster. The Father of Jesus has to kill Jesus so he can forgive people their sins. In addition, if we accept that God is a Trinity, then essentially God has to kill himself so that he can forgive people their sins. In terms of justice, the Father has to punish the innocent Son, rather than the guilty. In addition, this approach to the atonement does not answer any question about morality. In fact, you could make the case that this theory removes morality from the equation. We do not need to act righteously because Christ took our punishment already.

Thankfully, there are other theories of the atonement, and progressive and traditional Christians are both beginning to rethink our dependency upon Calvin’s viewpoint. Thanks to the widespread appreciation for Reformed theology in the United States, this particular atonement theory often feels like the only legitimate one.

Penal substitutionary theory grew out of an earlier medieval theory formulated by Anselm of Canterbury, which was called satisfaction theory. It is very similar to penal substitutionary theory in that Christ suffers in the place of a sinful humanity. He satisfies the honor God deserves. Just like with the previous theory, there is a cosmic injustice that must be righted, and Christ’s death is what rights that injustice. The major difference here is that Christ does not die in your place exactly, as a substitution. This approach is common among Western Christians as well, especially Catholics.

There is also another later atonement theory coming from Western thought: moral government theory. Instead of satisfying the duty God deserved, and instead of Christ dying in the place of us, moral government theory states that Christ’s sacrifice was a demonstration of God’s righteousness and sacrifice for us. Christ takes the punishment we deserve instead of taking the punishment we can expect.

None of these common atonement theories have much of a basis in the early church, however. They are the product of medieval Western European thought, but there are several others that were more common in the early church, and the Eastern churches.

The major one of the earlier atonement theories was ransom theory. The basis of this approach is found in Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. In his death, Christ paid a ransom for humanity. This is often understood as a ransom to Satan. Christ’s death paid the necessary price to free humanity from bondage to the devil. It is also understood as humanity having a debt to God due to the transgression of Adam. Christ’s death pays that debt.

Christus Victor is another perspective found in the early church. The name “Christus Victor” is a recent development, but the idea behind it is very old. It is not too far removed from ransom theory. Like in some interpretations of ransom theory, humanity is in bondage to sin, death, and Satan. Christ’s death and resurrection resulted in God conquering those dark forces and saving humanity.

A final theory of the atonement found in antiquity, and being revived recently, is moral influence theory. This theory is very simple. The life and death of Jesus Christ provide a moral example for us to follow. Christ came to bring moral improvement to the human race. Christ’s death on the cross did not satisfy any sort of divine judgment, but rather exists to bring humanity towards moral improvement. Christ provides an example for us. This theory has early and medieval support, but became less common in the modern era.

Christians are beginning to revisit the atonement, especially as the later satisfaction/substitutionary approaches seem to leave many wanting. They often give us a view of God that is vengeful and bloodthirsty, which seems to contradict with the Father Jesus presented to us. Anabaptists, for instance, have been promoting a “nonviolent atonement” in recent years. Likewise, progressive Christians have been revisiting the ancient approaches of the atonement that were common among the church fathers.

Progressive Christianity at its core is about the Way and teachings of Jesus. As a result, moral influence theory is very appealing, as it calls us back to the basic “red letter” teachings in the New Testament. At the same time, Christus Victor has gained traction among progressives as it calls attention to the victory of God’s kingdom over the darkness in the world. Personally, these are the views of the atonement I subscribe to, but I encourage readers of this post to investigate for themselves. Ultimately, the atonement is probably best understood as a mystery, and our ways of explaining it will always fall short.

This article reflects the opinions of the author, and not an official opinion of Unfailing Love or the United Christian Church in America.