A is for Atonement (and Adiaphora)

Today we begin a Summer Series on the A B C’s of Theology.

Atonement is one of those rare words that actually works in English: people often utilize the at-one-ment memory device.

At its most basic, atonement simply means the re-pair of something that was broken or separated. Specifically here, we are saying that something had come between humanity and God – this is usually called ‘sin’ ( or separation). ?Something was wrong. Whether you talk about humanity having lost its way, or being lost, falling into sin, or under a curse … atonement is that work of God in Christ that changed-fixed-repaired-healed-forgave the problem. A-Atonement

This is where it gets more complicated. Neither the Bible nor the early churches’ creeds state or take a stance on an atonement theory. For as important a topic as atonement is, it is significant that no definitive stance is required.

The above situation has led to two historical developments:

1) Many varieties of atonement theories have emerged, and subsequently evolved, throughout church history.

The theories all use different word pictures. Depending on what you paint the problem as, the work of God in Christ will take on different metaphors. Some use a courtroom, some a battlefield, others a dungeon (prison) and still others an exemplar motif.

The earliest theories are labeled ‘Ransom Theories’. My favorite is the ‘Fish Hook’ where God lures Satan – who has captured humanity – by offering the human Jesus as ‘bait’. The devil takes the bait and Jesus is killed … but the devil is surprised that inside the ‘worm’ of Jesus’ humanity is the ‘hook’ of Christ’s divinity and the devil is caught! Easter morning is thus the undoing of both Satan and death itself.
This kind of motif can also be in C.S. Lewis’ the Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe.

Later generations (and European ones) did not like that God would have to ‘trick’ or bargain with the devil. This lead to a developing of some other theories that had been around. Christus Victor and Substitutionary theories are two examples that remain popular to this day.
Substitionary models are a particularly interesting example because in the second millennia of church history you can see a profound evolution of different models which line up (and are born out of) out of. You can watch the Feudal (honor) era change with the rise of legal, economic, and civil developments during the Enlightenment and Protestant Reformation.

The past century has seen the rise of two alternative (and very different) theories. One is called Moral Influence theory. Jesus models for us (exemplar) and life lived for others and to God. Moral Influence has the added attraction (to many) of not being so bloody. It is the favorite theory of many within the liberal or mainline branches of the church for this reason.

My favorite group of theories are the Anti-Violence branch. Jesus is killed unjustly and willingly submits to this fate in order to unmask the ‘powers the be’ and expose the fraudulent structures of sacrifice and scape-goating that both nations/empires and religions utilize in order to preserve their position of power. Recent books like ‘Saved from Sacrifice’ and ‘The NonViolent Atonement’ have helped make a new generation aware of alternatives to those that make God seem like a weakling or which paint God as a child-abusing monster with split-personality disorder.

2) Some groups have become so fond of one theory over another that they begin to say that theory is the the only adequate way to understand the work of Christ. Some ‘Reformed’ camps have done this with the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory. This has led to some evangelical camps claiming that PSA is THE gospel.

The above points are why we need to introduce another ‘A’ word: adiaphora.

Adiaphora is a very old concept (ancient Greeks) that came center stage during the Reformation. Initially it meant ‘non-essentials’ and refers to practices that are neither forbidden NOR commanded in Scripture. Now it more generally refers to topics that are not specified in scripture.

I would put ‘Atonement Theories’ in this category. Admitedly that is a difficult and odd thing to do! One would think that the Cross of Christ and the implications of Easter – which are so central to the Christian faith – would cause it to matter deeply what one believed about its structure and effectiveness.
Unfortunately, as much a folks are willing (and eager) to argue about different theories (I am one of them), neither the Bible nor Creeds specify a particular theory and with the historical evolution of so many elaborate options … it looks like this will continue to be a lively conversation for a long time to come.

Further Resources:
Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal Downing ($10 on Kindle)
The Jesus Driven Life by Michael Hardin ($9 on Kindle)
A Better Atonement (e-book) by Tony Jones ($3 on Kindle)
Triune Atonement by Andrew Sung Park ($10 on Kindle)   our interview with Park is here. 

You can also listen to my interview with Michael Hardin from this past Easter.

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Chris Eyre
Chris Eyre

A couple of things. First, exemplary is a little older than you suggest. Abelard proposed it in the 12th century as THE atonement theory, and so did a number of early Church Fathers including the Clements of Rome and Alexandria. Oh, and Polycarp, which might situate it as early as 1st century. I grant you, it hasn't been popular between about the fifth century and the last...

Second, apropos an earlier comment, PSA (which I thoroughly dislike for the appalling picture it paints of God, and generally "what you said") is singularly attractive to people who already consider themselves effectively beyond redemption. Why anyone else would adopt it as a viable concept even as one among several beats me, but for that limited group, including addicts and inmates, it preaches - which I suppose is why you *might* adopt it as one among many.

Love the podcasts, by the way. Found them very recently, and am working backwards through 2012 at the moment.


I'd add Andrew Sung Park's "A Triune Atonement" to your list of suggested readings at the end of the post. He gives pretty solid overviews of the major theories floating around, and then offers his own (with a bit of process-relational flair).

I'd also push back a bit with calling atonement theologies adiaphora. I think they are a lens that influences many (is not all) other aspects of faith, and as such they have the ability to cause a tremendous amount of harm if they aren't fully thought out or developed. 

By being willing to "compromise" on theories like PSA, it seems like you are saying that topics such as divine violence, murder, retributive justice, and reconciliation are up for grabs as well. Personally, I don't know if I'm willing to do that...


This is rad. I am definitely pumped for the rest of this series. Also very excited to learn more about non-Violent theories of atonement. Thank you Bo.


Awesome post Bo!  I look forward to the rest of this series.  Tony's book on atonement is a great starting point for anyone wanting to know more about individual theories as well as contextualizing when and where these theories gained momentum.


@Chris Eyre I agree that PSA preaches for people who believe they are beyond redemption, but I don't think the people it appeals to is that limited of a group. The PSA gospel has created a vicious circle. The church (which in the US's Christian-saturated culture is virtually everybody) tells you you're a horrible no-good person, but they have the solution, which is to join the church. Preaching a different atonement theory disrupts this dysfunctional system. As anyone who has been in a dysfunctional family knows, when you refuse to continue participating the the dysfunctional cycle, it really pisses people off!

BoSanders moderator

@Chris Eyre Technically I only said that Exemplar made a rise in the second millennia . But point taken - and you knowingly acknowledged the gap :) 

2) you make an AMAZING point about PSA and already believing that one is saved... and the appeal of such to those in certain situations.  Great point. 

Glad you found the podcast. Hope you enjoy the backlog :) it is extensive!   -Bo

SO glad you wrote in 

BoSanders moderator

@AMillman I will add Park.  He is actually featured in the second half of this series (round 2: theologians)

Now, regarding PSA - don't get me wrong, I hate PSA as much as anyone you will ever meet. I contend that it is a false representation of God and a misunderstanding of the very Gospel. 

You can read that here [link]  :)    http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2014/04/18/one-thing-that-did-not-happen-on-good-friday-psa/

what I am asking is what is another option from fracturing and marginalizing those who hold to it so passionately. I am just unwilling to cause division over such a historical side issue.  -Bo


BoSanders moderator

@Jeremy_OC WOnderful! I hope you enjoy that journey. It has changed my faith immensely. -Bo 

BoSanders moderator

@teerhardy Good shout!  My hope is that the 'further resources' will really help people if a particular topic grabs them.  So your comment was really helpful  -Bo  

Chris Eyre
Chris Eyre

@ReneeGoodwin @Chris Eyre 

I can see that that would work as a system, but I live in a society (England) where church attendance is something like 5%. I was really taken aback the first time I visited the States, and an early conversational gambit was "what church do you go to?". Here, the vast majority would be walking (or running) away before you finished the sentence. 

The 5% mostly go to "mainline" churches, and hardline PSA isn't much preached there either, although it tends to be implicit in some of the liturgy and music. Certainly the congregations don't on the whole take to thinking they're horrible no-good people. I do know of a few cases where people left in numbers when a p*ss and ginger preacher arrived and started preaching that way.

The result is that "I have good news - you're damned" doesn't really fly, except around alcoholic, addicts and prisoners (with whom I spend some of my time). Even there it isn't a guaranteed tactic. Not that I've ever tried to preach it myself, but I've a friend who has significant success doing so with that group.


@BoSanders I had seen the earlier post and have heard you push against PSA enough on the podcast to know that you are not a fan. I was just intrigued by the second half of this post because it seemed to run counter to everything else I've heard you say and write in the past. I also empathize with your desire to not cause unnecessary division. One of my biggest struggles in my current context is simultaneously trying to be an agent of reconciliation and an agent of change (both of which I believe Christ calls us to be).

My typical response when I am working with people who hold strongly to PSA is to ask how that theory relates to the rest of their understanding about the relationship between Creation and the Divine. If I can get someone to admit that they view things like murder and retributive violence as running counter to the mission of God apart from the cross, it opens up a door for critically examining their view of atonement.

It doesn't always lead to changed views and it certainly doesn't save me from messy conversations, but it also doesn't allow people to uncritically accept an unexamined atonement theory.

I'm curious, what does your view of atonement as adiaphora look like practically? If one of your congregants comes to you with a deeply held allegiance to PSA, how do you react?

BoSanders moderator

@AMillman @BoSanders 1) this is the comment of the past month by far

2) I appreciate your nuanced response and thought 

3) You clearly know what you are talking about 

4) my pastoral role is a little different than my role here as a 'public theologian'.  Here I am trying  to be irenic.   If someone comes to me (pastorally) with PSA I freak and do verbal 'shock and awe' on a horrific representation of god and misunderstanding of the gospel.  

;)   -Bo