Choosing the Kin-dom: Benefits of Relinquishment

Column by Rev. Lauren Van Ham on 14 March 2024 0 Comments

A dominant message, at least in Western media, is that we deserve better and we will get there.  For the profanely privileged or perpetually oppressed, modernity and capitalism peddle fixes for all, if we just vote right. 

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What is the view of atonement theology from a Progressive Christianity perspective?


Dear Reader,

Thanks for this question. The short answer is that I think there are a variety of atonement theories, including (as I’ll explain in a minute) a theory of atonement that redefines atonement.

What most if not all Progressive Christian theologians would share, I think, is a discomfort with or even solid rejection of what has been the dominant atonement theory of the last 1000 years, first within Catholicism, and then within Protestantism.

[A brief and oversimplified history might be of value. The early Christians didn’t seem to have a single dominant atonement theory. But one of the most popular early theories is now called the Ransom Theory. In this theory, humanity has sold itself to the Devil and God makes a deal with the Devil: “I’ll give you my son Jesus if you let humanity free.” The devil takes the deal and kills Jesus, but God double-crosses the devil by raising Jesus from the dead, leaving the Devil a total loser. Another version of this is called the Fishook theory: that Jesus’ humanity was the worm and Jesus’ divinity was the hook, and God caught the Devil with the trickery of a divine hook in human flesh.

Later theologians felt that these theories gave way too much power to the Devil, and they moved toward a more abstract theory, often called Christus Victor Theory. Death replaced the Devil as the enemy whom God defeated through Jesus’ resurrection.]

About 1000 AD, St. Anselm offered a theory of atonement that became dominant in Catholicism and, later, in Protestantism too. In his theory, the threat we humans faced wasn’t simply the Devil or death, as in past theories. It was God’s honor. God, like any great king, is obligated to defend his honor and avenge any dishonor, so he (the masculine pronoun seems appropriate) devises a way to satisfy his wrath at being dishonored by disobedient humanity. God vents his wrath upon Jesus, which then allows God to forgive some number of humans who qualify for that forgiveness in one way or another. (How people qualify became the preoccupation of many Catholic and Protestant theologians over the last 1000 years.)

The Franciscans were not fans of Anselm’s theory, known as Penal Substitution or Satisfaction. They proposed an alternative, often called the Moral Influence Theory. The problem in this theory is with selfish humans, not the Devil, death, or God’s honor. God demonstrates God’s love in the life, teaching, death, and rising of Jesus (however understood) in such a way as to win over selfish human hearts to a life of humility and service, imitating God’s example of radical grace.

Many Progressive Christians would follow the Franciscan approach. And many, I suspect, would even say that in their understanding of God, no atonement theory is necessary because there is no problem that God needs to solve through Jesus’ death or resurrection (however understood). So instead of an atonement theory, we humans need an at-one-ment practice … we need a spiritual path or way of life or spirituality that helps us leave behind our selfish, separated, violent, and unloving habits of the heart, and instead, move into an ever-deeper union or communion or one-ness with the Spirit of God, the divine love which, as Paul says in Colossians, binds everything together in perfect harmony. The experience and practice of oneness is what matters … not a theory about it.

~ Brian McLaren




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