Saving Power

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Jesus' death and resurrection are undeniably central to the Christian faith. But how, precisely, is their significance to be understood?

Concerned to reinvigorate the church's teaching on the cross, the resurrection, and salvation - the atonement - Peter Schmiechen here invites readers to rediscover the wealth of the Christian tradition. In Saving Power he makes ample use of primary sources to unpack ten distinct theories of atonement, welcoming aspects of each rather than championing only one. Along the way, he demonstrates that while most Christians assume the basic theme of atonement to be sin and forgiveness, other powerful themes - liberation from oppressive powers, reconciliation in the face of division, and the hope of resurrection in the face of death, for instance - also deserve to be studied and preached.

Affirming orthodox teaching while offering a positive take on marginal views, Saving Power is a crucial resource for anyone who seeks a fuller understanding of Christ's work.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802829856
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Saving Power

Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church
By Peter Schmiechen

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2985-6


This is a book about interpretations of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the church today. The thesis is that atonement has to do with the saving power of God in Jesus Christ. The New Testament and later traditions reveal how such saving power is interpreted in many ways. The life and work of the church depend on claiming the richness of these many witnesses to saving power.

This perspective is confounded by confusion and lack of confidence, much to the detriment of the church's preaching and mission. If there is no clarity regarding the richness of these many theories, then preaching and piety are shaped by a single view of atonement. While this may appear to have the advantage of single-mindedness, it ignores a wide range of other ways saving power addresses different human needs. For example, forgiveness of sins is a quite different theme from that of the victory over death or the reconciliation of divided parties. Persons held captive to shame do not need to be forgiven but released. Given the diverse spiritual needs of people, focusing on but one aspect of saving power really amounts to confusion regarding atonement. By contrast, if there is no confidence regarding the proclamation of saving power in Jesus Christ at all, then ministry and mission live under a cloud ofgloom. The heart may yearn for the proclamation of the power of the cross, but the will to do so is absent. Much of the lack of clarity and loss of nerve stems from the fear that atonement is the weak point in the Christian message because there is but one theory (namely, penal substitution) and it is flawed. Whether one openly subscribes to such a view, or quietly fears that it is true, in either case the drive to proclaim the cross is undercut. This paralysis regarding the cross, however, leads to a general shutdown of all systems: If one cannot find a way to confess the saving power of the cross, then Jesus becomes irrelevant and the church has no good news. The situation is not improved, as we shall see, by substituting the threefold outline of Gustaf Aulén. While he appears to recognize three theories rather than one, in the end the three are reduced to only one acceptable theory, i.e., Christus Victor. Against the imperialism of those who argue that atonement is but one general theory or that everything can be squeezed into three theories, this study shall present ten distinct theories, thereby demonstrating the breadth of Christian witness to the fullness of Christ.

A. Method

Given the nature of this study, there will inevitably be a heavy reliance on biblical and historical study. But the primary methodology is that of theology, for two reasons: First, the study seeks to identify and analyze distinctive theories as interpretations of Jesus. This obviously requires the use of material from the Bible and the history of theology. Anyone who is familiar with these sources knows that they present a wide range of ideas, with multiple variations, in written word, art, hymnody, and liturgy. But here the purpose is not to present the full spectrum, or all the variations within one general type, but to construct a coherent and viable formulation of each particular theory. To be sure, such an approach requires that one step back from the myriad of historical detail in order to capture what might be called the basic idea of a theory. This is in fact the way preachers and teachers actually operate. Preachers usually rely on their personal summary and idealized version of a particular theory of atonement. A sermon might refer to the conquest of sin or death, but hardly ever take a timeout and present the exact formulation of Irenaeus, Athanasius, Luther, or Gutiérrez. Likewise, when teachers are asked what is the theory of Christus Victor, they probably first give a general definition that represents a composite of many versions and then proceed to compare and contrast particular versions. The organization of the first ten chapters reflects this theological concern for defining theologically ten distinctive theories.

Second, the study is theological in the attempt to determine the viability of these theories of atonement for the life and work of the church today. On the one hand, this requires a clear statement of each theory. To accomplish this, each chapter will include a brief outline of each theory and then witnesses of faith involving one or more primary texts. This assumes that if a theory is once outlined in its basic logical form, such a formulation is best served by examining a particular author who gives us a strong and coherent affirmation of it. These case studies will be presented in considerable detail so that the reader may examine the way a theory is constructed and moves towards its conclusion. Only by seeing how a writer builds on certain assumptions and makes critical decisions can one comprehend fully the Christology that emerges. The advantage of this approach is that it puts the reader in touch with a detailed presentation of major primary sources. The fact that the greater part of the study is dedicated to the case studies obviously reflects my commitment to these major texts, as well as how contemporary theology must be in dialogue with them. It is amazing how they continue to surprise and enrich our attempts at finding viable expressions for Christology. While the presentations cannot claim neutrality, I have tried to respect the distinction between description and evaluation. On the other hand, this goal requires that the values used for analysis and criticism be clearly stated to the reader. The evaluation of these theories is an extremely controversial area of theology. Just as it would be naïve to suggest that this study is neutral, it would be just as erroneous to conceal the critical perspective employed to assess the theories. Therefore the values used at the outset of the study, with respect to selection, organization, and evaluation, will be outlined below. In the Conclusion, the critical values developed from the study will be presented and used for further discussion. Each chapter will also include analysis and critical evaluation.

Having stated in positive terms how the primary theological method will incorporate biblical and historical study, it may be helpful to indicate what this approach excludes. More than one reader will probably assume that this study intends one of the following. (1) This study is not a history of the doctrine of atonement. Such an approach would have to track the development of theories, from origin to full expression, and then their journey through the history of many different traditions. This study makes no attempt to do this because it is primarily a theological study. (2) The case studies are not intended to present a comprehensive view of the total theology of a particular writer. For example, in analyzing Calvin's presentation of the priestly office of Christ, our purpose will be to provide an example of the sacrificial theory, rather than present a complete assessment of Calvin's Christology. In a similar way, the use of Luther on justification by grace is not meant to imply that this is the only theory of atonement he employs in his whole theology. The case studies are examples of particular theories, but not a review of each author's complete theology. Likewise, it must also be said that the study could not seek to resolve all of the critical issues connected with each writer. Readers are expected to seek out historical studies that provide either background on general periods or specialized study of individual authors. (3) The case studies were not chosen as a definitive list of the most important theologians. There are some obviously great figures who are not included (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, and Edwards). The purpose of this study is a theological examination of ten theories of atonement, and the case studies were chosen because they are excellent examples. In some cases, the person chosen is in fact identified with the theory (as in the case of Anselm). (4) As a study of theories of atonement, the study does not seek to resolve the full spectrum of theological issues that bear on a full systematic theology. To complete this study it has been necessary to restrict the discussion to the primary goal and not move beyond it.

With several exceptions, most chapters in Part I will follow a similar format: (a) examination of the central image as the basis for the theory; (b) an outline of the basic theory; (c) the presentation of one or more case studies or witnesses of faith; (d) theological commentary. Part II will consist of two concluding chapters, one analyzing the ten theories and the other demonstrating the connection between theories of atonement and the formation of the church.

B. From Images to Theories

The theories considered here are highly developed and comprehensive interpretations of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. They have developed over time and have passed through generations of use. Some possess a certain simplicity, where key phrases may summarize in the manner of code language. Some have been revised and adapted so many times, that it is often difficult to ascertain their genealogy. They draw upon the history of interpretation of who Jesus is and what he does, as well as the life and worship of particular periods of Christian faith. Each seeks to answer, by appeals to authority, common experience or reason, the very questions raised by the New Testament itself: Who is Jesus? Why was he rejected and killed by his own people? If he was the Christ and/or Son of God, why did God allow him to die? Why did he not use divine power to save himself? What is the meaning of his death and resurrection? In short, how does this story reveal the saving power of God?

The New Testament raises these questions and also offers multiple answers in various stages of development. The fact that so many explanations appear in the process of formation in the New Testament itself, and then undergo further development in the next three centuries, indicates two things: One is that there was no primary story that answered all of the questions posed - either in the first two generations or in the following centuries. If all questions had been answered, Christian teaching, preaching, and apologetics would simply have used the one, primary explanation. We must be reminded again that while the church officially adopted creedal statements regarding Trinity and Incarnation, it did not adopt one official theory of atonement. There is something inherently complex and diverse about the subject that resists the restriction of a single answer.

The other point, closely related to the first, is that the signs and wonders in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are not self-explanatory. Contrary to the conservative view that the signs and wonders are self-evident and constitute irrefutable proofs, just about everything in the story of Jesus requires an explanation. Even the most dramatic and powerful sign - namely, the resurrection - requires interpretation: it could be one of the most unusual and inexplicable events in history, or the work of the devil, or a fabrication by the disciples, or a sign of God's deliverance. But it is not, as we see with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, self-explanatory.

Theories of atonement, then, attempt to provide an internally coherent explanation of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Their purpose is fundamentally evangelical in nature, even though they may not always appear in the form of sermons. Their intent is to draw the listener/reader into the saving power of Christ. To accomplish this, the theories do several things, which become the basis for three values:

First, a theory employs an image that has the potential of being the cornerstone for an interpretation of Jesus. As such it will have to symbolize something about Jesus that connects saving power with some form of human need. An image might be a metaphor (e.g., Lamb, Bread, Vine, Shepherd) or a title (e.g., Lord, Word, Suffering Servant). It could also be a proper noun (e.g., Teacher), a word describing some thing or event in the story of Jesus (e.g., cross) or a phrase (e.g., "Jesus died for us."). The New Testament overflows with images and testifies to the creative energy at work in the earliest period as the church sought to name Jesus and explain the meaning of the crucial events. Images, then, are usually the starting point for theories, providing a key idea that catches the imagination. By contrast, theories build on images and expand them, as is the case with the tightly woven argument of penal substitution or the dramatic narratives of Christ's conquest over Satan. They make connections, seek to explain, and place the originally inspired idea into a comprehensive view. While most theories use biblical images, some work from new ones, as in Anselm's use of the image of honor. The use of images may be called the symbolic value of theories, i.e., their ability to catch the spiritual imagination with an image that expresses something essential about Jesus and supports a comprehensive theory regarding sin and redemption, God and humankind.

Not all images possess this symbolic value, and for this reason images in themselves are not theories. Thus it is quite understandable that some images, while brilliant in their suggestive power, never become the basis for theories, or even fade into the background. Perhaps the best example is the title Teacher (Rabbi): while used in the gospels as a title for Jesus, it fades from use in later affirmations because it does not have the ability to express the church's estimate of Jesus' person or of what he does. The redemption by means of death and resurrection could not be contained in what we normally mean by teacher. A somewhat similar problem lies with the image of Good Shepherd: by itself it is not a theory of atonement, though when coupled with Jesus' death it can be added to various theories. So it can be said that by themselves some images fail to possess the symbolic value.

Second, in order to offer a comprehensive and compelling interpretation of Jesus, a theory will have to connect Jesus with God. This may be called its theological value. The theory, with its initial image, will have to appeal to essential affirmations regarding God as well as interpret the agency of God in the story of Jesus. To do this, the theories will inevitably draw upon the history of redemption as recorded in the Old Testament, appealing to the teachings of Jesus or the broad theological affirmations at the heart of the creeds. Theories of sacrifice and substitution will search the scriptures for images and support. Other theories, such as those of Irenaeus and Athanasius, will draw upon basic images of Jesus in the New Testament and the early church's proclamation: the conquest of demonic powers and the renewal of creation by the incarnate Word.

The theological value of a theory also requires that it be consistent with the essential affirmations regarding God at a given time and place. This, of course, is a difficult task, since these affirmations undergo considerable development and in different centuries the emphasis might change. Anselm objects to previous approaches because they rely too heavily on metaphors, whereas he proposes to present a theory with rational necessity derived from the very nature of God. Yet his theory was opposed by Abelard and many in succeeding generations, precisely because of affirmations that appeared to violate the love of God. The same can be said of the theory of penal substitution in its literal form, where the requirement for blood becomes an end in itself, making God to appear vindictive.

Third, theories connect the story of Jesus with the believers in a new time and place. By identifying the needs of their own context, the authors portray the saving power of Jesus in ways that draw a new generation into the believing community. This means, however, that the theories will display the freedom to interpret the story of Jesus in terms applicable to new situations. We see this already occurring in the New Testament. Paul interprets the meaning of Christ in relation to problems of sin and the law in quite different ways when dealing with Jewish and Gentile Christians. Likewise, when faced with the spiritual conflict of the Corinthians, he again breaks new ground in developing a gospel of reconciliation. Another dramatic example is the merger of the language of sacrifice for sin with the Passover imagery of the Exodus experience. In its original setting, the Passover celebration is not a sacrifice for sin, though Christian liturgy has united the two in an inseparable way.


Excerpted from Saving Power by Peter Schmiechen Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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