Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section I)
Section I: Introduction to the doctrine of the atonement
The question as to the nature of the atonement is in truth nothing else than the question ‘what is Christianity?’ (John McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement, 316)The question of universalism must, at some point, come to rest on a particular understanding of the atonement accomplished in Jesus Christ. Universalism, in the final analysis, asks about the doctrine of the atonement: Who is reconciled to God? Who exactly is the object of God’s atoning work in Jesus Christ? Of course, by this point in the series, it should be obvious to any reader how I will go about explicating the doctrine of the atonement. Yet I wish to make explicit what has been hitherto merely implicit.
Robert Jenson makes the point that in the history of the church, there has never been an officially agreed upon doctrine of the atonement. I mostly agree with him that the root of the problem is likely found in the failure of theologians to connect the atonement to God’s economic activity prior to the cross and following the resurrection. The atonement is viewed as an singular moment concentrated on the cross and resurrection, to the exclusion, on the one hand, of Jesus’ life of ministry and the history of Israel narrated in the Old Testament, and on the other hand, of the history of the church and the consummation of all things in the eschatological future. That being said, the failure of the church to reach a consensus on the atonement casts a shadow over the controversy regarding universalism. It is my contention that how we view the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has important ramifications for whether or not we find universalism convincing. The Scriptural evidence is not entirely clear either way, and so we depend upon theological argumentation to move us beyond the impasse toward some kind of resolution.
The atonement is generally viewed in terms of one of three major models, as famously outlined by Gustaf Aulén in his important work, Christus Victor. The three models are (1) the moral-exemplarist theory (associated with Peter Abelard); (2) the ‘Christus Victor’ theory, and (3) the satisfaction theory (associated with Anselm of Canterbury). Aulén makes the case that the ‘Christus Victor’ model is the original theory among the early church fathers. In the last decade, this model has been the clear favorite among those engaging in contextual theology, including feminist and nonviolent theologies. Aulén’s book is somewhat outdated, and the three models he highlights are not the only options, nor are they mutually exclusive. What I will do next is summarize the different positions very briefly before moving on to the doctrine of the atonement as articulated by Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar.