Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section IV.2)

Section IV.2: Parameters for a doctrine of the atonement: christocentrism

An orthodox doctrine of the atonement must affirm that God’s economy of salvation is …

(2) … concretely christocentric. The two words—“concrete” and “christocentric”—are both essential for the doctrine of the atonement. The latter takes its bearings from Karl Barth and follows the christological assertion: “He is before all things, and in him all things are held together” (Col. 1:17). By christologically grounding our theology, we allow the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ to shape our doctrinal affirmations and our ecclesial identity. Nowhere is this more important than in the doctrine of the atonement, in which we wrestle with the reality of our reconciliation to God accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Barth states:
In willing to do this and doing it [acting as the Representative for all humanity in his death and resurrection], [Jesus Christ] did what as the Son He ought to do, what He could do in virtue of His right as Son. And He did it concretely as the legitimate bearer and representative and executor of the divine right of creation and the covenant to man and over man. (CD IV.1, 565; emphasis added)
By establishing our theology as christocentric in shape, we do not permit a christomonism which resolves the rich and complex character of the God-human relationship into one particular person; such a theological program is reductionistic and fails to account for the church as the people of God who are brought into a participatory correspondence to God through Jesus Christ. The statement by Colossians is illuminating: “in him all things are held together.” While Christ is indeed “before all things,” he does not dissolve the value of all things nor are all things resolved into his person; rather, “all things are held together” in his identity as the incarnate Son of God. The church, creation, the cosmos itself retain their particular worth and integrity in Jesus Christ, even while they are given new meaning and directed toward the telos of God’s eschatological future. We might think of Barth’s threefold Word of God: though Jesus stands at the center as the self-revelation of God, we also must affirm the witness of the apostles and prophets in Holy Scripture and the preaching of the Word in the church today. In this threefold Word of God, we have a picture of how theology as a whole is structured. Jesus Christ forms the center and basis for our theological statements, which are informed by the tradition and writings of the early church in Holy Scripture and proclaimed today in the church.

The word “concrete” clarifies the word “christocentric” by grounding our theology in the particular person, Jesus of Nazareth. Theology attends to this concrete reality, not to an abstract concept which happens to be applied to Jesus (cf. Tillich’s conception of the Christ-symbol). A concrete theology prevents any kind of liquefaction of “Christ” into other realities: our contemporary situation (any contextual theology), our human experience (liberal theology), the church (Catholicism; Radical Orthodoxy), the world (paganism), or God (modalism). Christian theology is concretely christocentric, and thus it is concerned at every point with the divine reality made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth.

All of this is essential for the doctrine of the atonement. The doctrine of the atonement must find its center in the particular person of Jesus. When we state that this doctrine must be concretely grounded in the christological reality of the cross, we assert that reconciliation was accomplished in the physical personhood of Jesus Christ. The reconciliation between God and humanity begins and ends with him. Nothing and no one apart from Jesus may contribute to the work of atonement. Only the Messiah, the Suffering Servant on behalf of the world, may mediate between God and humanity, and in this mediation, restore the broken relations between Creator and creation that have disrupted the cosmos since the dawn of time. In the rending of the tabernacle cloth on Good Friday, the rent cosmos was made whole. Wholeness comes in and through Jesus of Nazareth alone. In stating this, we simply acknowledge the Reformation confession of solus Christus.

The particularity and exclusiveness of the divine work of atonement is also the ground for its universal and inclusive scope. Jesus Christ, as Jüngel writes (following Gogarten), is the “turning point of the world” (GMW 364). Barth speaks of the history of Jesus as the line that runs through and connects all human history. We could appropriate Tillich and call Jesus Christ the ground of both being and new being—in him the worlds were created, in him “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17), “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1:20), and in his particular history, new humanity was definitively established through his life, death, and resurrection. The narrative of the gospel as the universal narrative definitive for all people receives its story from this particular life and from no other.

In conclusion, the identity of Jesus Christ is a concrete identity. The Logos of God is a concrete Word. As Barth says, “God always speaks a concretissimum (CD I.1, 137). The Word of God is not just any word, nor is a word that can be changed to adapt the needs of some particular time and place. By this I do not mean that the Word of God overlooks the existential situation of the one who hears the gospel; rather, what is most concrete and other than us is simultaneously what concerns us the most and remains the most near to us—nearer, in fact, than we are to ourselves. The Word of God took concrete form in Jesus of Nazareth, who by the Spirit remains present to us in our existential situation through the gospel kerygma. A concrete christocentric theology does not neglect the one who hears and receives the Good News; rather it asserts that the Good News is only ‘good’ because we confess the concrete nature of the gospel which declares that God revealed Godself to be ‘for us’ in Jesus of Nazareth, and in him alone. There, in the years 1-30, we discover the truth of faith, the truth of theology, the truth of ourselves, and the truth of the world: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6).