Christian Salvation—Part One: Problems with Atonement Theology

Ted Grimsrud—September 13, 2015

[I am in the midst of a series of presentations to a Sunday School class at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on rethinking our understanding of salvation. I was asked to make a total of four presentations, drawing on my 2013 book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books) and various other writings I have produced on this theme. This written version of my first presentation actually sets the context for the book more than summarizes the book. It is a discussion of how our traditional atonement theology is problematic and why it might be useful to think of an alternative. I have found this a useful challenge to summarize the main ideas of this project.]

These are some questions to get you thinking about this topic of Christian salvation: What were you taught (explicitly and implicitly) about (the means of) salvation when you were growing up? How (if at all) have you revised your thinking on that theme? What role (if any) has the idea of Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice played in your beliefs about salvation? How would you characterize the view of God reflected in your salvation theology? What connection would you make between one’s view of salvation and how life is lived out as a follower of Jesus?

“Atonement”

The word “atonement” was coined in English, perhaps very early in the 16th century, as a way to talk about Christian salvation. It was actually created by simply joining together the phrase at-one-ment. It was meant to be used as a way of talking about how human beings are to be reconciled with God. So, “atonement” does not directly translate any Hebrew, Greek, or Latin word; it is something new. It has been called perhaps the only theological term with an English origin.

We should note, then, that the very word “atonement” was created around 400 years after the influential medieval theologian and church leader Anselm of Canterbury wrote his classic text that defined Christian salvation theology—the most influential work for both Catholics and Protestants. Anselm’s position articulated in Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) established what came to be called the “satisfaction” model as the essential understanding of atonement that shaped western Christianity (it is essential to realize that Anselm’s work came about a century after the formal separation between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy as the two main branches of Christianity—and the view of salvation developed in eastern Christianity was quite different than the western theology; so what follows is a critique only of the western, Anselmian theology). Continue reading “Christian Salvation—Part One: Problems with Atonement Theology”