Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Atonement: The Kaleidoscopic View

Earlier today I finished reading Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement (Intervarsity, 2006). Specifically I read Joel Green's essay on what he calls the kaleidoscopic view of the atonement, along with the responses to it.

Green begins his essay with two assertions: First, "Jesus' demise at the hands of Roman justice, represented theologically in the motto 'Christ crucified,' is the means for comprehending the eternal purpose of God, as this is known in Israel's Scriptures" (157). Or as he says elsewhere, "There is no Christianity apart from the cross of Christ" (184). Second, "the significance of Jesus' death is woven so tightly into the fabric of God's purpose that we may never exhaust the many ways of articulating its meaning for salvation" (157). In other words, the death of Jesus is such a profound historical event, and the eternal purposes of God in it are so deep and varied and rich, that we will most likely never fully comprehend or articulate its meaning, no matter how many models or metaphors we use.

This is the heart of the kaleidoscopic view: the atonement is simply too profound to be comprehended by any one model of it, even if that model allows for others which are subordinate to it.

So far so good, by which I mean, I at least have some sympathy for Green's view at this point. I can at least understand where he's coming from. However, he moves on from these premises to summarize several historical probabilities about the nature of capital punishment in the Roman and Jewish worlds, which somehow leads him to this, somewhat stunning, statement: "Jesus was no masochist looking for an opportunity to suffer and die, but he saw that his absolute commitment to the purpose of God might his death" (163). Might lead? Did I read that right? Yes, I read that right: "might lead."

Then after a brief foray into the relationship between Jesus' life and death, Green states, "This means that God's saving act is not God's response to Jesus' having become 'obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross' (Phil 2:8). Rather, God sent his Son to save, and this is worked out in a kaleidoscope of purpose statements...God's saving act is the incarnation, which encompasses the whole of his life, including his death" (164). Excuse me? While I agree that the death of Jesus cannot be comprehended and explained apart from its relation to the life of Jesus, as well as the resurrection, I think it's pushing the bounds of orthodoxy to say "that God's saving act is not God's response" to Jesus' death. "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22).

As tempting as it is to camp out here and say a few things in response, in the interest of time I need to move on to his next jarring statement, which is also rather esoteric. I had to read several times to get his point. In an attempt to argue for why multiple views of the atonement are necessary, Green asserts, "the church's glossolalia with regard to the soteriological effect of the cross is a function of the catechetical and missiological needs and impulses of the church" (166). To put it in plain language, the way the church speaks about the saving effect of the cross is owing to its own needs and impulses to teach and do. The way the church speaks about the cross arises, not from objective truth, but from contextual needs and agendas.

This seems to me at once an obvious and yet also potentially dangerous statement. On the one hand, it is beyond question that the church, beginning with the biblical writers, had to strain for language and metaphors to describe what happened at the cross in a way that did justice to the event and also made sense to people. Scholars and pastors have always, and will always, do this. But on the other hand, this way of stating the matter comes dangerously close to suggesting that the meaning of the atonement is not in the atontement but in the application thereof. In other words, it treads on the thin ice where the death of Jesus takes its meaning, not from any objective criteria, but from the subjective needs of those attempting to understand it.

Green does somewhat assuage my concern in the final section of his essay where he summarizes two views of the atonement, one of which is the model of atonement as sacrifice. And yet, I still get the sinking feeling that in his mind the writer of Hebrews, who develops this model in the most depth, is simply trying to make sense of the death of Jesus for a Jewish (and perhaps gentile) audience, rather than explaining how that death is in fact central to the eternal purposes of God--central in an objective way, not just a contextual way. (Another issue I have with this portion of his essay is that Green attempts to argue that the wrath of God is not retributive, but I'll have to address this some other time.)

I'm just about out of time tonight so I'm not going to say much about the responses to this essay. I was least impressed with Greg Boyd's response, and most impressed with Tom Schreiner's--not just because I agree with his overall view of the atonement but because I think he gets to the heart of the problem with Green's essay. namely, that there is more to the meaning of the cross than the context in which it is communicated. In other words, there is objective meaning there, and it is well within the realm of possibility that, although that meaning is infintely deep, it is organized around a central theme. "In other words, the kaleidoscope has an anchoring color (penal substitution) that brings coherence to all the dimensions of the atonement" (193). Someday I hope to write about just how this is so, but for now I'll have to leave you to think about Schreiner's assertion on your own.


  1. I find it a bit odd that you choose to quote Hebrews 9:22 in part and not in whole. Actually I don't find it odd, I find it quite normal. Many do this but why?

    Hebrews 9:22 more accurately reads... And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

    Could you comment on this?

  2. Hi Josh,

    Thanks for your question. I must admit that I'm not quite sure what you're getting at, but I'll take a stab it. Please let me know if I'm missing the point and I'll try again!

    It seems to me that your point centers on the translation "one may almost say" which, when read in the flow of the NASB's translation could mean "one may almost say [that]...without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." This would imply that the author is not making a positive statement--there must be shed blood in order to forgive sins--but is musing about the extent of the meaning of shed blood in the OT sacrificial system.

    However, I must say that I think NASB gets the translation wrong here--and just for the record I'm a big fan of the NASB! You'll notice that in their actual printed text the words "one may" and "say" are italicized. This is their way, as I'm sure you know, of signaling to the reader that those words are not in the Greek text, and indeed they are not. The Greek text very literally reads, "And almost by blood everything is cleansed according to the law and without shedding blood not becomes forgiveness." Or to put it more smoothly, "And almost everything is cleansed by blood according to the law, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."

    I consulted the ESV, KJV, NKJV, NRSV, NIV, NLT, and NET to see how they rendered the Greek and they all follow my reading thereof. So the key point here is that the word "almost" (schedon) does not modify the second clause of this verse but the first clause, and therefore it does not limit the extent of the statement the author is making in the second clause. He was saying that blood must be shed in order for there to be forgiveness.

    Further, in the flow of Hebrews 9 the author's point is that, even as the first covenant was inaugurated with blood (v 18), so the new covenant was inaugurated with the blood of Christ. And this was not incidental to the covenant, rather, it was central and necessary to the possibility and actuality of atonement. The blood of Christ had to be shed in order for eternal forgiveness to become available by grace, through faith.

    Therefore, in light of Joel Green's essay--who, by the way, is a good friend of mine; I studied under him from 1995-99 and worked with him outside of class as well--my point was that Joel is wrong, if I understand what he's saying. The death of Jesus was not incidental but necessary and planned before the foundation of the world. The incarnation was not enough to provide for the salvation of the world. The blood of Jesus had to be shed on that cross, in the strongest sense of the words "had to be." He was, as John the Baptist declared, "The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). And in light of the corpus of Scripture, what else could this mean but "sacrificial lamb"? This image of Jesus is central to Jesus' identity as is displayed by the fact that even in heaven, after the resurrection and for eternity, he is seen and heralded as the Lamb of God (Rev 5:6, 8, 12, 13; 6:1, 16; 7:9, 10, 14, 17; 8:1; 12:1; 13:8, 11; 14:1, 4, 10; 15:3; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22, 23; 22:1, 3).

    Josh, this is a hill I would die on, so to speak, because I think the integrity of the gospel hinges upon it. The shedding of blood is necessary for forgiveness, and therefore, the shed blood of Christ is necessary for atonement in the most profound sense of that word. In this way, Christ is the fulfillment of the sacrificial system which was, along with other things, a shadow of things to come.

    Josh, I hope I have not missed your point! If so, please say so and I'll give it another go. And thanks again for your question, I really appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and respond.

    For the glory of Christ and our joy in Him,