Responsibility and Atonement (Pt. 3)

It’s Easter Weekend! Its the time of year we Christians celebrate Christ’s atoning work for us on the cross and his resurrection, which we participate in through baptism into Christ. In light of the fact that it is Easter weekend I will be blogging on Richard Swinburne’s Responsibility and Atonement this easter weekend. Today on Easter Sunday I hope to show that Swinburne’s atonement is full of shortcomings.

Here are the first two posts: Responsibility and Atonement (Pt. 1) and Responsibility and Atonement (Pt. 2)


Having laid out Swinburne’s atonement theory I would like to point out three shortcomings. The first shortcoming is about his method. Swinburne’s atonement theory is marked by a lack of interaction with scripture. He beings with certain philosophical notions and the formulates his theology in light of them. As a philosopher this is understandable, his theology will be done in dialogue with philosophy, but one would at least expect him to put his philosophical notions and scripture in dialogue with one another. Yet he does not do this, he proceeds to make theological arguments strictly in light of his philosophical positions. Even when he does use scripture, it is coloured by his philosophical positions. It is well acknowledged that it is difficult to have a neutral reading of scripture; we always bring our own philosophical and cultural baggage to the text but there is something odd when one does not even try to begin with scripture humbly acknowledging ones own biases. Because he lacks interaction with scripture and instead formulates his doctrine from philosophy it is hard to know what to make of his theological claims. This is a shortcoming in his theology of atonement.

A second shortcoming is Swinburne’s theology by analogy. We might want to ask Swinburne questions like: “does God inhabit the same moral universe that we do?” “Is our system of morality the same as God’s?” These questions highlight some important issues we must grapple with when doing atonement theology by analogy. In talking about our moral concepts and God’s moral concepts is our language univocal? That is, is our use of the word “atonement” the same for humans as it is for God? Or is it equivocal? Does our use of the word “atonement” have completely different meanings for us than God? Or perhaps is the use of the word “atonement” analogical? Namely is “atonement” for us and God similar in certain ways but different in others? Nowhere does Swinburne address this important issue. He merely assumes that the way atonement works for humans is the same exact way atonement works for God. He may or many not be correct, but he never shows why we should believe that atonement works the same way for God and humans. There are certainly good reasons to believe that it does and equally good reasons to believe that it doesn’t, but merely assuming that it does makes his account of atonement less convincing.

The final, and possibly most important, shortcoming that I would like to mention is that Swinburne’s account at times can come off as being semi-pelagian. First he has a very weak doctrine of original sin. He believes that humans are mostly in possession of a good will and that humans can in fact willfully choose on their own to do good (even though it is very difficult for humans to do this). He is overly optimistic in the goodness of humans. This is displayed by his belief that humans just “need help” to make atonement. For Swinburne humans do a part to make atonement but Jesus adds the rest for us. Thus the act of atonement is not something that God does for us, it is something that we do together. This synergistic account of the atonement makes it so that Christ’s work is a necessary but not a sufficient action for atonement. At the end of the day humans are responsible for the attainment of their forgiveness. Christ alone is not responsible. In addition to the fact that for Swinburne Christ’s work is not sufficient for forgiveness, there is another problem that touches upon some of his semi-pelagian leanings, namely that Christ’s work only restores the status quo. Christ’s work is not sufficient for justification, Christ’s work restores the balance of the “debt” owed to God. In his later chapters on heaven and hell it seems as though the atonement merely fixes the balance between God and humans but humans are responsible to make their own choices later in life which will determine their fate for eternity. Where one ends up in the eternal state has nothing to do with Christ’s atoning work, rather it has to do with cultivating one’s will and forming a good moral character. Thus once again Christ’s work isn’t a sufficient piece for salvation.

I believe that these three shortcomings; his method, his assumption of theology by analogy, and his semi-pelagian leanings make his account of the atonement hard to buy into. It is this last shortcoming which is especially damning. His semi-pelagian leanings place him well outside of what the Christian tradition has affirmed about Christ’s work of atonement.


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