Locating Atonement

[This is the final “Atonement Week” blog post.]

This past Thursday and Friday I attended The 3rd annual Los Angeles Theology Conference – the topic was “Locating Atonement.” I especially enjoyed Ben Myers’ Atonement & the Image of God and Michael Horton’s Atonement and Ascension. Ben’s lecture was really stimulating, especially in light of the research I’m doing on T.F. Torrance’s view on universals. Matthew Levering was a lot wittier Los Angeles Theology Conference - LATCthan I expected. Eleanore Stump’s lecture stumped me (how many times has that been said!), mainly because no body responded to her synergistic account of salvation. But Bruce McCormack’s lecture (by the way Bruce is gigantic, and not just compared to me…) elicited a concerned response from me. At one point in his lecture Bruce said that atonement is located in the crucifixion, and not in the resurrection. Initially that doesn’t seem so bothersome – of course atonement happens on the cross! Duh! But then I got to thinking (in a rather Torrencian fashion), “Doesn’t atonement happen over Christ’s the whole life lived? Isn’t the incarnation a part of atonement? Isn’t his life a part of atonement? Isn’t his resurrection and ascension a part of atonement?” I know I am making some rather Torrencian presuppositions (namely that atonement occurs involves union + recapitulation and can be cashed out in something like the vicarious humanity of Christ); but even for people who don’t follow T.F. Torrance’s logic it would seem to me that Atonement can’t be exclusively located on the cross!

Let me make my self clear – I’m not denying what P.T. Forsyth called the “cruciality of the cross” – I follow Paul in declaring that we are to preach Christ crucified. I too have chosen to know nothing but Christ crucified. But, that does not me that I believe atonement is located exclusively at the cross as Bruce McCormack wants to suggest.

Let me break this down….

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

  • Necessary Condition: A necessary condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that must be satisfied in order for S to obtain.
  • Sufficient Condition: A sufficient condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that, if satisfied, guarantees that S obtains.

Here are a couple of examples.

  • Having gasoline in the gas tank is a necessary condition for me to drive to work.
  • Being 18 years old is a necessary condition for a person to serve in the military.

However,

  • Being 18 years old is not a necessary and sufficient condition to serve in the military, one would need to meet certain health requirements too.
  • Having gasoline in the gas tank is not a necessary and sufficient condition to drive to work, one needs to have tires as well.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Atonement

Lets assume for a second that atonement literally means “at-one-ment.” It signifies something like the reconciliation between God and man. (I’m not going to explain the mechanism by which this happens, you can fill this out with your own mechanism/theory.) We might want to ask whether or not the crucifixion of Christ is a necessary condition for atonement to occur. I think the answer is a simple yes. I can’t think of a single (orthodox) atonement theory which would say that atonement can happen without the cross. Penal substitution, satisfaction, christus victor, moral exemplar, recapitulation, governmental theory, and vicarious humanity theories all make clear that the cross is crucial to atonement in some way. Alright, so we might now ask – is the crucifixion of Christ a sufficient condition for atonement? This is a crucial question, because if we answer in the negative, then we have to say that some other condition or event is necessary for atonement and then we can’t say that atonement is located solely on the cross. Well lets start with this question: If Christ was not tempted by Satan, and came out victorious would atonement have happened? Some theories would say no. Allright, now another question: If Christ had not undergone an unjust trial, would atonement have happened? Again, some theories would say no. If the ascension would not have happened would atonement have been made complete? Again, some theories want to say no! Now, one final important question: If Christ had been crucified and not resurrected would atonement have been made? Paul is clear in saying: No! If Christ is not raised then our faith is in vain. Why is it in vain? Because atonement has not been made! The resurrection is a necessary condition for atonement!

What does this all mean? It means that the crucifixion is not a necessary and sufficient condition for atonement (you at least need to add resurrection to it). Thus we can’t say that Atonement is strictly located on the cross. You cannot separate the cross from the resurrection when speaking of atonement. Sorry Bruce.

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