Theory or History? The Difference is Important

It has become common in theological circles for historic doctrines related to the work of Christ to be described as “theories.” Different aspects of the atonement have been commonly referred to in terms of models or theories for some time (e.g. penal substitution, Christus victor). Now, especially it seems since the release of Douglas Campbell’s latest book, justification is being increasingly discussed in terms of “justification theory.”
It’s one thing for this to be the language of professional academic guilds, but I hope this language doesn’t work it’s way into the Church. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s important because atonement and justification have to do with how we come into a right relationship with God. And from a pastoral perspective, I don’t want to leave that up to theory.
Paul wrote of sinners that, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:24-25). And whatever that means, it is no mere theory. It is history; it is simply what happened. How do we gain access to God? Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. How are we justified? By his grace as a gift. These are not theories for Paul. They are theological truths grounded in the historic event of Christ’s death and resurrection. I don’t want my relationship to God through Christ dependant on someones theory; I want it dependent on something that Jesus actually did.
The language of theory grants competing interpretations of atonement and justification some level of mutual credibility. The problem is that not all competing interpretations are credible. Not all are to be believed. Did Jesus propitiate the wrath of God or didn’t he? Does God justify sinners or doesn’t he? And the matter of whether and how he does that is not simply a matter of theory; it is an issue of what actually happened. It is a matter of what transpired on the cross, of what happens when a person believes the gospel. We must do the hard work of understanding what scripture means when it speaks of what Jesus actually did and what actually happens to us. Theories are of limited help; history is the key thing. There is a difference, and the difference may very well bear eternal significance.

4 thoughts on “Theory or History? The Difference is Important

  1. Chad, I think I'm inclined to react the same as Matt, to the use of the word 'theory' WRT atonement.

    'Theory' implies a proposed explaination, conjecture.
    It's true that our society treats 'theory' more reverently than it's actual meaning ( as in 'theory of evolution' is very nearly treated as 'law of evolution').

    Still, the bible provides many mechanisms by which Christ atones for our sins, any one of which is a suitable mechanism to save us. i.e.:
    – as Pascal lamb, He staves off the angel of death [Exo 12:23]
    – as sin offering (or sprinkled blood) He meets the sufficient condition for sin forgiveness [Lev 11:7]
    – as Jubilee, He sets all captives free [Lev 25:8-5][Isa 61:1-2][Luke 4:18-19]
    – as kinsman redeemer, He purchases us back by paying our debts [Lev 25:47-49]
    – as bridegroom of blood, He protects and cleanses us before God, through circumcision [Exo 4:25-26]
    – as Mercy Seat, He intercedes for us, before God [Exo 25:22]
    ( and more …)

    So it doesn't matter if there are various biblical mechanisms by which He atones for us, since His atonement is sufficient to accomplish every one. (Or which do you believe matters most, the mechanism of atonement, or the sufficiency of it?) Jesus' atonement is 'historical', as Matt says, rather than 'theoretical'.

    At least this is how I takeI Matt's emphasis on 'historical'. I believe Matt is saying along with Christ 'It is done.'


  2. I think that your dispute with the use of the word theory is helpful as a means of clarification that we are talking about something that is an integral aspect of human existence, not some intangible idea.

    However, I don't think that the sense of “atonement theory,” at least in terms of how it is used in the academy and the church is one that discusses questions of *whether* the atonement is realized, or *by whom* it is realized. The sense of “theory” is rather the precise mechanism by which we can explain HOW the work of Christ atones for our sins.

    I think that model is likely a better descriptor for this and our word choice is important. Nevertheless, within the range of the orthodox tradition of the church, there are various models or theories by which we can describe how Jesus atones for our sins– sacrificially, as a ransom, as one who tiumphs over evil and death, taking on the punishment that we justly deserve, etc.

    None of these fail to take seriously the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, but they are different, yet powerful images by which we can begin to conceive of the nature of the Christ's work on the behalf of the children of God.


  3. In this post, you wrote 'The rediscovery of boundaries in theology will be the preoccupation of the twenty-first century of Christian theology,' says Thomas Oden, United Methodist theologian and Emeritus Professor of Theology at The Theological School, Drew University.” In this post you wrote that the most marginalized and oppressed group in Protestant theological education were those who come from its evangelical and pietistic heartland. Now you're commenting about how 'justification' is being treated theoretically rather than historical (in some circles).

    It sounds like Oden's concern, and yours, that nothing is off-limits in the mainline seminaries, is well founded!

    [1 Cor 15:14] says “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain”.

    That Christ WAS raised from the dead means God has PROVIDED EVIDENCE for our “justification by faith” beyond reasonable doubt. In case we didn't catch it the first time around:

    [1 Cor 15:17] says “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

    If justification is NOT historical, our faith is in vain!

    (Shocking you need to confront this, but nice post!)


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