Nothing But the Blood
Further, McKnight uses Christ's words to interpret Atonement passages in Paul, Peter, and Hebrewseven though the Epistles provide the most sustained discussions of Christ's Atonement. He again acknowledges that such passages might carry along with them "the notions of penal substitution and satisfaction," but in the end says, "[they] need not." Thus he goes to what seem to be great lengths to avoid the plain meaning of these passages. At one point, he says that Jesus is "both representative and substitute," but his interpretation so transforms the idea of substitute as to rob it of its traditional theological meaning.
Stephen Finlan also seems to pit one portion of Scripture against another. He writes in Problems with Atonement, "It is a mistake to identify Atonement as the central Christian doctrine, although it is central to the Pauline tradition, to First Peter, Hebrews, First John, and Revelation. But these books in their entirety compose only 39 percent of the New Testament."
Even if one were to grant Finlan's premise (which I certainly don't), 39 percent of the New Testament can hardly be swept away or ignored. For those of us who maintain that the apostles' writings bear equal authority to Jesus' words in the Gospelsand that they are themselves inspired by the Spirit of Jesus (see John 16:12-15)substitutionary, sin-bearing language must be accepted as the dominant Atonement metaphor in the Bible.
Still, why pit these theories against each other and discount, ignore, or diminish biblical language that describes the death of Christ? While a victor may have moral influence on those for whom he conquered, may he not also be a substitute? While Christ's example of self-giving love may also defeat our enemies, may he not, by the same act, propitiate God's wrath? Each of the theories conveys biblical truth about the atoning work of Christ.
I don't doubt that we have more to learn from Christ's death than simply the fact that he died as a substitute for us, bearing our grief and carrying our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). Peter, for instance, teaches that we should follow Christ's example of suffering for that which is good (1 Pet. 3). Any biblical understanding of the Atonement must take into account our having been united to Christ by faith, adopted and regenerated in him. As those who belong to him, as his temple and his body, we expect the fruit of his Spirit to be evident in us. Because of the Atonement, we expect a new quality to our lives (Rom. 6; 2 Cor. 5; Gal. 5; 2 Pet. 1). The Atonement is not merely moral influence, but it surely results in moral improvement.
Rather than pitting these theories against one another, couldn't they be evaluated together? A Christ who wins victory over the powers of evil, whose death changes us, and whose death propitiates God is not only conceivable, he seems to be the Bible's composite presentation. Frank Thielman of Beeson Divinity School states a traditional view of the Atonement in his recent summary, Theology of the New Testament (Zondervan, 2005). But Thielman, a scholar who has focused his work more on Paul than on the Gospels, also presents the Cross as a defeat of those cosmic powers opposing GodChristus Victor. As Hans Boersma wrote of Atonement theories in Books & Culture (March/April, 2003), "By allowing the entire choir to sing together, I suspect we may end up serving the interests of God's eschatological shalom."