At the 2006 Ancient Evangelical Future conference, historian Martin Marty commented briefly on the Atonement theories proposed by the early church. Did the church fathers hold to penal substitution, Christus Victor, or Anselm's view of the Atonement? Yes. All of the above.

Panelists pressed Marty to declare one view or another the "right" one. Whatever one thinks, he responded, the reality is that the church held to multiple versions.

The same is true today, in evangelical thinking about the nature of the gospel. Because we are a biblical people, we want to preserve the gospel in as pure a form as possible, which is why many people and institutions (like this magazine) prioritize substitutionary Atonement. But because we are an evangelistic, missional people, we want to contextualize the gospel to reach as many as possible.

The danger of the conservationist impulse is that it can lead to static reductionism. The danger of the entrepreneurial impulse is that it can lead to utilitarianism or relativism. At our best, we hold these impulses in tension, creating gospel approaches that are both timeless and timely. The result is multiple ways of explaining the gospel—and that makes some of us nervous.

Communication theory teaches that messages are conditioned by the social location of both sender and receiver. You can tell two people the same sentence, and they might hear entirely different things. Likewise, people naturally tell the gospel in their own particular way. Some focus on a change of heart, mind, or direction; others major on judgment or conviction of sin. Some speak about the promise of new life, now and eternally; others stress individual transformation or societal and cosmic renewal.

We need all of the above. Jesus ...

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Kingdom Sightings
Al Hsu is an editor at InterVarsity Press and author of The Suburban Christian, Grieving a Suicide, and Singles at the Crossroads. His column ran in 2008.
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April 2008

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