On the Energion Discussion Network we have two essays posted in answer to the question “Do atonement theories continue to speak to the human condition?” The “yes” answer, written by Dr. Allan Bevere appeared yesterday. The “no” answer appeared today, written by Rev. Steve Kindle. I find both of these articles well worth reading.
In the past I have been accused of rejecting penal substitutionary atonement because of the fact that I don’t see it as central, or as the explanation of the atonement. In fact, I don’t see any theory of the atonement as a single explanation of the atonement. Our theories of the atonement are metaphors, used to carry across some of the meaning to us.
As does Allan Bevere, I do find pretty much all theories of the atonement relevant in one way or another. Where I tend to be concerned is where a metaphor begins, in some people’s minds, to become the reality, i.e. that rather than believing in the cross of Christ we believe in our particular metaphor, the one that may best speak to us. I recall a professor from whom I took a class in exegesis of Romans from the Greek text. What was remarkable about the class was that his favorite theory, or metaphor, for the atonement as the moral influence theory. Now I have a bit of a liking for that metaphor myself, but it is not the metaphor Paul uses in Romans. There is some overlap. But this professor, because that was his very most favorite metaphor, taught nothing but, twisting Paul considerably in the process.
I’d add one more caveat. Relevance is a word that points both ways. A metaphor, to be relevant must communicate to one who hears. If it doesn’t, it isn’t working as a metaphor. I think quite often we need to correct the presentation of some metaphors to make them function better. If they don’t carry something over, they aren’t relevant in that case, however great they might be otherwise.