Engaging Olson on the objective theories of the Atonement

I thought I was done posting about this subject for a while, but apparently I’m not the only one thinking about this! The following comes from Roger Olson, someone whose views I often find quite compelling. What does he think about the atonement?

…I do think denial of any objective-transactional aspect of the atonement is dangerous to the gospel.  Purely subjective theories fall short; they cannot account for how the atonement takes care of the guilt problem.  They are inextricably tied to an optimistic, perhaps even Pelagian, view of humanity when taken alone.

To me, anyway, the gospel IS that Christ died for our sins in the sense that his death made it possible for God to forgive sinners righteously.  Take that away and the preaching of the cross gradually (or suddenly) fades away.  So does the gospel.

via About the atonement | Roger E Olson

Olson seems to be working from popular but deficient definitions of two words.

The first problematic understanding is of the nature of sin: he still views sin primarily in terms of “guilt”. Then again, maybe it’s his definition of guilt that’s the problem. I believe that sin is real, and that it is the common enemy of God and man. But that’s just it: sin is the enemy, not the sinner. The idea that “the guilt problem” means that mankind with its sinful behavior is a fire that God needs to put out, that is, until Christ died, is the fuzzy logic behind the “objective-transactional” views of governmental and penal substitution theories of the atonement. But it’s not a logic that holds up very well if we take at all seriously the way that Jesus taught us to talk about God, namely as a Father. Any interest I might have in “tak[ing] care of the guilt problem” whenever my young son commits a sin (such as lying) would be nothing less than a perversity on my part. I do care about his guilt, but only insofar as it stems from my real parental concern for his well-being and moral development. He may be an offender, but a good parent first wants to address the fact that his child is a victim of his/her own acts. If my daughter stepped in to offer herself to receive my son’s punishment, and I took her up on her offer, either to demonstrate my sense of “justice” (which sounds disturbingly like the lex talionis superseded by Jesus himself) as in the governmental theory or, admittedly much worse, because I had an otherwise insatiable need to punish someone, anyone, for my son’s misdeeds, I would not be a good parent, much less the wise father of consummate love taught in the New Testament. No, sin is a sickness that must be removed from our souls, not “cancelled” or “paid for” through some clever “transaction”. The sinner must be cured, not left to decay as punishment for being sick. Olson and Piper, as rarely on the same page as they are, unite to disagree with this assessment just as emphatically as I reject theirs. [Note: the preceding paragraph has been edited slightly since publication for clarity.]

The other misunderstanding (puzzling to me in the extreme) that Olson and Piper agree upon is what the gospel is: “…the gospel IS that Christ died for our sins…” Please tell me, then, how Jesus could have been preaching the gospel from the very outset of his ministry! When did he once proclaim his death as the good news? This is massively, bewilderingly wrong, attributable only to the common tendency to allow Pauline theology (esp. from Romans) to trump that of the Gospel writers and their Jesus traditions (in point of fact, I don’t think Paul was so mistaken on that either, but that’s another discussion). The good news of the gospel is of the coming of the Kingdom of God, which was always that God’s heart would soon rule the day: the mighty would be brought low and the lowly exalted. Jesus’ gospel was extremely social; from what we can tell, it was conceived of as a political gospel as well (the return of Israel’s national status), so perhaps it’s best just to say that it was conceived of as a holistic new world order. It didn’t happen quite like they (even Jesus, apparently) thought it would. But in any event, in the Gospels we are never given any indication that Jesus proclaimed that his death was to bring about the Kingdom of God by taking the punishment for our sins. How else could Jesus tell people who called him “Lord” that he never knew them? It was those who “do the will of [the] father,” those who learn to obey their father who take part in the order of the Kingdom. What was Jesus’ solution to the sin problem? In the earliest Gospel’s first statement of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 1.14-15, it was “Repent and believe in the good news!” And notice that “good news” there couldn’t mean “trust in my work upon the cross.”

Olson’s quoted remarks are based on a presupposition: Jesus’ atonement must have been objective, or else Jesus’ death didn’t take care of our guilt. This implies that he is uncomfortable with admitting that perhaps Jesus’ death did not take care of our guilt in a substitutionary fashion, making it possible “for God to forgive sinners righteously.” A righteous father will always forgive his wayward children, will he not? He will punish or love (depending on the circumstance) his children’s misbehavior right out of them; what he will not do is make excuses for it.

Ok, I pledge it: I’m laying off of this subject for the foreseeable future.

Tagged with:
Recent Posts: