In his famous study, Christus Victor, Gustaf Aulen describes the ‘classic idea’ of the atonement. This idea emphasises the victory of God over sin and evil in Jesus (rather than his offering of himself as a human being in order to make satisfaction for our failure to honour God as God, for example).
Towards the end he offers a fascinating suggestion about why systematicians have so much difficulty swallowing this view (p 155):
God is at once the all-ruler, and engaged in conflict with the powers of evil. These powers are evil powers, and at the same time executants of God’s judgment on sin. God is at the same time the Reconciler and the Reconciled. His is the Love and His the Wrath. The Love prevails over the Wrath, and yet Love’s condemnation of sin is absolute. The Love is infinite and unfathomable, acting contra rationem et legem [against/apart from reason and law], justifying men without any satisfaction of the Divine justice or any consideration of human merit; yet at the same time God’s claim on men is sharpened to the uttermost.
Every attempt to force this conception into a purely rational scheme is bound to fail; it could only succeed by robbing it of its religious depth.
I’m not sure I want to sign off on every detail of Aulen’s summary. For example, doesn’t Paul insist that God’s justification of the ungodly by faith definitively demonstrates his justice (Rom. 3.21-26)?
But what I’m wondering is, What do we gain — and what do we lose — if we agree that the atonement cannot by systematised or forced ‘into a purely rational scheme’?