what if the atonement cannot be systematised?

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’?

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3 comments

  1. Chris

    I wrote a book tracing the ‘Feasts’ pattern through the Bible. The various types of the Day of Atonement are fascinating. I call it ‘systematic typology.’ This way, through around a thousand pictures, we learn what God thinks atonement is.

    Perhaps the two most interesting pictures are those where the Father is ‘tricked.’ Both involved goat skin (Isaac and then Joseph).

    In Acts, Luke uses this structure as well. It is the only reason he mentions “sailing under the sign of the twins.”

    The Bible contains its own systems.

    Mike Bull

  2. Chris

    We can say coherent things about what God has done for us in Jesus and by His Spirit – a lot actually – and therefore we could be systematic in our description. On the other hand, as Paul noted in discussion with the Corinthians, the God and Father of our Lord Messiah Jesus is not simply a god of spectacular intervention as the Jews demanded. Yet neither is he a god of appropriate rational distance as the Greeks require. Instead we have the one through whom and for whom all things were made submitting himself to the murderous hands of his creatures in order to save them from sin, death and evil – Christ crucified.

    1. Thanks David,

      From a systematician I guess that’s pretty telling!

      I agree that we can say a lot of coherent — and even systematic — things about God’s achievement in Jesus by the Spirit. One might even say that Aulen’s summary of the classic view is pretty systematic in a broad sense. Aulen seems to be working with a narrower understanding of ‘rational’ — derived perhaps from medieval Catholic as well as more contemporary Protestant scholastic constructions.

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