Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement: What Is Atonement? (Part 2)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, this Saturday the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College will host its annual conference. This year, the focus will be on atonement theology.

All this week, The Search for Piety and Obedience will serve up some preliminary thoughts on the conference theme of atonement. Yesterday’s post looked at the conference schedule and format.

Today’s post looks an an introductory question: What is atonement?

Atonement literally means at-one-moment. Basically, it serves as a way to describe the ways in which God and humans have been reconciled through Jesus Christ.

According to the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), discussions of atonement often “focus on the meaning of Jesus’ death” (emphasis mine). That is to say, atonement theology refers to intellectual interrogations of the meanings of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection.

Arguably the most influential Protestant theology of atonement, unlimited atonement, stands in contrast to the Calvinist theology of limited atonement and states that Jesus died as a propitiation for the benefit of humankind without exception. John Wesley, a theological headwaters for the Brethren in Christ tradition, was at the vanguard of arguing for this theology, especially in sermons like 1740’s “Free Grace.”

GAMEO provides this concise statement about early Anabaptist theologies/theories of atonement:

. . . Unlike most other Protestant reformers, Anabaptists insisted that following in Jesus’ earthly footsteps is essential to salvation. Accordingly, the life through which he provided this pattern was not secondary, but central to, his atoning work. Moreover, many Anabaptists stressed that Jesus’ entire life, culminating in his death, was an outpouring and demonstration of love.

However, numerous themes expressed in the substitutionary and Christus Victor theories also appear in Anabaptist writers. Anabaptists often emphasized Jesus’ example and its continuing significance not along moral influence lines, but in ways which supplement or give concrete focus to these other themes.

Hopefully this gives you a basic introduction to the idea of atonement as a category in Christian theology. Tomorrow, we’ll begin some preliminary investigation of one of the conference papers, “The Traditional Brethren in Christ View of Atonement.”


About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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