All this week, The Search for Piety and Obedience is prepping for Saturday’s conference, “Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement,” hosted at Messiah College by the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies. We’re hoping to generate some first thoughts about the topic, and get readers interested in this “hot button” issue.
Today’s post focuses on one of Saturday’s proposed papers, “Historic Perspectives on the Atonement Among the Brethren in Christ.”
So what have the Brethren in Christ, historically, thought about the atonement? That question is more easily asked than answered.
After the jump: Some thoughts on the historic Brethren in Christ view of the atonement.
Unlike other Protestant fellowships, the Brethren in Christ have never been doctrinaire — that is, they have never articulated or constructed lofty theological arguments for the purposes of developing new perspectives on timeless Christian questions. As a result, the Brethren in Christ have often — either consciously or unconsciously — absorbed theological insights from the larger Protestant world. At times, church leaders and members have sought to reconcile these borrowed insights with traditional Brethren in Christ views; at other times, those same people have (for better or for worse) allowed those insights to transcend or eclipse traditional Brethren in Christ concerns.
The historic (or traditional) Brethren in Christ view of the atonement fits somewhere into that too-easily-drawn binary — somewhere between “reconciled with our theological core” and “casually accepted without critical attention.”
My only engagemen with the question of the “Brethren in Christ view of the atonement” came in the fall of 2009, when I took “Theology of Salvation,” a Core Course for ministers sponsored by the Brethren in Christ Church. The course instructor, the late Dr. Luke Keefer, devoted an hour of class time (admittedly, he said, too little) to investigating the “Brethren in Christ view of the atonement.”
Dr. Keefer laid out eight views of the atonement, all developed at various points in Christian history:
- Ransom. Christ’s death bought our freedom (from sin) at a price.
- Recapitulation. God counteracts the evil of Satan at any point — Christ is the Second/Last Adam, who fixes (through his death and resurrection) what the First Adam broke.
- Sacrifice. An allusion to the Old Testament sacrificial system — Christ redeems us, restores us to God through the shedding of his blood.
- Substitutionary. Christ takes our place — He rectifies our broken honor with God — as both human and divine, only He can substitute for the broken honor
- Penal. There is a penalty for sin, and Christ paid that penalty for us — justice is served — conceptualized by John Calvin
- Limited atonement. Total up all the sins of “the elect” — those “chosen” for salvation — and that’s how much of a penalty Christ paid on the cross (Reformed theology)
- Moral influence. God doesn’t need a sacrifice to be merciful (because God’s always merciful) — sinners need a message to return to God, and at the cross God merely proclaimed God’s love — “I died to save, because I love you.”
- Christus Victor. Christ’s death overcomes the powers of evil, His resurrection triumphs over them — empowers us to defeat the powers of evil in everyday life.
According to Dr. Keefer, the Brethren in Christ do not subscribe solely to any single one of these theologies. Rather, we need many theologies — many “pictures,” as Dr. Keefer described them — to fully understand the power of the cross’ atonement. Even then, there’s a lot of room for divine mystery. Moreover, he said, this eclectic view provides space for the power of the Biblical vocabulary: words like sin and salvation speak more powerfully than human constructions like “atonement.”
I read Dr. Keefer’s remarks in two ways.
First, the Brethren in Christ view of atonement values the biblical. I’m certain Dr. Keefer was speaking strategically when he noted that refusing to be mired in any single view of the atonement allows us to unleash the “power of the biblical vocabulary.” The Brethren in Christ, from the outset, have valued the power of the biblical vocabulary. We see that in the serious ways in which we read and applied the Bible — from concerns about mutual aid and community care to peacemaking to sanctification to simplicity in word and deed. Thus, by providing space for the “power of the biblical vocabulary,” we in fact reflect the biblical vision that has characterized our movement from the outset.
Second, the Brethren in Christ view of atonement is eclectic in that it takes what’s good (or useful) about one view while rejecting what’s bad (or not useful) about that same view. In this sense, we seek out the theologically valuable imagery of these various theologies, measure it against our three-strand theological rootage, and redeem what’s useful. To use a different metaphor, we quilt our own theology of atonement.
I’m anxious to see how John Arthur Brubaker — a long-time Brethren in Christ minister and bishop, and a theologically inclined thinker in his own right — characterizes the historic Brethren in Christ view of the atonement on Saturday. I hope he follows Dr. Keefer’s model. I think it’s a valuable one.