Explored, But Not Decided: Reflections on the 2011 Sider Institute Conference

The Sider Institutte at Messiah College held its 2011 study conference, "Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement," on Saturday, November 12.

It’s now been over a week since the “Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement” conference, sponsored by the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College. My reflections are long overdue.

(To get you back in the atonement-studying spirit, you might want to review our week-long series of posts on this topic.)

At the conference, presentations from Brethren in Christ minister John Arthur Brubaker, Messiah College professor Robin Collins, and Palmer Seminary professor Ron Sider outlined a number of positions and critiques of the topic du jour. Attendees responded to the presentations with thoughtful, challenging, and (at times) nuanced questions. Good conversation was had. And yet I walked away with possibly more questions than I walked in with!

Maybe that’s good. Perhaps this conference — and the full versions of the conference papers that will be published in the April 2012 edition of Brethren in Christ History and Life — will stimulate further dialogue within the Brethren in Christ Church on topics like divine violence, the meaning of Christ’s life and death, understandings of salvation and reconciliation, and the on-the-ground implications of theological debate over atonement.

In following up on last week’s event, today’s too-long-delayed posts offers a brief overview of each presentation and concludes with some comments and reflections.

Readers: I invite you — whether you attended the conference or are just reading about it now — to share your questions and thoughts in the Comments section below!

After the jump: Overviews and reflections on the 2011 Sider Institute conference, “Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement.”

The conference featured three distinct presentations:

  • John Arthur Brubaker’s “The Atonement as Viewed by the Brethren in Christ Church.” This overview of the Brethren in Christ approach to atonement used three doctrinal statements — one published by the River Brethren originators at or around 1788, another published in 1937, and a third published in 1994 — to sketch in broad strokes the evolving Brethren in Christ approach to the atonement. It was fascinating, from my perspective, to see the way that the Brethren in Christ added ever-increasing amounts of atonement imagery to its doctrinal language as it became more and more involved in larger Christian fellowships. By 1994, there is language from almost every variation of atonement theory — from penal substitution to Christus Victor to moral theory to ransom theory. It’s all biblical, of course, but the most biblical statement is the one from the eighteenth century — those writers seemed to pick whole passages from the Bible and drop them into the statement! In a conversation after his presentation, John Arthur confirmed my position on the matter: We Brethren in Christ value all the (biblical) imagery, but we do not fully identify with any one theory of the atonement. In this way, we have a biblical theology, rather than a systematic one.
  • Don McNiven, general secretary of the Brethren in Christ Church and a member of the Sider Institute advisory committee, introduces Robin Collins before his presentation.

    Robin Collins’ “Defending Non-Violent Atonement.” Contrary to what the title of this presentation may imply, Collins did not spend his time at the podium defending J. Denny Weaver’s approach to non-violent atonement. Collins’ work was far more systematically biblical, much more engaged with what I would call a high view of the Bible and its approach to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Instead of side with Weaver, Collins systematically showed the biblical and intellectual problems with a purely penal theory of the atonement, noting that the Bible does not call for the kind of retributive penalty suggested in classical penal atonement theory. Rather, Collins argued, the Bible calls for corrective or restorative action. The atonement itself brings about purification, sanctification, freedom, healing, wholeness, and new life. Thus, Collins entreated listeners to engage with a different (and, in his estimation, more biblical) atonement theory: the participatory (or incarnational) theory. In his words, “. . . via participating in [Christ’s] life and death through faith, we are saved from sin, purified, made whole, healed, justified, given new life, saved from the wrath of God, freed from the powers of darkness, freed form the curse of the law, cleansed from sin, and reconciled to God.”

  • Ronald J. Sider delivers his lecture, "Evaluating 'Non-Violent Atonement' Theology."

    Ronald J. Sider’s “Evaluating ‘Non-Violent Atonement’ Theology: A Biblical and Theological Critique.” In his presentation, Sider — well-known as the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and for books like Christ and Violence and Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger — evaluated Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver’s The Non-Violent Atonement, and found it lacking. Although he admitted that there were points at which he and Weaver agreed (limiting the atonement to just substitution theory loses the link between the cross and transformation, for instance), he ultimately concluded that Weaver’s treatment fails on a number of accounts. Ultimately, Sider concluded that justice for sin — the crux of the substitutionary view of the atonement — is not apart from God; wrath and mercy are equally central parts of who God is. Furthermore, he argued that the Bible does not teach Christ-followers to emulate God at all points (i.e., we are not to create something from nothing, etc.), and this is a point at which we are called not to emulate God. To put it in biblical terms: “‘Vengeance is mine,’ declares the Lord,” (Duet. ) but “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath” (Romans 12:19). In other words, while God — in God’s infinite wisdom — has the ability to use violence for redemptive purposes, God’s followers are not to take violence into their own hands for any purposes. In this way, Sider attempts to reconcile the God-ordained violence of many atonement theories with the completely nonviolent witness of Christ.

I responded to these presentations in a couple of ways, mostly with questions:

  • Can a completely holy God truly use something as unholy as violence to accomplish divine purposes? This question has plagued me, as a committed Christian pacifist, for years, so I suppose that a single six-hour seminar isn’t going to resolve it. Nevertheless, I walked out of the conference thinking about Sider’s (in my mind) all-too-easy attempt to reconcile God-ordained biblical violence with the nonviolent witness of Christ. It seems too easy for me. At the same time, I am troubled by the work of people like Weaver, who resort to a low view of the Bible in order to reconcile their peace theology with biblical images of a wrathful God.
  • What relevance does this lofty theological debate have for pastors “on the ground,” telling people about Jesus and discipling believers in the Way of Christ? At the debate, at least one pastor suggested that this debate has “on the ground” implications for him and his congregation. Honestly, I wish that pastor would have been allowed to make a formal presentation on this to the assembled body. It seems to me that these theological debates are worked out in the everyday, and that pastors and other leaders need to be equipped to translate these ideas into language that can be used among people for whom “atonement theology” means very little. Hopefully future Sider Institute conferences will allow for this kind of work, whether in small group discussion, formal presentations, or another format.

Finally, it seemed to me that there was at least one Brethren in Christ-specific take-away from Saturday’s conference:

Let’s incorporate incarnational atonement language into our next doctrinal statement. Robin Collins, I think, articulated a fine theory of the atonement in his discussion of “incarnational/participatory atonement.” There is, of course, a biblical basis for this kind of thinking. “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” wrote the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (6:12, emphasis mine). “We are convinced,” he wrote again later, in an epistle to the Corinthians, “that one has died for all; therefore, we have all died” (5:14, emphasis mine). This biblical imagery — just like the biblical imagery that first inspired penal, moral, and other kinds of atonement theories — has value and utility. I’d like to see the Brethren in Christ incorporate it — what I would call the “valuable stuff of nonviolent atonement” — into our next doctrinal statement, whenever that needs to be written. If the Brethren in Christ view of the atonement has been to sanctify the good without getting caught up in the bad, here’s an opportunity for us to forward that view — and to come, perhaps, a bit closer to a fully realized biblical theory of the atonement in the process.

Readers: I invite you to respond to these “first thoughts” with some comments of your own!


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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5 Responses to Explored, But Not Decided: Reflections on the 2011 Sider Institute Conference

  1. Kelly Phipps says:

    The advertisement at the bottom of your your page (at least what is displayed on my computer) has to be the most interesting endnote to a blog on non-violent atonement theory that I could ever have imagined.

  2. dorothy gish says:

    Each of your last blogs has had an interesting [now in a good sense] ad at the bottom of it. Have you not been aware of any of these?

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