When you read enough works on the work of Christ, to start to get a feel for the questions involved. What conditions must be met for this to qualify as a proper, full, or adequate explanation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Anselm famously thought the root question you had to answer was, “Why did God become man?” You can give all sorts of explanations for what Jesus’ activities meant, but if they didn’t justify the conclusion “for this, God needed to become man”, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
Peter Leithart has written a new book about atonement theology. Well, when you look at the title (Delivered From the Elements: Atonement, Justification, and Mission), you realize it’s about a lot more than that, but that’s still the main subject.
In reflecting on it, Leithart has come up with six criteria that he believes must be satisfied if we’re going to get a proper grip on our question:
Historically plausible: Atonement theology is an interpretation of events, not a recital of “bare facts,” which is impossible in any case. But that interpretation must make sense of the historical events, not by transcending phenomena into a noumenal realm of meaning, but by tracing and perhaps extrapolating the logic of the events. Successful atonement theology must, for instance, make sense of Jesus as a figure in the first-century Judaism dominated by Rome. A successful atonement theory has got to show how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to human history, which means that atonement theory has to provide and account of human history: It has to be a theory of everything.
Levitical: A successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events.
Evangelical: Successful atonement theology must arise from within the Gospel narratives rather than be an imposition from outside (even a Pauline outside).
Pauline: Atonement theology must make sense of the actual words and sentences and arguments in Paul’s letters.
Inevitable: A successful atonement theology should leave the impression of inevitability: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Lk. 24:26 NASB). Jesus should appear to be the obvious divine response to the human condition. Like the denouement of a well-constructed drama, the cross and the resurrection should emerge as the most fitting climax to the history of Israel among the nations, as the climax of the history of sacrifice.
Fruitful: A successful atonement theology must offer a framework for making sense not only of the history of Jesus but also of the subsequent history of the church and of the world. It must, for instance, not shrink from addressing the apparent failure of the atonement, the palpable fact that the world Jesus is said to have saved is self-evidently not saved. (19-20)
In surveying them, I have to say, I find it hard to disagree with them. Even that last one, which is probably the greatest stretch in terms of having burst the typical bounds of systematic focus on the work of Christ, leaves an impression on the mind after considering it for a while, “Yes, yes, you should be able to draw some line from that point to the present moment if this event really is the cosmos-shattering cataclysm that Christian preaching has always claimed it is.”
I suppose I’ll follow up by adding couple of my own criteria in something of an Anselmian key.
First, comes a Christological criteria. For your atonement theology to be successful, it must be able to say why Jesus had to be God who became a man for our sake. Why did Christ have to have all the attributes and qualities and exalted titles and power that the New Testament accords him in order to accomplish what he did? In other words, Leithart’s criteria for atonement theology are, for the most part, explicitly concerned with making sense of the plot. I’m saying, we also need to explicitly call for a careful account of the characters.
Which brings me to the second criteria, and that is the theological one. For a successful atonement theology, you need to be able to give something of a sketch of the kind of God who would and could become man and why. This is true both for sorts of moral attributes you might think are involved (love, justice, holiness, fidelity), as well as the “metaphysical” ones (impassibility, infinity, etc). And, of course, not only the attributes of God, but his personal being: does your atonement theology assume or dispense with God’s trinitarian being? Must atonement be accomplished by Father, Son, & Spirit, or can we get by with a monad or a binity?
Since I have a full review of Leithart’s work coming at another publication, I’ll simply conclude by saying that it’s Leithart’s ability to ask these sorts of penetrating questions that makes Delivered from the Elements such a stimulating and wide-ranging read. Well worth the time of any serious student of atonement theology.
Soli Deo Gloria