....The dominant view of atonement for the first 300 years of the Church was not Penal Substitution, but Christus Victor. Jesus death and resurrection made him Lord, and established him as sole victor over the forces of death and destruction. Jesus death was a ransom paid to the devil. The Penal Substitution view was there in Scripture, but the early church was less interested in that view. Under Anselm in the 11th century the Church changed position, and began to put its weight on the other foot. It was the legal and forensic climate of those times that provoked the switch.
In other words, it was a cultural shift that provoked a theological shift. That’s a pretty important point, because we are in a time when culture is changing dramatically, and here we are having a lot of theological debates.
We could conclude from this that every time the culture changes, the church becomes unfaithful. Or, more wisely, we could conclude that when the culture shifts God speaks in new language..
.....Scot McKnight expands on the meaning of reconciliation by listing the atonement metaphors.
"Atonement language includes several evocative metaphors: there is a sacrificial metaphor (offering), and a legal metaphor (justification), and an interpersonal metaphor (reconciliation), and a commercial metaphor (redemption) and a military metaphor (ransom). Each is designed to carry us to the thing. But the metaphor is not the thing. The metaphor gives the reader or hearer an imagination of the thing, a vision of the thing, a window onto the thing, a lens through which to look in order to see the thing. Metaphors take us there, but they are not the 'there.'"
Well said! We are prone, when we don't recognize the way language and symbols work, to mistake the menu for the meal. It then becomes nearly impossible to actually talk about how and why we do theological work, because we are too busy defending our symbols. And atonement debate is mostly theology – not Scripture, but language that interprets what we read in the Scripture, and language that represents the dominant understanding in our faith communities.
And what do you know? Both major views – the early and the late -- can be found in a single New Testament passage in Colossians.
Penal Substitutionary: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-15)
Christus Victor: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (This is the next verse, Colossians 2:16)
The dominant view of atonement for the first 300 years of the Church was Christus Victor. In the 11th century, and in the legal and forensic climate of theological thought, the Church began to put its weight on the other foot. Cultural shift provoked a theological shift. But God is the Lord of both culture and theology. When the culture shifts, old questions are asked in new ways. In response, God speaks in new language. God speaks to a new culture in new ways through the Scripture because a new culture HEARS in new ways.
To be more provocative, the voice of the Holy Spirit did not highlight the penal-substitution (PS) view for the early church. What was it about the context of the church in those days that required one approach (Christus Victor) more than the other? And is there something about our own changing world that now requires a return, or at least a much greater emphasis, on the earlier view? Might it even be possible to hold the two views side by side, like a pair of glasses, and see in 3D? Or to ask the question in reverse, why are western evangelicals so stuck on one view, to the extent that holding other views as equal provokes an emotional reaction? ...