So much division in the church seems to come down to disagreements on the atonement- what it is, how it works, what it says about God, humanity and creation. Which is ironic given that at the heart of atonement is the healing of divisions, the at one withness (or mentness) of God’s work in the created order.
Something I have come to be compelled by over the years- atonement theories are simply language, not facts. It is langauge used to help us make sense of something we otherwise cannot understand.
What’s important to understand then about language is that language is rooted in both time and place. Language expresses itself differently in different times and places. This does not mean the absence of Truth, nor that Truth changes and is contradictory. It simply means that language is limited in its expression and that to do the work of hearing and challenging one another, and likewise allowing the other to hear and challenge us, involves a cross cultural movement into a different space and time. This is equally true for approaching the language that we encounter in Scripture- this is a cross cultural movement, a learning to speak a different language and thus allowing this to shed light on our own.
It is when we assume that our language has the power to capture the totality of Truth in our time and place that atonement theories begin to divide, and actually take us further from Truth. In Truth, the goal of Christian formation should follow the same pattern that we find in the book of Deuteronomy, where we find a later generation of people in their time and place looking back at a previous generation in their time and place and calling them to consider the langauge (the story) of the generation previous to them. In Deuteronomy the call is to locate within these different times and places the shared experience of Sinai, the place where God in Spirit, according to the story, came down the mountain and entered human history. Thus we find Deuteronomy calling a people far removed from this moment to place themsleves at Sinai while asking what this means for them in their time and place. This becomes the expectation of the Spirits continued dwelling in their midst, calling them to find a language that is able to express how this Truth speaks to the uniqueness of their experiences.
In Jesus we find much the same. Jesus’ story is patterned after Sinai, where God comes down the mountain to break into human history and dwell with His creation. Through this comes the Spirit that binds us to this shared story across time and place. Thus when it comes to thinking about atonement, we should expect our langauge to be different. It is okay for certain theories to be challenged and for us to employ new langauge in ways that address our present questions and concerns and awareness. What’s important though, and what Christmas is all about, is to learn what it is to know and to remember and to participate in the shared story. To learn how to place oursleves in that story and to allow that story to shape our language in our time and place accordingly. This is what it means to live in the expectation of the Spirits continued dwelling in our midst. This is how Jews understood the role or the Torah. This is how Jesus takes the shape of Torah. This is how we heal the divisions removed as we are from the others story and bound as we are to our own. To be shaped by a story external to our conflicts is precisely where and how the Spirit moves by way of langauge. If God did indeed break into history we should expect that such a God would be expressed in the Finiteness of our language in time and place. We should also expect that this Finiteness is the very thing that calls us to open our eyes to the other, to move across cultures and into the beauty and diversity of the human experience without fear that Truth will somehow be sacrificed along the way. Truth was sacrificed in fact for this very purpose, so that we might be free to participate in this very way.