3. Moral influence
The third approach includes various ‘moral influence’ theories, which see Jesus Christ coming to earth primarily as a moral example and teacher, “to show us what it is to live a life worthy of God.”
This view was particularly expounded by Abelard in the early 12th century and has been popular among Anabaptists (including Mennonites), liberal Protestants and sometimes leaders of the Emerging (or post-modern) Church.
Many of the contributors to the Jersak-Hardin book are Mennonites and mainline Protestants.
The problem, said Boersma, is to take any one of these approaches and insist it is right and the others are wrong.
In his view, “it is impossible to read the scriptures and not see punishment and substitution.” But, he said, the idea of a “cosmic battle” and Jesus’ victory over the forces of evil — the ‘Christus Victor’ approach — is also in scripture, particularly in John’s gospel.
Similarly, he maintained, holding only the penal substitutionary approach makes the gospel too objective; those who hold the third view are correct that the gospel still needs to be personally appropriated.
Implications of theoriesOne of the reasons the debate becomes so heated, Boersma suggested, is the many implications of atonement theories.
For instance, if God is our example and we believe God punished his innocent son, then this could justify violence and abusive human structures.
“Divine child abuse” could justify human child abuse, and God’s use of violent punishment could support just war theories.
This is one reason ‘peace churches’ such as the Mennonites are suspicious of the penal substitutionary theory.
Such suspicion, Boersma suggested, may be partly based in “a strict social trinitarianism” that sees God as three separate persons.
This does not do full justice to “the incomprehensible mystery of the triune God,” said Boersma, since all of God was involved in salvation through the cross.
Moreover, as the Gospel of John makes clear, Christ voluntarily laid down his life. Further, if Jesus is the ‘new Adam,’ then there is also a sense that humans are included in his sacrifice; there is a representative and inclusive aspect to the substitution.
Young is quite correct to say that the wrath of God is always motivated by the love of God, said Boersma. God sent his Son “to reconcile the world to himself,” and “it is never wrong to remind ourselves of God’s love.”
However, he noted, there are lots of scriptures about God’s wrath and judgment which go “well beyond saying that this is just sin’s own consequences.” God also “honours human choices,” and God sometimes steps in to punish people — including God’s people — when they refuse to listen.
Old vs New Testament
One of the dangers of trying to cut punishment out of the Bible, said Boersma, is that it can “pit the Old Testament against the New Testament.” This can lead to the heresy which sprang up in the 2nd century, which divided God into an Old Testament ‘God of wrath’ and a New Testament ‘God of love.’
This is a misunderstanding because “love is all over the place in the Old Testament,” and “warnings of eternal punishment are scattered throughout the New Testament.”Another implication of how we understand the atonement is our attitude toward sin.
If we “take away the need for punishment, it downplays human depravity,” said Boersma.
For this reason, he said he appreciates the stronger sense of human sinfulness in the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions. “It is crucially important, especially in today’s culture, that we restore the importance of getting our lives in line with God’s loving desire for us.”
Similarly, Boersma said he has a great appreciation for the Roman Catholic call to subordinate all earthly hopes to the great hope of entering “the eternal life of God.”
In their desire to “incarnate the gospel so they can speak to the surrounding society,” evangelicals sometimes forget this and focus on what God does for us here and now, said Boersma. In a materialistic society, this can lead to the “health and wealth gospel.”
Another corrective to this, said Boersma, is the “Anabaptist call to radical commitment.”
God’s love rules
While Boersma defended the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, he warned that its proponents should not “speak too glibly about eternal punishment.”
They should not proclaim that God “hates” homosexuals or any other group, said Boersma. “We should hold out hope for salvation to anyone to whom we speak.” Christ came to offer salvation to everyone, and God’s punishment is always an expression of God’s love.
Boersma commended the analogy in a recent encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI: that the burning of God’s love can become for us the burning of God’s wrath if we reject that love. It is not that God has changed — but that we have become so disfigured that we can’t stand the light of God’s love.
One of the painful things in the whole atonement debate, said Boersma, is that people get very emotionally attached to their own viewpoints and find it difficult to speak across the boundaries of their traditions.
Therefore, it is important to “bring humility to the table” and try to understand each other. We can “never say we have explained it all,” said Boersma, since human language is “always inadequate to fully define the divine mystery.”
Paintings by Caravaggio