Jesus and the Doctrine of the Atonement: Biblical Notes on a Controversial Topic

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Jesus and the Doctrine of the Atonement: Biblical Notes on a Controversial Topic

  1. Review

    C. J. den Heyer is Professor of New Testament at the Theological University of the Dutch Reformed Church in Kampen, The Netherlands. Two years ago he wrote a book entitled Jesus Matters, 150 Years of Research which was a survey and "stocktaking" of historical and theological investigations of Jesus of Nazareth from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. He concluded his work with a "sketched out" portrait of the historical Jesus, which he believes represents a "degree" of consensus among New Testament scholars.

    During the course of his study he became aware that Jesus research, "creates a gulf between the historical Jesus and the traditional image of Christ as presented in the classical christological dogmas, a gulf which is difficult to bridge." His current book originated in "perplexity" about this gulf and is his effort to make a contribution to the process of reflecting on the significance of the life and death of Jesus in the light of New Testament research.

    The classical doctrine of the atonement is the background against which the author explores the gulf. It is generally recognized that there are three models of atonement theology which are characterized by (1) the idea of rescue or deliverance; (2) the idea of sacrifice; and (3) the idea of demonstration or revelation. Each model presupposes a different diagnosis of the human predicament, but all point to the meaning of the suffering of Jesus, which culminated in his death on the cross.

    Using the Gospels, the author offers an overview of the life of Jesus, highlighting the meaning of his suffering. He points out that during his life Jesus did not make himself the center of his message but focused on the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. It was only after Easter that Jesus became the focus of christological reflection. He writes, "The one who proclaimed the approaching kingdom of God himself became the content of . . . the proclamation in the Christian community."

    Devoting several chapters to a survey of the letters of Paul and letters attributed to him, the author asserts that they offer a "remarkably one-sided view of Jesus Christ." They pay little attention to the life of Jesus, but rather emphasize his suffering and death.

    In contrast, an overview of the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John indicate that everyone in the early Christian communities did not share the Pauline view. Although the passion of Jesus is of central significance for them, it is connected not only with his suffering and death but also with his life, proclaiming and living the Kingdom of God. The remaining New Testament works – the letter to the Hebrews, the two letters of Peter, the letter of Jude, and the Book of Revelation – do not add anything significant to the issue.

    As a result of his study the author comes to the conclusion that the New Testament does not "contain a well-rounded and systematic ‘doctrine’ of the atonement." The Gospels and Letters offer multiple and variegated images and metaphors of the meanings of the life and death of the historical Jesus. However, he writes, "Theologians have thought they knew more and were even wiser than the New Testament writers. With much creativity and reason they developed a more or less inclusive dogmatic system in which the doctrine of the atonement is central."

    The author declares that it is not his intention to attempt a bridging of the gulf between the New Testament and classical church dogmas about the atonement. The classical formulations have a right to exist and many people find them meaningful. But he asks for understanding for himself and "all those who no longer find themselves in the words of old confessions and dogmas."

    For he finds himself in the company of Paul and John, Mark and Matthew and "all those other theologians of the first generation" for whom the life and death of Jesus had an ‘exemplary’ character. Jesus, he emphasizes, "inspires people, sometimes hesitantly and sometimes enthusiastically, to take the way of reconciliation." Paul expressed it this way: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding people’s misdeeds against them, and has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation." (11 Cor. 5: 19)

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