The purpose of this essay is to analyze and evaluate James McClendon’s methodology for understanding and teaching the meaning of Jesus’ death. I will argue that by pointing to the centrality of an underlying gospel narrative, McClendon provides a solid (and very often lacking) foundation for viewing various atonement teachings as metaphors. He falls short only in that he fails to adequately emphasize the eschatological nature of this narrative. The earliest Christians’ eschatological interpretation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection provided the narrative context for the biblical metaphors of atonement. It should likewise continue to function as the hermeneutical nucleus for contemporary reflection on the meaning and significance of the cross.
Following an overview of McClendon’s atonement teaching and an analysis of his primary contributions, I will compare McClendon with Donald Bloesch’s reformed evangelical theology and Joel Green & Mark Baker’s critique of contemporary atonement emphases. After these comparisons I will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of McClendon’s approach and offer suggestions for taking his valuable contributions one step further. Ultimately McClendon offers not a destination but a path—a “way” in keeping with his own central metaphor—for how the church today might teach the meaning of Jesus’ death biblically, contextually, faithfully.
I. Overview and Analysis
In the first few paragraphs of McClendon’s chapter on the atonement, he provides a framework for his discussion that may be summarized into four principles or guidelines. First, McClendon’s assessment takes as central the Gospel stories as well as other biblical reflections on the meaning of the cross—read not as statements of historical description but as “the Spirit’s witness to the churches” (198). Second, his project promises to be historically informed in that he pays attention to the findings of critical historians’ study of Jesus’ actual life and death. Third, he approaches atonement as central not only to the New Testament writings but Christian theology as a whole. Fourth, he reminds readers that in the earliest times the cross was “not seen as an asset for proclamation, but as an obstacle to gaining a hearing for the Christian message” (198). As they might have put it: Given that Jesus is God’s Savior, why the cross?
Taking this question as his starting point, McClendon launches into a three-part survey of how the church has understood and taught the atonement throughout history. McClendon asserts that the first few centuries were dominated by “Greek Christian Thought” (the first of his three parts). Among several early descriptions of the human plight, two in particular stand out: (1) enslavement to the devil, and (2) corruption or infection by sin. The two are closely related: having become corrupted by sin, human nature “was prey to death and the powers of darkness” (199). In overcoming this dilemma Christ was seen as victor—the one who defeated the devil and rescued human nature from the corrupting effects of evil and death. In this vein his achievement on the cross was often viewed as the payment of a ransom to the devil.
As Christianity expanded westward, theological thought naturally shifted in order to be communicated in different contexts. McClendon’s second section (“The Latin West”) traces this development of atonement thinking, typified by Anselm in the 11th century. Anselm reconfigured the human plight in terms of debt or guilt (instead of corruption). Humanity (and each human being) incurred a debt to God by sinning; yet herein lies the problem: only God can satisfy the debt, but only a human should (since it is humans who owe it). The only solution was for God to become man, which of course God did. Jesus paid the debt not in terms of punishment but satisfaction (i.e. he did not undergo the penalty for our debt, but rather because he paid the price of our debt, that penalty is averted).
In their efforts “to show that the full adequacy of Christ’s redemption obviated the Catholic system of indulgences and penances,” the Reformers adopted and adapted Anselm’s understanding of Jesus’ death (206). John Calvin fused satisfaction and punishment, forcefully expressing a penal view of the atonement. Luther “tumbled together” diverse teachings “in a rich broth of conviction,” appreciating the multifaceted significance of Jesus’ death on the cross (206). Meanwhile, the radical Anabaptists emphasized the need for Christ’s work to be shared by his true followers (defined in terms of suffering as the price of social nonconformity). It was the penal view that flourished across Europe and into the New World, a doctrine thus summarized by McClendon: “Christ, though fully innocent, died as punishment for the sins of the world (or more exactly, of the elect). God inflicted upon Christ, through evil human hands, the infinite evil that was man’s due” (207).
McClendon then turns to post-Reformation developments. Whereas Greek thought to a large degree saw Christ’s achievement directed at the devil or evil (evilward), and the Latin West turned the aim back toward God (Godward), in his third section (entitled “The modern West”) he describes a family of atonement perspectives that may be characterized as humanward—that is, they “saw Christ’s principal work as the changing of human nature” (209). In the 12th century Abelard criticized both “ransom” and “satisfaction” views, replacing them with an understanding of Christ’s death in terms of love. Christ’s great love displayed on the cross “evokes a like love in those who experienced it, and thus his merits pass to them, so that they can appropriately be forgiven” (209).
What stands out in McClendon’s historical survey is the many-sidedness of the church’s atonement teaching through the centuries. Some of the teachers mentioned above accepted and appreciated other views; others among them flatly rejected one or more of the alternatives. Whatever else one might say, according to McClendon none of them function adequately “as theories, if by a theory we mean an overview adequate to organize the entirety of Christian teaching on a topic” (213). His survey of “The Biblical Teaching of Atonement” opens with these observations, taking as its task further reflection on how these diverse accounts might fit together (after noting that combining them into one simply cannot be done).
The New Testament writings assume as their starting point the fact that Christ has risen. McClendon rightly notes that the earliest Christians interpreted his achievement eschatologically: “The death of Jesus marked the end of an age; the resurrection began one.… The explanation of the cross (and of the resurrection) was nothing apart from the concrete account of the cross (as tribulation) and of the resurrection (as eschatological dawn)” (215, italics his). He goes on to point out the New Testament authors’ appropriation of many Old Testament metaphors in their attempts to explain the cross as God’s means for the world’s salvation.
At this point McClendon accentuates that metaphor “is not an alternative to true utterance, or a way of avoiding the (literal) truth, but a native device for speaking the truth in as plain and helpful a way as may be” (216). He highlights four clusters of metaphors that embody the New Testament’s attempt to grasp and teach the significance of the cross: (1) Metaphors of law, by which he means those teachings that speak of the cross in terms of “justice and judgment, punishment and substitution” (217). Though according to McClendon “there is no New Testament example of a courtroom metaphor in which God is the righteous Judge, Christ the defendant, and the cross a penalty paid,” he does affirm that in the New Testament “corrupt justice interprets the meaning of the cross” (219, 218). (2) Metaphors of military victory, in which, building upon the tradition of alien gods threatening God’s rule on earth, numerous powers hostile to God were defeated at the cross—that is, human beings were freed from their control. (3) Metaphors of kinship and redemption, which he explains as the wedding of two traditions: the goel as redeemer of family, clan, or nation (built on the idea of corporate moral solidarity), and padha as the buying back of human persons from a particular lot or task. (4) Metaphors of sacrifice, in which he emphasizes the idea of participating, or “having a share” in the very life and substance of God (cf. 1 Cor 10.1-13).
How, then, might one navigate through so many different ways of discussing atonement? McClendon answers, “Before we resign ourselves to a hopeless intrabiblical war of metaphors, we must ask if development into contending theories is the proper function of these texts” (226). Instead McClendon draws attention to their place within the gospel narrative. He thus explores Colossians 1.13-22, in which numerous atonement metaphors are mixed “without cost to the overall intention of the author to show the story of the cross beyond every metaphor, human shame turned into God’s grace” (227). This and similar passages raise the question: “Do not metaphors of Christ’s work imply some narrative or meta-narrative, some overall view in which each may find its metaphorical place?” (227). “Indeed they do,” he contends, for “the first Christians had a gospel story but no Gospels” (227). The soon-to-come Gospels “make sense of the cross exactly by setting it within their own longer story” of the coming rule of God, and only as such are they good news (228). The Gospel story secures the Christian gospel as the narrative within which the atonement metaphors both find their home and come to life.
How, then, does Jesus save? Or to put it differently, Why the cross? To the latter question, “the right story, rightly told, is the answer” (230). This of course begs another question: Which story is the right one (and how should one tell it)? For help McClendon turns to the Jewish interpretive practice known as midrash, which basically involved expanded reflection upon biblical books for new generations. Such commentary was marked by extreme interpretive freedom, usually used to enlarge the biblical story, as well as concern for contemporary relevance. He notes the similarity between this and what Christian history has done with the biblical atonement witness, thus concluding that none of the past stories are ours, for the setting has changed, yet “all are ours for the light they shed on the one story of Jesus and God” (232).
In a final section McClendon reflects further on this gospel story, specifically within the larger narrative of God’s electing love as expressed through his calling and continued blessing of Abraham and Israel. It is only as climax to this story of God’s rule breaking into the world that Jesus’ proclamation makes sense: “A new world is coming; trust the good news!” (235). By locating the three historical types of atonement teaching—evilward, Godward, humanward—within this larger narrative, their strengths are appreciated and weaknesses avoided. In his words,
The great story has all the positive elements the midrashim from Irenaeus and Anselm and Bushnell have helped us to see, but has them without their special liabilities—without the mythic improbability of a satanic hostage-taker, without the flawed image of a petulant or willful God, without the distorted picture of disciples who can save themselves by their discipleship—elements that are defects in the midrashim taken in themselves (237).
McClendon’s primary contributions are methodological. Like many others today, he chooses to speak of various atonement teachings as metaphors instead of theories. McClendon breaks new ground, however, by rooting such metaphors within the necessary narrative context of Jesus’ actual life, death, and resurrection—seen as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Israel, and so the whole world. It is thus in terms of method that his perspective will now be compared with two contemporary evangelical points of view.
II. Comparison and Evaluation
More specifically, the theological perspectives of Donald Bloesch on the one hand, and Joel Green & Mark Baker on the other, will be examined in terms of the following questions: How do they explain the various strands of atonement teaching present not only throughout church history but in the New Testament itself? What rationale do they provide for accepting, rejecting, and/or modifying particular models of atonement? How (if at all) do they draw together various models into one overarching presentation of the meaning of Jesus’ death?
Donald Bloesch strands squarely within Reformed theological traditions, drawing not only from the original Reformers but also later thinkers such as Karl Barth and Peter Forsyth as well. Bloesch places his discussion of atonement alongside incarnation; by examining the purpose of the latter one better understands the former. He then explores historical types of atonement—unlike McClendon he calls them “theories”—after which he claims that “the biblical note is most evident” in classic and Latin views (good triumphing over evil; demands of God’s righteousness satisfied by a sacrifice for sin). While appreciating the renewal of interest in the classic view, he believes it must be united with certain aspects of the Latin view—the atonement “should be understood as both a royal victory and a priestly sacrifice.” In this way one would maintain a biblical balance between God’s holiness and love. While admitting that substitution does not contain all aspects of Christ’s atoning achievement, he nevertheless asserts its centrality. “The crucial point is that Jesus suffers in our stead, and he also conquers in our stead.” He then defends this claim with biblical as well as (Lutheran/Reformed) historical support.
Both Bloesch and McClendon take note of various atonement views in Scripture and history; only McClendon, however, offers an explanation for the variations. While Bloesch merely observes different views, McClendon points especially to the church’s social setting and evangelistic/apologetic efforts in particular contexts as rationale for their differences. Moreover, whereas McClendon rejects the centrality of any one view and instead organizes all of them around the Gospel narrative, Bloesch places substitution (or representation) at the center. As rationale he labels this move “evangelical,” by which he means to highlight its apparent fidelity to Scripture (of course as interpreted by the Reformed tradition).
In Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, Joel Green and Mark Baker offer a critical assessment of contemporary atonement thinking. They aim to correct the popular belief (often an assumption) in the centrality of the penal substitution theory of the atonement, and in so doing they shed much light on wider hermeneutical and practical questions about the atonement. They explain the church’s diversity by highlighting the role of context: different persons and communities read the diverse New Testament accounts of the atonement and developed specific models in relation to their own situations. Green and Baker take this as proper and desirable, so long as contextualizations remain faithful to Scripture.
Fidelity to the biblical witness functions as their criteria for evaluating atonement perspectives. They define fidelity first of all in terms of content. Any view can use the words of Scripture, but does it line up with the concepts as well (for example, is “justice” viewed in terms of covenant faithfulness)? Does the view result in a picture of God consistent with biblical revelation—loving, faithful, etc.? Secondly, they call for fidelity in terms of method: the New Testament speaks of Christ’s death in multiple ways, each true to a particular setting. Contemporary views should likewise take into account whether a view will communicate effectively in a given context. Green and Baker resist any attempts to draw different views around one particular nucleus; on the contrary, “atonement theology is and must be a living tradition.” It must continue to adapt to new and ever-changing environments. This method does, however, offer somewhat of an organizational center—the human problem or condition. Since this problem manifests itself in different ways (in both Scripture and daily life), the atonement will by necessity remain multifarious.
Green and Baker share much in common with McClendon. To begin with, both unashamedly demand practical results from theology: Green and Baker seek a theology that takes the mission of the church seriously; for McClendon doctrine quite simply is what the church must teach in order to be the church here and now. Specifically in terms of the atonement, both discuss different teachings primarily as metaphors. For both parties a multiplicity of metaphors reflects a multiplicity of meanings, explained in terms of particular peoples finding particular significances in Jesus’ death. However, whereas McClendon offers the Gospel story as the underlying narrative from which the metaphors draw, Green and Baker never provide a coherent center that pulls them all together. In this sense McClendon goes beyond Green and Baker by offering the linguistic and conceptual framework within which their analysis makes sense.
This narrative-underlying-metaphors model is the primary strength of McClendon’s approach. He is not the first to speak of different views as metaphors, but he does break ground by offering a context in which doing so makes sense. Metaphors by definition describe one thing by relating it to something else. But the “something else” (atonement views) only finds meaning as a description of the “one thing” being described (gospel story). Instead of arranging the many views around one of their kind (as Bloesch), or appreciating the many metaphors but not naming an organizational center (Green and Baker), McClendon “grounds the metaphors of the death of Christ” by pointing to the foundational good news narrative of Jesus’ kingdom-bringing life, death, and life. As he puts it, “Slave-release and (crooked) justice, cosmic triumph and ultimate sacrifice, all find their home in the story told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” (228).
On the other hand, McClendon’s approach definitely has its weaknesses, namely his failure to demonstrate exactly how his metaphors-based-on-narrative model determines what can and cannot be labeled a faithful interpretation of Jesus’ death. Thus he can on the one hand treat different historical models as responsible contextual interpretations in their own day, and on the other hand dismiss certain elements therein as defective. Once again, he claims that his model backs this up but never shows how. A similar problem presents itself in his reliance upon Jewish midrash as a model for atonement reflection. If “extreme freedom in interpretation” and “contemporary relevance” are one’s guidelines, with what criteria can one pronounce judgment upon a particular view?
McClendon might answer that the right story of Jesus, rightly told, establishes said criteria. But therein lies the problem, of which the above weaknesses are but symptoms: the principal deficiency of McClendon’s approach to the atonement is not the narrative-metaphor model as a whole, but his failure to adequately emphasize the eschatological nature of this Gospel narrative and the metaphors it brings to life. “Eschatology” in this sense sees Jesus’ life and work as the fulfillment of what God had been planning and doing since the creation (and corruption) of the world, a fulfillment understood in terms of inaugurating the promised “age to come.” This piece is not altogether lacking in McClendon’s analysis; indeed, eschatology occupies a central place in his overall thought, and he identifies as eschatological the earliest Christian interpretation of Jesus’ death. But where he needs it the most he presses it the least: as the key to the right story rightly told—the hermeneutical nucleus around which all atonement metaphors must faithfully revolve.
The right story, rightly told, is the story of Jesus life, death, and resurrection, but only if told as the ushering in of the eschatological age to come. That “eschatology” functioned in this way for the New Testament writers may be shown in two ways. First (in order and importance), the many benefits of Jesus’ death described in the Bible—God remaining true to his covenant, victory over the powers, freedom from sin’s penalty as well as its power, renewed fellowship with God, transformed relationships based on peace and justice, etc—are the promised blessings of the eschatological age. By ushering in that age, Jesus brought those promises into the realm of reality. There are still biblical metaphors, however, that do not fit this mold: specifically, the idea of Jesus’ life and death as a moral pattern and as the truest revelation of the character of God. As for the latter, since God was always expected to be the primary actor in the coming of the age to come, understanding Jesus’ story in revelatory terms makes perfect sense—how Jesus did it reveals who God is. Moreover, because Jesus merely inaugurated the age to come, gathering followers to continue the mission after his departure, how Jesus accomplished his work (incarnational, suffering love, etc) became a model for how his disciples must carry it forward.
This, I propose, is the way forward for atonement thinking, teaching, and living: recapturing the centrality of the eschatological story of what God was doing in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If McClendon truly “does not merely want us to read him, but to read the biblical story with him, and if necessary to read it against him,” then he would be pleased with this supplement to his model, for such an addition appreciates the strength of his proposal while at the same time strengthening it further. Only such an approach explains the numerous biblical atonement metaphors while simultaneously avoiding the error of Bloesch (making one metaphor central) as well the shortcoming of Green and Baker (failing to gather the different metaphors under one umbrella). Unfortunately, one crucial next step awaits future exploration—namely, developing from this eschatological narrative specific controls or criteria by which different views (historical and contemporary) may be judged faithful or defective.
The remaining questions do not, however, discredit the present proposal, for an eschatological reorientation is by no means the end of atonement reflection, but rather its proper beginning. From here we may meditate passionately and fruitfully on Scripture, history, and the present concerns of the church in its many particular contexts. This, to be sure, would delight McClendon, for whom, as mentioned above, doctrine simply is what we (the church) must talk about and teach in order to be faithfully ourselves.
[This essay was originally written for a Systematic Theology class at Fuller Theological Seminary in Fall 2006.]