“The Cross: A Symposium on Atonement” concluded on Sabbath, April 20, with meetings throughout the day at the Loma Linda University Campus Hill Church. The Adventist Theological Society had convened the gathering since Thursday evening, April 18.
Tom Shepherd, an Andrews University seminary professor who is the president of ATS, began the sermon not discussing sin, but suffering. Recalling the fall of 1997, a time of intense suffering for him, he reminded the congregation of the isolation, heaviness, dread, fogginess of mind and endless question “why” that suffering causes. He turned to I Peter 2:21 and developed the theme that Christ died not “with” or “in” but “for” us. In a very close reading of the passage in I Peter, which utilized both his scholarly skills and his experience as one who has suffered, he described several practical and positive things the suffering of Jesus can do “for” those who suffer today. For instance, he extolled following the example of Jesus in suffering with the composure that he manifested because he had handed his life over to God. Yet being able to follow the example of Jesus in this and other regards depends upon having been liberated from the heavy load of sin. This is like having one’s wounds healed, like being a lost and lonely lamb that is returned to the closeness of the flock. If in this sermon he ever spoke the words “penal substitutionary atonement,” I didn’t hear them.
Earlier in the morning, Andrews University seminary professor Jo Ann Davidson spoke on “Abraham, Isaac and Akedah: The Atonement According to Moses.” She objected to the view that the first followers of Jesus retrospectively identified in the story of Abraham and Isaac similarities to the life, death and resurrection of their Master. It was precisely the other way around, she contended. According to her proposal, the author of the earlier narrative knowingly and intentionally included many details that would occur again in the story of Jesus. She held that attending to the details of the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his own son, including its shocking and horrible elements, increases our understanding of and appreciation for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus many centuries later.
Ross Winkle, from Pacific Union College, began the afternoon with “The Atonement and the Restrainer.” I picture his proposal as having four steps, each with an abundance of scriptural support: (1) Connect the “restrainer” in II Thessalonians 2, whose identity has long perplexed scholars, with Michael in Daniel 10-12; (2) Identify this Michael with the resurrected Jesus and focus on his ongoing intercessory or atoning work; (3) Expand this “High Priestly” ministry of Jesus so that it includes “restraining evil;” (4) Return to II Thessalonians 2 and identify the “restrainer” of the “lawless one” as Jesus Christ (who is also the one who will eventually annihilate him). A fresh identification of the “restrainer,” plus a wider understanding of atonement that is expansive enough to include restraining evil, are the outcomes.
Roy E. Gane of the Andrews University seminary followed with a presentation titled “Legal Substitution and Experiential Transformation in the Typology of Leviticus.” He contended that in this Old Testament book both things in his title are “clearly present and fully necessary.” In addition to many passages in Leviticus, he appealed to portions of the New Testament letter of Hebrews. He held that the ancient symbols and rituals of salvation were objective in the sense that they were done for the people and subjective in the sense that they were to result with positive changes in them. In this way Gane eroded biblical support for both “substitutionary” and “moral influence” atonement theories of our time when either are taken alone.
As the last presentation of the day, Felix Cortez of the University of Montemorelos offered “Without Shedding of Blood There is No Remission: Atonement, Substitution and the Logic of Forgiveness in Hebrews.” He focused on Hebrews 9:15–22 and its implications for the understanding of Jesus’ death in the rest of the epistle. He argued that, contrary to a majority of biblical translations and commentaries, the author of Hebrews describes Jesus’ death as substitutionary punishment. Yet, according to my understanding of Cortez, its inner meaning is not best understood as the transfer of legal retribution from someone who deserves it to someone who doesn’t. It is more akin to the commendation or condemnation that an ancient king of Israel received from God on behalf of his subjects. This suggested to me that the metaphors for this kind of substitution should be drawn more from palaces and less from courts.
A panel discussion that included about half of the symposium’s presenters brought the two-day event to a close. Its members responded to questions from Tom Shepherd that probed matters such as the biggest issues surrounding atonement among Adventists today, the things that most disturbed the panelists about atonement and the kinds of problems atonement does and does not solve.
One of the most poignant moments of the entire symposium occurred when someone in the audience observed that the primary issues surrounding atonement are not theological but social and political. He explained that formulating more atonement theories is not our greatest need; living more respectfully with each other is.
Recordings of all the symposium’s presentations are available at the Adventist Theological Society’s website, www.atsjats.org.
Image: Barnett Newman, Onement, VI, 1953.