(This series of blog posts is a truncated version of my senior seminar: “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God” (pdf) Consult the essay for full bibliographical information.)
The impetus for this study is a seemingly unanswered prayer. “[I pray] that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21 NET). Ever since Jesus of Nazareth first uttered these words, his followers have done what appears to be an increasingly-worse job of being one.
A simple count of the various denominations and factions within Christianity reveals the troubling truth that, although claiming to follow the same Lord, Christians around the world are often divided. In fact, it could be argued that the modus operandi throughout church history has been to pursue unity in orthodoxy through division. Whether in 1054, 1517, or 2012, the followers of Jesus the Messiah have often judged it more important to be correct than to be one.
As a presupposition to my argument, I posit a link between the lack of ecclesiological reconciliation and the doctrine of reconciliation, that is, the doctrine of the atonement. As McKnight questions:
“Could it be that we are not reconciled more in this world – among Christians, within the USA, and between countries – because we have shaped our atonement theories to keep our group the same and others out? I believe the answer to that question is unambiguously yes.”
In search of the theological resources to address the problem of church unity through the nexus of ecclesiology and atonement theology, I turn to the doctrine of God and the divine attribute (henceforth “divine perfection”) of unity.
In this essay, I endeavor to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the One God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation.
Given Adam Johnson’s thesis regarding God’s triune being-in-act and the unity and diversity of Christ’s saving work, I frame a theory of the atonement based on the unity of God, before concluding this study by casting a vision for the ecclesiological implications of such a theory.
Divine Perfections and Atonement Theories
Put very simply, in search of the theological resources to explain and explore the unity and diversity of Christ’s saving work, Johnson turns to “Barth’s understanding of God’s triune being-in-act in the fullness of the divine perfections.”
The concept of God’s being-in-act means that we cannot know who God is apart from what God does, nor what God does apart from who God is. Therefore, in the act of the atonement God brings his entire being to bear on our sinful condition, including the entire fullness of the divine perfections.
The corollary to this is that “every theory of the atonement necessarily relies on one or more divine perfections in its construal of our sin and Christ’s saving work.” What is more, this corollary can be reversed: atonement theories can be built from the ground up, so to speak, upon the foundation of the divine perfections, with Scripture as our guide.
Indeed, according to Johnson “the Church is bound by the biblical witness to God’s self-revealing work of salvation to understand the doctrine of reconciliation in light of each of the divine perfections,” and “we must strive to integrate each and every divine perfection into our account of Christ’s reconciling work.”
I endeavor to bring this thesis, method, and impetus for further study to bear on the links between the divine perfection of unity and the doctrine of reconciliation. However, I proceed with humility. This theory is not designed to be the one atonement theory to explain all others, but rather a theological exploration of the atonement through the lens of a divine perfection which is often neglected.
Nevertheless, the goal in what follows is to show that unity is not just a secondary characteristic or result of the atonement, but that it is an essential part of Christ’s saving work.
The One God has fulfilled his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation.
Part Two –>