What do we mean when we say ‘Jesus Saves’?
How do Christians understand the person and work of Jesus Christ?

by Stanley Pearson

© Stanley Pearson 2020. All rights reserved.


Why start with the idea ‘Jesus Saves’ as the focus for a discussion about the nature of Christian belief? It is because it leads us to a number of questions which take us to the heart of the Christian Faith. For example, what are we being saved from? What are we being saved for? How is it accomplished? Who is Jesus Christ? How does the encounter with Jesus help the Christian understand God? It is the interest in salvation that ‘causes us to ask questions about the figure of Jesus’ (Pannenberg, 2002 [1964], p. 32). The question of ‘who Jesus was (and is)’ and ‘what he did (and does)’ belong together (Macquarrie 1990. P. 5).

In the following essay these questions will be addressed under the following headings:

Our starting point
The nature of religious language
The biblical context
The origin of the interpretation of the death of Jesus as a saving event
The nature of Sin: what are we being saved from?
Metaphors of Salvation
Concluding remarks

Our starting point

When we start to look at the Church’s teaching about God and the person and work of Jesus Christ we encounter a problem and that is that many apparently committed Christians, committed in the sense that they attend Christian worship regularly and are active members of a Church community, do not seem to subscribe to official Church doctrine. This has been studied formally by Christie (Christie, 2005; Christie, 2007). Christie interviewed a sample of 45 Anglican churchgoers drawn from four rural churches in North Yorkshire which she describes as ‘middle-of-the-road’ (Christie, 2007, p.181). Thirty of the sample were women and 15 men, which is probably representative of the structure of most congregations (Davie, 1994, pp. 118-119), with an age range of 34 to 86. In the analysis of her results Christie divides her respondents into three categories depending on their beliefs, but summarising her data it appears that overall about 2/3 of the people in her study do not subscribe to the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ or a doctrine of the immanent Trinity, rather there is one God who is made known through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is seen as the agent of God rather than God. In terms of salvation:

The majority of this sample group do not need Jesus to be God, in the ontological sense that orthodoxy has demanded, for him to function as saviour. For them Jesus saves primarily as exemplar and revealer, and he does not need to be God to do this. [------]. They do not need to make the momentous move from “God was in Christ” to “Christ is God”, for they recognise no soteriological reason for doing so
(Christie, 2007, P. 193).

These respondents hold what Christie labels as an essentially Arian position (Christie, 2007, p. 186). Interestingly, this finding seems to be at odds with the opinion expressed by the Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, who, while agreeing that most ordinary Christians are heretical in their beliefs about Christ, maintains that this takes a form of closet docetism, a denial of the fully humanity of Christ (see Kilby, 2007, p. 18). I do not know whether this conclusion is based on data similar to that of Christie or not.

There are, of course, reservations about qualitative research of this nature, for example, whether the church community chosen, an Anglican one,  is representative of Christians in this country generally and, indeed, whether what is a relatively small sample of people is representative of those churches chosen. However, the results may also understate the problem of the gap between what the Church teaches and what people believe because the research is, in a sense, dealing with a ‘survivor population’ in that it fails to register those people who have simply abandoned the Church because they can no longer accept its teaching. Davie (1994) drew attention to the fact that many people in the UK profess religious belief, albeit often ill-defined, but no longer belong to any particular church.

However, whatever the limitations of the research may be, it does appear to make the point that the divinity of Christ seems to have become a secondary concern for a significant body of practising Christians. In adopting a view of Christ as exemplar and revealer there seems to be a rejection of other ideas, for example, ideas about the victorious and sacrificial nature of Christ’s death. The limitations of adopting such an exclusive approach is one of the themes of this dissertation. It appears that the language used by the Church tradition does not carry meaning for these people. In relation to salvation the point is made by Young:

For the early Church, sacrificial imagery was powerful and inevitable. For us, it is by no means inevitable, and far from powerful – indeed, it is more often an offence and a stumbling-block. If we are to learn from the early Church, we probably need to find alternative images of symbols from our own culture, with a similar immediate impact (Young, 1975, p. 103).

On the question of the status of Christ, Kilby (2007, p.17) takes the view that, ‘The Council of Chalcedon, one could say, decided upon a formula, and left it to the future to work out what that formula meant’, but it would appear that for Christie’s respondents the boundaries for thinking intended by the formula are too restrictive.

In the course of this dissertation I hope to show that to take the view of Christie’s respondents that ‘Jesus saves primarily as exemplar and revealer, and that he does not need to be God to do this’, is to misunderstand both the nature of sin and of salvation and, while it may meet the needs of many of Christie’s congregations, it does not recognise the needs of Christians in different situations. I will start by trying to see how the earliest Christian communities understood the life and work of Christ, beginning with the context of the Bible and first Century Palestine but, in order to do this, we need an understanding of the language and ideas of the time and so I begin with some thoughts about the nature of religious language.

The nature of religious language

To take up the comment of Kilby referred to above about the working out by contemporary Christians of meaning of the Chalcedonian formula, Gunton (1988, p.174) has made the observation that ‘[I]t would appear that Christians, perhaps Christians especially, do not know what to do with the language they have received’.

Although the idea of revelation is central to the thinking of most Christian theologians, whether the source of this is seen primarily as lying in the Bible, ‘the grand document of the revelation of God’ (Barth, 1949[1947], p. 76), or whether it is seen as coming primarily through religious experience, ‘experiencing-as’, something which is ‘more like sense perception that propositional belief’ to use the words of John Hick (see Badham, 1990, p.35), it is the case that revelation is always interpreted and expressed within a particular context. Furthermore, whatever language we use to express our religious experience then becomes the structure on which further theological reflection is based and the emerging theology in turn becomes the context that influences the way in which future religious experience is interpreted and expressed.  In other words, revelation itself occurs within a religious context and is a complex product of both tradition and contemporary experience; tradition and the content of our belief and the way in which it is expressed are interdependent.

While the beginnings of religious language lie in worship, in the experiences of the presence (as well as the absence) of God, and it is these experiences, expressed in metaphorical language, which feed theological reflection, it is also the case that people within a theological tradition use that language to express their own religious experience. The relationship is a symbiotic one in which metaphors provide “food” for concepts and concepts provide “sight” for metaphors (McFague, 1982, p. 119).

In our attempts to express religious belief we are largely concerned with the idea of metaphor and, to allow comparison with secular forms of thought, its extension into the idea of model as a ‘sustained and systematic metaphor’ (McFague, 1982, p. 67).  According to Hick (1993, p. 99) the metaphorical stands in contrast to the literal use of language. The idea of metaphor is that there is a transfer of meaning whereby one term is illuminated by attaching to it some of the associations of another. In order for metaphor to be effective as a form of communication there has to be ‘a reservoir of shared associations’ (Hick, 1993, p. 100). One of the points I will make in this dissertation is that it is in the breakdown of the consonance between the reservoir of shared associations that existed in the community of first century Palestine and the early Church as compared with our present time that we encounter difficulty.

There is overlap in the terms metaphor, analogy and symbol, all of which are used by theologians, but I believe metaphor is the use of language that concerns us here. Metaphor is of a more descriptive nature than is the case with analogy and the emphasis in analogy is, I believe, on similarity as, for example, in argument by analogy. In contrast, metaphor, as discussed below, holds within it a tension, that of similarity in spite of difference (see, for example, Lash (2005[1986], 106 – 107). Symbol is different from both in that it carries with it the idea of representation in which something stands for something else. It is more than a sign, however, which merely points to something, for it contains within it the reality of the thing to which it refers. It is, for example, the difference between a road sign and a national flag or, to use Kilby’s example (Kilby, 2007, p. 40) a lover’s kiss as a symbol which both signals the love between two people but also makes real the love which it expresses. According to McFague, in symbolic thought ‘one does not think of “this as that”, but “this” as a part of “that”. The tension of metaphor is absorbed by the harmony of symbol’ (McFague, 1982, p. 16, her italics). Paul Tillich, whose theology in relation to salvation I will discuss later, makes much use of symbol as part of his ‘method of correlation’ (Tillich, 1973[1951], pp. 59-64) but my view is that it would be more accurate to refer to much of what he says as metaphor, particularly when he comes to discuss specific Christian doctrines.

Something which needs to be recognised is that metaphor is an all-pervasive feature of language (secular, scientific and religious) to the extent that some metaphors come to acquire the status of the literal, for example, ‘wrong-headed’ expressing the view that someone is mistaken or being perverse and obstinate or, to take another example, ‘bottle neck’ to describe a limiting obstruction to some process. Such common usage can be said to render the metaphor ‘dead’ since the metaphorical content is overlooked. So too, in discussions about the nature of religion versus science, the metaphorical nature of science is not always recognised. In all aspects of our lives we use language to create a world in our attempts to facilitate our further exploration of underlying truths. Rather than there being such a thing as a ‘literal’ use of language, language is fluid and acquires its meaning from use. It is a misunderstanding of language to divorce it from its context. In her book on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Transactions McGinn makes this point, namely, that language takes its meaning from its context.

[T]he structure and function of language are revealed only in situ, when it is embedded in the active lives of those who speak it. [-------]For it is the structures and distinctions that are revealed in our actual use of language, and not those that remain when language is abstracted from its application, that show us how our language functions, or what sort of phenomenon it is (McGinn, 2002[1997], pp. 58-59).

McFague (1982) has written a detailed account of the use of metaphor in religious and secular thought from which I highlight the following ideas as important for our purposes. Many of these points apply also to models, which McFague describes as ‘organising networks of images’, a step ‘on the way to systematic thought’ (McFague, 1982, p. 25). The first is that ‘a metaphor is seeing one thing as something else, pretending “this” is “that” because we do not know how to think or talk about “this”, so we use “that” as a way of saying something  about it’. It is a question of ‘spotting a thread of similarity between two dissimilar objects or events’ as a way of using the better known to speak about the lesser known (McFague, 1982, p. 15). We learn and understand through connection, through association. The process is both imaginative and interactive. I have already highlighted that whatever language we use to express our religious experience then becomes the structure on which further theological reflection is based and this in turn becomes the context that influences the way in which religious experience is interpreted and expressed. I hope to show something of this when I discuss the theological implications of the different approaches to the doctrine of atonement.

The tension that exists in the idea of metaphor, which is both “is” and “is not”, leads to the second point which is that multiple metaphors and models are necessary fully to describe an underlying reality, whether this be God or some finer point of contemporary physics. McFague talks about us conceptualising through networks or grids of metaphors. This is again something that I will return to when I discuss the different ideas about the nature of the work of Christ.

A third important idea is that if a single metaphor or theological model is allowed to become dominant, a situation that McFague calls idolatry, then not only does our understanding become constrained but the metaphor may become irrelevant in particular contexts. Mcfague refers specifically to the model of “God the Father” in relation to the experience of women (chapter 5) but the same is true of Christian doctrine in relation other areas of theology, whether it be liberation theology, gay and lesbian theology, feminist theology or whatever. When particular metaphors of salvation become dominant, excluding other ways of thinking and talking, they can become both oppressive and irrelevant for many people. If contemporary Anglican Christians exclude models of atonement other than that of Christ as exemplar and revealer, then they run the risk that they will fail to see the perspective of fellow Christians in different contexts.

The biblical context

As already mentioned, context is important for the understanding of any particular metaphor and, for the Christian, the Bible and its context is of the utmost importance, but there is within the Bible a diversity of ideas; there are different overlapping metaphors.

An important idea of the relationship between God and people in the Hebrew Scriptures is that of Covenant and the continuing life of the nation or People of Israel (see, for example, Genesis 15.1-6; Exodus 34. 10-28; Jeremiah 31. 31-34; Isaiah 44. 1-8). The idea of the future expressed in individual terms is less prominent, for example, that of individual resurrection for judgement doesn’t appear until the Book of Daniel, probably the last of the books of the Tanakh to be written (marginal notes to Daniel 12. 2-3 in the Jewish Study Bible, 2004, p. 1665; Vermes, 2001[2000], p.93).

Within the idea of the Covenant there arises the question as to how to reconcile an all-powerful god (Psalms 93.1; 99.1) who was, nevertheless, a god of steadfast love (Psalm 106.1) and faithfulness to his people (Psalm 89.1) with a people who were persistently disobedient, who defied his authority, but to whom he was committed in his Covenant promises? How is this reconciliation to be achieved? In the Hebrew Bible there is a tension between ideas of social justice and religious observance, the righteousness and holiness of God and the immoral behaviour of human beings, punishment and forgiveness, judgement and the present evil and the future victory of God.

In response to this are a number of themes which are important for our discussion (see Sawyer,1993[1987], pp. 42-66).Thus, the prophets make it clear that God is a God of justice seen above all in terms of social justice (for example, Micah 6.8, Amos 8.4-7, Isaiah 1.17). God is righteous and we are made acceptable to God by our right behaviour rather than our ritual religious practices (Amos 5.23-40).The God who demands justice and righteousness in human beings is also the God who created heaven and earth (Amos 5.8) and linked to this is the idea of God’s holiness and the unbridgeable gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings (Isaiah 6.5). However, this is a God who takes the initiative and in Ezekiel’s parable of the unwashed child (Ezekiel 16.1-6) we have the idea of God’s prevenient Grace, forgiveness that precedes repentance (McKeating, 1979, p.138); God forgives because it is in God’s nature to forgive, he does things ‘for the sake of his name’. In Second Isaiah repentance is asked for because forgiveness has already been given (see for example, 44.21-22). Finally, we find the idea of the Day of the Lord. The God who acts in history will bring the historical process to a climax with ultimate victory over injustice and oppression and defeat of all the forces of evil (see Sawyer, 1993[1987], p. 65). There is, therefore, a rich network of ideas in the Hebrew Scriptures which forms the background for Jesus and his followers. For the early Christian Church, Second Isaiah became a key text, particularly the idea of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52.13 – 53.12) in whom they saw the figure of Christ.

The New Testament writers had, therefore, an abundance of Hebrew metaphors with which to work, but these were not the only influence on the thinking in 1st Century Palestine where there was also Greek and Roman influence. It has been a part of 20th Century Christian theological thinking to emphasise the distinction between the Aramaic-speaking Palestinian world of Jesus and the later influence of the Hellenistic Church (see, for example, Bultmann, 1958[1934], p.17; Boring, 1999, pp. 459-460). The success of the gospel in the Gentile world of the Roman Empire was something that needed to be accommodated at an early stage as shown, for example, by the controversy over dietary laws and circumcision (for example, Acts 11.1-18; Acts 15; Romans 2. 17-29; 1Corinthians 8).

The gospels were written in the full knowledge of the fact that Jesus’ own movement was spreading much better among Gentiles than among Jews. Thus, in some ways they de-Judaized the scheme by emphasizing Israel’s partial rejection of Jesus and his acceptance by a few Gentiles (Sanders, 1995[1993], p.80).

The idea that Jewish thought in 1st Century Palestine in some way existed uninfluenced by Gentile thought fails to recognise the intermingling of Jewish and Greek culture which occurred in the period between the Old and New Testaments.

Hengel (2007[1981], pp. 2-3) emphasises that the Jewish people at the time of Jesus had been living under the influence of Greek civilisation for about 400 years and that the Jewish upper classes in first Century Palestine were largely bi-lingual, speaking Greek as well as Aramaic. Similar points have been made by others (Hurtado ,2005[2003], pp. 366-367; Dunn, 2006, p. 254). The issue is, therefore, to try to understand the mix of Greek and Old Testament ideas that existed in the Jewish religious community at the time of Jesus and subsequently among the early Palestinian Christians.  Hengel (2007[1981]) claims in his detailed account that this intermingling helped to shape not only the thought of the earliest Palestinian Christian community, but also the way in which the gospel spread in the urban world of the Roman Empire both in terms of its success and the opposition it generated (1 Cor. 1.18-25).

For example, Hengel sees an intermingling of Old Testament and Greek ideas in the preaching of Paul. Thus, he argues that there are two themes that are prominent in Paul’s preaching about the crucifixion (see Hengel 2007[1981] pp. 34-39 for a discussion of this). One is talking about the death of Jesus in terms of ‘giving up’, the so-called surrender formula. God himself gives up Christ as in Romans 8.32 and Romans 4.24-25 and Christ also gives himself up (Galatians 1.3-4; Galatians 2.20). This is an idea that Hengel claims has its roots in Hebrew Scripture, for example, there are parallels with the offering up of Isaac in Genesis 22.12 and the idea of the suffering servant (Isaiah 53.12). The idea of Christ’s giving up is also seen in the reference to Christ’s death as a ransom in Mark’s gospel, ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45).

The second formula seen in Paul’s preaching is the ‘dying formula’, which is something limited to Paul and sometimes expressed also as part of a ‘dying and rising formula’ (see the handing on of the teaching by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.3-4; see also Romans 5. 6-8; 14.6; 1 Corinthians 8.11; Galatians 2.21 and 1 Thessalonians 5.10). This, according to Hengel (2007[1981],p. 49) has no parallel in Hebrew texts although it is prominent in the Greek texts of Hellenistic Judaism from the time of the Maccabees.

Another example given by Hengel of the influence of Greek on Jewish thought (Hengel, 2007[1981], pp.7-8), is to claim that the idea of a martyr’s death and glorification of the martyr is foreign to Old Testament thought, appearing first in the period of the Maccabean revolt around 165 BCE (the date of the Book of Daniel (Daniel 3.28)). This would also appear to be the view of Vermes (2001[2000], p. 93). The murder of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible is a basis for God’s judgment on the people, but there is no ‘theology of martyrdom’. With the exception possibly of Isaiah 53, there is no idea of a representative human death to atone for the guilt of others. In fact, this is an idea that is specifically rejected (Deuteronomy 24.16; Exodus 32.30-33). Rather, the idea of a hero dying for the sake of the people is, according to Hengel, a feature of the period between the Old and New Testaments and imports ideas from classical Greek thought.

In summary, my argument is that by the time of the earliest Christian Community and during the life of Jesus himself, there was already a network of overlapping metaphors influenced by both Jewish and Greek thought that addressed the relationship between God and humanity, sin and salvation and the future hope. It is with this background that the early Christians and the writers of the New Testament worked as they tried to make sense of the life, death and resurrection experience of Christ.

The origin of the interpretation of the death of Jesus as a saving event

[I] want to ask why the various writers of the New Testament believed Jesus’ life to be significant, and in particular why they thought that Jesus’ judicial execution could be understood in a creative way (Gorringe, 1996, p. 60).

It is also important to ask when this understanding of the unique status and role of Christ happened. Since the 19th Century there has been a view that only by returning to the historical Jesus can we disentangle the real meaning of the life of Jesus from the later additions of the Church.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of  God, who founded the kingdom of heaven on earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never existed. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by theology in an historical garb (Schweitzer, 2000[1913], p.478).

This quest for the historical Jesus continues to the present time in the writings of the Jesus Seminar, representing the so-called Third Quest (see Witheringon, 1997 for a review of the various strands of this), but the point Hengel (2007[1981]) is anxious to make in his discussion is that the Christian message interpreting the death of Jesus as vicarious atonement is rooted in the earliest phase of Christianity in the Palestinian community and may well go back to Jesus himself, and that we need to be wary of the view that it was simply a later addition of the Church (Hengel, 2007[1981], p. 64). He argues that from the beginning it was being preached in a language and with ideas that would have been familiar to the people of the time, both Jew and Gentile. Whether he is correct in this assertion is something I will now attempt examine but first we need to look at his argument. There are a number of threads to this which are as follows.

The earliest textual evidence we have as to the content of early Christian belief comes from the letters of Paul of which 7 are generally accepted as coming from Paul himself (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Philemon) of which the earliest is thought to be 1 Thessalonians (see Johnson (2010, p.241). The conversion of Paul probably took place within a year or two after the Crucifixion between 32 and 34 CE (see Chilton, Kee et al., 2008, p. 542) and the letters were probably written in the next 20 to 25 years. According to the first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15.3 – 8) Paul is handing on the tradition of the early Christian teaching, which he had first given them during his visit 5 or 6 years earlier.

Hengel (2007[1981], p.38) argues for the authenticity of Paul’s record as representative of early Palestinian Christian thought by emphasising how anxious Paul was to retain the link he has with Palestine and the centre of Judaism in Jerusalem. For example, this is evident in the people he lists in 1 Corinthians 15.1-11. The original mission to Corinth had been undertaken in the company of a partner from Jerusalem, Silas-Silvanus (see 1 Thessalonians 1.1 and Acts 15.40) and at the close of his handing on of the tradition, Paul makes it clear that he is preaching the same thing as the other apostles (1 Corinthians 15.11). The letter to Galatians (2.1-10) also emphasises how anxious Paul and Barnabas were to keep their preaching acceptable to the Jerusalem apostles.

The crux of Hengel’s argument, however, lies in Paul’s persecution of the Christians before his conversion. In the first Century CE it was taken for granted that God would grant the Messiah victory, but the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die was not part of Jewish thought and that he should die on a cross would have been a scandal (See I Corinthians 1.23; Deuteronomy 21.22-23). Hengel argues (see Hengel, 2007[1981], pp 44-45) that it is the assertion that the crucified Messiah, who by taking upon himself the curse of the Law and thereby making the temple obsolete as a place of atonement for the people of Israel, that was the problem. The thinking is made explicit in Romans 3.21-26 where Paul compares the death of Jesus to the atoning sacrifice in the Holy of Holies and the symbolism of the tearing of the curtain in the temple at the moment of Jesus’ death makes the same point (Mark 15.38). Paul, who witnessed and approved of Stephen’s execution, then embarks upon his persecution of the Christian community and it is clear that there was also a general persecution by the Sadducees representing the priestly caste, for example, the persecution from Agrippa instigated by the Sadducees referred to in Acts 12.1-3 in 40-44 CE  and the stoning of James, the brother of Jesus and other Jewish Christians in CE 62 at the behest of the Sadducee and  high priest, Annas (Josephus, 2006, p. 877). This early persecution of the Christians, which dates from the very earliest days of the Church and which begins before the date of Paul’s conversion, is seen by Hengel as evidence for an early interpretation of the death of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice replacing the role of the temple.

However, not all take this view. Hooker (1991, pp. 337-343) has argued that the words of the Last Supper, for example, should be read as a ratification of the Covenant. The idea of community and the coming of the Kingdom she claims is more prominent than the expiation of sin and the sharing of the cup signifies the suffering that will have to be undergone by those who commit themselves to a new vision of human community. The point is made by Gorringe (1996, p.64) that much of the case for reading vicarious significance into the sayings of Jesus in the gospels comes from the habit of reading them through Isaiah 53 and Gorringe (1996, p.66) maintains that in the synoptic gospels Jesus does not present himself as coming to expiate or atone for sin but rather his preaching is about the socio-economic restructuring of human relations. Similarly Acts contains no teaching on atonement but is a message about the new inclusive community (Gorringe, 1996, p. 67). I find the arguments of Hooker convincing, particularly the links she draws between the gospel accounts of the Last Supper and the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10.16 and 11.26, where the emphasis is on the Eucharist seen as a means of fellowship with Jesus. In all but the shortened Lucan account Hooker argues that the cup is linked with the coming Kingdom of God, which Jesus speaks of ‘as something which has been ‘covenanted’ to him and which he now ‘covenants’ to his disciples’(Hooker, 1991, p. 339).
Hengel also makes the claim that two ideas about the status of Christ were rejected early in Christianity. The first relates to the idea of the suffering of the righteous man, which is seen in the Wisdom literature written between the Tanakh and the New Testament, for example, Wisdom chapters 2-5 (Hengel, 2007[1981], pp. 40-41). He claims the righteous sufferer as portrayed here achieves salvation only for himself, for others he simply acts as a model or as an accuser of his enemies. If Hengel is correct this presents an impoverished view of Christ and he argues that all the New Testament interpretation is against it. Thus, the earliest of the gospels (Mark) which was written around 70 CE (Tuckett, 2001, p.886), but building on earlier material, is persistent in its view of the crucified Messiah rather than the righteous man. This is seen in the allusions to messianic Psalms in relation to the death of Jesus (Psalm 22 in Mark 15.24, 15.29, 15.31 and 15.34; Psalm 118 in Mark 11. 9-10 and 12.10; Psalm 110 in Mark 12.35-37 and Psalm 69 in Mark 15.36) as well as the declaration of Jesus in Mark 10.45 of his life as a ransom for many and the account of the last supper (Mark 14.22-24) with its reference to Exodus 24.8.

The second idea Hengel claims was rejected early is that Jesus was the last in the line of the prophets, what Cullman has called the eschatological prophet, or the prophet of the last days (Cullman, 1963[1957], p. 42). Rowland (2002, p. 172) like Cullman has also suggested that Jesus may well have thought of himself as a prophet inspired by the Spirit and that in speaking God’s word he expected suffering and death as the prophets had done before him (Luke 11.49 – 52). However, using the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12.1-11, Hengel (2007[1981], p.41) disputes this and argues that the distinction drawn in the parable between the unique beloved son and heir and the different servants who were sent first, is important for understanding the view of the early Christian community, which was a rejection of the idea that Jesus was simply the last of the prophets. This interpretation has been challenged. In a detailed analysis of the parable Wright (1992, pp. 74-77), while agreeing with Hengel’s distinction between the messengers (prophets) and the son (Jesus) makes the interesting point that:
There is nothing in the role of the son that suggests anything other than failure [----] no suggestion within the narrative possibilities that somehow this death might be the means of the story turning of the corner – except in the negative sense that, having nothing else to do, the owner must now come and sort out the mess (Wright, 1992, p. 75).
The final conclusion of Wright, therefore, appears to be more equivocal than that of Hengel as to the precise status of the son in the parable and his role in salvation.

What the above discussion demonstrates is that exactly when the idea that the life and death of Jesus had salvific importance became prominent is by no means clear and, although the nature of Christ is important to any understanding of this, it is also by no means clear when the view of Christ as someone more than merely human became part of the thinking.

New Testament scholars have tended to argue that an understanding of the divine status of Christ took some time to develop. This would certainly appear to be the view of Dunn (2006, pp 237-238) who claims that while the emphasis in Mark’s gospel is on the messianic status of Christ, in the later Gospel of John it moves to the idea of a pre-existent Christ with the logos terminology and, linked to that, the idea of incarnation. Although there are several layers of material in John’s gospel, some of which probably go back to the early Palestinian community (see for example, Grayston, 1990, pp. xxi – xxii; Richardson, 2010, pp. 56-61), the date of the gospel as we have it is some 30 years later than Mark, towards the end of the first century CE (Kieffer,2001, p.961). It is this introduction of the language of pre-existence that is, in the view of Dunn, the most important shift in Christological thinking in the early Church. Although he sees within it the application of the Jewish tradition of Wisdom terminology to Christ (Dunn, 2006, p.237) and although Wisdom language is already present in the writing of Paul (for example, 1 Corinthians 1.24 & 30 and 8.6), Dunn maintains that it is in John’s gospel that the idea of the personal pre-existence of Christ begins to emerge with a movement away from what he regards as an ‘adoptionist’ interpretation in the synoptic gospels.

Rowland (2002) also emphasises John’s gospel as an important turning point, a shift from the eschatological beliefs of Judaism seen in Mark’s gospel with its use of the idea of Messiah and the conviction that Jesus was the one who was to come (Mark 8.29; Matthew 11.2-6), to the individualistic emphasis of John with its concern for the salvation of the individual soul, an essentially Greek idea (Rowland, 2002, pp.252-253). However, Moltmann argues against this interpretation of Greek influence, maintaining that the Jewish idea of promise and eschatological hope remained the more important.

The real language of Christian eschatology, however, is not the Greek logos, but the promise [Moltmann’s italics] which has stamped the language, hope and experience of Israel. It was not in the logos of the epiphany of the eternal present, but in the hope-giving word of promise that Israel found God’s truth (Moltmann,2002 [1965], pp. 26-27).

Similarly, Bornkamm, referring to the blessings and woes in Luke’s gospel (Luke 6.20-25), makes the point that Jesus’ message lives by this same certainty since for him ‘God’s kingdom means God’s future and victory, overcoming the powers of the devil, a shift from this aeon to the next’ (Bornkamm, 1973[1956], p.66). The argument is that it was the person and life of Jesus in relation to the eschaton, the coming judgement and the realisation of God’s kingdom that was important for the earliest Christian community.

An interesting perspective has been put on all this in the writing of Pannenberg  (2002[1964]). He has linked ideas of the status and work of Christ, as the eternal Son incarnate, with Jewish eschatological hope. Appealing to the Resurrection as an historical event he argues that the Resurrection meant that ‘God himself has confirmed the pre-Easter activity of Jesus’ (p. 57). It should be noted that this is confirmation of the status of Jesus, not a form of ‘adoptionist’ theology as is sometimes ascribed to Paul (for example, Romans 1.1-6) or as seen in interpretations of the baptism of Jesus as recorded in the synoptic gospels (Mark 1.9-11). In ‘adoptionist’ Christology Jesus is elevated to divine status at certain points in his life as a result of particular acts of God, but Pannenberg is talking more in terms of a recognition in retrospect of what Jesus was all along.  He outlines his ideas on Jesus’ Resurrection as the ground of his unity with God in chapter 3 of his book, but the thinking has been summarised by Grenz (2002) in the Preface to the English Edition.

[T]he meaning and the essence of all reality is ultimately not determined by some nature inherent within it and with which it was endowed ‘in the beginning’, but by the future, that is, by the eschaton. What is true of all reality is especially the case with – and illustrated by – Jesus himself: his Resurrection carries retroactive force for his identity and for the meaning of his life. [------]. In Jesus’ Resurrection, the end of the age has occurred within this present age, and therefore Jesus is indeed the eternal Son (Grenz, 2002, p. xxiii).

The declaration that the eternal Son is incarnate in Jesus is made ‘through the life, the death and above all the Resurrection of Jesus, which reveals Jesus relationship to the eternal Father and thereby constitutes Jesus as the eternal Son of the Father’ (Grenz, 2002, p. xxiv). The Resurrection retroactively constitutes Jesus as divine and with it the end of the age has occurred within this present age. In other words, the significance of things is often only seen when viewed backwards from the future. From the perspective of salvation Pannenberg argues that Jesus’ resurrection anticipates nothing less than the eschatological resurrection of humankind (see Pannenberg, 2002[1964], pp. 59-63).

This is an insight that, rather than taking several decades to develop, could well have become part of the understanding of Jesus in early Palestinian Christianity. Pannenberg suggests the nature of Christ and his work became clear in the events of the Resurrection and that the effect of this is seen in the transformation of the disciples from a group of demoralised frightened people into a group of committed evangelists. This is not to say that there was not further, and indeed continues to be further, reflection and development of understanding (see Pannenberg, 2002[1964], p. 460), but the claim is that the essential identity of Christ and his work were established very early in the Christian community.

I have spent some time in discussing this because I want to challenge the idea that the divine nature of Christ and that salvation comes through Christ is simply something fabricated by the Church over the period of 500 years or so after the life and death of Jesus. While we can debate exactly how and when the ideas evolved I find myself convinced by the argument of Pannenberg that the transformation seen in the community of the disciples in the few days and weeks after the death of Jesus as part of the resurrection experience indicates an early understanding of the significance of the person of Jesus and what his life and death had accomplished.

The nature of Sin: what are we being saved from?

Gorringe (1996, p.100) states in a discussion of different models of atonement ‘that different accounts of sin generate different atonement theologies’.

I have already discussed the idea of sin in the Hebrew Bible as occurring in the context of a breaking of the Covenant relationship between the people of Israel and God and of reconciliation seen in terms of a future restoration of this Covenant relationship. Among the variety of ideas within those scriptures are to be found ideas prominent in later Christianity such as our helplessness in the face of sin, because the drive to sin is overwhelming (Jeremiah 2.24; 17.9) and the need for God’s grace and forgiveness (Ezekiel 16.1-6; Isaiah 44.21-22).

An important question is the extent to which sin is a matter of individual choice, seen in the way we conduct our lives, and the extent to which it is a state in which we exist. In the writing of Paul the particularity of sinful acts is not the issue so much as the idea of sin as a state from which we are unable to lift ourselves (for example, Romans 7.7-25). This sin is built into the social structures of which we are a part. Thus, Grayston argues that the use by Paul of the word sarx (translated as flesh in the NRSV of the Bible) should be taken to mean bodily existence in a social body of people (Grayston, 1997, pp. 54-55). Sinfulness was built into the social structures of which the individual was a part. The law was robbed of its potency for it was ‘weaker than the self-preserving drive of Jewish society, the self-regarding pressure of Hellenistic society’ (ibid. p.64).

This idea of sin as a state in which we exist, rather than specific acts of wrongdoing, is important to the thinking of a number of modern theologians. For example, Tillich interprets sin in terms of estrangement, both from God, the infinite ground of our being, and from our essential self. Essence, for Tillich, refers to what something is fundamentally whereas existence is the actualisation or expression of essence which, because it occurs in time and space, is limited and finite. Essential human nature is distorted in existence where freedom is limited by destiny, understood as the situation or context out of which decisions arise so that, in each situation, freedom is bound to the situation in which it is experienced in which real possibilities are cut off (Tillich, 1973[1951], pp.182-186). An important aspect of Tillich’s theology of sin is the link he draws with Luther’s ‘Bondage of the Will’ and Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin. Estrangement occurs in the transition from essence to existence and coincides with the moment of existence, the moment of creation, the very moment of our coming into being. We cannot, despite our power of freedom, overcome estrangement within the conditions of our own estranged existence (Tillich, 1975[1957], p. 79). There is, therefore, an emphasis in Tillich’s theology of sin and salvation on the need for grace.

Reinhold Niebuhr (Niebuhr, 1941) starts his analysis of sin from a position that, in  many ways, is not unlike that of Tillich in that he sees human beings as both finite and free. In their freedom human beings are capable of transcending their personal circumstances but in their finitude they are dependent on their environment, other people and God (Niebuhr, 1941, p.190). The resulting anxiety, according to Niebuhr (ibid., pp.190-191), results in people trying to take control of the situation by placing themselves at the centre of existence, the will-to-power which Niebuhr labels the sin of pride, or to escape the responsibilities of their freedom by denying their finitude and losing themselves in some aspect of the world, which he labels the sin of sensuality (ibid., p.197).

The important point I want to draw from the ideas of both Niebuhr and Tillich is the way in which individuals are shaped by the sinful social structures of which they are a part, what Niebuhr calls the paradox that ‘man sins inevitably, yet without escaping the responsibility for his sin’ (Niebuhr, 1941, p. 266). Although only individuals are moral agents, the faults of the individual are magnified by the group, which is more arrogant, hypocritical, self-centred and ruthless in the pursuit of its goals than the individual (ibid., p. 221). Furthermore, while societies and cultures reflect the individuals that comprise them, they also corrupt those individuals (see Ray, 2003, pp. 43-44). In the words of Weaver (2003, p.65), ‘We cooperate with the reality of sin, in which we are already mired’. This has become all too apparent in the study of specific situations such as child abuse and the Holocaust where internal willing and extra-personal forces are not just in opposition but also cooperate (see McFadyen, 2000, pp. 133-134). In the area of domestic violence as well as child abuse, such cooperation is often the survival tactic of those who are the victims (Nelson, 2006, p. 423). Since such a response in any given situation may be a subconscious rather than a conscious one, we can perhaps see what Niebuhr was getting at in his paradox.

The relevance of these ideas of freedom of choice and the constraints placed upon it by the conditions of existence becomes apparent when we come to consider the ‘how’ or the ‘mechanism’ of salvation. Whether sin is an individual responsibility or whether it relates primarily to sinful social structure is a crucial concern when we come to look at how we understand atonement.

Metaphors of Salvation

The point has already been made that the earliest Christian community recognised that there was saving significance in the person of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. The key question now is to understand how this was seen to be operating, how it was seen to work both at the time and in the later Church. How was it that the life and death of a particular human being out of the totality of humanity could be a means of reconciliation with God for all mankind, indeed, for the whole of creation? Why was the path to the cross necessary to achieve this? According to Pannenberg (2002[1964], p. 275), ‘The theological question about the significance of Jesus’ fate upon the cross was early felt to be pressing’.

The metaphors that have been used at various times to help in this all arose in particular historical contexts and that context has to be understood if we are to apply them in our own setting. I hope to show that, while some of the metaphors seem more adequate to a modern mind than others, their overlapping meanings add significance so that additional insight is to be gained by using more than one. Furthermore, with reference back to the findings of Christie (2007, p.193) that for many practising Christians ‘Jesus saves primarily as exemplar and revealer, and that he does not need to be God to do this’, I hope to show that to take such a view is to misunderstand both the nature of sin and of salvation. It also, as I have indicated earlier, runs the risk of ignoring the experience of Christians in contexts other than traditional western Christianity.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul describes the work of Christ in the following way, ‘The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 15. 56-57). In Colossians we read that the work of Christ ‘rescues us from the power of darkness’ (Colossians 1.13) and in the gospels John talks of Christ having conquered the world (John 16.33). Luke 10. 17-20 gives this a supernatural context in terms of Satan and the spirits. Thus, the idea that Christ gives us victory over sin and evil, while not the only metaphor in the New Testament, is certainly present. Gunton (1988) in chapter 3 of his book looks at this in detail. Beginning with an appraisal of the work of Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor published in 1931, he examines the idea that Christ is the victor over the demonic forces that hold human life in thrall. He makes a number of points that I think are helpful.

The first is that the language of demons is a way of understanding the subjection of human beings as moral agents to forces that they are unable to control. The demonic is not something belonging to the supernatural world but something which happens in this world when good is corrupted into its opposite. Thus he argues (Gunton, 1988, p. 65 quoting G.B. Caird, 1980) that talk in the New Testament of principalities and powers relates not to the supernatural but to political, social, economic and religious structures of power.  There are here ideas that are meaningful to modern minds as we have come to understand the ways in which people have choice and freedom of action curtailed by the social structures of which they are a part (see above). In the life of Jesus we see someone who lived out the human story in a victorious way. In his refusal to give in to temptation Jesus is victorious against attempts to destroy the truth, to pretend that evil is good. The victory over evil is seen in the choices Jesus made at various points in his life. The result was his death on the Cross, but this, Gunton suggests (p.77), is not simply a passive consequence of his opposition to vested interests, but a refusal to submit to the temptation to misuse power as seen, for example, in the temptation narratives, and to overcome evil with good (see Rom 12.14-21).

There are two further points that I think emerge from Gunton’s discussion. The first is the undoubted problem that, whatever the nature of the victory of Christ, evil still exists in the world and seems to be in control of things. It is here that a return to an understanding of the nature of metaphor is helpful, the tension that exists in metaphor as something which both ‘is and is not’ can be seen to have some similarities to the idea of Christ’s victory as something which is ‘now but not yet’. The metaphor has to be seen in the context of the whole narrative of the incarnation, cross and resurrection and also eschatologically in the ultimate reordering of creation (Revelation 21.1 – 22.7). I have already referred to this in the thinking of Pannenberg, but it is also central to the theology of Moltmann where humanity’s evil is to be found in the death meted out to Christ by his contemporaries, but this has always to be seen in the light of the resurrection, which provides the hope for our present situation ‘where in faith and hope we begin to live in the light of the possibilities and promises of this God’ (Moltmann, 2002[1965], p.17).

The second point relates to the status of Christ. I have already made reference to the claim by Hengel that to view the work of Jesus simply in terms of the suffering of the righteous man or in terms of the last of the line of martyred prophets was found to be inadequate very early in the Christian community. Nevertheless, there was a view within Judaism at the time of Jesus that martyrdom could have a creative function, that the suffering of the just could turn away God’s wrath (2 Maccabees 7.37-38; see Gorringe, 1996, pp 56-57 for a discussion of expiation and suffering in relation to the Fourth Servant Song in Isaiah). However, if our view of sin is that as human beings our choice and freedom of action is curtailed by the very conditions of our existence, then I suggest the action of the righteous man, the exemplary human being, doesn’t provide a solution to the problem of sin in general. Furthermore, it has to be asked why it is this particular man, Jesus, who is so important. According to the Roman historian, Josephus, crucifixion of those opposed to the secular powers was common at the time, often involving large numbers of people (Josephus, 2006, pp. 511-512, p. 572, p. 765, p. 867). If there is victory over evil in the life and death of Jesus, I am of the view that our salvation has to be a work of grace, the action of God. The victory of Christ becomes the victory of God in Christ. The divine status of Christ has to be part of the picture, something I will return to later. For now, I simply wish to make the point that this metaphor of Christus Victor has the appeal that it recognises the helplessness of individuals as victims of their circumstances.

However, stressing the power of the demonic and the continuing power of evil may minimise the part played by responsible human agents and it is here that other models have something to offer. In essence the view in these models is that human beings do carry responsibility for sin and that reconciliation with God is a costly process. Forgiveness alone will not do because it fails to take the offender and the offence seriously (see Gunton, 1988, 9. 159). The role of Christ in this reconciliation is expressed in various ways, for example, in terms of sacrifice, satisfaction, paying a ransom, paying a penalty. The influence of such theological thinking on social structures and penal policies has been profound according to Gorringe (1996). Indeed, this is a major theme throughout his book. ‘The theology of satisfaction, I contend, provided one of the subtlest and most profound of such justifications [for punishment], not only for hanging but for retributive punishment in general’ (Gorringe, 1996, p. 12). One could highlight also his discussion on the influence of Calvinism on penal policy (p. 140) and the whole of Chapter 9, The gospel and Retribution. Nevertheless, it also needs to be recognised that the idea of God as a God of justice who upholds the moral universe, is one that speaks to Christians who live under conditions of oppression, persecution and injustice whether it be the Christian community addressed in Revelation or those addressed by modern liberation theologies.

The idea of sacrifice is a complicated area and Gorringe is of the view that we cannot speak simply of a ‘biblical theology of sacrifice’ (Gorringe1996, p. 57). In the Hebrew Bible sacrifices were made for various reasons, to atone for sin, for sealing of the Covenant, for thanksgiving as a gift in response to God’s goodness, for the remembrance of historic events, or simply as an act of worship to honour God in which the worshipper is purified in their approach to God (for an account of this see Stanley, 2010, pp. 379-391). In the ceremony of the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16 a sacrifice of purification for the priests is combined with a ceremony of transfer of guilt to another (the scapegoat driven into the desert). The prophets emphasised the true nature of sacrifice as lying in righteous conduct (for example, Isaiah 1.11-17, Amos 5.21-24, Micah 6.6-8). Gorringe (p. 60) suggests, on the basis of Matthew 9.13 and 12.6-8 with the reference in these texts to Hosea, that this was also view of Jesus. He makes the point (pp. 61 – 62) that the role of cultic sacrifice in the Jewish religious establishment in 1st Century Palestine was in a process of change and not considered to be indispensable. It was abandoned after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and formed no part of the liturgy of the synagogue. Quoting Philo, he suggests that the Essenes may already have abandoned sacrifice.

In Christian theology it is the link between the ideas of sacrifice and satisfaction that became influential and Gorringe (1996, p. 90), quoting Harnack, claims that this began with Anselm. However, Gunton and Gorringe interpret the way in which Anselm influenced thinking rather differently. Both agree that Anslem was starting from a lawyer’s perspective and that his thinking was influenced by the feudal society of which he was a part. Furthermore, both agree that he had a literal understanding of the biblical metaphor of ransom as in Mark 10.45 and that his thinking was influenced by the concept of penance.  Gunton (1988, pp. 88-92) argues that Anselm introduced satisfaction as a more acceptable idea than ransom or punishment. Anselm saw God as operating analogously to a feudal lord who has a duty to maintain the order, rights and obligations without which society would collapse. For a member of that society failure to meet obligations was seen as an infringement of honour, a failure to render to someone his or her due, as determined by their place in society. In a feudal society, when honour is infringed, social status determines the punishment as much as the character of the crime, the higher the social status of the victim the higher the punishment demanded. An alternative to punishment was to offer recompense or satisfaction whereby some other action, for example, of penance is substituted for the penalty demanded by law to restore the relationship between offender and victim. By analogy, God as the one responsible for the order and beauty of the universe and the upholder of universal justice cannot simply overlook breaches of universal law. For God to ignore injustice and treat evil as good would be to deny the righteousness that is a part of God’s essential nature. But satisfaction needs to be proportionate to guilt and the offence is against an infinite being to whom everything is owed. Only an infinite being can make satisfaction, one who is both God and human and this is seen in Christ’s voluntary death, the giving up of a perfect life. It is, therefore, grounded in a Trinitarian theology, which sees the giving of satisfaction as a good act of God. Because substitution is an exchange rather than a penalty, Gunton argues (pp. 90-92) that it is not primarily penal in character.

However, Gorringe (1996, pp.100 - 101) argues that the concept of satisfaction is disconnected from the gospel story and that it tells us nothing important about sin. Furthermore, he critiques Gunton’s interpretation of it as relying on a simplistic view of mediaeval society that was in reality brutal and bound up with hierarchy and oppression where notions of satisfaction and revenge were interlinked. Furthermore Gorringe (pp. 138-139) disputes that the idea of satisfaction is not penal and claims that it is linked with penal substitution as developed later by Calvin, who argued that Christ in taking punishment upon himself, bore the just punishment of God. Such a view of God, Gorringe claims (1996, p.146) is unworthy. Whether it can be said to be ‘unworthy’ or not, it is certainly true that for many Christians the idea is difficult to accept. Chalke (2003, p.182) referring to John 3:16, poses the question ‘How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son?’ A model of atonement based upon the idea of penal substitution is very much a live issue in evangelical circles and, in the summary of a symposium devoted to the topic held in London in 2005 by the Evangelical Alliance, Hilborn (2008, p.19) expressed the view ‘Yet amidst these and other theories, penal substitution has widely been regarded as the “controlling model” within mainline evangelicanism – the sine qua non of evangelical soteriology’. By penal substitution he is referring to a model that ‘presents Jesus’ crucifixion as a vicarious sacrifice which appeased or “propitiated” God’s wrath towards sin by paying the due “penalty” for that sin, which is suffering, death and condemnation’ (ibid. p. 19).

However, a different understanding is possible when we concentrate on the suffering of Christ. This is seen in the theology of Abelard (1079 – 1142), who moves from the legal metaphor of satisfaction to the impact of the suffering Christ on the human soul. Abelard’s thinking was a reaction against that of Anselm. For Abelard the metaphor of satisfaction raises two problems. The first is how anyone, let alone God, should require the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything. The second is the assertion that it was necessary for Christ to die for this implies that there is some necessity over and above God’s will (see Gorringe, 1996, pp 109-110). There is in the thinking of Abelard the idea of Christ as exemplar, something to which I will return, but for the moment it is his concentration on Christ’s suffering from which I think we can draw further insight.

This has been expressed more recently in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann. One feature of the ideas of sacrifice and satisfaction is that they focus on the offender and the preoccupation is with the crucifixion rather than the resurrection. Moltmann seeks to address both of these limitations. His thinking emerged as a response to the Second World War, specifically the crimes by the Nazis against the Jews and it has struck a chord with Christians in contexts where there is poverty and injustice such as in Latin America. There are a number of strands to Moltmann’s view of atonement. The important ideas are to be found in Moltmann, 1974[1973], chapter 6. The first is that only the victim can forgive a wrongdoing. If there is to be forgiveness in God, it can only come from God who is himself a victim.  Secondly, it is a Trinitarian theology. Although God is the one who is sinned against, in the event of the cross both God and Christ suffer which takes Anselm a step further. Thirdly, the cross cannot be considered apart from the resurrection.

Thus the centre is occupied not by the ‘cross and resurrection’ , but by the resurrection of the crucified Christ, which qualifies his death as something that has happened for us, and the cross of the risen Christ, which reveals and makes accessible to those who are dying his resurrection from the dead (Moltmann, 1974[1973], p. 210. Moltmann’s italics).

The key text for Moltmann is Mark 15: 34, when Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.  In interpreting this text, he turns first to St Paul who speaks of God’s abandonment of Christ in the sense of a ‘delivering up’, something I have already touched on briefly. The idea of ‘delivering up’ is important to Moltmann’s idea of how the Trinity is working in the event of the cross, but it is easy to misunderstand what he is saying. By delivering up, I think Moltmann means something quite different from sacrificing and something that is part of a relationship of love.

Paul talks in Romans 1 about God surrendering the heathen to the lustfulness of their heart, that is, they are given up to the consequence of their choices. It is not easy to see the next step from this, namely, how the deliverance of godless man can lie in the abandoned, ‘delivered up’ Christ but I believe that what Moltmann is saying becomes clearer when we start from the perspective that what we see in the life of Jesus in the gospels is a life committed to unconditional love and justice, reflecting the nature of God. It was a life that brought in its wake enmity and persecution in a world with different priorities and it led to his execution and suffering on the Cross. God the Father delivers up Jesus the Son in the sense that God’s love accepts the freedom of Jesus to give up his life in this way. In Moltmann’s words, they ‘act in community’. The Son suffers the death on the cross, but the Father suffers in his love the grief at the death of the Son. The two share the one love and so have a common identity of substance (homoousion), but are involved in different ways in their surrender to love. So the Cross becomes an event between God and God, but it also becomes an event between God and the world. In the fact of Christ’s humanity, the suffering of God is extended to all humankind. To put it in Moltmann’s words, the Trinity is ‘nothing other than a shorter version of the passion narrative of Christ’(Moltmann, 1974[1973],p.254).

However, if God is an event (to use Moltmann’s language), does this detract from the idea of personhood? Can an event be a person? The idea of personhood developed in Moltmann’s view of the Trinity is that of mutual indwelling or perichoresis. Higton (2008, p.100) I think puts this idea nicely when he says that whichever of the persons of the Trinity you start thinking of it leads you to the other two, the Father cannot be understood without reference to the Son and vice versa and neither can be understood without reference to the Spirit. The understanding of each is bound up in their relation to the others. The idea Moltmann develops is that the nature of God is only seen and understood in the activity of God, in the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit as we see it in the event of the Cross and Resurrection, but also in the event of human history and the history of creation. This is a view of the salvation brought to us in Christ which I believe does have some meaning for us when faced with present injustice and suffering; to quote again words of Moltmann used earlier, ‘where in faith and hope we begin to live in the light of the possibilities and promises of this God’ (Moltmann, 2002[1965], p.17).

I think the above discussion establishes that different models of atonement can offer different perspectives, each of which has a contribution to make to our understanding. Thus, the idea of the victory of Christ highlights the binding of our will and our helplessness in the face of sin; the ideas of sacrifice and satisfaction stress the justice and moral absoluteness of God as the foundation of the universe, something which has meaning for Christians in time of oppression and persecution; the suffering and resurrection of Christ viewed in a Trinitarian context as the suffering and subsequent glorification of God brings with it an understanding of the immanent God sharing the plight of humanity and bringing future hope. It is part of the richness of Moltmann’s theology, to which I have referred at some length, that he makes use of several of these  metaphors, for example both sacrifice and victory.

However, if the results of Christie (2005, 2007) are a reliable guide to the present state of (Anglican) thinking, the above ideas are not ones that are prominent in the faith of English Christians. Rather, the view seems to be one of Christ as exemplar and revealer (Christie, 2007, p. 193). This view of Christ is usually attributed to the thinking of Abelard, but it finds expression more recently, I believe, in the writings of Tillich and it has to be said it has attractions in the way in which it maps onto more recent thinking in the field of Christian Anthropology about the status of human beings and their relation to God with all the associated ethical implications, for example, in the fields of medicine and science.

An important biblical text for Christian anthropology is Genesis 1.26, which states that humankind is made in God’s image. Interpretations as to what this means have included ones based on particular capacities of human beings which reflect the divine nature, such as rationality and free will, or a particular function or responsibility that human beings have as representatives of God, such as dominion over and stewardship of creation. One point that needs to be made, however, is that both of these ideas of ‘human being’ can be made without any reference to Christ, so that whatever limitations they may have, they are not specifically Christian.  A more Christian view is seen in the idea that human beings are created as ‘creatures-in-relation’ both to God and to each other and that it is in this attribute of ‘being-in-relation’ that we see humanity in God’s image.

Christian teaching is that the perfected form of humanity is seen in the person and life of the man Jesus of Nazareth and that it is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we see God. I have already discussed Tillich’s ideas of essence and existence (see section on the Nature of Sin). The way in which Tillich applies this to the person of Christ can be found in Systematic Theology (1957, for example, pp 93 -96). In Christ we see what Tillich calls the New Being, essential or perfect man. He (Christ) ‘represents God to man’ and ‘shows what God wants man to be’ (p.93) and he does this because as essential man he ‘represents the original image of God embodied in man’ (p.94). In biblical terms we see this, for example, in 2 Corinthians 4.6 (‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, who has shone in our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’), Hebrews 1.5 (‘He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being’) and Colossians 1.15 (‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’). The same point is made in John’s gospel (14. 8-11) with Jesus’ statements ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ and ‘I am in the Father and the Father in me’. From the point of view of our own human being Christian teaching asserts that, just as Christ images God the Father in his life so we, in our identification with Christ, are conformed to and brought into communion with the Father. According to Tillich, the idea is not that God becomes Man, something which he dismisses as nonsensical, ‘God cannot cease to be God’ (Tillich 1975 [1957], p. 94). To talk in terms of ‘Son of God’ or apply similar biblical Christological titles is also unsatisfactory since, in Tillich’s view, they carry the danger of polytheism. Rather, Tillich talks of ‘God becoming manifest in a personal life process’ and the self-manifestation of God in history (1975[1957], p.95). We see the self-revelation of God in the words, miracles, and life of Jesus Christ and in the events surrounding the Cross. His view of Christ is that ‘essential man appears in a personal life under the conditions of existential existence’ (p. 95). It is ‘the eternal relation of God to man which is manifest in the Christ’ (p.96).

However, despite its help in giving us an understanding of the status of human beings in relation to God, it is not clear to me how the role of Christ as ‘essential’ man provides a mechanism for salvation. There is a view that revelation of itself can be a means of salvation in so far as it brings understanding, but is this sufficient? Tillich (1976[1963], p. 144) talks about the spirit of Jesus being grasped or “possessed” by the divine spirit but he does, I believe, admit the limitations of this as a model for universal salvation when he says:

What then is the peculiar character of the healing through the New Being in Jesus as the Christ? If he is accepted as the Saviour, what does salvation through him mean? The answer cannot be that there is no saving power apart from him but that he is the ultimate criterion of every healing and saving process. We said before that even those who have encountered him are only fragmentarily healed. [------]. The Christian remains in a state of relativity with respect to salvation (Tillich 1975[1957], pp.167-168).

The account is highly metaphysical but the essential message seems to be that just as Christ represents the ideal of humanity to which we aspire, so the complete healing seen in the person of Christ also remains an aspiration. If I understand Tillich correctly the power of the Spirit in the lives of individual Christians and in the Church is not the work of the Spirit of Christ, who is simply the perfect manifestation of Spiritual Presence in a human life, rather it is, to varying and incomplete degrees, the separate manifestation of that Spiritual Presence in the community. In this sense Christ is the exemplar and not the mechanism (see Tillich 1976[1963], pp 149-152) and in my view this poses problems in a world which is mired in sin and where individuals are limited and constrained by their circumstances.

Concluding remarks

The above account of models of atonement is not comprehensive. For example, I have not referred to Paul’s idea of participation, that salvation comes by being incorporated into Christ and that by suffering and dying with Christ we attain the resurrection (see Gorringe, 1996, pp 74-77 referring to the writing of E.P. Sanders). Nor have I explored all the different variations of ideas of sacrifice, ransom, representation, substitution etc. that are attached to the models, for example, the idea of the ‘sacrifice of obedience’ seen in Hebrews 10.5-7. Nor have I looked at ideas of Christ as mediator between human beings and God (Brunner, 1934). What I have tried to do is to show that no single metaphor is sufficient and that the different metaphors each have something to contribute to making sense of our situation. Furthermore, the metaphors interweave and overlap rather like a Venn diagram. I have tried to show that the form of the metaphors reflect the context in which they arose, from biblical times through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment to modernity, but also that if we restrict ourselves to one view, as the majority of respondents to Christie’s survey appeared to do, then we exclude from our understanding the experience of Christians in contexts different from our own, both historically and in the contemporary world.

The other conclusion that I believe can be drawn is that the status of Christ and the doctrine of the Incarnation is key to any meaningful discussion of atonement. For this reason I finish by turning to the problems experienced by many of Christie’s respondents in accepting the divine nature of Christ. The problem seems to lie in an acceptance of the idea of the two natures of Christ, her respondents believing that ‘Jesus is God’s agent not God’ (Christie, 2005, p. 68); that if Christ is truly God then that is incompatible with his being human and vice versa. To return to the observation of Gunton (1988, p. 174) used earlier, they do not know what to make of the language they have received.  On this I think we can get some help from the writing of Kathryn Tanner (Tanner,2001, 2010). In what she says she extends and builds on ideas expressed by Pannenberg (2002[1964], pp.367-368). The argument is the subject of the publications cited but I will attempt to paraphrase her thinking.

Tanner makes the point that the relationship between creatures is usually competitive and even when this appears not to be so, when creatures act in cooperation, there is still the potential for competition in the sense that ‘since I perform part of what needs to be done and you perform the rest, to the extent I act, you need not; and the more I act the less you need to’ (Tanner, 2001, pp.3-4). Viewed in this competitive way then the divinity of Christ does become a problem, the more human Christ is the less room there is for his divinity and vice versa.

In a typically competitive understanding of the relation between God and the world, the more the humanity of Jesus is emphasised in modern Christologies the more the divinity of Jesus is downplayed. [-----]. Christologies that insist on the divinity of Christ in the strong incarnational sense of the Word became flesh are tarred in modern time with the brush of docetism (Tanner, 2001, p. 8).

However, our relationship to God is not competitive in this way, according to Tanner, because we exist on different planes, different levels of being. This is what is meant by the transcendence of God (Tanner 2001, p.4). God creates the creature and God provides all that the creature is in itself and so the creature does not compete with God because God is the source, the giver of all gifts. The more we are dependent on God, the more we receive; the relationship is a direct one, not an inverse one. When we talk about human beings imaging God they do so only by participating in what they are not; they come to image God only by receiving what is not their own (Tanner 2010, p. 8). ‘God in creating things other than God is trying to give them the good of God’s own life, and therefore God contains in perfect fashion all that creatures become’ (Tanner 2010, p.9). The perfection of the created life increases with the perfection of the relationship with God. Jesus is the one in whom God’s relationship with humanity attains perfection and humanity becomes God’s own.

But asks Tanner (2001, p. 10), how can God become incarnate without doing so at the expense of God’s divinity? How can God become united with what God is not? Incarnation becomes possible, according to Tanner, because God is not simply a being over against other types of being, not a being opposed to the characteristics of human beings but beyond such contrasts. God’s incarnation does not come at the expense of divinity but is the very thing that proves God’s divinity, that God is not bound by circumstances contrary to God’s nature, not bound by apparent contrasts between divine and creaturely qualities, but free to enter into intimate community with us without loss of divine nature, without sacrificing the difference between God and us (Tanner 2001, p. 11). God can take on a created nature, a human one, without loss of God’s nature because the divine nature is not defined by a nature exclusive of others (see Tanner 2001, pp 10-12 for the detailed argument). ‘What makes God different from creatures is also what enables God to be what God is not’ (ibid p.12). Here we can begin to see the answer to the problem that ‘God must be incarnate in order to save, but God must be different from us in order to save us [---]’ (Tanner 2001, p. 10). According to Tanner ‘Jesus’ life as a whole is both divine and human but on different levels or planes of reality, one being the source of the other’ (2001, p. 16). I think I can do no better than to put it in Tanner’s own words.

Jesus is divine and human in that Jesus is both God becoming human and the human becoming divine. Jesus is divine because in him God becomes human – that is, God assumes the human. Jesus is perfectly human, the deified human, because in him the human becomes God – that is, the human is assumed by God so as to produce an elevated and perfected human way of life (Tanner 2001, p. 17).

Or to put it another way:

Jesus performs divine works in a human way (saves us by living a human life); and performs human works in a divine way (lives a human life in a way that saves). Thus a human being’s dying on a cross is not saving unless this is also God’s dying; and God’s dying does not save us (it is not even possible) unless God does so as a human being (Tanner, 2001, p. 21).

Christie’s respondents were not a uniform group. There was within the total sample a small group she labels as evangelicals (six in total) who held a substitutionary view of atonement  and for whom the sinlessness of Jesus was non-negotiable in order for him to fulfil the role of the perfect sacrifice (Christie, 2007. Pp 189-190). However, the majority were clearly uncomfortable with this evangelical stance and preferred the role of Christ as exemplar and revealer, which they found meaningful for their own lives. One respondent took the view that Jesus was simply a human being and that it was ‘really the man Christ and his words and his life which are what make me a Christian’ (Quoted by Christie, 2007, p. 192). However, Christie makes the point that:

To dismiss this Christology as one that simply regards Jesus as “just a good man” or “a mere man” is a travesty. Such facile conclusions fail to take any account of the impact (Christie’s emphasis) on the believer, and there is no reason to suppose that Jesus has any less impact on an unorthodox, as opposed to an unorthodox believer [---] (Christie, 2007, pp 192-193).

However, as already stated, what I have tried to show in this dissertation is that, satisfying though such a view may for an individual, by ignoring other metaphors it loses the richness and depth of Christian ideas about salvation and that to do this has the potential to alienate us from Christians in other contexts both historically and in the contemporary world.


I am grateful to all my teachers at Leeds, but I am particularly grateful to Dr Rachel Muers and Dr Alistair McFadyen for their teaching in Christian Theology and the way in which this has given me a broader and deeper insight.

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