Introducing the ‘Atonement Project’: A Work in Progress

by Ben Pugh.

At the age of nineteen as a new Christian I joined a lively charismatic church where the worship would lift the roof off and there was a strong sense of the presence of God. The teaching was inspiring but, for the first four years, I don’t recall ever hearing anything at all about the cross. As a student I was away most Easters so I may have missed out on some kind of annual dusting-off of the theme. The core membership was ex-Baptists, Anglicans and others who had come out of their denominations when the Spirit moved in their lives in the seventies, so the assumption seemed to be that everyone already had the basics.

I very much needed grounding in these basics. I was not coping well with the fact that God was holy and I wasn’t. I felt led to read Romans 3-8 as much as possible, never deviating from that letter and those chapters. I also read a lot of the conservative evangelicals such as Stott, Packer and Morris, and some older authors such as James Denney and R.W. Dale. These helped me to understand, albeit from a limited perspective, what Romans 3-8 had to say about the cross. Within a couple of months of continuous attention to this one zone of New Testament a remarkable change came over me. For the first time in my life the enormity of what Christ had done for me hit me in wave upon wave. Just one example of many occasions was while singing Charles Gabriel’s How Marvellous, How Wonderful, which was one of only two old hymns we ever sang at that church. It was the final verse that got to me: ‘When with the ransomed in glory his face I at last shall see…’ Three things struck me all at once: the enormity of the price paid to ransom me, the sheer wonder of the glories that awaited me, and the fact that I was so ridiculously undeserving of any of it. I was bent double with emotion.

Twenty-five years on, a fascination with this central symbol of Christianity has not gone away. I am now most of the way through writing a trilogy of books on the atonement. I have been using the ‘Wesleyan’ quadrilateral, but have ended up using it in this order: tradition and reason first, then experience, then Scripture. The first volume came out in 2014, which was my Atonement Theories: A Way Through the Maze. I concluded this book with what I termed the Incarnation Criterion. By this I meant that the Christ of the cross is the prime criterion for judging all theories of the cross: his person defines his work. I named Irenaeus, Anselm, John McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth as especially noteworthy examples of this incarnation-eye-view of atonement. To let the Father define the work, I pointed out, results in difficult moral problems which too easily impugn the Father as demanding and inflexible. To let our humanity define the work, results in theories, such as the Moral Influence theory, that are inadequate for explaining the extremity of the solution offered. To place the person of Christ himself at the centre compels us to attend to him who is the God-Man of Chalcedon, the bridge and mediator between the divine and the human.

My second volume came out in 2016 and was called: The Old Rugged Cross: A History of the Atonement in Popular Christian Devotion. In it my aim was to analyse what has been happening on the ground. How, if at all, have these atonement theories helped ordinary Christians to live more devoted lives? The key concept I came up with was the Participation Imperative. By this I meant that the one assumption which underlies the Church’s most formative engagements with the cross has been the assumption that Christ is the representative human. He suffers with our sufferings and dies our death yet raises us up to newness of life with him. The Church’s use of Eucharist, metaphor and art has been all about the attempt to re-present, and hence to participate all over again in, the events of Gethsemane, Calvary and the tomb. Even within the evangelicalism of the nineteenth century I discerned a shift away from the strictly forensic theories of atonement to which it remained ostensibly committed and in the direction of the ever-increasing use of the word ‘blood’ instead of ‘cross’ or ‘Calvary.’ The atonement thus became liquefied and applicable. The hymnody and preaching of the nineteenth century was famously filled with the invitation to wash and bathe in this blood – a subjective participation to counterbalance the objective penal substitution.

Work has now begun on my third volume: Pictures of Atonement. This will be a New Testament study. I will be examining the New Testament metaphors: sacrifice, redemption, victory and so on, seeking to recover their original spiritual immediacy. It seems to me that the first converts to the Way had stumbled upon a breath-taking new thing which was that the tragic execution of Jesus turned out to be a death-defeating, epoch-making event. Those who had never even been eye witnesses were certain that Jesus was raised and glorified, and this conviction could have had only one source: the indwelling Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead was living in them (Romans 8:11; Acts 2:33-36). Out of this experience came the thinking that gave us the New Testament metaphors of atonement. The metaphors helped the early Church express the shock of the new, giving new language for it. This third volume therefore will be an invitation to see again, from the Pentecost Standpoint, how the crucified Jesus became the atoning Christ.

So there we have it. Tradition and Reason have yielded the Incarnation Criterion, Experience has pointed me to the Participation Imperative and Scripture has brought me to the Pentecost Standpoint. Watch this space!

2 thoughts on “Introducing the ‘Atonement Project’: A Work in Progress”

  1. Hi Ben
    Thank you for this post which I have read and re-read with interest this week. I feel a bit out of my depth to comment but I am at a stage in my faith where I am finally starting to feel comfortable in my Christian skin.
    I have spent several years studying at foundational level, questioning, doubting and rebelling but in recent months I have sensed a shift in my mindset towards doctrines I had previously rejected. I think I am ready to begin looking into them in more depth.
    I have to say this has a lot to do with Fr. Richard Rohr whose books I have devoured and who has had a great impact on my faith. But as always I feel the hand of God guiding me and at the moment I hear Him saying ‘Let’s take another look at this, shall we?’
    Your books are on my Christmas wish list.
    God bless.


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