An Update on the ‘Atonement Project’

by Ben Pugh.

In my last post (20 Nov 2017: ‘The Atonement Project: A Work in Progress’) I told the story, firstly, of how I became interested in the central symbol of Christian faith and then how far I had got with a trilogy of books exploring the theme of atonement first from the angle of tradition and reason (Atonement Theories), then from experience (Old Rugged Cross) and now from Scripture. And so, my third book: Pictures of Atonement: A New Testament Study is now underway. It is meant to be with the publishers by the end of April, so I will use this post as a chance to share how far I have got and try to elicit any feedback you might have.

The book will be a study of the leading New Testament metaphors of atonement: Participation (the dying and rising-with metaphor), justification, reconciliation, redemption, sacrifice and victory. Colin Gunton and John McIntyre, in their work on the New Testament metaphors of atonement and salvation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were building upon, and sometimes wrestling with, the linguistic work of Janet Martin Soskice. They agreed with her that almost everything the New Testament writers wanted to say about the benefits of the death and resurrection of Christ was expressed in pictorial language, language which should not, however, be decoded into propositions but appreciated on its own terms as ‘reality depicting.’

A big part of my study will be about the origins of these metaphors. It is widely agreed that metaphors come into existence in response to the shock of the new. Something hitherto unknown to us starts to need language that is not yet in existence to describe it. The new language comes to birth via the use of some suitable aspect of a familiar thing which is pressed into service to explain the unfamiliar thing. And so, in this third phase of my project, I am focusing on that all-important beginning point. I have been trying to imagine the genesis of New Testament atonement language.

I have located that genesis within Pentecost. As Jimmy Dunn made clear many years ago, the experience of the Spirit, for the first Christians, was an experience of the risen Jesus. And, as I discovered the other day with my students as we studied the A, B, C, B1, A1 structure of Acts 2, the central fact of the Day of Pentecost narrative is the fact that ‘God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ’ (2:36). Ascension is the message of Pentecost. The giving of the Spirit is the evidence of the ascension. Once given, the Spirit seems to have been an entirely convincing experience of the risen, ascended Jesus, who was now Lord and dispenser of the Spirit. Not only did this result in the crowds that formerly mocked now being mysteriously ‘cut to the heart,’ but from here on in, the Spirit seems to have provided continual epistemic access to the two least verifiable and yet the two most crucially important axes of the Christian faith: the reported past of the resurrection of Christ and the uncertain future of the return of Christ. Nearly all the people depicted in Acts as coming to faith in Christ were not eye-witnesses of the empty tomb. They were convinced, it seems, by the indwelling of the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.

As a result of the coming of the Spirit the metaphors of atonement were generated as ways of making sense of the great reversal that was the resurrection and glorification of the shamefully crucified Jesus of Nazareth. Pentecost, therefore, together with its immense after-glow, was a breakthrough. It cut people to the heart and brought an experience of life ‘in Christ’, together with such joy and peace that people became willing to risk everything for the Way.

This new Pentecost standpoint gave the earliest believers a subversively alternative angle on things over against the powerful hegemonies that still viewed Jesus as the shamed revolutionary. Metaphor gave triumphal expression to this subversive view of Jesus, the true Lord and Saviour. Hence it may be that the earliest metaphors are those of a more triumphalistic or reassuring kind: the union of believers with their triumphant enthroned Messiah, and the wonders of being justified in Christ; of sharing in his vindication. Then, as time goes on, the metaphors go on providing language for a faithful response to the ever deepening tensions with Rome and the religious establishment. I say this tentatively knowing that the dating of the New Testament documents is perennially contentious, but there seems to be a shift of emphasis in the later parts of the New Testament away from participation in the triumph and vindication of Christ and towards an emphasis on sacrifice.  As persecution mounted it may be that the metaphors of cost, though doubtless always to hand, were brought more into play. These express a more fraught relationship to power. To this phase belong the cost-orientated and bloody imagery associated with ransomed slaves, temple sacrifices and battlefields. These prepared the faithful for the eventuality of being called upon to pay the ultimate price for their faith.

The possible implications of this work of mine for mission, ministry and the life of faith I have yet to think through, so I would very much welcome any comments you may have about this post.

3 thoughts on “An Update on the ‘Atonement Project’”

  1. Thanks very much for this – really interesting and thought provoking. It makes me wonder what kinds of metaphor we need to seek after and explore which will speak to and resonate with our current times? Food for thought…..


  2. Thanks very much for this – really interesting and thought provoking. It makes me wonder what kinds of metaphor we need to seek after and explore which will speak to and resonate with our current times? Food for thought…..


  3. I read your last two books, Ben, and although I have to say I was in over my head intellectually, I did glean enough about the various metaphors for the death and resurrection of Jesus (and how they changed to fulfil the needs of the times) to overcome my doubts and difficulties with some of the metaphors and make a deeper commitment to the faith. So thank you for that and I look forward to your next book.
    What you said about pictorial language being ‘reality depicting’ is interesting and brings to mind the cavemen drawing on the walls of their caves things that they didn’t have words to describe.
    Been chewing over Leslie’s response and it occurred to me that the field Jesus taught was theology and his ministry was world-changing. Had Jesus been a philosopher he might have been Plato, a scientist, Newton or a musical composer, Bach. Jesus was the best a man can be, a master of his craft, a hero to worship and a role model to emulate.
    Whether he was any more than that is still a matter of personal belief and opinion even among Christians.
    The faith has taken a battering in recent decades and I think what we need now is a metaphor to get us all on ‘team Jesus’ aiming for gold in the World Cup or the Olympics. When it comes to faith, we need to aim high, train hard, give it our best shot and put it in the back of the net, even if we have to bend it like Beckham!


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