Atonement Discussion at ATS Symposium: An Additional Report
by Dennis Hokama
The closing session of the Adventist Theological Society (ATS) symposium on the atonement was Sabbath afternoon, April 20. Three papers were presented and a panel discussion followed. The panelists were Dr. Jiri Moskala, the Old Testament scholar at Andrews University (AU) who will become dean of the seminary July 1; Dr. Felix Cortez, a New Testament scholar at Montemorelos University and president-elect of ATS; Dr. Jo Anne Davidson, professor of theology at AU; Dr. Richard Davidson, another Old Testament scholar at AU; Dr. Roy Gane, professor of ancient languages at AU; Dr. Ross Winkle, religion professor at Pacific Union College; Dr. John Markovic, church historian at AU; and Tom Shepherd, New Testament scholar at AU and president of ATS, who functioned as moderator.
Winkle’s paper was entitled “The Atonement and the Restrainer,” which was based largely on 2 Thessalonians 2. His focus was to tie the mediatorial work of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary to the restraining influence holding back the power of lawlessness mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7. When that restraint is taken away, then we get the “time of trouble” associated with the end times. He makes that association by tying together 2 Thessalonians 2, Daniel 10-12, and Ellen White’s statements about Christ’s atoning ministry in heaven.
The second paper was “Legal Substitution and Experiential Transformation in the Typology of Leviticus,” presented by Gane. In his introductory comments, he lamented that one can go to Adventist book stores and find many contradictory accounts of atonement theory, implying that there should only be one theory. His handout stated, “In the soteriological typology of Leviticus, which serves as background to explication of Christ's sacrifice in the book of Hebrews, both legal substitution and experiential transformation are clearly present and fully necessary.”
“In Leviticus,” the paper concluded, “animal sacrifices serve as token substitutes to ransom the lives of Israelites from objective legal culpability. Aaronic priests also bear culpability as substitutes for their people, but they do not actually suffer the consequences. The book of Hebrews identifies Christ as the Priest who bears human sins and actually suffers the consequences of those sins as the Victim of adequate value. This combination of roles as Victim-Priest proves that Christ's atonement is substitutionary.”
Dr. Jim Walters, a faculty member in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, asked why the substitutionary view of the atonement was so unnegotiable with ATS, when there are many metaphors of salvation provided in the New Testament, and eight different models have been proposed. Just because the pioneers, or even some of the Bible writers took that for granted does not necessarily make that interpretation binding on us, he suggested, on the basis of the Adventist principle of “present truth.” From a contemporary perspective, he pointed out, the substitutionary view of the atonement does not resonate with people because it implies a God that must be appeased by nothing less than the blood sacrifice of an innocent being in order to commute the sentence on the rest of humanity, which is ethically problematic on many levels.
The last paper, presented by Cortez, was titled, “Without the Shedding of Blood, There is No Remission.” He focused on the differentiation made in Hebrews 9:15-18 between “covenant” and “will, ” an approach which is problematic because both words are translations of the same Greek word, diathéké. His closing argument was a metaphor using his dog Troy and the stray cat it adopted. Because his family was committed to supporting the dog Troy, and Troy took the cat under its wing, his family decided to adopt the cat also. That, he argued, was the same way in which God decided to adopt humans because Jesus was committed to humans.
A number of issues were mentioned during the closing panel before it was opened to questions from the floor. One was the “irrationality of grace” which the panel seemed to agree was incomprehensible. I asked about the legal framework that you assume divine justice has put in place that condemns every human to death? Isn’t that concept of “divine justice” immeasurably more irrational than “grace”?
Gane responded that this problem was referred to by Paul when he called it a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Greeks. The text Gane evidently had in mind was 1 Corinthians 1:23, although the idea being addressed there is the notion of a “crucified Christ,” implying that an uncrucified Christ would have been deemed more plausible. In response to a follow-up question, Gane stated, “I accept that (divine legal framework) by faith.” The question of the eight different metaphors of the atonement in the Bible was again placed before the panel, and Gane responded sympathetically, suggesting that alternate understandings (such as the moral influence theory) could be taught inclusively alongside the substitutionary atonement.
The papers will eventually be published in the ATS journal. It should also be noted that the ATS scholars and the Loma Linda University faculty had dinner together on Saturday night following the symposium.
Dennis Hokama has written for Adventist Today on a number of occasions and the editors appreciate his reporting on this event.