More on the Atonement–update on McCormack’s Croall lectures.

Darren at Via Crucis has given us summaries of Bruce McCormack’s lectures. I’m not going to go into great detail because much of the material relates to theological debates in which I have little interest. However, it seems to me the fourth and fifth lectures do provide some food for thought. In the fourth, McCormack deals with the views of Barth and von Balthasar as examples of his typology of theories of the atonement “which order the person of Christ to his work.”

According to MCcormack, no theologian has stressed so highly as Barth the importance for understanding the meaning of the cross of Jesus’ last words in Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

For Barth, what is most important in the cross is the death of the sinner in the person of the God-Human.


Again, it is vital for the ontology undergirding Barth’s soteriology that the subject of the cross is God – not in a qualified or diminished sense, but really God. God hands Himself over to man’s contradiction of Him, places Himself under judgment. If this is really so, then the cry of dereliction holds the key to the meaning of the Incarnation: God the Son has taken the place of women and men by enduring the deepest and most extreme consequence of sin, which is separation from God.

For McCormack:

Barth is suggesting that the passion and death of Jesus are human experiences which God does not simply find a way to go and do, but which take place in God’s own life (without compromising the being of God). If His being is in His act, then it must be in the act of suffering and dying a reconciling death, as well – no, God’s being is especially this being.

Balthasar does something similar by focusing not on the cross, or Jesus’ dying, but on his death, on Holy Saturday:

the descent is the final moment in Christ’s defeat, and its significance is found in the depth to which he goes in separation from God the Father – the full separation that we are due in our death for sin.

In lecture 5, McCormack turns to his own view. He begins again with Jesus’ last words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” McCormack says what I think has to be said about Mark and Matthew:

If we deal with the cry seriously, without trying to explain it away, McCormack says, we must face the fact that Mark and Matthew seem to want to say that God remained silent when called upon.

He then  makes a move I’m not sure I find convincing, arguing that “Jesus fears not death itself but the eschatological tribulation that is sure to accompany it.” God had to judge and condemn sin, in doing so, had to abandon Jesus so that the Son might die. In the end, the gradual withdrawal of the Holy Spirit from Jesus in the passion, with its culmination in Jesus’ cry, “Into your hands I commend my spirit is a loss of communion with the Father.

I do think that an adequate theory of the Atonement must begin with Mark’s gospel, with Jesus’ sense of abandonment by God, and God’s silence. That silence was temporary and in the resurrection we see both the vindication of Jesus, and humanity restored.

New perspectives on the Atonement

I was interested to observe that during the Trinity Institute, both in the televised conversations, and in our discussions at Luther Memorial, the Atonement came under close scrutiny. Ben Myers points to Bruce McCormack’s 2011 Croall Lectures which set out a new typology of the Atonement. There’s reporting, with theological reflection here. When people ask me about the Atonement, and I’m always surprised when they do, I refer them to Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor. I read it for the first time as an undergraduate; came back to it when I was preparing a course on the Theological Anthropology in the Christian Tradition. On second reading, I found it both interesting and troubling. I didn’t find it particularly helpful in understanding the perspectives of thinkers, either ancient, medieval, or early modern. That’s always the problem with typologies of course. Perhaps McCormack’s alternative will be more compelling, intellectually and theologically.

But what fascinates me most, as a theologian and as a pastor, is the continuing power of Atonement theory. Christians and seekers both struggle with the meaning of the cross for their lives. That came out in our conversations this week; I also encounter it in conversations with thoughtful parishioners. We still have work to do.