Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Clarifying Atonement Analogy

I had written:
To go back to the ransom analogy, if the cost to ransom any and all captives is $1 Million, then a payment of $1 Million is sufficient for all, even if it is not intended or used to free all the captives.
As I feared, this appears to have led to some misconceptions by at least one of my readers. Accordingly, I'd like to take the opportunity to clarify.

Although the "ransom" metaphor is a valid and Scriptural one, it is not the only metaphor and not a complete picture. It breaks down when we stretch it beyond the bounds that Scripture uses it. There are other ways of considering the matter, such as that of a penal substitute. That is to say, Christ - in his sacrifice - was a substitute for the penalty our sins deserved. Another way to consider the matter is as a covenantal transaction between the Father and the Son.

Putting those thoughts on pause for a minute, let's consider what my reader had to say:
My question is this: Do you believe that Christ suffered a certain "fixed" amount of wrath "for sin in general" on the cross... thereby securing life for any number of elect (or put another way... is the amount of suffering Christ endured in his death-- perhaps "the unit called death that was his"-- would have been the same regardless of the number of elect)?
There are two slightly different concepts here, and it is important to distinguish.

a) Christ's suffering and death was for the sins of his people. Contrary to certain universal redemptionists, we reject the idea that Christ died for "sin in general."

b) On the other hand, Christ's suffering and death has merit (which we usually refer to as intrinsic merit). The merit of his suffering and death is representable by an equation in which there is, on the one hand, the penalty received (suffering and death) and a multiplication factor (if you will) of the dignity of the victim.

This is related to the power to expiate sin. Thus, for example, although the animal sacrifices were of the proper suffering and death, even the pure and spotless lambs that were offered were unable to take away sin, because the victim was of very low dignity (not being in the image of God).

From a second perspective, for a mere man to take away sin by suffering and death, he must suffer eternally. Eternal suffering "balances the equation" as it were, although of course no man can expiate his sin in any finite period of time. This principle is the reason that the concept of purgatory is so nonsensical. No finite suffering in the afterlife can take away sin.

From a third perspective, Christ suffered and died. The dignity of his person, being both God and man in two distinct natures and one person, is so much greater than the dignity of a mere man that the man to beast comparison is inadequate to convey the difference. Though we are made in the image of God (unlike the beasts), He was very God of very God. Thus, his suffering and death were of infinite intrinsic worth.

Accordingly, there is a discontinuous set of paths:
a) Beasts' suffering and death => No eternal benefit, because of the lack of dignity of the beast (They merely serve to illustrate for us our need of sacrifice to satisfy justice)
b) Mere human's suffering and death => Simply the just punishment for his sins, even when suffering is extended to eternity, because of the finite dignity of the man (This is what every man will receive who has even the least sin in God's sight on the judgment day)
c) Christ's suffering and death => Infinite eternal benefit, even though Christ's suffering was finite, because of his infinite dignity (This is our Redeemer).

My reader continued:
... OR... do you believe that Christ suffered the equivalent wrath of an eternity of hell for each individual who was given to him to die for? (put another way, if the number of the elect had been one more than it actually is, would Christ have suffered "that much more" on the cross to cover that additional individual's sin debt to the father?
This sounds like a "this much for that many" kind of pure commercial view of the atonement. We reject that idea. The merit of Christ's suffering and death was infinite, not finite. It would have been necessary if Christ had wanted to save only one sinful man, and it would have been sufficient if Christ had wanted to save every sinful human.

My reader continued:
It seems to me that Justice would dictate that Christ suffered in equivalency to the suffering of hell, times the number of elect individuals. (And this seems fitting with terms like "ransom" and other price motifs in scripture). However, it appears to me (per your ransom analogy) that the amount of Christ's suffering is not correlated to the number of the elect.
That is an understandable position. Nevertheless, it is not the position we hold, because the price motif is qualified by the stronger punishment motif. The price is a valid analogy but the "this much for that many" perspective (while very helpful from a Calvinistic point of view) doesn't seem to have strong support in the Old Testament typology. For example, the sacrifice for the day of atonement was the same regardless of the size of Israel's population.

While it may be difficult dogmatically to rule out this purely commercial view of the atonement, there is a reason it is not the view of the major Reformed writers. It is certainly a tempting position, but it seems better to view the atonement in terms of being an acceptable sacrifice to God. A payment for sins, yes - but not a monetary or quantized payment.

My reader continued:
An analogy that would fit the "justice equivalency" view might be that of a Lamborghini/etc sports car. The engine in the car is sufficient to propel the car to 200 MPH... however, the driver of the car may elect to use that massive engine to propel the car only 15 MPH, by applying less than full pressure to the accelerator pedal. The engine in this case is sufficient to drive 200 MPH, but efficient to drive only 15 MPH (or whatever speed happens to be chosen by the driver). Your "million dollar" analogy (as written) would seem to be translated to the car as follows: The car engine must put out maximum power at all times (the pedal is floored, regardless of speed). Only some of that power is transferred to the wheels, and this is how the car is moved at speeds less than 200 MPH.
One difference between the analogy and the thing signified here, though, is that a sports car engine is not needed to make the car go 15 mph. The suffering and death of the God-Man is necessary, even to save a single man. In short, I'm not sure its a very fitting analogy.

My reader continued:
Which view do you hold? If you do not hold the "justice equivalency" (for lack of a better term) view... why not? If the amount of suffering in Christ's death is a unit, how does this differ from the LFW "bank account theory" (which says that Christ basically put sufficient funds to ransom everybody into a heavenly account, and all that is done at belief is that some of the funds are withdrawn and applied to the person... and at the end of the day, any unused funds are wasted).
The Arminian view of essentially a divine bank account of funds to be drawn down, is a "this much for that many" view of the atonement with the additional problem that the "that many" is not the "that many" described in Scriptures.

Some Arminians (perhaps many), however, would reject the "bank account" metaphor in favor of some other metaphor. In any event, they tend to view the sufficiency of Christ's death is being "sufficient to place everyone into the balance of their own free will," which is an entirely different type of sufficiency than the type of sufficiency we are speaking about.



TheoJunkie said...

TF, Good points. Thanks.

Tartanarmy said...

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I think it is very helpful.