In past blog posts and conversations with others, it is no secret that I am something of a outlier when it comes to understanding the significance of the atonement in Jesus Christ. You can read some of my earlier reasoning on this here and here. However, what I want to do here is to put forward a basic theological framework for approaching an explanation of the atonement.
Firstly, I want to put this forward as something as a contrast to a growing theological consensus about the atonement as expressed by Oliver Crisp in his chapter “Methodological Issues in Approaching the Atonement” in the T&T Clark Companion to Atonement. Crisp writes:
Contemporary works on the atonement are replete with language of doctrines, theories, models, metaphors, and motifs. Yet the consensus among modern theologians is that the New Testament does not offer a single explanation of Christ’s atoning work.1
Crisp later goes on to state:
Not only is there no single explanation of the atonement in the Bible; the atonement is not a theological notion whose dogmatic shape is universally agreed upon in historic Christian thought either. It has no canonical definition, no creedal statement that gives it a particular shape beyond the idea that Christ’s work reconciles human beings to God.2
From the angle of an aspiring Biblical scholar, there is something that is substantively true behind Crisp’s claims about the Bible and the New Testament that I want to recognize. There is no single text or passage that one can look at the Bible can read off from it an all-encompassing theme, motif, theory, or model of the atonement. For instance, Jesus is described as a mercy seat in Romans 3.25, whereas he is referred to as the Passover Lamb in 1 Corinthians 5.7. On the surface, both of these images of Jesus’ death can not be integrated as they are into some overarching systematic account, as there was no Ark of the Covenant at the original Passover.
In fact, it would be positively unlikely that any of the writers of the Bible would have ever conceived of attempting to offer such a coherent, overarching account of the atonement. The desire to explain the atonement is largely driven from a desire to reflective representation of the Christian faith, rather than providing a more matter-of-fact account of what God has said and done in Jesus Christ. Most religions, Christian or otherwise, have preferred to describe what has happened in the world, or maybe even in the realm of the gods, and focus on legitimation of their specific rituals and practices rather than given an overarching explanation of them. They do not, however, typically offer explanations of their central practices and ideas.
This is because religious practices is deeply symbolic in its understanding; it is not typically ordered and instructed on the basis of abstract concepts that regulate the significance of its key doctrines and rituals. This doesn’t mean that religion is merely symbolic and having no explanation for its function, but only that those who operate within a specific symbolic universe don’t usually feel the need to explain or understanding the power of the symbols, but that one simply recognizes them. Reflective explanations of key symbols, narratives, and rituals are typically the result of significant engagement with outside influences, for either apologetic or polemical purposes, rather than for insiders.
As such, the Bible as a collection of literature was written primarily for people of faith and there would not have been large need to “explain” or “give an account” of the atonement. The significance of atonement, both in the Mosaic sacrificial system and in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, would have been unconsciously understood within the symbolic universe of those who practiced and witnessed them.
When engaging with groups who and teachings that significantly diverged from the shared symbolic universe of beliefs, narratives, and ritual practices, there would be some need to give a further reflective account. However, the explanations offered would still be internal to the symbolic world, and as such, would not offer a robust account for outsiders to readily glance an understanding and significance. The few times in the New Testament epistles that we get some more reflective statements about the significance of the death of Jesus, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Hebrews, are all given in contrast to diverging views of the significance of Jesus and the Jewish-Christian faith.
Hebrews is the closest to give something that amounts to a philosophical explanation, putting forward that Jesus had to be made like those He helps (Hebrews 2.14-18). However, even then, this is not an explanation of the atonement, but more so a necessary condition for the atonement. To explain the significance of Jesus’ death more fully, the preacher of Hebrews engages in an account of the Temple and sacrificial system, which sets this explanation as primarily within the symbolic universe than something that can be readily understood by those who do not share that symbolic universe.
It is not till Irenaeus were we begin to get an account of the atonement that could offer a representation of the atonement to those who do not immediately share the entire symbolic universe. Irenaeus’ recapitulation theory argues that when Christ became Incarnate, he started over the line of human beings in salvation so that what was lost in Adam would now be restored.3 While still somewhat set within the symbolic universe of the Scriptural narratives, Irenaeus approaches an explanation that could be more readily comprehended by someone who only needed to understand a few key concepts to understand the significance of Jesus’ death, such as Adam as the fallen ancestor of humanity and the devil as the evil power that tempts and thwarts humanity. However, it is important to note that Irenaeus is attempting to undercut gnostic heresy, who provide a dramatically differnet set of beliefs, narratives, and rituals that they have attempted to fit Jesus and the Christian faith into. So, in offering up the recapitulation account of the atonement, Irenaeus was partly motived by the polemical need in rebutting the gnostic heretics.4 As such, we need not expect Irenaeus to be giving an overarching, comprehensive explanation as much as giving a relevant explanation to his specific polemical task.
The point being is that insofar as we have early accounts of the atonement, their motivation was primarily to address specifics points of contention and disagreement with other groups. As a result, they would resort to language and concepts that are more widely shared and less specific to their symbolic universe only insofar as their task necessitated them to do so. We don’t get a systematic, overarching account of the atonement until Athanasius, once the Church had begun to adopted philosophical concepts and reasoning to help articulate the Christian faith, particularly against the Arian heresy.
The point being is that theologians will not find a systematic account in the Scriptures because that is not the mode by which the ancient Jewish and Christian faiths understood atonement. As such, if one is expecting a coherent, overarching account of the atonement to be clearly expressed in singular images and concepts, one will not find it. That doesn’t mean that there is not an overarching, coherent account to the atonement, but only that if there is one, it may only be discovered by understanding the symbolic universe that the Scriptures participate in.
Perhaps the one symbol that is essential in generating an account of the atonement is that of blood. Central to the passover and to atonement in the OT, consistently used to refer to Jesus’ death as the agent of cleansing in the NT, blood takes on a particular significance. However, upon a quick skimming of various recent theological reflections on the atonement, blood has not been given a central place in many theological accounts of the atonement, with a quick overview. In Eleanore Stump’s Atonement, only 36 references to blood are found in an electronic search. No chapter on blood can be found in the Los Angeles Theological Conference’s Locating Atonement. A measly six paragraph essay about blood is provided in the T&T Clark Companion to Atonement.
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright’s treatment on the symbol of blood is a bit more satisfying in The Day the Revolution Began, but overall it appears that blood is primarily treated as an echo to the Old Testament in understanding Jesus’ death. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an extensive treatment to consider if there is symbolic significance to the symbol of blood that is “transferred” into the New Testament. Thomas Schreiner, another Biblical scholar, provides a paragraph about blood in his contribution to Zondervan’s Counterpoint Series, The Nature of the Atonement, ascribing to it the traditional, substitutionary significance. Still, there is not real extensive treatment on the symbolc of blood.
This is unfortunate, as the symbolic significance of blood seems to be important to various New Testament writers and preachers. Hebrews 9.22 gives a summary on the Torah, saying that blood is understood to be central to forgiveness in the Torah. 1 John 1.7 declares the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood. In Romans 3.25, Paul explicitly connects Jesus status as a mercy seat/ἱλαστήριον based upon His blood (ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι). Each of the Synoptic Gospel’s provide an account of the Last Supper and the wine as symbolizing Jesus’ blood. Even the Gospel of John, light on giving much description of the event of Jesus’ life that ground the significant rituals of the early church, baptism and Lord’s Supper, still manages to include a teaching of Jesus that one must drink Jesus’ blood to have eternal life (John 6). The blood of the Lamb is a significant theme throughout Revelation. For the New Testament, blood is not an auxillary theme that supplements the understanding of Jesus’ death and atonement: it is the central symbol of the atonement before anything else.
The challenge is that the only real explicit statement about the atoning significance of blood is as mysterious as it is insightful. Leviticus 17.11 states “The life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar, for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (NRSV) What is mysterious is that there is no explicit connection that explains how the life of the sacrificial animal relates to the people’s lives. Certainly, substitution can make sense of this passage. However, this is to be treated with some skepticism as the substitution explanation, particularly as it then gets used in understanding the atonement of Christ, assumes that there is a direct, causal relationship between the sacrifice of the animal and the atonement for one’s own life. Rather, the significance of the blood for atonement is related to God’s own giving of it (נְתַתִּ֤יו). This language “giving” in Levitical offerings does not seem to ascribe some sort of causal function, as much as it is a specific purpose for which something is used and dedicated. For instance, in Leviticus 6.17, God gives the leftover of the grain offering to Aaron and his sons as part of their right as the priesthood. That the implications of both “gifts” of God has dedication in mind is represented by the way that both the remaining grain offer and the blood of the animal is protected from profane use. In other words, Leviticus 17.11 is better understood as establishing God’s purpose for the life of the animal, rather than describing, explicitly or implicitly, some explanation for why blood atones.
To which, I want to offer a different possible explanation for blood in the Levitical atonement: spilled blood as symbolizing death through the taking of life of the animal communicated to the Israelites the seriousness of their offenses. It is important that blood was distributed across the altar in the act of atonement, creating a quite literally bloody scene. To a people who lived in the wilderness and without established cities, spilled blood out in nature was primarily an image of a violent death. However, this was not to be a way of life for the Israelites, as they were not to treat the blood as life with any profane manner: the life of animals was to be treated as sacred. The sacral usage of blood, then, is an image of a violent death that is legitimated only as an atonement for sins. In other words, even as Israel would be intimately familiar with death in the wilderness and out in the world, they were not to treat life profanely, meaning that the human enact slaughtering of an animal because of sins conveyed something: the dangers of God’s judgment for widespread, reckless disobedience. In this case, the sacrifices atone by being reminders to the Israelites of their covenantal commitment to God, itself also made in blood to convey the seriousness of the covenant (Exodus 24.3-8).
To push this hypothesis forward a bit more, it may be relevant to understand the sacrificial blood as emerging out of Israel’s idolatry with the Golden Calf and God’s ultimate response of mercy (Exodus 32-34). Prior to that even, blood is only described as having an atoning significance in Exodus 30.10, which was to be offered only on a year basis. However, after Israel’s idolatry, we get an extended discussion on sacrifices and blood in Leviticus, including sacrifices that people were to make individually. In view of God’s mercy and forgiveness of Israel, they would be a people who would have the reminder of the seriousness of their sins inscribed into their minds as often that they strayed. Whereas beforehand it was only given as a yearly practice, atoning sacrifices are not given a regular significance.
Overall, this suggests that the significance of the blood in atonement is as a symbol of God’s judgment against egregious violation of the covenant, warning Israel that their sins are not harmless violations but can require a serious response. While we today would understandably shudder under such a demonstration of violence to keep people in line, when living on the edge where one person’s action can cause severe damage to the whole people living on the margins, such a symbolic communication has the effect of keeping the people aware the importance of living according to the Covenant in a way that ultimately amounts to mercy by not being quick to impute severe justice against those who sin.
To that end, I would suggest that blood continues to be of a vital, symbolic significance in the New Testament, with two notable differences. Firstly, God is now taking the initiative in atoning for human sins, not those who sin. As such, God’s gracious initiative is at work in atonement. Secondly, the blood of Jesus Christ also has a symbolic, communicative significance in (a) representing the injustice of the human powers of the day that God overcame in the resurrection and (b) communicating to those who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead that it is in accepting Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as defining one’s own life, one is called to bear one’s own cross and so become free from sin. Whereas the atoning blood in the Old Testament atones through communicating the gravity of one’s sins and thus encouraging obedience to the covenant, the blood of Christ establishes human righteousness by providing in Christ the way to become free from sin and thus being freed from being a part of the generation under the influence of those are on the opposite side of evil and wickedness, who are revealed as on the side opposing God as shown in the vindication of Jesus through the resurrection.
This is not to reduce the significance of Jesus’ atonement to merely symbolic communication. For instance, Paul in Romans makes clear that it is only through the Spirit that believers are united to the death of Christ. Ultimately, I would put forward the theological proposition that the atonement must ultimately be understood in terms of Triune action and how the agency of the Father and the Spirit are instrumental in atonement in the New Testament.
Furthermore, the symbolic significance of the blood of the atonement is not reduced to simply giving an example of Jesus’ faithfulness. It also conveys the communicative significance of God’s coming judgment for the wicked, which would be understood to be deserved against those type of people who crucified Jesus. Hence, we can explain why the image of the blood of the Lamb becomes pertinent in Revelation, both in identifying the believers with the ‘martyrdom’ of Jesus and the judgment that shall be leveled against the Roman Empire.
This is intended as just a brief sketch of how a view of the atonement can be grounded upon the symbolic theme of blood in the Old Testament and New Testament. This is not meant to be either exhaustive of the significance of blood language in regards to atonement, nor as comprehensive of the entire significance of the atonement. Nevertheless, I do present this with the idea that to understand the atonement of Jesus Christ, it is vital to understand the symbolic significance of blood, both in the Old Testament and New Testament, both as the language of blood functions in the texts and the theological imagination of what blood symbolically communicates through the Scriptural texts as the starting point.