Chapter 9: The Atonement

The Spirit and the Forms of Love
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 9: The Atonement

The spirit of love takes form as love meets the other and his need. The spirit has taken the form of a Servant in the incarnation, and the Servant has met humanity in the depths of its separation from God. The two marks of this separation are sin and death. Their defeat in the Servant’s death on the cross is the atonement. In the Christian faith it is the atonement which discloses the ultimate resource of God’s love. Reinhold Niebuhr says, ‘The Atonement is the significant content of the Incarnation’.1 Certainly it is the central action in the incarnation.

It is well known that there has never been an orthodox doctrine of the atonement. The New Testament uses a number of images and metaphors, and never confines the meaning of the cross in a formal definition. The theme is too vast for any single interpretation. All the powers which assail man’s being and hope are met in the Cross — sin, death, the demonic powers, the judgment of the law, and despair at fulfilling it, the weight of guilt, the mystery of dying, the tragedy of history. The way of redemption is told in unfathomable images, the life of preaching and healing, the little group of disciples, the hunger of the crowds, the opposition of the powerful, the last meal with the institution of a sacrament of remembrance, the betrayal, the trial and agony, the disciples’ desertion, and the death, and then the strange and variously described experiences of the resurrection. Strangest of all from the standpoint of faith is the fact that although the word from the cross, ‘it is finished’, has been spoken, the history of sin and death goes on. Mankind carries the burden of guilt and the anxiety of dying in a humanity misshapen and bewildered by its own creations. Life in faith and in the Church remains life under judgment. What indeed has been accomplished in the work of God in Jesus Christ? Every theology of atonement arises in the history where we continue to search for an adequate expression of the truth. Theologies are instruments of vision, not resting places for the mind and heart of faith.

Nevertheless, from the beginning of the Christian Church, there have been accounts of the atonement which explored the scriptural metaphors and expanded or reinterpreted them. They use concepts drawn from many areas of human experience. I believe it is a defect of most traditional theories of atonement that they obscure the centrality of love in redemption. In order to show this we must look briefly at the major types of interpretation of atonement. The essential point to observe is that every interpretation has used some pattern or image drawn from human experience and religious devotion.

We noted in Chapter III Emil Brunner’s classification of the metaphors of atonement in five types: Sacrifice, the first of these, derives from a form of religious worship and devotion. The Suffering Servant figure is based upon the concept of penal suffering for wrong. The ransom payment means literal ransom or the purchase of freedom. The contest of God against Satan is based upon the image of warfare. The historical symbol of the Passover Lamb comes from the history of Israel’s deliverance preserved in a ritual of remembrance. To Dr. Brunner’s five types we can add the theme Paul finds in the mystery religions, the God who dies and rises again that his followers may have immortality.

Later theology never remained wholly bound to these traditional images, though all of them are repeated in the Fathers, in St. Anselm, and elsewhere. Anselm asks the question, ‘Cur Deus Homo’, ‘Why did God become man?’ His answer is a synthesis of the theme of offence against the divine honour based on the analogy of the feudal lordship and the sacramental practice of penance with its suffering proportionate to the extent of guilt. Abelard’s less systematized doctrine stresses the persuasive power of the divine love, and has been traditionally called, not very illuminatingly, the ‘moral influence theory’. Abelard, the professor, uses the image of the ‘persuasive teacher’ and interprets Christ’s suffering as divine instruction about love. For Schleiermacher Christ saves man through the perfection of his God-consciousness, which is the existence of God in him and which must be restored to man. For Albrecht Ritschl, Christ saves man by fulfilling his vocation to establish the universal ethical community in which the spirit is victorious over the resistance of nature.2 Thus every theology seeks a pattern in which the atonement can be understood.

When we say that these patterns of experience have been used in doctirines of atonement, we do not mean that the theologians have tried, to reduce the meaning of God’s saving work to forms of human experience. Most have recognized they are using analogies. Shailer Matthews once accurately described most theories of atonement as ‘transcendentalized politics’.3 It is God who redeenns man, and what God does cannot be identified with any human experience or form, though it penetrates human understanding.

One of the important books on the atonement in the twentieth century is Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor in which he finds three major motjfs in the tradition: the classic theme of Chtrist as victor in combat with Satan and the demonic powers of sin, death, and the law; the Latin theory, stated most adequately in Anselm, in which Jesus as man pays the penalty incurred by sin, a sufficient payment since he is the Son of God; and the moral influence theory in Abelard. Aulen holds that Luther rescues the classic motif from the deficiencies in Anselm’s and other views, and it is this classic theory which most adequately expresses the New Testament faith.

Aulen gives several reasons for preferring the Christus Victor theme.4 God is both the reconciler and the reconciled. Christ’s death and resurrection is the overcoming of the powers which assail man, sin, death, the curse of the Law. In all these the power of Satan is present and must be broken. The cosmic dimensions of the conflict of God with evil are thus recognized. Further, the incarnation and atonement are one continuous and integral action of God. Here Aulen finds special significance in Irenaeus’ doctrine of the divine action as a reconstituting (recapitulating) of humanity’s history of creation and fall and the restoration of man’s rightful maturity and direction.

Every profound theory of the atonement has its existential aspect, that is, its way of expressing the concrete human situation and what redeems us from futility. If this were not so the theory would not persist. The ‘classic’ theory as expounded by Aulen is often criticized for neglecting the existential dimension of atonement. The contest of God and the demonic powers takes place in a cosmic dimension ‘above man’s head’, so to speak. How this ultimate victory of Christ becomes our victory is not clear. It should be said however that Aulen’s version of the classic motif keeps one existential aspect of importance. It reveals the experience of sin and death as personal bondage. The theme of the God-man confronting Satan himself and defeating him expresses the liberation which comes when the paralysis of fear is broken and freedom of the spirit becomes a present possibility.

As Dr. Tillich has pointed out, the Latin theory of the satisfaction of the divine honour through the death of Jesus has always gripped men because it meets the burden of guilt, the experience of moral failure, and the impossibility of ‘making up’ for what we have done. The moral influence theory points to the power which the example of suffering love can have. It can reach the depths of the self where there is still the possibility of responding to persuasion.

There is, however, a remarkable fact which appears when we look at the history of the doctrine of atonement. It is this — that none of the traditional theories has taken as its point of departure and its key an experiential analysis of the work of love. Every doctrine recognizes that it is the love of God which has been shown in Jesus Christ and his cross and which is the source of redemption. But in interpreting the ‘how’ of redemption, the question has too rarely been asked, ‘What is the meaning of atonement as love doing its distinctive work in dealing with guilt and self-destruction?’

If God’s work is reconciliation, that is, personal restoration of his people to the community of love and the renewal of the ‘marriage bond’, one would suppose that the profoundest insight into the ‘how’ of reconciliation would come from the experience of reconciliation between persons. Yet this has rarely been given full scope in theology. Is the human experience of love and forgiveness too intimate to become objectified as a theory of God’s way of working? Perhaps the dimension of the divine is so different from the human that we need remote analogies rather than personal ones. We can counter by asking why political transactions, or forms of religious sacrifice, or ransom payments are more able to bear the freight of the divine meaning than are the personal relationships of love, betrayal and forgiveness. In any case, we can only seek to tell how God’s saving power comes into life.

Let us look again at the atonement as the New Testament witnesses to it, and as the centuries of Christian experience have wrestled with it. Our clue is that if the atonement means God doing what needs to be done to reconcile the world to himself, then the human experiences which may reflect this work of God must be those of personal reconciliation. Now giving an account of personal reconciliation is very difficult. The healing of broken relationships takes many forms. We seem to know much more about how we fall into disruptive conflict and hatred than about how these are overcome. Betrayal is easier to describe than forgiveness.

As we seek to keep close to experience we also keep attention fixed upon the experience of reconciliation in the New Testament witness to Jesus. The New Testament message deals with human experience and throws its revealing light on human motives, desires, and action. God has made his love known in the way a man lived and died. Without this involvement in experience no Christian account of redemption will be anything but a dream in an unreal world.

What we seek is a personal, experiential interpretation of atonement through analysis of reconciliation in human life. Love takes a new form in the work of reconciliation. We could not think at all without the traditional doctrines, but we can hope to shift our angle of vision slightly as we look again upon the mystery.


What happens when there is a break in human relationships and an actual reconciliation? We can distinguish four phases. These four do not constitute a chronological sequence. They interpenetrate, as four aspects of one history.

The first is disclosure. This beginning seems obvious. We have to know that there is a rupture in communication with one another in our mutuality and our love if we are to be reconciled. But to know this in the sense of being aware of conflict and disorder is one thing; to know it in the sense of seeing clearly its depths and its roots, and confessing it as real is profoundly difficult. Nothing is more common in human relationships, both for individuals and groups, than the belief that we are men of goodwill and all the ill will lies in the other. The history of human pretences, self-deception, and failure to see our hostility and resentment of the other is a constant theme of the world’s literature, and its consequences are strewn throughout history in politics, revolution, and all the tragedies of human hatred. The forms of peace in the conscience are infinitely varied and they are so satisfying that exposing them can only be the work of grace.

It is a fair proposition that all sin involves some kind of dishonesty, a self-deception about our real motives, and a distortion of the truth about others. We know through the psychological clinics something more about the mechanisms which operate when the human spirit is anxious and self-protective. Our capacity to shut out reality is very great, because the risk of the truth is so great. Whitehead is speaking out of a high idealism when he says, ‘it is the blunt truth we want’.5 Usually it is the last thing we want.

Disclosure to the self is the first painful work of love. One of the assured results of modern psychological therapy is that unless there is some offer of security, some removal of the threat of the rejection we fear, we cannot face the depths of our hurt and guilt. The first service, therefore, of grace as forgiveness is service to the truth. It makes possible the beginning of confession. We see then that disclosure is not simply a prologue to reconciliation, but a continuing and essential aspect of the whole history.

The Gospel account of Jesus’ ministry can be read as the history of the disclosure of man’s sin. The exposure of guilt is one dimension of his work of reconciliation. Dr. John Bennett remarks in his discussion of the Gospel record that the recorded words of judgment spoken by Jesus against the faithless generation, the exploiting groups, and the pride of the ‘righteous’ are more prominent than the words of forgiveness.6

For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him. . . .

I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.

(Matthew 21: 32, 43, 45)

Words of judgment do not necessarily achieve self-disclosure for those who will not see. Disclosure involves confession which cannot be compelled. Nevertheless, the history of Jesus puts him clearly in the prophetic tradition of blunt speech concerning God’s judgment upon sin. He calls the names of crimes and points to the unjust and the exploiters, and to the viciousness and destructiveness of men.

Disclosure comes not only through exposure of wrong, but also in demonstration of right. The parables of the Good Samaritan and the humble tax collector expose the pride of the self-righteous and the unlove of those who pass by on the other side. The human spirit is a proving ground for the truth against the lie. We should remember that a not inconsiderable part of Jesus’ ministry was spent in controversy over specific issues of law and ethical practice. What is proper on the Sabbath? What about paying taxes to Caesar? What are the conditions of preparation for the Kingdom? Who sinned that this man suffers? Honest analysis can be a work of reconciliation. The ultimate hope for man is that the truth will be known:

Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be made known. Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops (Luke 12:1-3).

This is to be sure an eschatological promise. The final disclosure of the truth is not given in history; it is something expected at the end of the history of reconciliation. But there are anticipations and fragmentary realizations of the truth. And at the centre of history we begin to know our real humanity illuminated by the humanity of Jesus. Love has multiple strategies in disclosing the truth. That there can be no reconciliation without the foundation of truth is the first statement about it.

While the truth may become clear, it is rarely simple. Men are conditioned by historical circumstances. Pathological conditions in society or the individual block communication. Charles E. Silberman has analysed the problem of communication in racial relations. He describes the feelings of Negroes who find that all decisions are made for them. One black nationalist leader said to him, ‘You whites have always decided everything, you even decided when to set us free’. Silberman points out that ‘Negroes want to achieve their aims by their own efforts, not as a result of white beneficence’. He continues:

The crux of the matter may be summed up in the difference between the words ‘conversation’ and ‘negotiation’. Whites are accustomed to holding conversations with Negroes, in which they sound out the latter’s views or acquaint them with decisions they have taken. But Negroes insist more and more on negotiations — on discussions, as equals, designed to reach an agreement. . . To negotiate means to recognize the other party’s power. When Whites negotiate with Negroes therefore, it not only helps to solve the Negro’s ‘Negro problem’ it helps solve the white man’s ‘Negro problem’ as well; for whites begin to see Negroes in a different light — as equals, as men.7 The notion that love for fellow man is a substitute for what Silberman here calls ‘negotiation’ is the sentimentality which needs to be exposed and eliminated. And when no way to negotiation seems open love will maintain loyalty to the discovered humanity which lies waiting to be set free.

To love is to will to find the conditions of human community whatever they may be. The search for knowledge of our actual predicament at whatever risk to our self-image, our pride, and our privilege is the first requirement in the reconciling action.


The second requirement for reconciliation is an action which renews loyalty to the broken community in spite of the rupture of disloyalty. A new deed is required, an affirmation that man is bound to man in communion in spite of separation. Atonement requires constructive recommitment in the midst of disaster.

One of the searching interpretations of atonement in the twentieth century was given by the philosopher Josiah Royce in The Problem of Christianity.8 Royce’s philosophic idealism was built upon the tragic aspect of life and what he called the ‘moral burden of the individual’. Royce sought to interpret human existence as the search for loyalty to an adequate cause. Sin is disloyalty to the one really adequate cause, the world of loyal men. Disloyalty is universal. We seek self-affirmation against the community, and this fall into disloyalty is irrevocable. Time is movement from the past toward the future, and the past cannot be changed. The burden of guilt persists. Thus Royce affirmed the reality of time and, at least in The Problem of Christianity, seems to say that God has a temporal aspect. He sees the problem of history, then, as the recovery of meaning in the face of the burden of moral guilt.

Royce now interprets Christianity as the faith that the moral burden of past wrong has been so dealt with in the history of Jesus recorded in the New Testament that the way is re-opened to unlimited creative growth for the human community. Thus an infinite hope overcomes the tragedy of man’s self-betrayal. Royce is clearer than Hegel about the creativity of history. He was aided in this by Charles Peirce’s theory of interpretation as the structure of historical existence. Interpretation is a triadic process. Someone interprets a sign to someone. It is a temporal process. The present interpreter interprets the past, which has become objectively given and remembered, to the mind which receives the new interpretation. Thus with each interpretation the process moves into a new state of affairs.9 In idealist fashion Royce sees human existence as this infinitely expanding community of interpretation. The relevance to the atonement is that the past can take on new meaning when the burden of guilt is lifted through a new act of loyalty. Royce believed he had here found a way to interpret the Christian community’s affirmation about Jesus. In its memory of Jesus the Church has the foundation of its existence in the memory of the deed of Jesus who acted in absolute loyalty to the community in the midst of its disloyalty.

If historical actions were only isolated events the life and death of Jesus would be just an incident without effect or power; but if history is constituted by remembered and interpreted events, then what Jesus has done enters into the texture of history. The Christian community is in intention the community which lives by its remembrance of Jesus’ loyalty to the whole community of being. For Royce then human history is the story of man’s fall into guilt and its overcoming by atonement. Thus Christianity in essence knows the meaning of life as unlimited loyalty to the community of interpretation and interpreters.

In this philosophy of loyalty Royce is interpreting the meaning of love so that the power of love’s dealing with guilt is brought to the fore. Atonement is that working of love in which the meaning of being human is made plain. Thus the idealist philosopher illuminates the doctrine of atonement. He has gone beyond the traditional doctrines by drawing his metaphor from within the action of loyalty when it deals with the broken community. He has described the human process of reconciliation.

Royce’s doctrine gives especial importance to the Church as the community which remembers Jesus. His classic definition of the church is ‘the community of memory and of hope’. The atonement works in history through the living memory of the community. It is initiated in the life of Jesus, but it is an action which reverberates in every subsequent action. Atonement is the continuing action of God restoring the world to its right mind and spirit. Jesus’ loyalty is the concrete deed which opens the way to an infinitely creative universal community.

We can incorporate Royce’s analysis of atonement into our doctrine of love in process theology. But in The Problem of Christianity Royce has curiously little to say about the action of God. His community of interpretation seems a little ‘bloodless’ and over-intellectualized. We need further theological interpretation of the biblical witness to Jesus’ suffering and death as revelation of God’s suffering love.

The metaphysical doctrine of God in process theology can appropriate but extend Royce’s view. Jesus’ suffering witnesses to God’s love bearing with his world. It is an act of human loyalty which discloses the divine loyalty. We can avoid the idealist error, which Royce does not escape, of trying to prove that in the end everything is really as it should be, since atonement overcomes guilt. Royce held the interesting view that the atoning deed must not only heal the community but it must leave the community better than it was before the rupture of disloyalty.10 This is a remnant of the idealistic attempt to prove that the world is really better because of sin. (St. Augustine makes the same claim.) I cannot see that such a proof is necessary or possible. What is more to the point is to ask how the suffering of Jesus achieves reconciliation and new good, not to calculate its amount.

We have come to the question of suffering in human experience as we try to understand atonement. What does suffering accomplish?

Suffering has many meanings and functions. We think of suffering as pain of body or mind, and as the bearing of the consequences of some illness or wrong. It does of course include these things. But if suffering means being acted upon or being conformed to another in a relationship, then its diversity and complexity begin to appear. The suffering of a beginner learning to play the piano is not the same as the suffering of the accomplished artist playing a recital, or reading critical reviews after a performance. The suffering of a child who does not understand his parents’ orders is different from the suffering of the parent who must make requirements he cannot fully explain. And the suffering which comes from the obligations of love is far different from the suffering which comes from love’s refusal or frustration.

Suffering can only be understood in the context of the personal history where it occurs. This means that the suffering involved in reconciliation must be understood in its existential function and situation. The traditional doctrines of atonement understand Jesus’ suffering as penal or sacrificial. It is the price exacted for sin or the consequence of sin. Surely this is an inescapable aspect of the truth. The consequences of moral and other evil have to be born, and this truth underlies what is valid in the atonement theories. But these theories have given too little attention to the positive function of suffering in human relationships which I hope to show is bound up with communication between persons.

Human suffering is always a symptom of a problem, a difficulty, a tragedy, a commitment, or a hope. Suffering discloses a need, a yearning or a disruption. The power of suffering is the power to communicate the spirit’s anguish. The truth here is so familiar it seems a commonplace. Yet we know that the deepest discovery in love is that the other suffers for us, and we discover that we love when we suffer for and with the other. Suffering’s greatest work is to become the vehicle of human expression. Suffering is not an emotion, but it is an ingredient in all emotion, even the emotion of laughter. Whether suffering always is experienced as pain is debatable. It does always involve some bearing of a situation, a way of experiencing the world and being reshaped by it. That is why suffering even in its most terrible forms has the potential of self-disclosure and knowledge of others. This is attested in the experience of concentration camp survivors.11 This power of revelation is the power of communication. The experience of suffering enters into the syntax of human expression.

We do not say that suffering always has a constructive function, or that it provides infallible communication between man and man, There are vast stretches of suffering in human life which, empirically viewed, seems to be nothing more than accidents of biological and social history. Suffering can be self-destructive to the point of shattering any hope of finding a meaning in existence. The mystery of evil is not the mystery of suffering per se, but the mystery of destructive, apparently senseless suffering. What we can say is that some suffering becomes a source of growth in love.

Suffering becomes constructive when it exposes the truth. In the New Testament interpretation of Jesus’ suffering, this theme is perhaps most sharply expressed in the letter to the Colossians. On the cross Jesus has exposed the principalities and powers, made a public spectacle of them (Colossians 2:15). In the New Testament picture of the Christ the sufferings of Jesus are signs of his vocation to preach the Kingdom, his love for God and for man, his contention with evil, and his conflict with the established powers.

Jesus’ suffering not only exposed the sources of evil, but it communicated the loving will to oppose those evils and to seek the reconciliation of mankind. It is a common misunderstanding of love religiously viewed that it must always try to create immediate peace and harmony. Nothing could be further from the picture of love in the New Testament. Jesus’ acceptance in love of his vocation to expose human iniquity leads to open conflict. It leads to misunderstanding and violence. It stiffens human defences as men begin to know the judgment against them.

The suffering which creates resistance can also open the way to a new response in love. This power of communication through suffering can never be fully known in an impersonal way. One of the most mysterious and powerful of all forces is the understanding which comes in interpersonal communication. All schools of psychotherapy seem to agree on this point, that the interpersonal relationship is the most powerful force in restoring psychic health.12 The victories in psychological therapy are dramatic instances of what takes place continually in human relationships. We know one another through the personal responses which involve the taking into the self of the attitudes and emotions of the other. This process is partially blocked, incomplete, and frustrated. We are moved by the weakness, hatred, and indifference of others as well as by their love. The critical point is that it is in this dynamic field of personal interaction that love becomes effective. What happens goes far deeper than the conscious level of understanding, and only in continuing reflection do we discover what the other person has communicated to us.

What is valid in the moral influence theory can be preserved by a fuller interpretation of what the communication of love involves. The ‘moral influence theory’ is so named because it appears to stress the ‘power of example’. It suggests the image of Jesus as the teacher who instructs or persuades men concerning the meaning of love. But ‘example’ is too weak a term to describe the personal communication of love through suffering. Jesus’ suffering has transforming power not merely as a demonstration of a truth but as an action which creates a new field of force in which forgiven men can be changed.

Josiah Royce saw that the deed of the loyal man brings a new community of understanding into existence. We can now add to Royce’s view the insight that the reconciliation which creates the new community comes by way of suffering. Jesus suffering becomes the very word and speech of love finding bodily, historical expression and creating a new possibility of communion.

We come to the deepest mystery when we see in the suffering of Jesus a disclosure of the suffering of God. We have seen how the traditional doctrines of atonement tend to resist this conclusion. They try to keep from saying that the Father suffers. But the inevitable consequence is that the suffering of Jesus must then be viewed as some kind of price exacted by God for his forgiveness. We have traced this doctrine to its origin in the metaphysics of neo-platonism. It cannot survive a clear analysis of what love is. If being and love are inseparable, then being and suffering are inseparable. God is involved in the history of his creatures because he loves the world. His self-disclosure is an action which means suffering. He takes into his own being the consequences of the actions of love in the world.

The incarnation, we have said, is the communion of God with the man whose vocation is to enact love in the world. That communion requires the communication of love from God to man and through man. What Jesus reveals on the cross surely is not that human love suffers while the divine love does not. What he reveals is the love which does not shirk suffering, and that love is God himself at work.

We acknowledge that in denying the suffering of God the tradition tried to protect a truth, but it protected it in an unfortunate way. The truth of impassibility is that God’s love is the everlasting power and spirit of deity. He is Lord. Unlimited love belongs to him as it belongs to no creature. God’s love is absolute in its integrity forever. In this sense his love is invulnerable. That ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God’ is the assurance of faith. It is natural for us to associate suffering with finitude, the threat to being, the disruption of spirit. Whatever suffering means in God, it is for him consonant with his deity and with the integrity of the divine spirit.

The doctrine that God suffers does not bring God down to man’s level, but brings our understanding of God up to the level of the faith that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The claim that God communicates his spirit to us through the person is not a claim that God’s being is knowable completely in our human categories. We have to use the forms we have. We should speak therefore of the meaning of suffering in God with the greatest restraint. But something crucial is at stake in our understanding of what it means to say that God is love. If God does not suffer then his love is separated completely from the profoundest human experiences of love, and the suffering of Jesus is unintelligible as the communication of God’s love to man.

We say, then, that the suffering and dying of Jesus is at the centre of the redemptive action we call atonement. The cause of Jesus’ suffering is sin and the human predicament. He meets that situation by bearing what has to be born that the work of love may get done. God in Jesus Christ suffers with his world, not meaninglessly but redemptively. He has inaugurated a new history by an action which restores the possibility of loyalty in this broken, suffering, yet still hopeful human community.


We are trying to see how reconciliation takes place. Personal communication comes through action; but it also comes through speech. The philosophies of the I-Thou relationship have rightly insisted that there is a primary word which is spoken from one free subject to another, in the freedom of the personal relationship. The rupture of sin is a break in personal trust and fidelity. That is why sin can never be fully defined by reference to transgression of objective law. It means personal separation, and it can be healed only by personal reconciliation. There is a point in personal relationship where only the direct word, spoken and heard, can be adequate for the forgiveness and renewal of reconciliation.13 Language here does not mean any one form of speech. It can be spoken words, gestures, or signs. Personal communication often finds spoken words unnecessary. Yet the spoken word is always present in the context of personal existence. One of the consequences of sin is the corruption of speech in the trivializing, sentimentalizing, false ornamentation, and obfuscation of our talk.

God’s creative action in history works in human language to make it the vehicle of truth instead of lies, and of reconciliation instead of hurt and destructive bitterness.14 In Jesus’ work of atonement he spoke the words of forgiveness and reconciliation and he spoke them as indicatives and imperatives of the spirit. The word from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’, gathers up many prior words in his teaching: ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive’; the declaration of forgiveness to the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-7); the word which is still part of the Gospel though a late addition to the Gospel record, ‘neither do I condemn thee, go and sin no more’ (John 8: 11). And there is the discussion with Peter, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel about forgiving seventy times seven (Matthew 18: 22).

Any word can be corrupted in human usage, including the word ‘forgiveness’. It can be used to proclaim our moral superiority over another, used as a moralistic club, sentimentalized and debased. But the word can be spoken and heard in the authentic experience of reconciliation, and it stands in the language of the Gospel as the Word of God clothing itself in human speech and opening the way for the language of redemption to be spoken between God and man.


Atonement involves both the action of God and the participating action of man. It is the work of love dealing with the situation in which love has been twisted, blocked, and lost. We tend to think of atonement only as the prologue to a new relationship. After one ‘atones for his deed’ by so much suffering or penance the new life begins. But this falsifies the real situation. Atonement is creation. The new community brought into being through the renewal of love has in its structure the experience which brings about the renewal. The quality of the new community is founded on the remembered, present and anticipated work of reconciliation. This leads to an analysis of the doctrine of the Church, which concludes our exploration of the personal meaning of reconciliation.

God’s loving action in Jesus Christ is the creation of a new humanity and a new community in history. The new humanity is constituted by how it has been brought into being through love which suffers and forgives. The doctrine of the Church as the community which bears the meaning of reconciliation in history is not then an addendum to the doctrine of atonement. The Church is the creation of the atoning action of God. This reconciling action continues and is known wherever God’s love transforms the disfigured life of humanity with the power of a loyal and forgiving spirit. Failure to understand that the Church exists by continual participation in the atoning action of God in Jesus underlies many of the illusions in conventional images of the Church. Let us describe the Church as the community which lives by participation in the atonement.

The first consequence is that the Church is the form of the new creation, the new being, in history. Christian existence is never isolated existence. It is existence in a new community founded on faith in the divine action of reconciliation. God has created a new humanity in history whose form is life in the one Body with many members. The Gospel does not proclaim merely an ideal or a hope, but a victory which has been won and through which a new life has come into existence.

We have seen that the resurrection experience was the sign which re-created the hope of the disciples. The power of the resurrection was the establishment of the faith that in Jesus God’s Messiah has appeared with redemptive power, and God’s Holy Spirit is present to bring men into the new life for which Jesus has opened the way. The resurrection was the sign that the separation from God which has been exposed in the death of the man of God at the hands of sinful men is overcome now and forever. A new life reconciled to God has been made present with power in history.

It is true that the resurrection faith is connected with personal destiny beyond death and that it became the symbol of hope for universal resurrection and eternal life. But resurrection has the meaning of God’s victory not only over death but over sin. The New Testament sees the final issue in history between God’s holy love and the lovelessness of satanic pride, legalism, and self-centredness. Resurrection points to the expectation both of divine judgment and of eternal life. Therefore Paul explicitly connects the resurrection with the overcoming of sin: ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins’ (I Corinthians 15: 17). W. D. Davies has suggested that in the earliest tradition Jesus appears first to Peter because it is Peter who had denied his Lord and for whom therefore the assurance of forgiveness was most explicitly bound up with the possibility of a new life in grace.15

This meaning of the resurrection for faith can be held with various views of the resurrection experiences. Christian faith in the victory of love does not depend on any single interpretation of the events following the crucifixion. It does depend on the connection between Jesus dying for sinners and the new life which God makes possible through him. In faith the Church knows itself as founded upon what God has done in the human situation riddled with betrayal. He has moved within the betrayal to show his love as reconciling power. The Gospel is that this love can be trusted absolutely and cannot be destroyed.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed at the last time (I Peter 1: 3-5).

Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 8:39).

This assurance bears the clear implication that since the Church exists through the prior and present action of God’s grace its dependence upon that action ought to be its distinguishing mark. The Church should never think of itself as possessing grace, but as participating in it, and that participation is above all dependence upon grace as forgiveness.

The Church incorporates in its memory and its hope the reconciling work of God which is unfinished. So the New Testament joins with the assurance of redemption the powerful counterpoint of the summons to repentance and faith:

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you (I Peter 5: 8-10).

The New Testament is filled with such injunctions. Memory and hope belong together. Church history shows love in a continuing but hopeful struggle with the sin and pride which infect sometimes with greater virulence those who professedly live by love. God’s suffering continues in his contention with the Church. This is decisive for an honest doctrine of the new community.

In the sacramental life of the Church, Baptism is given once for all; but Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is a continually repeated sacramental action. There are many theologies of the sacraments and the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant doctrines show important differences. In the light of the atonement we see certain elements essential to a Christian view of the sacraments.

The Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is a memorial, a representation of the events in the history which brought the faith of the church into existence. But it is not only a memorial of the past. It is the celebration of the continuing action of God who gave his Son for the world, who continually offers men the mercy of forgiveness, and calls them to become members of the living body of their Lord. The sacrament does not repeat the sacrifice of Jesus. That was once for all. But there is an important truth in the traditional Catholic language about ‘repetition’. The suffering, atoning, and redeeming love of God is remembered and represented ever anew when the sacrament is celebrated, and, we most certainly add, when it is received in faith. The suffering of the church and the suffering of God are involved in one history. The suffering of the church results from love, and from failure to realize the authentic community of love. The suffering of God is his involvement as he contends with men both within and outside his church.

The sacrament of Baptism means incorporation into the body of Christ. Whether we accept Baptism for infants or not, we should not think of it as merely a decorous ceremony of formal acceptance into the church. We are baptized into Christ’s death, and receive here the sign of God’s grace and mercy. The sacraments are actions within the history of love’s work. They are forms created by and for expression of the love which redeems. They can be empty forms, or vehicles of the Spirit in all its depth and wonder.16

The Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit is inseparable from the meaning of atonement, for it is in the action of Jesus Christ that the Spirit, which is God’s quickening power and presence, has created the new form of human existence. In Christ the Spirit is known as the love which is agape. Certainly the work of the Holy Spirit is not confined to one strand of history. God has not left himself without witness in any land (Acts 14:17). Wherever the human spirit is moved by love in preparation, knowledge, or fulfilment there the Holy Spirit is finding a response. But those who in faith participate in the community established by the atoning action of Jesus experience the Spirit creating a new body for its expression in the world.

The knowledge of the Holy Spirit as given in the atonement ought to guard the Church against the sin of claiming to exhibit unambiguously the holiness of God, but sadly this sin persists and may even find reinforcement in the claim to possess the Holy Spirit. Such a claim means that the meaning of atonement has been obscured. The Spirit which renews the broken community is that which the community cannot command for itself, but which it receives by grace. Therefore when we look for the marks of the presence of the Holy Spirit we should include humility about claims for its possession. Such humility does not exclude the ecstatic joy of receiving the Spirit of God, or the peace of agape with God and the neighbour, but it is joy and peace made possible within love’s work of forgiveness. The Holy Spirit and the human spirit remain two, not one.

Our interpretation of atonement has been developed from its christological centre. It points to that work of God in history which has brought the new community founded on the Spirit of forgiving love into being. The Church in its intentionality is this new historical reality, a body of living, suffering, working, dying people who have been brought into a new relationship with God and one another. Luther puts it daringly: ‘We are to be little Christs for one another’.17

There is always the danger of parochialism in an account of Christian faith which moves from its centre in Christ outward toward all experience. By describing the atonement as the action which we see in the history of Jesus we in no way deny the working of the gracious love of God outside the Christian circle. Wherever men experience their self-betrayal, and their loveless divisions and find a new power to love one another and discover a deeper human community there we see analogies to what we have experienced decisively in Jesus Christ. To believe in atonement as the revelation of the love which fulfils and reconciles all human loves is to see all history in a new way. Human life is the search for the love which fulfils the will to belong, and which has passed through the story of love’s betrayal and found a new possibility of hope.

As we take our description of love as known in Jesus Christ into some concrete areas of human living we are not only trying to see human experience in the light of the agape of God but also seeking to understand more fully what all loves really are. We do not first know love and then apply our knowledge. We love, grow, and suffer, and perhaps the truth of agape becomes clearer. We shall examine four areas of human living: the way of self-giving, sexuality and love, the struggle for justice, and love in the intellectual life. We bring to the analysis whatever we have gained from our interpretation of the central disclosure of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and we bring to it also the illumination we have found in the doctrine that God’s life is in process as he involves himself in the growth, becoming and travail of the world. It is our hope that this new perspective will throw light on persistent human problems, and open the way to some new assessment of the forms which the spirit of love may be taking in contemporary life.



1. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II, p. 55.

2. A bibliography of the historic doctrines is unnecessary here. R. S. Franks, A History of the Doctrine of the Work of Christ (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918), is standard. Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor (London: S.P.C.K., 1931) is very important. H. E. W. Turner The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption (London: A.R. Mowbray, 1952), and William Wolf, No Cross, No Crown, supplement Aulen’s analysis. D. F. E. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928), and Albrecht Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1900), are major works in modern theology. British theological studies by Rashdall and Moberley are well known. The most recent study, and one of especial insight, is F. W. Dillistone, The Christian Understanding of Atonement (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1968).

3. Shailer Mathews, The Atonement and the Social Process (New York: Macmillan. 1930).

4. Aulen, Christus Victor (London: S.P.C.K., 1931).

5. A. N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 321.

6. John Bennett, Christian Realism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), p. 41.

7. Charles E. Silberman, Crisis in Black and White (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 193, 198. Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream is a powerful description of the pathology of insecurity and its effect on human communication (New York: W. W. Norton, 1949).

8. Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1914). Valuable interpretation in John E. Smith, Royce’s Social Infinite (New York: Liberals Arts Press, 1950).

9. Royce, op. cit., Vol. II, chaps. 11-14.

10. Royce, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 308.

11. Julia de Beausobre, The Woman Who Could Not Die (New York: Viking Press, 1938).

12. Karl Menninger, The Theory of Psycho-analytic Technique (London: Hogarth Press, 1958; New York: Science Editions, 1961 — Menninger monograph series). The same theme is developed from a different theoretic position in Bernard Steinzor, The Healing Partnership (New York: Harper & Row, 1967); cf. Don S. Browning Atonement and Psychotherapy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966).

13. Martin Buber, I and Thou, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).

14. The relation of language to religion and the redemptive process deserves especial attention. H. Wheeler Robinson, Redemption and Revelation (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1942; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942), is valuable. There is renewed interest in J. G. Hamann’s insight. See Ronald Gregor Smith, J. G. Hamann, 1730—1788, with selections from his writings (London: Collins, 1960). Martin Heidegger’s philosophy continues to stimulate philosophic and theological discussion on this topic. See Heidegger on poetry and revelation in Existence and Being (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1949; London: Vision Press, 2nd ed., 1956).

15. W. D. Davies in a sermon preached in James Chapel, Union Theological Seminary, New York.

16. I have a brief discussion of contemporary sacramental theory in What Present Day Theologians are Thinking, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), chapter VI.

17. Martin Luther: Treatise on Christian Liberty, p. 76.