Revelation and Response

According to both Stump and Lucas, the moral heart of any Christian doctrine of atonement lies in the way in which the Incarnation and the gift of the Spirit enable God's costly, forgiving love to penetrate and transform sinners and draw them into the triune life and energy of God. The question still arises, however, whether all this can only take effect where the revelation of God's love in Christ becomes the object of explicit response.

This was certainly the case on Swinburne's view: Christians are to plead Christ's sacrifice as a sufficient satisfaction for sin. Stump's talk of'the wedge that cracks the heart', and Farrer's talk of our discovering the divine life through struggling with, and being captured by, the life and death of God incarnate, also seem to imply that the effectiveness of God's reconciling acts depends on our conscious response, as, of course, subjective or exemplarist theories too have always held to be the case.

I have already drawn attention to the way in which most earlier objective theories of atonement saw the scope of Christ's atoning work in much wider, even universal, terms. Admittedly, these theories often took morally unacceptable forms, as in traditional talk of ransom, penal substitution or expiatory sacrifice. But there was nothing morally unacceptable about the way in which the value or merit of Christ's life and death were held, by both Quinn and Cross, for example, to extend to repentant sinners everywhere, not just to those aware of what Christ had done. Similarly, something like Lucas's identification theory can be expressed in ways that do not restrict its effect to those with knowledge of Christ's work.

This is argued by Vernon White in his Atonement and Incarnation. God's own self-involvement in the wicked world to the point of crucifixion gives God the right to forgive — there is no cheap grace here — but, for White, the incarnate Son's perfect response to the Father is not only revelatory but also constitutive of our salvation prior to our knowing about it. The stress here is on the Incarnation not only as God's identification of himself with humankind, but also as the taking of humanity into God. One way or another, the whole human race is destined to be taken into God by incorporation into Christ's risen life. And this is a process that can, at least initially and to some degree, be thought of as taking place in hidden ways, prior to our conscious recognition.

Similarly, Bruce Reichenbach argues for an inclusivist understanding of atonement, whereby God's grace, incarnate in Christ's life of self-sacrificial love, and effective through the work of the Spirit, can also be discerned in other religions and in purely human works of charity. He refers to Karl Rahner's theory of 'anonymous Christians' and to C. S. Lewis's use, at the end of his Narnia series, of the Matthean parable of the sheep and the goats. (In Jesus' parable, the righteous did not know that, in caring for the poor, the sick and the prisoners, they had actually been responding to him.) Reichenbach even suggests that Swinburne's insistence on repentance, apology, reparation and penance can be given cash value in terms that do not include the explicit pleading of Christ's sacrifice.

Whereas traditional objective conceptions of the Atonement tended to ascribe universal effect to the death of Christ, more recent objectivists, such as Lucas, Cross, White and even Swinburne (at times), tend to place the emphasis on the whole story of the Incarnation and the Spirit's work in drawing repentant sinners, wherever they may be, into the loving arms of God. None of these writers goes as far as Hick's 'pluralist' position, which detaches God's salvific work from its key focus in the Incarnation. Salvation is still being thought of by these writers in terms of what God did in 'becoming man that we might become divine' (Athanasius again). But the emphasis has certainly shifted from the death of Christ to the whole story of the Incarnation and its aftermath.

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