Augustine writes in his Confessions: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Immediately following this petition, he prays: “Grant me Lord to know and understand.” The ensuing few pages are filled with an impassioned plea for knowledge of God, culminating in: “What a wretch I am! In your mercies, Lord God, tell me what you are to me. ‘Say to my soul, I am your salvation’ (Ps. 34:3)…. Do not hide your face from me (cf. Ps. 26:0). Lest I die, let me die so that I may see it” (I.i-v).
Why does Augustine implore the God in whom he already believes that he might know and understand him? What is the role of understanding within faith? According to Augustine, faith is by nature a relationship involving motion toward its object through understanding or “full vision”: “When a mind is filled with the beginning of that faith which works through love, it progresses by a good life even toward vision, in which holy and perfect hearts know that unspeakable beauty, the full vision of which is the highest happiness” (Enchiridion, 1.5). Faith is the kind of thing that moves toward a goal—in this case, movement toward God, through knowledge and understanding. Faith embraces understanding because that is its end, its goal.
Further developed by Anselm and others, we find in Daniel Migliore a delightful summary of this line of thought: “Faith and inquiry are inseparable…. The work of theology [is] a continuing search for the fullness of the truth of God made known in Jesus Christ” (Faith Seeking Understanding, 1). Applying this insight to the doctrine of the atonement, we are called to a continuing search on the part of faith for the fullness of the truth of God made known in Jesus Christ, a search for understanding of the fullness of the work of Christ, and the rest, life and salvation which are bound up with it. The alternative, to rest content with what little knowledge of God we have, would be to violate the very nature of the faith we have been given—to disdain the complex simplicity, which we are offered to delight in both now and in eternity.
But one might ask, why are explanations of a man’s death and resurrection such a complicated affair? Why can’t we just have a straight-forward theory of the atonement which can be the basis for our preaching, missions work, statements of faith, etc.? We echo the sentiment of the astronomer, who, after one of Karl Barth’s sermons, said:
I’m an astronomer, you know, and as far as I am concerned, the whole of Christianity can be summed up by saying: ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
“I am just a humble theologian, and as far as I am concerned the whole of astronomy can be summed up by saying ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are’” (Godsey, Reminiscenses, 321).
There is something powerful in our longing for simplicity, yet unsatisfying as well, for those who have explored the depth of these realities. An account of the gospel which neglected the depth and complexity of the realities at play in the atonement would soon fail altogether.
For one thing, events are often far richer in character than we initially perceive. For instance, when Jesse Owens crossed the finish line in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, one could explain that Owens won a race. While true, such an account would fail to honor the complexity of the event, which could and should be explained at various levels, including chemistry, physics, sport, race, politics, economics, nationalism and religion to name but a few. Events, and particularly key historical events, are complex in nature, and we are wise to honor them as such. Like any other significant historical happening, Jesus’ passion was a complex, multi-dimensional event, calling for rich exposition at a number of levels, including but not limited to: Jewish religion, Roman politics and law, interpersonal dynamics, Jesus’ self-understanding, Roman execution practices, biological processes relevant to death by crucifixion and social norms involving mockery and shaming.
A second layer adding complexity and richness to events in general and the atonement in particular involves the complexities inherent in our speech about these events, with particular attention paid to the role of metaphor. While early in the 20th century metaphor was regarded as an unnecessary husk surrounding a kernel of truth in the atonement, it is now commonplace to embrace atonement language as necessarily and constructively metaphorical, based in part on the influence of Colin Gunton (and his employment of Janet Soskice’s work).
Unlike other historical events, however, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was uniquely significant and rich, for it was an event in the life of God himself, willed and experienced by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Beyond the complexity proper to any significant historical act mentioned above, and the further complexity of our metaphorical speech about this event, there is an additional and unique diversity proper to this act—the diversity proper to the triune God whose act this was, in the fullness of his divine attributes. “God was in Christ,” accomplishing the work of reconciling “all things” (1 Cor. 5:19). God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who is merciful, gracious, patient, loving, good, kind, righteous, faithful, constant, wrathful, holy, omniscient…. This God, in the fullness of his character, was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself. And by means of this work “all things” are taken up and reconciled to God by means of God himself, by means of the diversity and richness proper to God’s own being and life.
This threefold diversity (proper to events generally, intrinsic to the metaphorical nature of speech, and founded in the diversity proper to the God whose act this is) provides the explanation for the diversity and complexity inherent to this event, calling forth our multi-faceted witness. And it is the longing for understanding of this complex yet simple event, that lies at the heart of a lively Christian faith. And it is to this calling that the history of theology invites us, to:
Consider where and what is the strength of thy salvation, occupy thyself in meditating thereon, delight thyself in the contemplation thereof; put away thy daintiness, force thyself, give thy mind thereto; taste of the goodness of thy Redeemer, kindle within thyself the love of the Saviour. (Anselm, Meditation IV)
You can pick up a copy of Dr. Johnson’s book, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, here.