at*one*ment Feminist Approach

Continuing our series on atonement theories, instead of looking at one particular theory, our guest blogger Leslie takes a look at how the atonement has been understood and taught by women and feminist theologians throughout history.


“In order to be able to understand the symbol of the cross as a sign of injustice, we need to tell its story differently. We need to abandon the story-frame of blood atonement and tell the Jesus story in terms of struggles for justice. We must not cut the cross and resurrection out of the Jesus story but tell this story differently” –Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza


It was during my research on feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza when my spark of curiosity towards feminist theology turned into a flame of love, where I became absorbed into the realm of atonement from the feminist perspective. Feminist theology is challenging, it requires balances between objectivity and subjectivity, tradition and experience, absolutism and relativism, as most meaningful things in life do. My goal is not to suggest these particular understandings of atonement as “right,” but instead, my hope is to provide some alternative perspectives. In thinking about atonement in light of women’s oppression, suffering, and marginalization, hopefully our eyes will be widened and hearts a bit more open. Perhaps we will be able to acknowledge that “a story is named and told differently depending on the audience to whom it is told. Different theoretical frameworks and social locations shape a story in different ways” (Fiorenza, Sharing Her Word, 23).

A significant view of feminist theology emerged in the 1960s, when theologians Valerie Saiving and Judith Plaskow began to question prominent and contemporary male theologians Anders Nygren and Reinhold Niebuhr and their male-dominated theological doctrines. Saiving and Plaskow noticed that these historically accepted theological doctrines, specifically harmatiology, failed to acknowledge women’s experience. The idea of sin was that it is rooted in a separateness and anxiety, and is equated to self-assertion and love with selflessness. Saiving, however, argued that such a doctrine comes from merely the male perspective, whereby sin in females may be more along the lines of neglecting self-identification, or self sacrifice in the service of others (Saiving, “The Human Situation,” 1960). Regardless of one’s position on harmatiology, Saiving and Plaskow worked to bring the voices and experiences of women into the theological arena.

Shortly after Saiving’s work, Mary Daly wrote Beyond God the Father (1973), pointing out the importance in discussing sin, the cross, and salvation. Here is where I think women’s experience on the theory of atonement is chiefly considered. Daly writes, “The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of the victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.” This is clearly an experiential take on atonement, supporting women’s experiences over a fixed or “objective” doctrinal belief.

Following a similar trajectory as Daly, Rita Nakashima Brock suggests that Christianity has traditionally considered the highest form of love as self-sacrifice. Brock alternatively argues that the highest form of love needs to be redirected towards that of intimacy. This is because humanity at our core is relational and sin does not require punishment, but instead, healing (Brock, Journeys by Heart). Brock rightly recognizes that the doctrine of atonement emphasizes God’s grace and forgiveness for all. However, it is insufficient because God’s grace and forgiveness is contingent upon the suffering of one perfect child.

The notion of atonement as “divine child abuse,” depicted by Rita Nakashima Brock, is fairly well-known in the feminist theology world. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker also consider this to be problematic, boldly asserting that Christianity has been a primary force in shaping Christianity’s acceptance of abuse. Brown and Parker write, “The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world, communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. […] The child who suffers without even raising a voice is loaded with the hope of the world” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, 1989). It is clear to see Daly, Brock, Brown, and Parker’s opposition to particular atonement traditions such as Christus victor, satisfaction or Anselmian, and moral influence. Likewise, all these women are Christians attempting to make sense of Jesus’s death in light of personal experiences.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is another acclaimed feminist theologian who offers a critique of traditional views of atonement theory. Ruether poses the problem of the maleness of Christ, wondering if the limitations of Christ as a male must lead to the conclusion that he cannot represent redemptive humanity for women. Ruether’s primary question is, “Will women need to emancipate themselves from Jesus as redeemer and seek a new redemptive disclosure of God in female form?” (Sexism and God-Talk). Ruether begins to solve this problem by looking at the gospels, where Jesus renews the prophetic vision by proclaiming a reversal of the system of religious status. Linda Peacore explains Ruether’s understanding saying, “the Gospels are directed at sociological realities in which maleness and femaleness in part make up the definition of social status. Jesus is the liberator who calls for the dissolution of these status relationship” (The Role of Women’s Experience in Feminist Theologies of Atonement, 2010). Therefore, for Ruether, it is not that Jesus’s significance rest in his maleness, but instead, his renouncing of systems of domination.

Lastly, I’ll do my best to highlight womanist and Asian feminist views on atonement. Womanist theologian Delores Williams focuses on atonement as it is understood in the ministerial vision of righting relations between body, mind, and spirit. Williams is arguing on behalf of black women, who have historic experience of surrogacy, which requires the need to reconstruct a Christian understanding of redemption. According to Williams, Jesus conquered sin, not in death, but in life. She claims that there is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. Again, this is a rejection of blood sacrifice imagery in common atonement theories. Williams says, “The womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/or evil” (Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, 164).

Linda Peacore also provides a sound analysis of atonement theory as seen through the eyes of Asian women. Peacore says, “The subject of suffering is ambiguous for Asian women because it can either be seen as the seed of liberation or the impetus for oppression of women” (118). Moreover, Peacore notes Filipino Lydia Lascano’s view that Jesus is understood as a compassionate man who identified himself with the oppressed, arguing that Filipino women understand Jesus neither as “a masochist who enjoys suffering nor as a father’s boy who does blindly what he is told to do” (118). Peacore quotes Chung Hyun Kyung who, “proposes that as Asian women suffer they meet God who discloses to them their value as creatures made in the divine image. ‘To know the self is to know God for Christian Asian women’” (119).

Now, what are we to make of these theories? As we have read, the feminist approach to atonement generally opposes suffering, they reject theories that emphasize the passivity of Jesus’s death on the cross. However, the exclusion of Jesus’s suffering and the violence involved could cause some disconnect, failing to preserve the entirety of the story of Jesus’s life, work, death, resurrection, and ascension. Fuerthermore, they are quite subjective. They are necessarily relative to gender, race, location, and personal experiences. Such relativity makes the feminist perspective of atonement relational, but we must be careful not to reject objectivity completely and fall into a reactive theology. Moreover, what place does tradition have in the theory of atonement? While I think it is easy follow the feminist’s stream of thought, and often helpful, it is imperative we remember the significance behind atonement theory, which extends beyond humanity’s knowledge. Yes, we should be critically thinking about who has developed these theories and how the notion of sacrificial love and acceptance of suffering can be, and often is, detrimental to women’s experience. Though, we must ask ourselves if, by focusing on the life of Jesus opposed to his death, we limit the uniqueness of Jesus as entirely human and divine. Peacore suggests another potential problem with feminist models of atonement theory, suggesting they “provide a view of redemption that is only partial and sporadic in the sense that we human beings can participate in profound moments of liberation, but never bring about the sort of transformation of relationships between God, each other, and the world necessary for true salvation” (197).

We can also see the positive aspects of these approaches. Feminist theologians continue to remind us that theology is more than the binaries we often ascribe it to. There is significance in not maintaining a fixed concept of the atonement theory. By listening to people’s stories of how certain traditional theories of atonement have been harmful, we are hopefully challenged out of the comfort of Western, dualistic thoughts, and into mutuality with humanity who struggles to find meaning in atonement on a daily basis. Therefore, would it be too bold to propose that we should start challenging each other out of comfort? Perhaps we don’t ascribe to “either/or” methodologies that maintain atonement as either an objective, historical story that has one perspective or a subjective theory that has no meaning beyond one’s social-context. Instead, maybe we start by bringing together diverse voices, listening to each other’s stories, and believing in the unique perspective each person provides the Church. Let us understand the theory of atonement in light of women’s perspective, but not limited to it. In consideration of Jesus’s death, but beyond it, towards Christ’s story as a whole, in the midst of the paradoxical “already and not yet.”

Leslie is a student at Azusa Pacific University, finishing her B.A. with a double major in Theology and Biblical Studies. She will go on to work on her M.Div./M.S.W. at Princeton Theological Seminary beginning this fall.


at*one*ment: Governmental Theory

We have been slowly working through various atonement theories this Lenten Season, and today, we will be looking at the Governmental Atonement Theory.

What is it?

The Government Theory is based off of the works of Hugo Grotius.  Grotius had been taught and trained in law and he took what he had learned there, and applied it to atonement, by identifying God as the Governor of all.  Government Theory is closely related to other theories, however, it is not the same thing.  Penal Substitution and Satisfaction Theories are similar to the Government Theory in the idea that God cannot forgive without a punishment for sins or a sacrifice of God’s Son.  The difference is that Government Theory doesn’t necessarily make an exact payment like in Penal Substitution or Satisfaction Theories, but rather, Jesus’ death was an example of how much God despises sin.  As a result there is no individual payment, rather, the church is paid for corporately.  In other words, instead of saying, “Jesus took my place on the cross”, we might say, “Jesus destroyed the hold of sin for anyone who believes and puts their trust in Him.”

Scripture Support

Romans 3:24-26  “They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed.”

I Corinthians 15:28 “And when everything is subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who subjected everything to Him, so that God may be all in all.”

Galatians 3:13 “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Cursed is everything who is hung on a tree.”

I Timothy 2:5-6  “For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, a man, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself–a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.”

Hebrews 9:15  “Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called might receive the promise of the eternal inheritance, because a death has taken place for redemption from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”

Potential Problems

There is no direct payment for individuals, but rather, people are saved as a whole.

It’s not made 100% clear what the specific purpose of Jesus had to dying on the cross.  What did the cross exactly accomplish for mankind?

A sacrifice nor death was needed for forgiveness.  We see in the New Testament, Jesus forgave sins often without having to make a sacrifice.  We also see a few examples in the OT where forgiveness was granted without a sacrifice.

For Further Study you can look Here



Christus Victor

at*one*ment: Ransom/Christus Victor Theories

Today, our guest blogger is Scott, sharing his thoughts on atonement.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15)

The topic of Atonement is the deep end of the pool because it takes us into the unfathomable depths of God, His motivation within the realms of salvation and unmerited grace, our sin, guilt, victory over death and so on…Sometimes when reading such deep theological weighty material one might consider duct-taping their heads to keep it from exploding.  I will attempt to keep it simple, so please put the duct-tape away.

Let us explore one of the most ancient aspects of atonement – Ransom theory and in conjunction “Christus Victor”.   “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15). Jesus has bought us back from sin and death with a price. That price was His life, His blood, even the prospect of “becoming” human in our weakened state and misery is solidly placed within this atonement theory.  Taking it a step further, Christ didn’t negotiate a ransom, but instead replaced us with Himself in certain death.  One can take this theory a bit too far however, and I would caution anyone from doing so:

Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.”— Robin Collins, Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory

Can you image some sort of business deal taking place between man and devil?  Just think of it for a moment, Satan sitting down at a board room table with the first two humans on earth and saying, “Okay, Adam and Eve, you have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, not if you would just sign here on the dotted line that you belong to me.”  It seems rather silly doesn’t it?  And if we were to explore this further the notion that Collins puts forth in the above quote indicates that God “tricks” the Devil…I find this to be inconsistent with the character of God.  He is not one to bluff or trick, He is the same at the beginning of creation as He is today and will be in the future.  He didn’t need to trick Satan.  Christ becomes the ransom for His beloved creation – Humankind.  True, they were captives to original sin and everyone since the fall was afflicted with sin.

Jesus broke through.  Jesus came to take our place.  Perhaps I am mixing in Substitionary penal atonement here, and I apologize.  My understanding of ransom theory, to me, is inexplicably linked to this notion that Christ has paid our price for us with His own body and blood.

Christus Victor Jesus won the victory for us in and of His death and He has atoned for our depravity.  If we were to look closely at this concept we would step in and observe the cross.  We would pay special attention to the details of His agony on the cross.  We would identify with the thief upon the cross next to Jesus who was told by the Savior “today you will be with me in paradise.”  Yes, we would place these moments under the microscope and celebrate the exact moment in which Jesus exhaled His human breath for the last time as He uttered “Into Thy Hands I commit my spirit.”  This atonement theory is all about His death which becomes our victory of Satan and over sin.

Guilt? I would contend though that when it comes to Christus Victor we should recognize that there is need to acknowledge our guilt.  Some modern contemporary preachers would lean more towards a Christus Victor theory while making it into something that it was never intended to be. Can we have victory over sin and death without the recognition of guilt and shame?  Some have put forth this idea and guilt is absent from the equation.  While I believe guilt should absolutely be acknowledged, I do not think we should remain there wallowing in it like some sort of salvationless pig in the mud of sin and shame.   Yes, Jesus has bought to us victory, but as we explore this at the foot of the cross, may we take an introspective look at our own hearts and lives.  May this introspection lead us to the empty tomb and into a deeper commitment to the Resurrected Christ.

Splitting Hairs? I believe that as one explores the various theories of Atonement one can begin to see the magnificence of the cross and that of the resurrection.  As we explore some theories that make sense and others that we have a harder time accepting, may it only harden our resolve to know Him more!  I do not believe that we are splitting hairs with Ransom Theory and that of Christus Victor.  Ransom theory predates the later theory and to me provides better understanding of what Christ’s atonement means…but is there more? Short answer: yes. I wouldn’t stop and gaze too long solely at this interpretation of atonement. Perhaps to me, there are a few other theories that speak more eloquently to my heart and that of my personal ideology.   There you have it. Did you really need that duct tape? I didn’t think so, but perhaps we have indeed waded a little further into this theological pool than you thought possible while gaining a little bit more understanding.

Thank you for wading in with me.

To read more thoughts and ideas of Scott’s, you can visit his blog here.


at*one*ment: Recapitulation Theory

“Through man’s disobedience the process of the evolution of the human race went wrong, and the course of its wrongness could neither be halted nor reversed by any human means. But in Jesus Christ the whole course of human evolution was perfectly carried out and realized in obedience to the purpose of God.” –William Barclay


“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” How often have you heard that sentiment? People love to see history as patterns. We make connections from the present to the past, as we understand family, work, strife, and wars. After all our advances and inventions, we really aren’t much different from our ancestors. Humanity still struggles with the same basic problems, and, deep down, we all still have the same basic needs—love and acceptance. This is what makes the Recapitulation Theory of Atonement attractive. Jesus’ life reflected Adam’s life. History repeats itself, but with a whole new ending.

What is it?

The Recapitulation Theory of Atonement sees the atonement of Christ as reversing the effects of the sin of Adam. Humanity moves from disobedience to obedience, from Curse to Christ. The theory was first formulated by Irenaeus in the second century. It is based on a Greek word in Ephesians 1:10, anakephalaiosasthai, which means to sum up or recapitulate. Paul says that God’s will in Christ is “the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.”

Jesus got right what Adam got wrong. Adam disobeyed God’s command concerning the tree. Jesus obeyed God, to the point of death on a tree.

One of the strengths of the Recapitulation Theory is that it expands the understanding of atonement from Christ’s death to his entire life. Many atonement theories focus on the death of Christ and see his birth, life, and teachings and mere counterparts, the part of the story only necessary to get us to the cross. But Recapitulation sees Christ’s death within the larger picture of God’s entire saving work: restoring human nature.

Another strength of this theory is the reminder that we are all connected to each other as part of the human race. While we understand salvation for individuals, and the importance of making your own individual faith commitment, it is also essential to remember that everything we do affects other people. Recapitulation emphasizes Christ’s atonement of humanity as a whole.

Scripture Support

Christ is compared to Adam in these passages:

1 Corinthians 15:21-22 “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.”

Romans 5:19 “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” (See also the entire chapter for more comparison.)

The incarnation as essential to atonement:

Philippians 2:7-8 “[Jesus] emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

The far-reaching scope of redemption:

Romans 8:19-21 “ For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

Potential Problems

While searching the internet for information about this theory I came across one website that condemned it as heresy because Jesus never sinned. However, the theory never says Jesus sinned, so their condemnation is based on misinformation.

Although a fascinating look at the interplay of incarnation and atonement, this theory isn’t quite enough to fully explain atonement. It seems like something that needs to be understood alongside another theory of atonement. Gavin Ortlund does just that is his blog. He understands Recapitulation and Satisfaction theories as compatible.


For further study, check out these websites: