Some think that if we believe in a theory of the atonement we believe a good-enough theory of the atonement. After all, atonement theories are just theories. So just pick a theory, and you’re as doctrinally astute as Jesus. At least that’s the thought pattern. Further, to disagree is to be divisive. Saying one theory is true while others are false is to divide the church. Instead, we should “humbly” accept the theory that all theories are good enough. I disagree with all of that, and I’ll show why below. Some theories are nonsense, some theories are sneaky, some are diametrically opposed to truth, and all theories require discernment. Just because it’s a theory doesn’t mean it’s a true theory. Just because it’s a theory doesn’t mean it’s only a theory.
For starters, if we apply that logic consistently, it gets wildly crazy. Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that Dr. Dairymoon from Milkinglight Seminary develops the Lunar Fromagerie Theory of the Atonement (LFTA). He believes unequivocally that Christ died for sinners, that God forgives sinners, and that God is not angry with sinners who believe. But the good doctor theorizes that for sinners to be forgiven the moon must be turned to cheese, and, therefore, the reason Christ died is to turn the moon to cheese so sinners can be forgiven. It could pass as a theory about the atonement, after all. Is it wrong? I believe so. But if you believe that all atonement theories are equal then the LFTA is equal to all atonement theories, including yours. So, just because someone says it’s an atonement theory doesn’t mean it is a true theory. Some theories are lies.
Saying that all theories are equal is a sneaky little trick. It is a sly way to move the goal posts. Again, going to the hypothetical, let’s say Dr. Postmoderntheologian from the Seminary of the Zeitgeist develops the Equality of All Atonement Theories Theory (EAATT). In doing so, he offers no reasons other than that many people disagree over theories and he’s morally superior because he’s not divisive like the rest. He believes in all theories, all theories about theories, and even in all theories about theories about theories. Essentially, he makes the rules, judges the others, and thus renders himself morally superior to all the divisive theorizers. Dr. Postmoderntheologian presents himself as the true loving unifier. In reality, he’s only developed another theory, but it’s a theory about theories and is vacuous of anything Scriptural. It’s just a sneaky way of developing a theory that looks better than other theories.
Another problem is that some theories are opposed to other theories. For example since the rise of theological liberalism, Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) has become a favourite whipping boy for all the other theorizers. Some talk about Moral Influence Theory. They reason that Christ did not die to propitiate God, but rather to influence us positively morally. Of course, they are right to note that Christ’s death should motivate our actions, but they are wrong to deny PSA. Christ died as a penal substitute, which was an act of God’s love, which teaches us about love, which influences us morally. PSA is foundational for Christ’s moral influence over us. Or take for example the Governmental Theory. It reasons that Christ did not pay for sins, but that He only suffered to show that when God’s laws are broken a payment must be made. They are right to note that payment must be made, but they are wrong to dismiss Christ as necessary payment. Within the Moral Influence and Government Theories we find truth. But that truth is coupled with denial of foundational truth. Even the (not-so?) hypothetical EATT from the previous paragraph denies the claims of other theories. If EATT is right, then the PSA, Governmental, and Moral Influence Theories cannot be. Some theories are deficient. Some theories are opposed to other theories.
A major problem comes with the word, theory. When we see that word, theory, we tend to dismiss it as just a theory, as in simply an innovation of fallen men. But we shouldn’t. Some theories are true. Some theories are lies. Not all theories are equal. “Some theorize that I didn’t give the money, but I theorize that I did,” Ananias could have reasoned. Or, “Some theorize that worshipping golden calves is sin, but I theorize that it’s all good and we should never divide over mere theories,” Aaron could have rationalized. “Some theorize that God said don’t eat of that tree, but I theorize that God’s Word is not authoritative,” Satan could have argued. Not all theories are equal. Some are true. Some are lies. Some are purely evil.
Having a theory about the atonement is not necessarily a good thing. There are all kinds of theories out there, and even some theories about theories. We should test all theories against facts, and after testing we should discern truth. And in order to discern truth we look to the Scriptures. I happen to believe that PSA is the unifier of all other implications of the atonement.