Summary of article from Quaker Studies journal

I was asked to write an “executive summary” of a prescribed article as part of the job application process at a Quaker research centre. I may as well post it here…

‘Theorising A Quaker View of the Atonement’, Quaker Studies 16/1 (2011) pp. 105-123, by T. Vail Palmer, Freedom Friends Church, Oregon. A summary by John McKeown.

Atonement (the effect of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection upon sin and evil) has been understood in different ways using a variety of theoretical models. Vail Palmer argues that seventeenth century Friends regarded the crucifixion as God’s victory over evil powers, and not as the Father punishing the Son. Palmer then combines insights from recent models that prioritise nonviolence, restorative justice, and covenant renewal, to develop a Quaker theory of atonement.

Any theory of atonement should be guided by certain criteria. Ethically it must accord with justice and peace. Evangelistically it must offer hope. Methodologically it must draw on scripture, tradition, reason and experience. To be a Quaker theory it must be in harmony with early Friends’ writings. Those writings can be examined using the lens of Gustaf Aulén’s typology. He categorized theories of atonement under three broad types. From the early Church Fathers he retrieved ‘Classic’ ideas that included motifs of ransom and Jesus’ defeat of evil which he labelled Christus Victor. By the medieval period this was displaced by ‘Latin’ or forensic (legal) models, notably the Satisfaction theory of Anselm, and the penal substitution (punishment) theory associated with Calvin. Another type, the ‘Subjective’ theory, is not prominent here.

Early Quaker writings are not systematic and historians disagree about whether atonement theories can be discerned in them. Lloyd Lee Wilson and Arthur Roberts saw traces of various theories in the writings of George Fox, Robert Barclay, and William Penn. Wilson mistakenly interpreted sacrifice language in Barclay as indicating the punishment theory, but sacrifice also features in Classic ransom ideas. Roberts saw the phrase ‘debts of sin’ in Fox as suggestive of a Satisfaction model, but the picture of sin as debt can feature also in the ransom motif, and the context in Fox’s writing links it with destroying the devil and oppression. Martin Davie wrongly asserted that early Quakers regarded Jesus’ crucifixion as paying to God the penalty for sin, but Penn explicitly rejected that notion. Further, imputed righteousness (an essential ingredient of forensic theories) was explicitly opposed by Barclay and Fox.

There is evidence for Classic atonement ideas in early Quaker writings. Barclay’s few mentions of atonement feature ransom and sacrifice. As indirect evidence, victory over evil is a common theme. For example, many references to ‘Christ bruising the serpent’s head’ and releasing people from bondage to evil appear in Fox, and these are occasionally linked to atonement. A victory theme also appears in the ‘Lamb’s war’ writings of Fox, Burroughs, Nayler and others. Palmer refutes Margaret Benifiel’s claim that Classic and forensic ideas are compatible, that they are different kinds of reflection, early and late stages in an historical process of theological development. Against this he observes that recent systematisations of the Classic atonement approach havefound it to be incompatible with forensic theories.

Palmer constructs a Quaker theory of atonement coherent with a hermeneutic of reading the Bible with empathy, as practised by Fox, Margaret Fell and others. For this he appropriates the framework offered by the ‘biblical theology’ movement’s portrayal of revelation unfolding through ‘mighty acts of God’, notably the Exodus, return from Exile, and the ministry of Jesus. This vision of salvation history, and its key theme of covenant, require a model of atonement that embodies restorative justice to mend broken covenants and restore community. Classic atonement and narrative Christus Victor suit this drama, whereas forensic theories arose from a legal context and are individualistic. The penal model fails ethically for it assumes that justice is retributive punishment. Tim Gorringe claims it also had a baleful effect, a historical connection between the spread of Calvin’s theory and the rise of punitive judicial systems.

Denny Weaver developed a model of atonement as Jesus’ victory in human and cosmic realms. God’s kingdom nonviolently overthrows evil powers, both in the Gospel narratives and in the book of Revelation’s symbolic portrayal of confrontation between church and empire. The slain lamb pictures the means of victory through testimony, a peaceful witness, suffering, and the Word. The active participation of believers in this struggle echoes the early Friends’ Lamb’s war motif. In this drama, as Gregory Love states, the torture of Jesus is not designed by God but is his response to evil in history, his circumstantial will to transform the world.

That narrative Christus Victor model is extended by Palmer using ideas from the book Cross and Covenant by Larry Shelton. Atonement is mending and renewing of the covenant. Shelton extends the scope of atonement to nonhuman creation, and the renewal of all things. The new model theorises ideas in continuity with early Quakerism, for example Fox sometimes linked covenant with atonement and victory, and Dean Freiday observed that early Quakers affirmed a close relationship between atoning events in ancient Jerusalem and Friends’ present life.

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