Does the United Methodist Church endorse a theory of atonement?
I’ve often been told that the UMC has never canonized a single theory of atonement. We view all theories as contributing part of the overall understanding of what Christ accomplished on the cross.
But is that really true? Are all ways of talking about the atonement in keeping with United Methodist doctrine? Here are words from our Book of Discipline’s section on doctrinal standards that interpret the meaning of the the cross.1
From Article II of the United Methodist Articles of Religion:
“The Son … who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.”
From Article VII of the United Methodist Confession of Faith:
“We believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The offering Christ freely made on the cross is the perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, redeeming man from all sin, so that no other satisfaction is required.”
I’m not sure that either or both of these fit with one of the well known theories of atonement, but they do appear to set out some basic building blocks.
Jesus Christ was a sacrifice, according to both of these, a sacrifice for sin. His sacrifice redeemed humanity. The synonyms for “redeem” include ransom, rescue, save, and deliver. By this sacrifice the Father was reconciled to us. The Father was put back in friendship or harmony with us, to use the dictionary definition of reconcile.2 This sacrifice served as satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.
I’m still learning about atonement theories, but it appears that any United Methodist discussion of atonement must be one that can accommodate notions of sacrifice, redemption, reconciliation, and satisfaction.
1 Of course, moral influence theory (among others?) does not focus solely on the cross, but generally the death of Christ is considered important to understanding atonement.
2 Morgan Guyton points out that this is an interpretation from the language in the Articles of Religion in which the Father is reconciled to us. The language in the Confession of Faith differs. It says God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. How that differs from the Articles creates a field of meanings within which the UM conversation should take place. At least it seems to me.