A Broader Atonement

In ongoing research for a book on violence, forgiveness, and reconciliation in film, I’m looking at texts that explore Christian reflections on the the latter. I came across Andrew Sung Park‘s Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation, which provides both an informative look at a host of atonement theories and an invigorating glimpse into a refreshing theory of triune atonement, which relies heavily on the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s concern for victims, violators, and the reconciliation of animals and nature.

The strength of Park’s Triune Atonement is its accessibility. He forgoes theological jargon for straightforward descriptions and discussions of complex theological debates and tenets. As he moves through atonement theory history, so to speak, he recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of Christian reflections on salvation. In the end, though he is not as explicit about it as, say Tony Jones, Park seems to recognize that an amalgamation of each is the best approach when developing one’s own soteriology. Park’s theory does stand apart from all the rest as he gives significant attention to an often-neglected person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit…the Paraclete…an integral actor in the salvific work of God.

As I have already mentioned, Park’s devotes the first part of his book to “Atonement History,” wherein he discusses Ransom, Christus Victor, Satisfaction, Moral Influence, Penal Substitution, Last Scapegoat, and Nonviolent Narrative Christus Victor theories. He concludes this section with a brief discussion of the difficult language surrouding the symbolic power of Jesus’ blood. This section of the book is a great place for interested readers looking to broaden and deepen their understanding of Christian salvation and the diversity of perceptions of it. Far from, for example, the sinner’s prayer summing it all up, Park’s research reveals the inability of talking about a single notion of Christian salvation…a realization that might even be seeping into the most conservative corners of Christian expression.

The second part of Park’s book is the heart of the matter in which he lays out his Triune Atonement Theory and its implications for our understanding of Jesus’ atonement for victims and the oppressed, sinners and oppressors, and animals and nature (all of creation). Park relies on a Korean term, han, to describe the suffering of all of creation from which God would save us. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus experiences han and so connects with and provides salvation from our own experiences of han.

Park sees Jesus’ life and death as an alignment with the poor and oppressed. So to borrow a liberation theology phrase, God has a preferential option for them. Park understands Jesus’ cross as a prophetic challenge to the corrupt economic, political, and religious powers that so often contribute to inequality and oppression. He also makes the bold claim that Jesus’ cross restores dignity to the oppressed. Park writes, “Jesus’ cross restores victims’ integrity and dignity by repudiating the idea of a sin-punishment formula” (69). He continues, “Unlike retribution theology, Jesus says aloud on the cross that even an innocent person may experience the forsakenness of God. […] Jesus’ blood was not shed to pay human debts to God; rather, it was shed to restore the integrity of victims through God’s justice and compassion. Jesus came not to appease God’s wrath but to manifest God’s intention to restore humanity” (70).

Park’s reference to the Paraclete…the lived, crucified, and resurrected Holy Spirit…the spirit of God…is his key point. Park summarizes: “God worked for the fulfillment of the purpose of the creation from the beginning (creation continua). Jesus came for the embodiment of the salvation and liberation of the whole creation. The Paraclete continued Jesus’ salvific and liberative work. Their works for atonement are triune” (62). Focusing on this third person in the Trinity, Park describes her work, “The Paraclete plays the role of a defense lawyer, intercessor, comforter, encourager, and teacher, guiding and helping disciples in time of trials and troubles. The resurrected Jesus does not rest but continues his work of liberation, consoling, and healing through the Paraclete” (67).

God/Jesus’ preferential option for the poor is not at the exclusion of the rich and oppressors for Jesus’ cross saves them too. First, it does so by exposing the sin, violence, and evil that plague the oppressed and by rightly re-defining what sin actually is. Far from focusing on just individual acts, Park recognizes that sin is individual, collective, and social. He writes, “It is ungodly ‘composite personalities’ that control individuals, corporations, and other organizations. These appear as monopolistic capitalism, racialism, perpetual patriarchy, and undue hierarchy” (76). Later, he adds, “Recently, we have overemphasized sexual sins and have obscured other important social, political, economic, and global sins such as war, corporate greed, economic and ecological exploitation, white crime, the corrupt influence of lobbyists, and nationalism” (78). Second, it is a challenge to those sinners (all of us) to repent of our involvement in all levels of sin. Third, it provides the avenue for justification by faith. Park writes, “Sinners are justified by faith alone. Faith means to accept God’s unconditional forgiveness and acceptance. Justification by faith transpires when the sinners or oppressors accept the fact that Jesus, who represents their victims, died on the cross because of their sin and that they need to turn away from sin and to turn to God and their victims” (91). Park also boldly concludes that the meaning of salvation is not a pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by assurance but a transformative experience that we can enjoy in the here and now. Park proclaims, “Salvation should be more than achieving a certain secure state of life or beyond life. It is more than the freedom from sin and destruction. The essence of salvation is not to obtain something but to live with God. In other words, it is our freedom to choose to be with God. When we are with God, all other things become secondary” (92).

This leads Park to his final point about the atonement work of Jesus, which is directed toward animals and nature and the reconciliation of all creation. He shows, through both Old and New Testament examples, God’s concern for all of creation and the effects of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection on it. Park writes, “The ecological motif is the way of thinking that every creature shall enjoy the glorious liberation of God. This motif is seen in the dynamics of Hebraic faith, the apocalyptic proclamation of Jesus, and the apocalyptic theology of Paul and the Pauline authors of Colossians and Ephesians” (97). Park expands our thinking to show the cosmic, and not just human, effects of Jesus’ atoning work. Park’s claim that we “transcend humanocentrism” ushers in a host of implications for how we live here and now. He forces us to ask a foundational question: do we bless or curse the earth with our behavior? Not surprisingly, Park argues that we should follow in the steps of Jesus, who “does not show us a god of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression but reveals to us a God of care, mercy, and compassion for the whole creation who feeds sparrows and clothes the lilies of the field” (107).

Like Miroslav Volf, whose The End of Memory I recently reviewed, Park writes and proclaims boldly. Not only is Triune Atonement a challenging and informative read, it is also exciting (if works of theology can be so defined!) and uplifting. Read it and be inspired!