Proclaiming atonement : a study of atonement, metaphors, and Christian preaching.
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Brown, Trevor N.
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The content of the gospel is formational for the life of the church. If the church can speak more fully and fluently about the decisive moment in salvation history, it has much to gain. Yet, this has proven to be no simple task. Despite its resting place at the center of Christian theology, the doctrine of atonement is marked by historic irresolution. Preachers and parishioners alike struggle to convey how and why the death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross brings salvation to humankind. Language of Christ’s saving work appears pushed to its limits, with some seeking untenable narrowness and others embracing muddled abstractions. Yet, Christian scriptures provide various necessary, complimentary ways of articulating the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus Christ. Language about the cross is shown to be multi-dimensional. Metaphor is revealed as the best way to think and speak about atonement. This project identifies and explores the variety of metaphors employed throughout the Bible and Christian history to explain God’s saving work in Christ. In light of ongoing debates and recent postmodern critiques, this project considered how preachers might use language that avoids pitfalls of confusion and reductionism. Through an analysis of thirty recent sermons from Baptist churches in Texas, the project provided findings concerning the current use of atonement metaphors in preaching and suggested emphases for future proclamation. Primary findings included: 1) sermons exhibited a diversity of metaphors, 2) ransom and redemption metaphors appeared most often, 3) penal language was rarely connected with explicit retributive justice, and 4) atonement language and metaphors were frequently conflated incoherently. Secondary findings revealed: 1) sermons frequently interpreted the atonement through other biblical texts, 2) atonement was explained almost exclusively in terms of the individual’s relationship to God and self, and 3) sermons revealed forgiveness as an atonement term of choice. The findings of this research call for greater clarity in the gospel message today and empower the church to consider what proclaiming atonement to one’s neighbor will mean tomorrow.