Yesterday, I wrote a post about Derek Fisher and substitutionary atonement. To be honest, the real impetus for the post came from the feelings of latent hostility that I hold towards Derek Fisher for his role in the Oklahoma City Thunder's loss the night before. Since I also have latent hostility towards substitutionary atonement (nerd hate!), I thought the two would be a nice pairing.
However, in the comments yesterday my brilliant friend Lane Severson pointed out that while my post had done away with this particular brand of atonement theory, I had left nothing in it's place.
As I pondered the implications of that comment, and tried to articulate my own views on atonement theory (I assume this is what all the cool kids do, right?), a new analogy came to mind with a familiar character at the center.
That's right! It's time for Derek Fisher and Atonement Theory Part 2! When you get the chance to simultaneously discuss a relatively obscure basketball player and nerd out on some theoretical theology, you just can't let that opportunity pass you by.
It seems that replacing substitutionary atonement is almost as difficult as it is to replace Derek Fisher. Come with me as a tell you the story of a magical land called Los Angeles in the mid-2000's.
Derek Fisher was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996. Over the next eight years, Fisher would be the starting point guard of a team that would win three NBA championships. Fisher wasn't the best player, in fact he wasn't anywhere close to the best player. He was a role player who did his job adequately and quietly.
In 2004, Fisher became a free agent and Los Angeles decided that they no longer needed Fisher and his adequate, but not outstanding play. He left to go play for another team and the Lakers replaced him with...well, they didn't really replace him at all. Over the next three years, the Lakers started the likes of Chucky Atkins, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Smush Parker as their point guard. It's unlikely you've heard of them, and if you have, I'm so very sorry.
Eventually the Lakers discovered that the best replacement for Derek Fisher was Derek Fisher and they resigned him for the 2007 season. The Lakers won two more titles with Derek Fisher being his adequate self on the court every night. And then the Lakers decided to move on and they replaced him with...Steve Blake and the Artist Formerly Known As Steve Nash. That hasn't gone particularly well either.
My point is that while Fisher wasn't a star, and by many accounts wasn't even that good during much of his time as the Lakers point guard, he was the right player for that role. He filled the role effectively and helped his team to function properly. Each time the Lakers decided to move on they found that Fisher was surprisingly difficult to replace.
In A Community Called Atonement, Scot McKnight points out that all of the different atonement theories are useful when they are placed in the correct context. Like Fisher, atonement theory, whether substitutionary atonement, Christus Victor, or any other, is a role player that helps to make the team better.
Perhaps I was too quick to dismiss substitutionary atonement yesterday because it doesn't fill that role for me or for my community. However, just because it isn't the right role player for my team doesn't mean that it can't play a role on someone else's.
There is no Kobe Bryant of atonement theory. There is no superstar atonement theory which answers every question succinctly and drives the theological thinking of everything surrounding it. Maybe that's where my hostility towards substitutionary atonement really comes from. It's not that the theory isn't useful, it's that it's being asked to do too much.
It would be like asking Derek Fisher to be Kobe Bryant. It's impossible and will ultimately wilt under the pressure of being asked for more than it can give.
I may not have a succinct answer to how God saves us, or what precisely the crucifixion or resurrection mean, because that answer can shift on a daily basis. Today it may mean that Jesus died for my sins, and tomorrow it may mean that he was resurrected for my future. Next week it may mean neither, or maybe it will mean both.
We'll just have to find a theory to fit the role. Like Derek Fisher.
Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.
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