I have long been associated with Renovaré, an international ecumencial institute founded by Foster to, well, foster the practice of the disciplines. As anyone who has heard me teach on practicing the disciplines of the Christian life can attest, I always begin by pointing out the connection between the words discipline and disciple. All disciples have a master. For Christians our Master is Jesus Christ, but there are throughout the Christian tradition masters and mistresses of the spiritual life, which is nothing other than life in Christ. These women and men do not only demonstrate that it is possible to live this way (i.e., as a disciple of the Lord Jesus), but they teach us how. Willard is one such person.
Yesterday I received the latest issue of Conversations, which is the journal of Renovaré. This is always exciting for me, just like when Traces shows up either at the Cathedral rectory or in my mailbox at home. The theme addressed in the current issue of Conversations is How We Change, or how God transforms us through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. There are many points of convergence between Communion and Liberation and the approach of those involved with Renovaré (keep in mind that the first thing I ever read by Msgr. Giussani was He is if he changes).
In this issue Dallas Willard is interviewed by Gary Moon. The interview begins with a discussion of the main theories of atonement. As Christians we believe that by dying on the cross Christ atoned for our sins. Various atonement theories have tried to explain how His death works to atone, to make amends, for our sins. The main historical theories are Ransom, Satisfaction/Penal Substitution, and Moral Influence. Wisely, Willard sees that each of these theories offer us an important insight into understanding what Christ did for us, but that none of the theories are capable of explaining this aspect of the Paschal Mystery completely. Willard begins by pointing out how these theories have caused division in the Body of Christ, which is needless and pointless. He continues by saying that "there is an objective pull here, and that objective pull is that Christ died for our sins. Now, that is the fact that each of the theories tries to explain, and when you have to deal with a stubborn fact, then your theories have a limited range." So, one is foolish to think that a theory with a necessarily limited range can satisfactorily explain a cosmos-altering event, like Christ's sacrificial death.
More importantly he emphasizes that we cannot severe Christ's death from either His life or His resurrection, which is the effect of any undue focus on any theory of atonement. Otherwise, we "tend to see [His] death as an isolated aspect of His life." We run into error when we take any one of these theories, or all of them together, as definitive, which, as Willard observes, "is the underlying mistake when you try to take a fact and force a theory onto it," which is "attractive because human beings want to control the fact, and they do that by developing an image or theory that makes sense to them, given the whole background of their ideas and social realities." In other words, there is the constant temptation to reduce faith to our measure. Even a cursory study of the development of doctrine in the Church will reveal that heresy most often consists of mistaking a part for the whole, or at the very least putting undue emphasis on some aspect of faith. Stated simply, heresy is most often a reduction of one kind or another.
Willard wraps up this part of the interview with this keen insight- "I think you are always going to be troubled if you stay at the level of theories, even if you have several good ones, because atonement is, in the last analysis, a matter of our fellowship with Christ, the person."