Hauerwas Needs an Atonement Theology

Jason Micheli —  February 26, 2014 — 2 Comments

hauerwas I first heard of Stanley Hauerwas when I was in college at UVA, waiting tables at the restaurant in an upscale retirement condo complex. One of my regulars, Dr Julian Hartt, was in his 90’s. Happy to hear I was a religion major with designs on seminary, Dr Hartt made himself my fast friend. He’d been a professor of theology and philosophy at Yale for years and later began the religion department at Virginia of which I was a student.

Dr Hartt would invite me and my girlfriend, Ali, up the condo he shared with his wife Elinor, an artist. Projecting intellectual sophistication onto both of us, they’d pour us sherry and talk art, theology, culture.

8086-95369725Sipping sherry and looking at the hummingbirds gathered around his porch, Dr Hartt told me about where his former students were now and how they were ‘edifying’ the Church.

That’s when I first heard about ‘Young Stanley’ in Dr. Hartt’s bemused prodigal tone.

I didn’t really hear or think about Stanley Hauerwas until a year or two later.

I was waiting tables again.

At Princeton’s faculty lunch and I overheard some…ahem…esteemed professors talking about Stanley Hauerwas with the sort of demonstrativeness one associates with flicking a booger off their hand.

The word ‘dangerous’ was used about him. And with cursing of their own, they complained about his proclivity for a foul mouth.

Eavesdropping on them, I thought ‘I’ve got to check this guy out.’

I’ve since read nearly published word he’s written several times over. I don’t know if I would like or understand Karl Barth had I not read Hauerwas in tandem.

Monday night, I heard Stanley Hauerwas deliver a lecture in person. 1779709_649372177667_2135790934_n

I’ve read him to such an extent that I can anticipate what he’s going to say next in an essay or how he’ll answer a question from the crowd, and so on Monday night I found myself noticing not just the dots Hauerwas was connecting but the dots he left unconnected.

Namely, the atonement; that is, what Christ accomplishes through the Cross, Resurrection and Ascension.

Everything Hauerwas writes about Christian nonviolence depends upon a particular reading of the atonement. For example, the foundational statement to his view of nonviolence is this:

Nonviolence is not a strategy by which Christians attempt to rid the world of war but rather, in a world of war, as followers of Jesus Christ Christians cannot conceive of any other way to live.

That makes perfect sense to me.

I know what theological conviction produces such a statement and I can see what conclusions derive from it. But I’m not so sure it’s obvious to everyone who’s not a theology nerd or a Hauerwas fanboy.

For Hauerwas, Christian nonviolence is the clear implication of Cross and Resurrection. We’re called to nonviolence not because it’s an effective means to an end nor because Christians are utopian idealists.

In Hauerwas’ view, Christians are called to nonviolence precisely because they’re Christians.

But such a claim depends upon a particular (correct, I believe) understanding of the atonement that may not be clear to every reader or listener.

Indeed Hauerwas’ work assumes a particular understanding of the atonement that is not shared by many Christians.

In popular piety ~

The problem: Your guilt.

The solution: Jesus ‘died for you.’

The implication: Invite Jesus into your heart.

The purpose: So that you can go to heaven when you die.

What’s missing?

Easter, Ascension, Words and Work of Jesus, the Story of Israel.

Just to name a few.

Behind this popular reduction of the atonement is the understanding usually labeled ‘penal substitution.’ In this view, God became human to pay the penalty owed to God that humanity itself could not possibly pay. So Christ suffers in our place the wrath of God otherwise directed towards us. Having suffered and died the punishment deserved by us, Christ (who is 100% God and 100% human don’t forget) restores fellowship between God and humanity.

While the Church has never made any single view of the atonement the official view of the Church (there’s no mention of the atonement in the creeds), penal substitution has become one of the litmus test fundamentals in evangelical Christianity. As a consequence it’s the view that makes its way into popular piety and even the presumptions of non-Christians.

What’s important to notice is that even in its best formations, penal substitution is primarily individualistic and, in many ways, subjective in that the only thing Christ objectively changes through Cross and Resurrection is how God views us, our fellowship with God.

(But even in popular piety, God’s wrath remains against you until you accept Jesus into your heart.)

You can see why, then, saying nonviolence is the clear implication of the Cross would seem like a non sequitor to many Christians steeped in penal substitution.

But penal substitution is not the only way of reading the Gospel. Neither is it the most ancient.

There’s plenty of scripture to support a rival view to penal substitution:


God’s peace (shalom) I give.


Acts’ Sermons:

It’s the (nonviolent) faithfulness of Jesus to God all the way to a cross that defeats the power of Sin and Death. Easter and Ascension are God’s vindication of Jesus’ nonviolent way. (Easter and Ascension are not God’s way of saying we will go to heaven when we die; they’re God’s way of saying the nonviolent, crucified Messiah is now King of the nations of the Earth.



In the cross, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the power of Sin and Death have been defeated once for all. Christ unmasked the Principalities and Powers.



Christ’s sacrifice is the sacrifice God uses to end all sacrifices.



The lamb that appears as if slaughtered now rules the nations, as Revelation puts it.


There’s even a more ancient view of the atonement available: Christus Victor.

These are all latent and assumed in much of Hauerwas’ work but, to my knowledge at least, he’s never supported his central argument by leveraging a fully developed theology of the atonement which would make his conclusions clear.

I think the full force of Hauerwas’ emphasis on Christian nonviolence is lost to many readers (who assume the individualistic, transactional view of penal substitution) because he never specifies his own understanding of what Christ has accomplished.

And so, to many, his call to nonviolence seems odd, unrealistic and political rather than the most theological thing of all. And thus the most political thing of all.



Jason Micheli


2 responses to Hauerwas Needs an Atonement Theology

  1. Hey there – you are right that Hauerwas doesn’t make explain the significance of Christ’s death in terms of a theory, though he certainly relies on people who do. You might have read in some of the places that he talks about the importance of practical reason, where he repeatedly makes the point that what is most persuasive is not in simply stating a hypothesis in theoretical terms – it is rather being invited into a dance. You don’t understand the dance prior to engaging in it. You won’t really get atonement theory until you see it in use. So if he were to lay out the atonement theory you mention as one theory among others, it will be less convincing than it would be to simply see the unstated theory in action. If you talked to him one on one, he would no doubt be willing to discus penal substitution theory among its other options.

    His detractors have often lamented his reluctance to write a ‘big book’ describing his system for theology. But he has serious reasons for not doing so – it probably wouldn’t do any good.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with learning to speak about logical relationships the way you are. Only their real power is revealed in seeing them in action. And attempting to distill them to statements to be wrestled with (distilled and thus isolated from the ways of life that make them meaningful) will render them flaccid, unappealing, and unconvincing.

  2. I think this is a very good point you are making and needs to be make more often and strongly. The atonement is not one point in a theological system but lies at the very centre of Christian witness. It annoys me when people de-fuse atonement theology by talking about the multiplicity of metaphors. The ‘how’ of the atonement is directly related to the how of the Christian life and to Christian ethics. You have noted the implicit critique of penal substitution. Do you think this calls for a more coherent integration of the alternative elements you have listed. I feel this strongly the more I think about the power and influence of the post-Anselmian protestant theories.

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.