Locating the Atonement at the LA Theology Conference, 2015

Oliver D. Crisp
These days discussion of the doctrine of atonement is often bogged down in typologies. Which model of atonement do you hold? Where does it "fit" in relation to other models? Is there one model that rules them all, or are there many different models that each capture something of the truth of the atoning work of Christ that cannot be comprehended by any single atonement model? Important though these questions are, discussion that proceeds along these lines can sometimes sound a little stale. For this reason when Fred Sanders and I were thinking about the theme for the 2015 Los Angeles Theology Conference held on the campus of Biola University last week on 15-16th January, we decided we wanted to reframe the discussion. Instead of models of atonement, the focus would be the location of the atonement relative to other Christian doctrines. Where should one place the notion of atonement in theology? How does it relate to things like divine attributes, or the Trinity, or creation, or the wrath of God? These are some of the questions that were raised and discussed in the five plenary papers and nine breakout presentations that comprised the main conference sessions. The result was a slew of high quality doctrinally-focused papers that (by all accounts) made for an exciting and intellectually enriching third annual LA Theology Conference.

Not that there was no discussion of models of atonement. There were such discussions, and some papers waded in on modelling atonement, and on rightly understanding a given model, with an eye to the wider scheme of salvation. This year the conference opened with a short act of worship led by Torrey Institute professor, Matt Jenson. Then the prolific Matthew Levering of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago kicked off proceedings with a careful and nuanced paper entitled "Atonement and Creation." He was followed in the evening of the first day of the conference by Ben Myers from Charles Stuart University in Sydney Australia, well-known to many readers through his blog Faith and Theology. Ben spoke about "Atonement and the Image of God," providing in the course of his talk a corrective to recent views about patristic notions of atonement from the likes of non-violent atonement activists like Denny Weaver, as well as those for whom Fathers like St Athanasius present embryonic versions of later satisfaction or penal substitution accounts of Christ's work. In between these two plenary sessions were two breakout sessions. The first covered such themes as Christ's descent to the dead; Atonement and shame; and the cross and the external works of the Trinity, a paper by Adonis Vidu of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which was particularly good. The second dealt with atonement, punishment and retribution; atonement and dyothelitism (i.e. the claim that Christ had two wills, one divine, the other human); and Atonement and covenant.

The first day was a resounding success, with much to talk about and high expectations from the second day. It too proved to be a smorgasbord of fine presentations. Bruce McCormack of Princeton Seminary began the day by speaking on "Atonement and Human Suffering." It was a stimulating, and characteristically trenchant talk, with a lively Q&A afterwards. Then Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary, Escondido, CA, tackled "Atonement and Ascension" in a dense and carefully argued presentation that built on some of his earlier work and upon the theology of John Calvin. Lunch was followed by a third breakout session including talks on divine wisdom and salvation; atonement as an act of faith; and atonement and divine wrath. This was followed by the fifth and final plenary paper by Eleonore Stump of St Louis University on "Atonement and Eucharist." Her paper was certainly a highlight; her ability to field questions with disarming ease and penetration being widely comment upon. The conference ended with a panel discussion, something that has been a part of the LA Theology Conference from its inception. As with previous panels, this too proved to be a time of engagement between plenary speakers, as well as an opportunity to interact with questions from conference participants. Fred Sanders closed the conference in prayer.

It is a great privilege to be a part of this blossoming of dogmatic theology in LA. Not only is this a regional conference with an international profile. (Speakers this year came from Australia, Europe, and New Zealand, as well as the USA.) It is also a place at which serious theology is showcased and discussed, and where shorter papers from younger as well as more established scholars can be heard. The quality of discussion between sessions, and at meals is, in many ways, a microcosm of the conference as a whole: serious and yet fun; scholarly, and yet engaged with the church; challenging, and yet encouraging and spiritually uplifting. I also venture to say that in its third year the conference is beginning to establish itself, find its own voice, become a place at which particular theological voices (old and new) are expected to be heard. It felt less like a conference finding its feet and more like a conference that had something to contribute and knew what it was about--just what its conveners had hoped for way back in 2013 when it was first conceived.

The venue at Biola is in many ways ideal for a January meeting. The campus is, as at least one participant put it, "very Californian." Modern, open, clean, leafy, pleasant surroundings make it easier to think high falutin' thoughts. The spectacular SoCal sunshine doesn't hurt either. It is a great boon that Biola University's leadership have seen the value of this enterprise and invested in it for two of the three years in which the LATC has taken place. The other sponsoring institution is, of course, Fuller Theological Seminary over the other side of LA from La Mirada where Biola is located, in leafy Pasadena. LATC 2016 will meet there, and the topic this time will be "The Voice of God in the Text of Scripture." Plenary speakers include Richard Hays from Duke Divinity School; John Goldingay from Fuller; William Abraham from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University; Amy Plantinga Pauw from Louisville Theological Seminary; and Daniel Treier from Wheaton College. It promises to be a fitting sequel to the third conference, with an array of biblical and theological speakers that are sure to make it as unmissable as the one just passed.

And, to give readers a sneak peak of what is to come, future themes include the task of dogmatics itself in 2017 that ties in with the launch of Zondervan Academic's New Studies in Dogmatics Series, and theological anthropology (the doctrine of human creatures) in 2018, with more themes in the works for succeeding years as well.

If the success of the LA Theology Conference is anything to go by, the age of ecumenical, dogmatic theology alive to the riches of the Christian tradition, and to contemporary restatement of central theological themes--what is often called "theological theology"--is far from over. It is alive and well, and flourishing in (of all places!) Southern California.