The May issue of CT contains an article "Nothing But the Blood" by Mark Dever. Dever notes a resurgence in alternate views of the atonement, alternate that is to substitutionary atonement. A facination with alternate views can be picked up in some of the "emergent" writers. In their desire to see more community they seem to edge away from people becoming Christians as individuals, and want to attach that to a view of the atonement that presents as something other than individuals having their sins forgiven. Some of the historic alternate views are: Christus Victor, Christ won the battle over principalities and powers -- usually read with a demythologized hermeneutic as sociologically principalities and powers, i.e., powerful social structures and contructs which enslave people, especially the poor and powerless, but which could as well be read from a supernaturalist hermeneutic as demonic forces; and variations of the moral influence theory -- that in viewing the cross we realize that God really loves us and so we want to be more like God.
Dever is right when he asks: "...why pit these theories against each other and discount, ignore, or diminish biblical language that describes the death of Christ?" That all the various theories have some biblical support was presented so well by Roger Nicole in his chapter "The Nature of Redemption" in Christian Faith and Modern Thought (ed. Carl F. H. Henry, 1964). Nicole lists six key terms that describe atonement and shows that they are all interconnected: Sacrifice, Reconciliation; Propitiation; Battlefield; Purchase; and Court of Law.
I believe that each of these is important, but if there is one that is the keystone it is propitiation. Unless there is propitiation the demands of the court of law are not met, we are not redeemed (I reject the notion that it was Satan who was paid -- no, it was God the Father), and no reconciliation. Because their was propitiation there was indeed a victory over demonic powers, not because they were paid off, but because their right of access is removed. And, there is moral influence, because I am in awe that such a price was paid and I understand that it places me under obligation to the one who paid it.
But, if propitiation is not what happened, then I beg someone to give to me a phenomonology -- a pure description -- of the dynamics of what did occur. How exactly does it work that the death of this perfect man defeated the evil powers -- be they demythologized sociological structures or whatever, or supernatural demonic forces. And more, if there is no propitiation, then why would I ever see the cross as a sign of God's love. I would join those who would see it as a horror, a kind of cosmic child abuse. And, by the way, I have always hated the illustration of the man who let his son be ground up in the gears of a draw bridge to save the passenger train for that very reason. It is not atonement.
Without propitiation we either romanticize the cross, or we dismiss the cross and fall into legalism, or some kind of combination of both. I wonder if some of the problems that the emergent writers are concerned with actually arise out of evangelicalisms losing its grip on the meaning of the cross as substitution rather than the opposite.