Bruce Reichenbach on the Healing Model of the Atonement
This is the third post engaging with the four models of the atonement discussed in Four Views on the Nature of the Atonement. So far the posts have covered the Christus Victor model and the Penal Substitution model, so this time allow me to introduce you to Bruce Reichenbach and the Healing model of the atonement!
In the healing view of the atonement, the wellbeing that God intends for humans to experience and enjoy is hindered by the human condition that began at the fall. This predicament is manifested in the sickness and sin that work against the vision of human flourishing (encapsulated in the Hebrew word shalom). The atonement functions as healing for us because it restores (or heals) the relationship between humans and God by means of Jesus Christ, the suffering servant, who bears our iniquities and grants forgiveness. Additionally, the punishment we deserve for our sin- a punishment often apportioned by ‘suffering, sickness and calamity’- has also now been absorbed by Jesus Christ in order for us to know and experience the full richness of shalom intended for us by God.
Bruce Reichenbach’s argument for the primacy of a healing view of the atonement focuses on the human need for healing and places significant weight on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as the textual basis for his argument. The editors of the book confess on p.21 that Reichenbach’s argument is ‘not reducible to a merely subjective approach’ (a confession born out by comparing Gustaf Aulén’s articulation of subjective theories of the atonement), but it certainly appears to be the case that Reichenbach’s chief concern is human restoration and flourishing. On one level this is hugely commendable, for the scriptures clearly bear witness to God as a healer in both the Old and New Testaments. On another level, however, I have a number of concerns with Bruce Reichenbach’s approach, some of which are theological, some hermeneutical and others pastoral.
Firstly, from a pastoral perspective, Reichenbach’s approach is confusing- if healing is in the atonement, should we not expect every person who comes to God through Christ to be healed? What happens when somebody is not healed? And if some sicknesses are the result of sin and others are not, how should one discern which is which? Secondly, from a hermeneutical perspective, Reichenbach’s insistence on the primacy of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as the bedrock for understanding the work of Christ appears to studiously ignore the multitudinous quotations and allusions to the rest of Deutero-Isaiah peppered throughout the New Testament in reference to Christ! Reichenbach claims that we are ‘hard-pressed not to see Matthew intentionally referring to the healing dimension of the atonement’ in Matthew 8:17. Matthew certainly links Jesus’ actions to Isaiah 53:4, yet can we really assume that Matthew understands Isaiah 53:4 in the exact same way that Bruce Reichenbach does? Is Matthew simply proof-texting, or is there a deeper story that he is telling in making the connection between the healing performed by Jesus and the Suffering Servant? Thirdly, Reichenbach apparently fails to see that Peter’s use of Isaiah 53 in 1 Peter 2:21-25 is not a proof-text to bolster an atonement theory but rather forms the heart of his exhortation to follow Christ’s example, which includes suffering. Finally, from a theological perspective, the eschatological dimension of healing is conspicuous by its absence in Bruce Reichenbach’s presentation. If, as Reichenbach urges us, we should avoid bifurcating Jesus’ life and death in order to see ‘Christ’s atoning work… as part of the entire incarnational event’ (p.131-2) then it follows that we must also understand healing in the light of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ are the guarantee that the whole creation- not just the human part- will be liberated from its bondage to decay.
Bruce Reichenbach did not convince me that the healing model of the atonement deserves to have primacy, and his presentation left me with far more questions than answers. In focussing on the atonement as healing for humans, Reichenbach missed the cosmic perspective of the atonement highlighted by the Christus Victor model and bypassed the holiness of God that is vital to the Penal Substitution model. Reichenbach rightly draws attention to God as a healer and the human need for healing, but in my opinion his argument fails for lack of depth and breadth.