Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole of Creation

[1] Andrew Sung Park is one of a handful of theologians in the U.S. who have tried to bring the Korean understanding of han into Christian doctrine. He is a Korean-American theologian who thinks that in order for Christianity to become more intelligible, it must rely upon non-Western sources as well as Western ones.

[2] Park is best known for his 1992 monograph, entitled The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of ‘Han’ and the Christian Doctrine of Sin in which he argued for a re-envisioning of Christian doctrines of sin in light of the experience of those who are the “sinned-against.” In short, the Christian Churches need to make a distinction between those who primarily are sinners and those who primarily are “sinned-against.” Park pointed out that all women and men are a mixture of sinner and “sinned-against.” Nevertheless, Park thinks that in order to take the depth and prevalence of sin seriously, Church doctrine must distinguish between the salvation that God offers to sinners and the liberation God offers to the “sinned-against.” The key distinction, for Park, is between the human experiences of sin and han.

[3] For Park, han is essentially untranslatable yet he attempts to describe it through phrases such a “wounded heart,” “bitter resentment,” and “frustrated hope”, as well as narratives of exploited workers, sexual abuse victims, and Holocaust survivors. Han is a deep woundedness that festers within the mind, body, and spirit of violated and exploited women and men that has its major roots in the structural sins of racism, classism, and sexism. It is a kind of black hole in the soul with tremendous energy that either leads to healing, reconciliation, and action for justice or destruction, mental illness, and interpersonal, cultural, and political violence. It is a “frozen energy” that must be resolved and will unravel. The question is not if it will unravel, but when and how it will unravel and what the consequences of this will be.

[4] This understanding of sin and han provides the foundation for Park’s most recent monograph, Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole of Creation (2009). Here, he continues his work with han by bringing it into dialogue with the role of the cross in God’s saving work. His guiding questions are these: “It is true that since Jesus came to the world we have not seen true peace, but rather much violence. [So] what does Jesus’ cross bring to humanity? What does it do for us? How does it save us from our sins?” (v).

[5] Park’s answer is God’s work of Triune Atonement, in which all of creation is reconciled in the life, cross, resurrection, and post-resurrection work of Jesus the Christ. He defines atonement in a literal way—“at-one-ment”—that implies the wholeness and reconciliation of God, humans, and the ecological environment into a relationship of shalom.

[6] Park argues that the symbol of the cross, when interpreted in conjunction with the Trinitarian God, manifests the brokenness of humankind and all of creation and its need for “atonement.” Park argues that in the Christian symbol of the cross sinners find salvation from their sins, the sinned-against find liberation from their han, and the ecological environment finds healing from its disruption by humankind. In other words, Park argues that sinners are saved because of the cross and the sinned-against despite the cross. Atonement, through Christ, is for victims to be free from han and violators to be free from sin.

[7] Park’s argument proceeds in two main sections. In Section One, he critiques seven different theories of atonement: the Ransom Theory in which Jesus’ death is God’s ransom to the devil to set humankind free (exemplified in various excerpts from Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine); the Christus Victor Theory in which Jesus is a military leader who leads the final battle against evil, particularly through the cross (illustrated primarily by Gustaf Aulen, but also in excerpts from Justin Martyr and Irenaeus); the Satisfaction Theory of Anselm in which God offers God’s self as infinite payment for the infinite offense caused by humankind’s original sin; the Moral Influence Theory of Peter Abelard (and Clement of Alexandria) in which Jesus’ crucifixion is a shocking act of love that demands repentance from sin and conversion to the Gospel; the Penal Substitution Theory (also known as Substitutionary Atonement) of John Calvin in which Jesus takes the place of humankind as the object of God’s wrath; the Last Scapegoat Theory of Rene Girard in which Jesus’ death is meant to end the cycle of mimetic violence through becoming the ultimate scapegoat to undo the cycle; and the Nonviolent Narrative Christus Victor Theory of J. Denny Weaver in which God nonviolently confronts and triumphs over evil through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Although Park’s treatment of each theory is brief, he effectively offers a critical assessment of each regarding its strengths and weaknesses. He finds all of these theories lacking in their ability to fully account for God’s work achieved through the cross and in particular with each theory’s inability to account for the experiences of the victims rather than the violators.

[8] In Section Two, Park lays out his theory of Triune Atonement that first accounts for the atoning work of liberating the oppressed and the victims and secondly accounts for the atoning work of salvation for sinners. With regard to the cross, Park thinks that it is a symbol of salvation for sinners and liberation for the sinned-against. The horror of the cross and the blood of Christ confront sinners with the consequences of their sinning. Simultaneously, the cross illustrates the han of the sinned-against and of the ecological environment.

[9] Park, however, offers a brief interlude between Part One and Part Two in a reflection upon the symbolic power of the blood of Jesus. Park is fully aware of the violence and theological abuse that has been perpetuated due to a rigid and literal focus upon the blood of Jesus spilt during the crucifixion. At the same time, he thinks the blood is a symbol with at least two interconnected meanings. He writes, “for the oppressed, Jesus’ blood as a symbol participates in the agony of their suffering under unjust persecution, exploitation, oppression, and violence…Jesus’ blood represents God’s pierced heart for the sinned-against.” He continues, “…To the oppressors, Jesus’ blood symbolizes the protest, confrontation, and challenge of the oppressed and of God. Like Abel’s blood, Jesus’ blood cries out from the ground until its voice is heard. It has the extraordinary strength to open up the cruelty of injustice, violence, vice, and evil—to unlock the oppressors’ hearts of stone” (36).

[10] Section Two of Park’s book offers both its greatest contribution and a weakness in need of further development. Regarding the former, Park’s discussion of the post-resurrection work of the Paraclete is excellent. He points out that the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete has carried on the atoning work begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

[11] In Park’s view, the Paraclete is the key for understanding the way in which the cross symbolizes atonement, salvation, and liberation. For Park, the cross by itself may symbolize liberation and salvation, but it does not do so in isolation. Rather, it is the connection of the cross to Jesus’ life, resurrection, and post-resurrection atoning work through the Paraclete. Park thinks that the concrete healing of the victims and the victimizers in this world is rooted in the ongoing, post-resurrection work of the Spirit of the Risen Christ. The Paraclete knows han well because s/he, as part of the Trinity, was united with Jesus and experienced his life, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Paraclete has been sent by Jesus into the world and makes Jesus present in a ministry of post-resurrection healing.

[12] As he writes

The Paraclete knows the depth of the wounds of the afflicted (han) because of his or her own experience of han. Some wounds within us are too deep to detect. Most of us are not fully aware of the wounds to our own soul. The Holy Spirit, the wounded healer, understands the magnitude of our han. The Paraclete searches our depths, knows our own unknowable and indescribable hurts of han, and heals them in us as we open ourselves to the Paraclete. The Paraclete alone is the Spirit that knows the deep inner groaning of suffering. ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ (Rom 8:26). The ‘sighs too deep for words’ are han. Such wounds within us are too deep to heal. The Paraclete who experienced the crucifixion and the resurrection with Jesus groans with us and heals us in compassion

The Paraclete as the extension of Jesus’ resurrection has concretized God’s healing on earth. The Paraclete walks with victims and uplifts them every day. God’s reign through the Paraclete has come in the midst of this world’s troubles and tragedies. The Paraclete is the Spirit that is at work in the community (68).

[13] Regarding the latter, a weakness in Park’s book is in his treatment of the Triune Atonement in connection to the han of animals and nature. Park’s final section of Part Two is focused upon this topic and shows an impressive intention to connect ecological degradation and human abuse of nature and animals to the same work of Triune Atonement that offers liberation to the sinned-against and salvation to sinners. Moreover, Park provides a good description of this pressing 21st century problem, the issues it raises for soteriology, and connects it to the Old and New Testament visions of God creating all things with love and dignity.

[14] He falls short, however, by insufficiently integrating the han of animals and the ecological environment with the Triune Atonement begun by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and continued by the Paraclete. The atonement theories in Section One focus primarily upon the relationship between the terrible atrocity and scandal of the cross and the shedding of Christ’s blood with the relationship between God and humankind. The cross remains at the center of these theories and although Park’s own proposal provides a broader view beyond just the cross, he has not made a sufficient connection between the atoning role of the cross and the healing of the ecological environment.

[15] Park provides some helpful insights into this problem. For example, he writes, “…Jesus as the crucified image of God symbolically suffers with the polluted earth and with inhumanely treated animals. Jesus’ cross also symbolizes the hope of animals’ tomorrow as the rainbow of Noah promises God’s blessings upon the descendants of those animals. Jesus is the restoration of God’s creation, and his cross points to God’s unchanging care for the whole of creation” (107). Park remains theologically astute and insightful but does not offer the level of integration of ecological han into the Triune Atonement as he does with sinners and sinned-against human beings.

[16] Despite this minor flaw, Park’s book deserves serious attention and a wide readership and is a worthy addition to any personal or academic library. Triune Atonement is a short work (130 pages) but continues his unique project of integrating han into Christian doctrine and demonstrating how han changes the dynamics and foci of the traditional doctrines, of sin, salvation, and the atonement. Park has provided a better understanding not only of atonement and han but also of how intercultural theological dialogue challenges traditional articulations of doctrine while remaining true to the Christian tradition.

Kevin Considine

Kevin Considine is Assistant Professor of Theology at Calumet College of St. Joseph (Whiting, IN). He is the author of Salvation for the Sinned-Against: ‘Han’ and Schillebeeckx in Intercultural Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015). His research has been published in Black Theology: An International Journal, Horizons, New Theology Review, and Tijdschrift voor Theologie (online).