My Dissertation: “Atonement and Ontology”

Now that I’ve completed my first full draft, I am going to share with you, my loving readers, what my actual dissertation topic is. It is entitled “Atonement and Ontology,” and the primary goal is to demonstrate that making sense of atonement theory requires what I call a social-relational ontology or at least a social anthropology. (A secondary goal is to provide a kind of negative demonstration: individualistic ontologies render the idea of salvation through the Incarnation nonsensical and arbitrary.)

The core of my approach is a reading of the figures generally agreed-upon to be pivotal in the development of atonement theory–Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, and Abelard–with a focus on the question of what it is about the ontological structure of creation and specifically of humanity that allows the problem facing humanity to arise and that renders the incarnation an effective solution to that problem. I attempt to show that all four can be read as working within the same basic ontological framework, either developing it further, reducing its scope, or both.

I begin in my first chapter by laying out what I mean by a social-relational ontology, using Bonhoeffer’s work as a way of getting at the idea that a Christianity stripped of “religion” (which I read as an individualistic ontology) will necessarily be aimed at something like community and using Nancy’s work as a way of formalizing some of the general outlines of that ontology in dialogue with Bonhoeffer. In the next two chapters, I attempt to show that the contemporary field is divided between social-relational tradition-rejecting thinkers (chapter 2) and individualistic tradition-affirming thinkers (chapter 3), opening up the space fo my social-relational tradition-affirming approach. Chapters 4 through 7 cover the four figures mentioned above in turn, bringing them into dialogue with various philosophical figures (Hegel, Nietzsche, Laclau, Butler, the Korean concept of han) in an attempt to clarify what’s going on in their texts.

Chapter 8 summarizes the results thus far, proposes a slightly altered typology of atonement theories, and then puts forward Barth and Soelle as internal critics of the two trends within the satisfaction approach to atonement and as models of a social-relational tradition-affirming constructive project (as opposed to the social-relational readings I’ve done up to this point), with a special focus on Soelle as an explicitly “religionless” reading of atonement. The final chapter provides an initial outline of the ontology implied in the atonement theories surveyed and then attempts to put forward a sketch of what a contemporary atonement theory that thematized that ontology might look like.


My current plan is to spend the rest of this month doing some concentrated revisions, then submitting it to my committee at the beginning of March to get approval to move forward with the defense and to get their initial suggestions for possible revisions. I can’t defend until early April, and in the meantime I’ll be responding to my committee’s comments, hopefully getting it into what I consider an acceptable final form, and then shopping it to potential publishers.

At this point, I am limiting the number of readers to a small circle, but if any of the instructors in the audience think that this sounds like a useful book for the classroom — think of it! a book on atonement that’s sympathetic to the tradition but isn’t by Hans Boersma! — it would be helpful if you would allow me to use your name as a reference, as assurances of classroom use are a major factor in determining whether this will be in wide release or in the “expensive copies sold exclusively to libraries and politely filed away never to be heard from again” format. (Please note that it’s written in the same accessible style as Zizek and Theology.)

23 thoughts on “My Dissertation: “Atonement and Ontology”

  1. A fairly new reader to this blog I came across this entry just now. Is the dissertation ready? Available? It seems very interesting. Btw have you ever come across swedish 19th century theologian Waldenström? He started some debate in his days by presenting a subjective atonement theology.

  2. The dissertation is finished and defended (not sure what you mean by “ready”). I am not making it available outside of a small circle of friends, though I am seeking publication.

  3. Adam, I am interested in your dissertation as it is somewhat closely related to my own (though hopefully, for my own sake, not too close). Do you know if your library already has a copy of the dissertation on the shelves? I’d like to read it both to interact with it and to make sure that I don’t have to alter the course of my own work.

  4. Adam,

    A friend directed me to this page. Your project sounds very interesting. I’ll be sure to look for it when published.

    I’m writing a dissertation on the implications of a relational ontology (in theol. anthropology) for ecclesiology. I can imagine many resonances with what you have done.

    good luck with the publication…an important work, it seems to me!

    Patrick Franklin
    McMaster Divinity College
    Hamilton, Ontario

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