I base my understanding of Forde’s atonement views on his essay “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ.” This essay is not an exhaustive theological work (thankfully), but a relatively short essay. Actually, it’s more like a very long sermon.
Forde introduces the essay by briefly discussing the shortcomings of the three most prevalent atonement theories - vicarious satisfaction, moral influence and the victory motif. But as he goes through these, I sense he is in a bit of a hurry. He is on his way to the “brute reality” of the cross itself - the actual event and our involvement with it. This is the main focus of his essay, and the atonement theories are but the path he uses to get there.
So while Forde does not expend much energy debating or debunking the major theories, it is clear they don’t much impress him. He dismisses them as insufficient to prove the necessity for Christ’s death (which may not need proving). More importantly he argues that atonement theories can distract us from the message of the cross, obscuring the very thing they are designed to explain.
“Indeed, the fatal flaw in most thinking about the atoning work of Christ is the tendency to look away from the actual events, translate them into “eternal truths,” and thus to ignore or obscure what actually happened and our part in it. We interpret Christ’s death as though it were an idea, a necessary part of a logical scheme of some sort, as though God were tied to a scheme of honor or justice making him the obstacle to our reconciliation. We exonerate ourselves, so to speak, by blaming the necessity for the cross on God.”
With this he begins to explain his complaint concerning the vicarious satisfaction view of atonement.
“..it is maintained that God needed the death of Jesus in order to be able to be merciful to us. God is the object of the atoning act. The demands of his law, or wrath, or justice had to be “satisfied.” So we are exonerated because the cross was necessary to God. But the inevitable consequence of such thinking is that it doesn’t finally reconcile us to God. If the cross is necessary to pay God, God will be pictured as at worst a rather vindictive tyrant demanding his pound of flesh or at best an inept subordinate caught in the same inexorable net of law and justice as we are. The theory intended to foster reconciliation actually contributes to further alienation.”
“The persistent criticism of doctrines of vicarious satisfaction and substitutionary atonement since the enlightenment have the same root. The picture painted of God is too black, too contrary to the biblical witness. If the death was payment, how could reconciliation be an act of mercy? Mercy is mercy, not the result of payment. If God is by nature love and mercy, why could he not just up and forgive? Jesus, it seems, forgave sins before his death. Why then was the death necessary? The logic of the theory threatens the very thing it wants to promote: the mercy of God.”
Forde, of course, is not the first to question the doctrine of vicarious satisfaction. As I understand the historic criticism, it is rooted in the rather straightforward logic that grace and mercy cannot be made dependent on payment or satisfaction, else grace and mercy cease to be.
Forde does not dwell on this problem, but is moving on toward his main point. First, however, he quickly deals with the two other popular atonement theories.