The Ascension and Atonement: Johannes Cocceius and John Owen Respond to Socinian Ideas of Christ’s Atonement

A fracas has broken out in Hebrews studies. The skirmish is over the where and when of atonement: Is Christ’s atonement achieved exclusively on the cross, or does Christ’s atoning death follow the pattern of levitical sacrifice that begins with the slaughter of the victim (Christ on the cross) and ends with the presentation of the blood by the priest (Christ presenting an offering in the heavenly tabernacle)? This latter approach, since it includes a sequence of events, might be called a sequence approach. Yet, there are multiple kinds of sequence approaches that have varying understandings of how atonement relates to each step and/or to the whole of the sequence. The skirmish resulted from Michael Kibbe’s 2014 article “Is It Finished?” in the Journal of Theological Studies, where he labels sequence approaches “the Socinian view.” Socinus locates Christ’s atoning work almost exclusively in the heavenly tabernacle after the ascension, leaving little atoning impact for Christ’s earthly death on the cross. Due to Socinian notions of atonement and Christology, David Moffitt—Kibbe’s primary mark—took umbrage with the Socinian moniker, and a scrap ensued. Two seventeenth century Reformed exegetes—Johannes Cocceius and John Owen—can help reframe the modern debate. These two scholars were contemporaries of Socinian thinkers and authors, and they both wrote commentaries on Hebrews, in which they went to great lengths to differentiate their views from the contemporary, Socinian views. These two function as interesting case studies, because their detailed exegesis of Hebrews responds and reacts to Socinian claims throughout, elaborating what they consider valid readings of Scripture and what leads recklessly into Socinian error. The exegesis of Cocceius and Owen lead to several conclusions and raise key issues relevant to the modern discussion. 1) Not all sequence approaches are Socinian. Cocceius and Owen adopt forms of sequence approaches, while refuting Socinian authors extensively. Their exegesis, therefore, helps modern interpreters disentangle sequence approaches from Socinus and the Socinian baggage. 2) The meaning and use of sacrificial language is key to the debate. Answers to questions of where and when vary wildly depending on how scholars define “sacrifice” and “offering”; yet, equally significant is how one understands atonement in relation to these words. Does atonement happen by means of sacrifice, offering, or both? 3) The ascension is essential to atonement in Hebrews. Even while opposing the Socinians who located Christ’s atoning work almost exclusively in the heavenly sanctuary, Cocceius and Owen consider Christ’s ascension and heavenly presentation vital to his atoning work and offer proposals of how to integrate the ascension into atonement.