Rudisill (The doctrine of the atonement in Jonathan Edwards and his successors, 114-5) says that for Edwards “Christ’s work per se does not affect man. In the final analysis, it does not deal with man’s predicament. President Edwards’ doctrine of the Atonement is a contrivance to mesh God’s attributes with the doctrine of sovereign election.” He claims that the logic goes as follows: All God’s attributes must be expressed. So God creates and manages a world in which they find expression. He decrees sin to give Him the opportunity to manifest His “vindictive justice.” God is merciful too, and redemption affords the opportunity to prove it.
Rudisill’s Lutheran skepticism about Calvinism comes through here, and I suspect he’s not fair to Edwards. But what he identifies is a real problem, namely, the abstraction of atonement theory so that it becomes an unreal contrivance to work out dilemmas in the logic of God’s nature.
That unreality is, perhaps, a function of the effort to construct an atonement theory in the first place, which is inevitably a systematizing abstraction from the concrete events and narrative accounts provided in the gospels. Even Paul’s statements about the atonement are framed as episodes in a story (“Christ loved me and gave Himself for me”; “born of a woman, born under the law…”; “He condemned sin in the flesh”). In place of a theory, the New Testament offers a history of atoning events. The further we move from the story, the more unreal our theories become. Our “theories” should be elaborations of the story rather than efforts to get beyond it.