It is impossible to think about the death of Jesus without holding to an interpretation of the meaning of his death. At a very crude level, our interpretation of it will either be natural or supernatural, it will limit the horizon of explanation to the actions of men or it will include along with the actions of men the plan and purpose of God.
Having made this choice we are then faced with either a divinely given interpretation, which we must then receive, or an interpretation (or set of interpretations) that are coloured by our cultural situation and personal preferences. If the latter, then the doctrine of the atonement will alters its meaning over time.
What we cannot avoid is having an explanation of the meaning of the cross at all. The moment that we contemplate this death we are confronted with words like "Christ," "sin," "atonement," "for," and even "death" itself. These words convey to us the meaning of the cross.
The following lengthy extract if from Gresham Machen's What is Faith? The passing of time has not altered the relevance of his observations. The tendency for man to separate what God has joined together, fact and theory, event and explanation, is still very much with us.
Machen makes some important points about this issue:
We can have the fact of the atonement, it is said, no matter what particular theory of it we hold, and indeed even without holding any particular theory of it at all. So this substitutionary view, it is said, is after all only one theory among many.Gresham Machen, What is Faith?, p. 145-6
This objection is based upon a mistaken view of the distinction between fact and theory, and upon a somewhat ambiguous use of the word "theory." What is meant by a "theory"?
Undoubtedly the word often has rather an unfavourable sound; and the use of it in the present connection might seem to imply that the view of the atonement which is designated as a "theory" is a mere effort of man to explain in his own way what God has given.
But might not God have revealed the "theory" of a thing just as truly as the thing itself; might he not himself have given the explanation when he gave the thing?
In that case the explanation just as much as the thing itself comes to us with divine authority, and it is impossible to accept one without accepting the other.
We have not yet, however, quite penetrated to the heart of the matter. Men say that they will accept the fact of the atonement without accepting the substitutionary theory of it, and indeed without being sure of any theory of it at all.
The trouble with this attitude is that the moment we say "atonement" we have already overstepped the line that separates fact from theory; an "atonement," even in the most general and most indefinite sense that could conceivably be given to the word, cannot possibly be a mere fact, but is a fact as explained by its purpose and result...What we have really done is to designate the event with an explanation of its meaning.
It is impossible for us to obtain the slightest benefit from a mere contemplation of the death of Christ; all the benefit comes from from our knowledge of the meaning of that death, or in other words (if the term be used in a high sense) from our "theory" of it.
If, therefore, we speak of the bare "fact" of the atonement, as distinguished from the "theory" of it, we are indulging in a misleading use of of words; the bare fact is the death, and the moment we say "atonement" we have committed ourselves to a theory [MD: we are committed to a theory when we say death].
The important thing, then, is, since we must have some theory, that the particular theory that we hold shall be correct.