Atonement Theories

Today I am excited to introduce my friend Jacqueline Wilson, who will educate us on the development of the different atonement theories throughout history. Her insights on this topic have been very enlightening for me and I hope they will be for you too. Thank you Jackie for allowing me to post your wise words on my blog.

                           The Atonement: an Unfolding Mystery of Salvation Through Christ

                                                             By  Jacqueline Wilson  
            One of the primary doctrines of the Christian church is the atonement. This is a concept that seeks to answer the problem of sin and its effects. It also is one of the purposes for which God became flesh in the person of Jesus. There are many different models of the atonement that have been postulated since the church began. In this essay, the four most well-known theories will be presented. These theories each were hermeneutically influenced by the historical/cultural context of the thinkers by whom they were formulated and according to the problem that they saw the atonement needed to address.[1] The widely debated doctrine may be part of the unfolding revelation of God that is best seen as the provision that imparts salvation through what is known and what is hidden in the mystery of God’s divine wisdom and love.

            The earliest theory widely known of after the apostolic age, was mainly developed by Irenaeus. His theory, known as the Christus Victor theory had two components. The first is the doctrine of recapitulation which draws from the Pauline concept of parallelism between Adam and Jesus.[2] Adam was the representative of fallen humanity and Jesus is the representative of the new redeemed humanity. Irenaeus wrote, “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man and woman, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power and vivify humanity.”[3] Green and Baker interpret, “In recapitulation Christ both sums up and restores humanity.”[4] Adam was the failed human but Christ is the obedient human who has the authority to take back what the devil succeeded in swindling away from the original man.

            The second aspect to the Christus Victor model is the idea of ransom. In the time of Irenaeus, it was common for people to be persecuted for their allegiance to Christ rather than to the Emperor and it was also common to be stolen and sold into slavery. Ransom and release were powerful and concrete images for Christians in the early centuries of the church.[5] This lent itself to an understanding of evil powers who were intertwined with the cosmic power of the devil.[6] Stanley Grenz explains his understanding of Irenaeus, “Humankind was in bondage through sin to the devil…our bondage required that we be bought back by a ransom to which the devil would consent.”[7] Jesus was that ransom. Christ’s sinless life, death, and resurrection as the second Adam, ransomed humanity and freed them from the captivity of Satan. It is important to note, the ransom was paid to the devil, which makes some people reject this atonement theory on the basis that it styles the devil as some sort of rival to God, with the right to make demands.[8] Gregory Boyd, however, adopts this motif based on his study of the scripture revealing a high cosmology of Satan and citing, among many other references, Jn. 12:31, in which Jesus identities the devil as, “the ruler of this world.”[9]  This model does not address sin as an individual responsibility, but rather a condition of bondage to the power of Satan.

            When Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the state religion, gradually, believers began to lose a felt need for a victor over the “powers” whose oppression was conflated with the cosmic enemy, Satan.[10] In the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) in his theological work, Cur Deus Homo, (Why God Became Man) developed a theory of the atonement which flowed out of the feudal system of government which was operational in his day. Again, we can see how the paradigms of the culture influenced the lens through which thinkers fashioned their formulations. Anselm’s model is known as the Satisfaction Model and it is based on the pattern of relationship between a Lord and his vassals. This model sees human sin as having insulted the Lord’s honor, by breaking fealty, which incurs a debt requiring reparation. It would not be dignified for the great Lord, whose status requires reparation commensurate to his exalted position, not to be compensated in a worthy manor. Thus, the satisfaction must be supplied by someone whose value rises to both the degree of dishonor (humans robbing God of their lives and loyalty), and to the level of the one sinned against.[11]Since no human could attain to such a position, God Himself became human to make satisfaction for us. Gary Anderson explicates Anselm stating, “Cur deus homo rests on the notion that Christ’s sacrifice created an infinite store of merit for which he had no need. In his love for humanity Christ ceded these immeasurable riches to the church. With the merits of Christ, any sinner could find the resources to cover his debts”.[12] This model is built upon the understanding of sin as debt which must be satisfied. Green and Baker critique Anselm’s theory on the basis that it is, “too entangled in his world…he actually allowed medieval concepts of honor to define how God ought to act.”[13]This theory was not grounded in scripture as was the Christus Victor model and it was also influenced by the accepted practice of penance as a means of paying for sin.

           A contemporary of Anselm was Peter Abelard (1079-1142) who took exception to Anselm’s argument, claiming that God is free to graciously forgive anyone he chooses and he points out that Jesus forgave sinners Himself prior to going to the cross.[14] Abelard also is troubled by the Christus Victor model, contending that it is the devil who owes God a compensation for seducing God’s slaves away from Him and Satan has no right to anything.[15] Abelard fashions his theory based on the need he perceived was addressed by the death of Christ which was to make humankind more righteous so as to be delivered from punishment.[16] Abelard interpreted the meaning of the cross as Christ’s act of self-giving love which was designed to woo us to repentance and reciprocity. His theory is known as the Moral Influence Model assumes that humans will be, “fully bound to Himself by love; with the result that our hearts should be enkindled by such a gift of divine grace, and true charity should not now shrink from enduring anything for Him.”[17]Abelard’s idea of sin is defined by one’s intentions rather than specific acts, hence, “he understands the work of Christ as reorienting our intentions.”[18]

            The final theory to be discussed is the Penal Substitution Theory. This theory builds upon the idea that sin has incurred the wrath of God and there must be a punishment carried out to appease Him. Justice must also be meted out for breaking Gods law. It is interesting to note that this theory developed out of Anselm’s Satisfaction Model but instead of satisfaction of God’s honor, it satisfies God’s wrath.[19] In place of the guilty lawbreakers, Jesus substitutes Himself.[20] As with the Christus Victor model and Anselm’s model, this one also grew within a cultural context of its theorists. John Calvin, who was a lawyer at a time when the rule of law was becoming recognized, was one of the early voices of this approach.[21] The person who fine-tuned this view of satisfaction was Charles Hodge (1797-1878) who, according to Joel Green, “read the Bible through the lens of the criminal justice system of his era.”[22] He posits that the cross of Christ is salvific because on it Jesus’ suffering appeased the wrath of God against sinners.

            Brad Jersak raises several objections to this theory. He claims that it pits Father against Son, it requires debt to be paid instead of forgiven, sin must be paid by punishment, it paints God as retributive rather than like the father in the prodigal son story, and it distorts divine justice.[23]Abelard similarly objected to Anselm in not recognizing a God who is generous to forgive without compensation.[24] Grenz maintains, there are facets of each of the models that can be adopted which answer a different aspect of our predicament.[25] This makes sense to me in light of the understanding that God knows that our hermeneutic lens continues to change.

            The Bible is clear that the cross of Christ is a part of God’s plan for our salvation.[26] I believe that it is meant to be a sign of God’s love and there can be nothing about the actions of God that are inconsistent with His character. While more questions than answers remain around words like wrath, justice, substitute, suffering, punishment and satisfaction, scripture is clear, God is the person who has saved us, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace…”[27] 

Bibliography

Anderson, Gary A. Sin: A History. New Haven: Yale University, 2009.

Eddy, Paul R. and Beilby, James. The Nature of the Atonement. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Green, Joel B. and Baker, Mark D. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000),

Grenz, Stanley. Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.

Jersak, Brad. Stricken By God? Abbotsford, BC: Fresh Wind Press, 2007.

 

[1] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 150.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Ibid., 119.   

[4] Ibid., 120.  

        [5]  Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 150.

        [6] Ibid., 118.

        [7] Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief With Christian Living (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 138-139.

        [8] Paul R. Eddy and James Beilby, The Nature of the Atonement (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 18.

        [9] Ibid., 27.

        [10] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity, 2000), 125.

        [11] Ibid., 130.

        [12] Gary A. Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2009), 162.

        [13] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity, 2000), 125.

 

 

        [14] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 137.

        [15] Ibid., 136.

        [16] Ibid., 137.

        [17] Ibid., 138.

        [18] Ibid., 138.

        [19] Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief With Christian Living (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 141.

        [20] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 2000), 142.

 

        [21] Ibid., 142.

        [22] Ibid., 145.

        [23] Brad Jersak, Stricken By God? (Abbotsford, BC: Fresh Wind Press, 2007), 23-24.

        [24] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 142.

        [25] Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief With Christian Living (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 143.

        [26] Colossians 1:20 (NASV).

        [27] Ephesians 1:7 (NASV).

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