How do the theories of atonement fit together?

Ironic, Subjective, Just, or All Three: Theories of the Atonement, pt. 1

The death of Jesus Christ stands as a central event in Christian theology along with the incarnation, resurrection, and ascension. Like the other three events, the death of Jesus is rich with meaning and significance. The New Testament, looking back at the crucified Christ, explains that the death of Jesus should be understood in terms of atonement (Heb. 2:17). Jesus, like the sacrificial animals offered by the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament, is handed over to be killed on a Roman crucifix in order to make atonement for the sins of the people.

However, the nature of how this atonement works has been hotly debated throughout church history. Several different theories have been offered throughout the past two millennia to try to get at what is happening on the cross. Is Jesus’ death an ironic victory over the dark powers of this world, an inspirational illustration of the sacrificial love of God, or a legal transaction between God and Jesus in order to satisfy God’s requirement? This paper will present a middle way theory which navigates between the other atonement theories and discovers they are in fact parts to a multi-dimensional whole expressed in various metaphors in Scripture requiring a harmony of more than one atonement theory in order to be fully explained.

First, three of the most prominent theories (Christus Victor, Moral Influence, and Penal Substitution) will be discussed in this post with attention to the key principles and notable proponents of each position. Second, an alternate theory which synthesizes all three of these theories will be expounded in order to see that it best accords with Scripture’s presentation of the atonement.

Theory 1: Christus Victor

The first position is the Christus Victor (CV) theory. The term for this atonement theory comes from the title of the widely recognized book by Gustaf Aulen of the same name. In that book, Aulen argues that the position of the early church fathers, in particular Irenaeus of Lyons, was that the atonement of Christ was an ironic victory over the enemies of mankind. Concerning the atonement, he writes, “The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”[1] According to Aulen, CV stands in contrast to other forms of atonement, especially that of penal substitution (what he calls the Latin theory to denote the form it took in Augustine and Anselm) because penal substitution puts a wedge between incarnation and atonement. CV, he argues, harmonizes the two. Quoting from Irenaeus, who says, “The Word of God was made flesh in order that he may destroy death and bring man to life,”[2] Aulen explains that the atonement is most naturally understood when put alongside the incarnation. God comes into the world in order to deliver the victory. This not only makes better sense of the atonement, but also of the Trinity, a doctrine which he claims is hindered when we speak of the Son appeasing the wrath of the Father, subjugating the Son to the role of something of a “second God”[3] rather than God himself. Thus, CV highlights the irony of death being the means of life and victory for man and God respectively.

One scholar in particular, N.T. Wright, likewise argues in his latest book that CV was the theory of choice for the early church fathers and plays an important role in his own understanding of atonement. He writes that “on the cross Jesus won a victory—or at least God won a victory through Jesus—over the shadowy ‘powers’ that had usurped his rule over the world. That idea was popular in some quarters during the first few Christian centuries.”[4] This description of a victory over dark powers is the essence of this theory.

However, as Wright would explain in the next few paragraphs,[5] the means of how this victory is accomplished is not detailed precisely. What are these dark powers? How does the incarnation and subsequent crucifixion exactly conquer the forces of evil? These questions are not answered. There is perhaps an intentional ambiguity. Wright tells the story of when he asked a Greek bishop the details of his beliefs concerning the cross, to which the bishop replied with a smile that it was simply a “prelude to the resurrection.”[6] The cross in this view is only a part working toward God’s ironic and mysterious victory.

Theory 2: Moral Influence

The second position is the Moral Influence (MI) theory. This theory is largely credited to Peter Abelard, although it may be more accurate to say that Abelard was restating thoughts of Augustine,[7] and probably had a broader view of the atonement.[8] In this theory of atonement, the subjective element of the atonement is emphasized. Although a bit hyperbolic, Richard Rohr highlights the emphasis of this view: “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”[9] The force of emphasis of MI is on how the sacrifice of Christ influences the individual. The crucifixion of Jesus is designed to display the extent of the love of God such that, as Abelard would put it, it is by “means of Christ’s passion that this supreme love is in us, resides in us, or is present in us.”[10]

In other words, the locus of the atonement of Jesus in MI is not so much objective as it is subjective. Atonement happens when one looks at the crucified Christ and is affectionately won over to follow the moral example of sacrifice. Leon Morris, in his contribution to the Evangelical Theological Dictionary, explains that the thrust of this theory is on “personal experience” and as such “has no effect outside the believer.”[11][12] There are no legal transactions or spiritual victories. Rather, the spiritual victory is the moral transformation of the individual to live a selfless and sacrificial life. Atonement is made when one goes from selfish to selfless. This is the function of the cross.

While MI places heavy emphasis upon the subjective experience of the cross, many teachers of this theory (to include Abelard, and Augustine whom he quoted) did not hold exclusively to this theory. That is, this view is not mutually exclusive to another theory of the atonement. Abelard himself, for instance, simultaneously held to a substitutionary sacrifice theory that would have been close to something of a CV or penal substitution idea of atonement.[13] On the other hand, Rohr would be an example of someone who denies any form of penal substitution. Liberal scholars like Schleiermacher and Bultmann likewise would deny other forms of atonement but hold to a form of MI. This atonement theory, depending on which author you read, is either incompatible or compatible with other theories, but my contention is that they are compatible.

Theory 3: Penal Substitution

The third position is Penal Substitution (PS). The thrust of this theory is in “Jesus bearing punishment in the place of his people”[14] God, who is intrinsically just (or for Anselm, honorable), requires penalty for those who break his law. As such, Jesus makes atonement by absorbing the wrath of God on the cross and satisfying the demands of justice, thereby allowing man to be freed of his guilt. This theory has traces in earlier writers but most certainly finds its most developed roots in Anselm of Canterbury in his book, Cur Deus Homo?. Anselm, basing his argument off of the dual nature of Christ, argues that Jesus was thus able to “pay what is due for the sins of the whole world”[15] by identifying with the Adamic race as the sinless and infinite God. In taking the penalty of death upon himself, Jesus allowed the reward of life to be bestowed upon mankind. Inherent in PS is the idea of substitution. At the center of this substitution lies the demands of God and the necessary punishment for sin.

As in the other two theories, PS is hardly monolithic. Karl Barth arguably held to this theory, but instead saw the punishment for sin being placed idealistically on Jesus before the creation of the world.[16] For Barth, the atonement most likely happened before the crucifixion—itself mostly a demonstration of God’s love as in the MI theory. [17]

Likewise, the Reformers, building off the work of Anselm, “saw [sin] as a breaking of God’s law rather than as a result of God’s honor.”[18] Justice for the Reformers was predicated on his law and the necessity of equal punishment for the crime. Like Anselm, the atonement of Jesus satisfied the requirement of God. But the Reformers connected this satisfaction with faith. Faith for them was the vehicle by which an individual accessed the benefits of this satisfaction. Thus, combined with the doctrine of justification by faith, this Reformed understanding of penal substitution is largely the theory of choice for evangelicals.

In the next post we will see how they all fit together into a multi-dimensional revolution after exploring the relevant biblical passages.

-Alan Kern

[1] Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 20.

[2] Dominic J. Unger and John J. Dillon, St. Irenaeus of Lyons against the Heresies (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1992), 57.

[3] Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 21.

[4] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2016), Kindle Page 924.

[5] Ibid.

[6] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2016), Kindle Page 620.

[7] A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), 290. Wallace and Rusk detail how Abelard relied upon the quotations of Augustine for his theory.

[8] Rolf Peppermüller, Abaelards Auslegung Des Römerbriefes (Münster: Verlag Aschendorff, 1972), 173, 174.

[9] Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2014), 187.

[10] Denis Kaiser, “Peter Abelard’s Theology of Atonement: A Multifaceted Approach and Reevaluation,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 26/1 (2015): 12-13.

[11] Morris, Leon “Atonement” in Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 100.

[12] For further reading, Elwell recommends The Idea of Atonement by Hastings Rashdall in which he defends the subjective nature of the atonement.

[13] Denis Kaiser, “Peter Abelard’s Theology of Atonement: A Multifaceted Approach and Reevaluation,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 26/1 (2015): 13. Kaiser argues that Abelard has mostly been misinterpreted due to mistranslation and the difficulty of his expressions.

[14] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2016), Kindle Page 664.

[15] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo? (London: Griffith, Farrar, 1898), 14.

[16] Frank Hasel, “Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics On the Atonement: Some Translational Problems,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, 29, 3 (1991):210.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Morris, Leon “Atonement” in Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 102.

What do you think?