Be sure to check out my new blog “The Second Coming of Christ” for an in depth look at prophecies related to the Second Coming and discussions about getting spiritually and physically prepared.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Atonement Part 2: The Theories

In my studying of the Atonement, I've run across several theories of Atonement. Many of them are not applicable to an LDS discussion of atonement, but I think that several are. Here is a list:

The Ransom Theory: The earliest of all, originating with the Early Church Fathers, this theory claims that Christ offered himself as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Where it was not clear was in its understanding of exactly to whom the ransom was paid. Many early church fathers viewed the ransom as paid to Satan. Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil's clutches. An extension of this is the "Christus Victor" view which focuses less on paying Satan off as a Ransom and more on defeating Satan through the atonement.

The Satisfaction Theory: The formulator of this theory was the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1034-1109), in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. Why the God Man). In his view, God's offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Anselm offered compelling biblical evidence that the atonement was not a ransom paid by God to the devil but rather a debt paid to God on behalf of sinners. Anselm's work established a foundation for the Protestant Reformation, specifically the understanding of justification by faith. Anslem believed that humans could not render to God more than what was due to him. The satisfaction due to God was greater than what all created beings are capable of doing, since they can only do what is already required of them. Therefore, God had to make satisfaction for himself. Yet if this satisfaction was going to avail for humans, it had to be made by a human. Therefore only a being that was both God and man could satisfy God and give him the honor that is due him. The classic Anselmian formulation of the Satisfaction View needs to be distinguished from Penal Substitution. Penal Substitution states that Christ bore the penalty for sin, in place of those sinners united to him by faith. Anselm, by contrast, regarded human sin as defrauding God of the honour he is due. Christ's death, the ultimate act of obedience, gives God great honour. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honour than he was obliged to give. Christ's surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ's death is substitutionary in this sense: he pays the honour instead of us. But that substitution is not penal; his death pays our honour not our penalty.

The Penal-Substitution Theory: This view was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselm's Satisfaction theory. Anselm's theory was correct in introducing the satisfaction aspect of Christ's work and its necessity, however the Reformers saw it as insufficient because it was referenced to God's honor rather than his justice and holiness and was couched more in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. This Reformed view says simply that Christ died for man, in man's place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of man's sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.

The Moral-Example Theory (or Moral-Influence Theory): Christ died to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, but teaches instead that His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God's love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. Thus, the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but towards man with the purpose of persuading him to right action. Formulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) partially in reaction against Anselm's Satisfaction theory, this view was held by the 16th century Socinians. Versions of it can be found later in F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Horace Bushnell (1802-1876).

The Governmental Theory: God made Christ an example of suffering to exhibit to erring man that sin is displeasing to him. God's moral government of the world made it necessary for him to evince his wrath against sin in Christ. Christ died as a token of God's displeasure toward sin and it was accepted by God as sufficient; but actually God does not exact strict justice. This view was formulated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and is subsequently found in Arminianism, Charles Finney, the New England Theology of Jonathan Edwards (the younger), and Methodism.

The Declaratory Theory: A version of the Moral Influence theory, wherein Christ died to show men how greatly God loves them. This view held by Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89).

The Guaranty Theory: Reconciliation is based not on Christ's expiation of sin, but on His guaranty to win followers and thus conquer human sinfulness. This view held by J. C. K. von Hofmann (1810-77).

The Vicarious Repentance Theory: by John McLeod Campbell (d. 1872). It assumes that a perfect repentance is sufficient to atone for sin. In his death, Christ entered into the Father's condemnation of sin, condemned sin, and by this, confessed it.

The Accident Theory: Christ's death was an accident, as unforeseen and unexpected as that of any other victim of man's hatred. This view is usually found outside of mainstream Christianity.

The Martyr Theory: Christ gave up His life for a principle of truth that was opposed to the spirit of His day. This view is usually found outside of mainstream Christianity.

So do you have a favorite here? A variation? A new theory?


Last Lemming said...

You might want to plow through the atonement threads at New Cool Thang, found here:

They have covered many parables and theories.

(I have no connection to that blog, but occasionally comment there.)

The Yellow Dart said...

Blake Ostler has analyzed many of the theories you present here; however, he presents his own Atonement theory at length in volume 2 of his Exploring Mormon Thought series (He calls it the Compassion Theory). You can find it here:

I recommend getting these books. They are some of the best reads on LDS thought I have ever encountered.

Jacob J said...

By way of shameless self-promotion, there is a link to my Dialogue paper on the sidebar of NCT. If nothing else, it does offer some analysis of a few of the theories you listed in the post.

Anonymous said...

One thing important to point out is that many atonement theories become more problematic to Mormon ears because the theories themselves presume trinitarianism. Thus God killing Christ for his honor is actually God killing himself for his honor, etc etc.

Robby C said...

I think that the penal substitution theory is probably the theory of atonement that most latter day saints would feel comfortable with, but I definately see some problems in it being a comprehensive theory that answers all questions related to the atonement. It is summarized in the statement so often heard in church. "Christ suffered for our sins." In fact, it is illustrated quite well in the parable of Jim's licking which has been shared in general conference. Tom takes the licking (analogous to the puishment for sin) in the place of Jim. Here is my question with this though, what is the punishment of sin that Christ took in the place of us?
The mediator parable seems to have a different view completely. In the mediator parable, The punishment is the debtor having to go to prison (analogous to the punishment for sin). In this parable the mediator steps in and pays the debt, but doesn't actually suffer the punishment of going to prison for the debtor. I also wonder about the creditor in the mediator parable. Just who is that? Is it God? The Devil? Justice? I'm not sure that these parables really clear anything up for me when it comes to the atonement.
The Bicycle parable seems to most closely illustrate the staisfaction theory. We fall short of what God requires (analogous to the price of the bicycle) so Christ has to pay the rest, or as stated in the Satisfaction Theory "Christ's surplus can therefore repay our deficit". This just doesn't do it for me, not to mention the fact that I think the bicycle parable completely undermines the idea of "becoming" that I have discussed in other posts.
Jacob, your paper on Divine Infusion theory was a very interesting read. I particularly enjoyed your analysis of justice and mercy. One question I had about your theory was when did this infusion take place. I am assuming from the reading that it took place at the time of the fall. If this was because of the atonement, how did it happen thousands of years before the atonement took place?

pepektheassassin said...

I understand the Atonement to be "universal" and "all encompassing." Therefore, according to McConkie, it is extended to all--every person, every dog and cat, rabbit, elephant, tree, and blade of grass--perhaps even to the earth itself, as Brigham Young once said that everything has a spirit, a life of sorts, including rocks....

The Talmud says that every blade of grass has an angel that hovers over it, whispering "Grow, grow..."