“We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear.”
Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins (cf., 1 Cor. 15:3). In this way he fulfilled the old covenant sacrificial system, reconciled us to God, and changed our lives forever.
That is the doctrine of the Atonement. Its reality is not in dispute. However, many Christians struggle to understand this doctrine. We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear. Over the centuries many different theories have been suggested to explain how the Atonement works.
Many contemporary Western Latin Christians (Roman Catholics and Protestants) are unaware that there are other theories of the nature of Jesus Christ’s atonement. Most are only familiar with their own Roman Catholic Satisfaction Theory of atonement or the related Protestant Penal Substitution Theory. My guess is that few Catholics or Protestants are aware that both of their respective atonement theories are relatively new innovations theologically and neither reflects the theology of the ancient Christian church. Consequently, even fewer Western Christians are likely familiar with the predominant atonement view held by those in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is commonly called The Recapitulation Theory, which does reflect ancient Christian tradition dating back to the late 2nd century.
First, a very general chronological overview of the four major Christian atonement theories
- Moral Influence Theory (2nd century)
- “Christus Victor”/Ransom/Recapitulation Theory (late 2nd century)
- These are different, but generally considered together as the “Patristic” or “Classical” understandings of the early Church Fathers
- Satisfaction Theory (11th century)
- Developed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).
- Penal Substitution Theory (16th century)
- A variation of Anselm’s satisfaction theory developed by the Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin (1509-1564), and is often treated together with the satisfaction theory