Archive for category Atonement Theory (series)
“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
“…the classical or patristic view, … can be variously interpreted as the Ransom or Recapitulation view, under the general heading of ‘Christus Victor’.”
Throughout the centuries, Christians have used different metaphors and given differing explanations of Christ’s atonement to express how the atonement might work. The four most well-known theories are briefly described below:
The earliest explanation for how the atonement works is often called by contemporary scholarship the Moral Influence Theory. According to this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this through a combination of his teachings, personal example, his founding of the ekklesia (Church), and the inspiring power of his crucifixion and resurrection. This view was taught by the Church Fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD along with what is called the classical or patristic view, which can be variously interpreted as the Ransom or Recapitulation view, under the general heading of “Christus Victor”. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) re-popularized The Moral Influence Theory in the Medieval period partially in reaction against Anselm’s Satisfaction theory (below). It remains the most popular view of atonement among theologically liberal Protestant Christians.
Chronologically, the second theory, the “Christus Victor”/Ransom/RecapitulationTheory, was first clearly articulated by Irenaeus (early 2nd century – c. AD 202), Bishop of modern-day Lyon, France. Gustav Aulén, in his 1931 book Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, gives us a description of “Christus Victor” as, “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”
“Christus Victor” and “Ransom” differ slightly from each other: in the Ransom metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to sin and Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom sacrifice (cf., Matthew 20:28). Victory over Satan consists of exchanging the life of the perfect man (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind). The “Christus Victor” theory, on the other hand, does not see Jesus as a ransom, but rather as defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor (Satan).
“Anselm used the analogy of Medieval Feudal society to illustrate his theory.”
The Recapitulation Theory is another variation of the “Christus Victor” model and also dates to the very early Church. In the recapitulation view of the atonement, Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to union with God and eternal life. This theory is found throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373), the hero of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, wrote the classic treatise On The Incarnation of the Logos in AD 318 which explains the overall Recapitulation view very well.
The “Christus Victor” Theory and its variants dominated Christian theology for a thousand years until Anselm of Canterbury moved the Latin West toward the “Satisfaction” theory in the 11th century.
The third atonement theory, the Satisfaction Theory, was developed by the 11th century theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). According to this theory, mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to the sovereign God himself. Anselm used the analogy of Medieval Feudal society to illustrate his theory. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign, he cannot if the state has been dishonored. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy, and that Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Therefore, the doctrine would be that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for many”, to God the Father himself.
The next atonement theory, which was a development by the Reformers (including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon) is based on Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory. It is the widely held Protestant Penal Substitution Theory which, instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honor, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (‘the wages of sin is death’), Penal Substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (cf., Galatians 3:13).
“The Penal Substitution Theory sees Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin.”
The Penal Substitution Theory sees Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin. In many ways, the model for Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a courtroom. Due to his sin, man needed to be made right with a perfect and just God. Therefore, Christ came to suffer and pay the price in our place, i.e., He substituted Himself for us. Now, in the courtroom of God, those who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior are judged innocent. They have a forensic righteousness imputed upon them.
Clearly, Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Latin Christianity have significantly different theories of atonement as part of their respective soteriologies (doctrines of salvation). The contemporary Orthodox Recapitulation Theory agrees with Western Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories in so far as God needed to deal with man’s sin. Man was separated from God as a result of the fall and, left to his own devices, was incapable of returning to God. However, the Orthodox see God’s model of dealing with man’s sin as a hospital rather than a courtroom. This stands in sharp contrast to the forensic, legalistic models of Roman Catholic Satisfaction and Protestant Penal Substitution.
Instead of viewing the atonement as Christ paying the price for sin in order to satisfy a wrathful God, Recapitulation teaches that Christ became human to heal mankind by perfectly uniting the human nature to the Divine Nature in His person. Through the Incarnation, Christ took on human nature, becoming the Second Adam, and entered into every stage of humanity, from infancy to adulthood, uniting it to God. He then suffered death to enter Hades and destroy it. After three days, He resurrected and completed His task by destroying death.
By entering each of these stages and remaining perfectly obedient to the Father, Christ recapitulated every aspect of human nature. He said “Yes” where Adam said “No” and healed what Adam’s actions had damaged. This enables all of those who are willing to say yes to God to be perfectly united with the Holy Trinity through Christ’s person, the Logos, the Son. In addition, by destroying death, Christ reversed the consequence of the fall. Now, all can be resurrected. Those who choose to live their life in Christ can be perfectly united to the Holy Trinity, receiving the full love of God’s grace. However, those who reject Christ and choose to live their lives chasing after their passions will perceive the love of God as torment, as hell.
“… the Recapitulation model places great importance on the teaching that Christ is both fully man and fully God.”
Because of its focus on unification between God and man in the person of Christ, the Recapitulation model places great importance on the teaching that Christ is both fully man and fully God. If Christ did not have both natures, He would have been incapable of uniting humanity to divinity, which was the entire purpose of the Incarnation. As Saint Gregory of Nazianzus said in the 4th century, “That which is not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is saved.” The doctrine of the dual nature of Christ was a major topic of the third Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in AD 431. During this council, the Church answered the Nestorian heresy and affirmed Christ’s humanity and divinity and upheld the title of Theotokos (Mother of God) for Mary. By giving Mary this title, the Church reinforced the teaching of the dual nature of Christ. If Mary is the Mother of God, then, by necessity, Christ truly is God. Additionally, since Mary is both human and Christ’s mother, Christ is also fully human.
The Greek word “hilasmos” is translated as both propitiation and expiation. In contrast to other forms of Christianity, the Orthodox tend to use the word “expiation” when describing what was accomplished in Christ’s sacrificial act. According to the Greek-English Lexicon (BDAG) “The unique feature relative to Gr-Rom. usage [of hilasterion] is the initiative taken by God to effect removal of impediments to a relationship with God’s self.” This gives “hilasmos” the meaning of “God’s initiative to remove all barriers and impediments between man and God”.
Thus, in the Orthodox understanding of “hilasmos”, Christ did not die to appease an angry and vindictive Father, or to avert the wrath of God, which is the sense in which the word “propitiation” is commonly used in Western Latin theology. Rather, the Orthodox use the word “expiation”, in order to convey the sense that Christ died to change people and remove impediments and barriers to God so that they might become divine, that is to say, that they may become “partakers of the divine nature” of God in his energies or operations. (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4)