There has been a great deal of discussion lately on the subject of “atonement”, sin, and the nature of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. In many cases, adherents of specific views of atonement (particularly the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement) have taken a dim view of groups of Christians who do not hold to identical views – in some cases, suggesting that the “correct” view (theirs, of course) is required both for evangelizing and for salvation.

Fortunately for Christians throughout the centuries without such ‘enlightenment’, systematic theology does not save, but rather the Grace of God and the mysterious work of salvation made possible through the cross and the empty tomb. In reality, many theories and ‘word pictures’ have been used throughout the history of the church to describe this work, and there is room for liberty in differences of view. Despite this liberty, though, there is need for some boundaries…

Guardrails

In Charleston, S.C., there was a bridge that was rather narrow, and was somewhat frightening for many motorists to cross. Once, during a period of repairs, the outside rails of the bridge had to be removed. Immediately, this bridge went from 2 functional lanes to a single lane, causing all sorts of traffic snarls, because people were afraid of falling off the edge. The rails, when in place, were not very capable of stopping a determined car from going into the water, but they gave some sense of security to motorists.

One of the lessons we can learn from this is that boundaries, contrary to popular opinion, are not always restrictive. Rather, boundaries clearly delineate how far you can be without going over the edge, leaving much more functional room within their borders. Unlike those who acted as if there was only room for one lane on the narrow bridge, once guardrails were in place, there was room for multiple lanes for cars to cross. The bridge, itself, did not change – it did not become wider or narrower. In fact, it became safer AND more efficient.

In the case of atonement theory, it is important that we establish the ‘rails’ – the primary one being that Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection was required in order to bring salvation to mankind. The second rail would be that man could not find salvation by his own means. These rails rule out “all paths lead to heaven” and “if you’re good enough, God will accept you”, and other universalist/semi-universalist views of atonement.

Atonement Views

The Views of Atonement:

I. The Ransom View of Atonement

This view of atonement, held as the dominant theory in the church for its first 1000 or so years, was first described by Origen. It teaches that Jesus’ death paid a ransom to Satan (whose accusation held humanity to his claim after the fall of Adam and Eve to sin).

Because Satan’s claim against humanity was just, it required God, who is a God of justice, to pay a ransom price in return for man’s release. God paid this in the form of Jesus, on the cross. However, since Jesus had not sinned, he had not earned death, so it could not keep him. Thus, man was redeemed by God and his ransom of Jesus to Satan, and Satan could no longer make a claim upon man. (If you’ve read (or seen) C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, you’ve seen an allegorical story which was written to follow ransom theory.) Christus Victor (see #6 below) is often seen as similar/identical to the Ransom View, though it (CV) takes a more holistic view.

II.  Satisfaction View (Anselm’s View) of Atonement

St. Anselm, however, did not like the ransom view, because it placed God in a position of debtor to Satan. Instead, he put forth a theory of atonement called the “Satisfaction View”. In his view, man has defrauded God of the honor and glory due to Him through sin – trying take God’s place, ourselves. Jesus, though, brought full honor and glory to God in his life, and then through his death ’satisfied’ the difference due between man and God.

In this case, Jesus’ substitution is that he suffered for us. In his view, men and angels owe a debt of honor to God. This debt cannot be paid if sin has been committed in their life. Jesus, because lived and did not sin, was able to pay this debt of honor that none other could pay. By dying, though, he suffered in our place to pay that debt of honor.

This theory of atonement was further refined by Thomas Aquinas and codified as the dominant theory in the Catholic church. Even so, like Ransom Theory, it was not considered to be a required belief for salvation, but a secondary matter.

III. Penal Substitution

In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, sin is a crime against God, for which the punishment is death and separation from God. Jesus, because he did not sin, could take this punishment upon himself and absolve those whom he chose from this punishment. In this view of atonement, God punishes Jesus in our place (which is different than substitution where Jesus suffers for us rather than being punished in our place) – if we are one of the elect.

Interestingly, this is the first view of atonement in which the emphasis on Jesus’ atonement was made specific to each individual’s sin, rather than as a general atonement for the sin of mankind. Since Jesus’ crucifixion happened at a specific point in time, it could only cover the sins of people God had chosen at that time for it to cover. Thus, Calvin also had to borrow from Augestine’s theories of double-predestination. Additionally, to distinguish itself from the Satisfaction View, the Penal Substitution View teaches that Jesus was not satisfying a deficiency in mankind, but rather that he was satisfying God’s wrath.

This is the first view of atonement that was codified as a core doctrine in many churches, rather than being of secondary concern. (Thus, the full emphases on sin, punishment and hell become prerequisites to understanding what to believe before one can become a believer.) This is the primary view in Calvinist/Reformed churches, and is a driving force behind much of the criticism of the Emerging Church Movement, which tends relegate the individual’s view of atonement back to its historic place as a secondary doctrine.

IV. Governmental View of Atonement

This view of most closely associated with Arminianism and found a home in Methodism. It is similar to the penal substitution view to some extent, but the biggest difference is that the cross is not seen as the exact punishment for sin, but rather it is God’s way of publicly demonstrating His displeasure with sin. So Jesus is still a substitute in this view, but what he is substituting for is different than the penal substitution view. It wasn’t a substitute for punishment, but rather a substitute for the necessity of punishment. This way the moral nature of the universe is maintained.

This may seem like a game of semantics, but it gets down to the scope of the atonement. In this view, forgiveness is available to all who turn from sin. It is as if the president would offer a blanket pardon for all criminals with the only condition being they ask to be released. A prisoner who refuses to ask to be released will not be released. Additionally, the atonement is viewed in a more communal sense im this view. The church has been pardoned, but one may freely choose to enter into or walk away from this pardon.

Not surprisingly, this view has its share of detractors, mostly from Calvinist/Reformed circles. Some common objections are that this view leads to perfectionism, moralism, or other works-based thinking. Others say that it denies total depravity because it assumes mankind is able to see Christ’s sacrifice and turn from its sin.

V. Moral Influence View of Atonement

This moral influence view is an offspring of the governmental view, to a degree. This view is often referred to as subjective, opposed to objective, because it doesn’t really attempt to answer the question of what of actually happened at the cross, as much as it tries to explain why it happened. In the view, the cross demonstrates Jesus’ self-giving, His complete abandonent to God’s will, and His complete devotion to God for the sake of the world. His death is seen as the completion of the message He spoke during His life on earth. It shows us the self-giving nature of God’s love.

When we are touched by this love, it inspires us to follow in Christ’s steps. By looking at Christ, we will naturally start to act like Him. We will be devoted to God’s plan, and we will serve other self-sacrificially. This view, along with the Christus Victor view, seems to be gaining a bit more prominence. It is not surprising, given the way these perspectives lend themselves to being told in a more narrative style.

VI. Christus Victor

Borrowed from the title of Gustaf Aulen’s 1931 book meaning Christ the Victor. In his book Aulen builds a historical case for the “classical” view of Atonement, more commonly know as Ransom Theory. He argues that most of the church misunderstands what the early church fathers believed about Ransom Theory. In Aulens view and definition of Ransom Theory it differs from the common view of Ransom in that Christ was not paying a ransom to the devil but rather rescuing humanity from the bondage of sin and death.

When viewed with this perspective God is no longer indebted to the Devil but rather God is sovereign over everything, including the Devil, and chooses to rescue humanity. As Aulen states it “The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil”

SUMMING UP THE VIEWS

Each of these views fits within the biblical guardrails for explaining the meaning of Jesus death, burial and resurrection, with each explaining a different aspect or ‘word picture’ for the atonement. In reality, none of these is likely to be 100% true in trying to explain the inner workings of God.

To some, the prospect of such acceptance of multiple biblical views may be troubling, and the tendency is to want to stake out a single ‘lane’ (accepted atonement theory) and place the guardrails around it – effectively attempting to add human limits to further narrow an already narrow ‘bridge’. Fortunately, it is as the Apostle Paul tells us:

if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

In Conclusion

One of the greatest persecutors of Christians, Nero Caesar, insisted that people burn incense to him as lord, and take his mark upon them in order to be accepted into Roman society. Too often, Christians – whether of the ODM persuasion or not – tend to grasp onto one specific, systematic explanation of an aspect of God – be it atonement, grace, free will/predestination, etc. – and create their own idol of that theological explanation, insisting that it be accepted as the only way that a “true Christian” can believe.

The means to prevent this behavior, though, is not to suggest an “anything goes” mindset with no boundaries. Rather, we should establish the few clear boundaries that exist within Scripture and be gracious and accepting of those who may not agree with our most closely held theories, but whose own theories still remain within those boundaries. In many cases, like with Atonement theories, it may be that all of the theories explain a different aspect of the whole, even if individually they are holistically deficient.

[NOTE: This article was a group effort, written by Phil Miller, Chris and Chris L]

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This entry was posted on Saturday, June 7th, 2008 at 11:52 am and is filed under Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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19 Comments(+Add)

1   Rick Frueh    http://judahslion.blogspot.com/
June 7th, 2008 at 12:21 pm

“In the case of atonement theory, it is important that we establish the ‘rails’ – the primary one being that Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection was required in order to bring salvation to mankind. The second rail would be that man could not find salvation by his own means. These rails rule out “all paths lead to heaven” and “if you’re good enough, God will accept you”, and other universalist/semi-universalist views of atonement.”

Amen. And the offer is to whosoever will.

2   Chad    http://www.chadholtz.wordpress.com
June 7th, 2008 at 12:25 pm

Great post, guys.

I try to read St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of Chrsit each Advent. Athanasius, who would certainly endorse the Chistus Victor model, claims that it was for our “sorry state” that God put on flesh and came to our rescue.

3   Rick Frueh    http://judahslion.blogspot.com/
June 7th, 2008 at 12:31 pm

“is required both for evangelizing and for salvation.”

Chris, please tell me how an evangelistic presentation differs when someone does not espouse the Atonement view? I am sincerely ignorant to that difference.

4   Bruce Gerencser    http://www.worldofbruce.net
June 7th, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Thank you for writing a charitable view of the atonement that allows those of us who have an issue with the penal substitution theory to still be considered orthodox.

Many people believe that Christianity stands or falls on penal substitution. Thank you for showing that is not so.

Now, if I can quit getting bruised by constantly banging into the guard rails. :)

5   hello    
June 7th, 2008 at 6:31 pm

Chad, I am well versed in the teachings of Athanasius and I don’t believe he would have used the terms “put on flesh.” He would have said- He became flesh. Athanasius did not espouse the “mansuit” theory.

Rick, there is no difference! The gospel(the atonement act of Jesus Christ on the cross) is essential for both salvation and evangelizing. Without the gospel we neither have salvation or the substance which can be presented to the lost to become found!

6   JohnD    
June 7th, 2008 at 10:45 pm

Phil, Chris, and Chris,

I totally agree with the “guard rails” and the notion that within that context, all of these atonement explanations bring something to the table. In fact, I fail to see how any of these explanations are inherently contradictory.

They are within the guard rails as described by Paul in 1 Cor. 15.

7   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
June 8th, 2008 at 12:04 am

Chris, please tell me how an evangelistic presentation differs when someone does not espouse the Atonement view? I am sincerely ignorant to that difference.

I assume you mean ‘does not espouse the penal atonement view’?

Because ‘penal atonement’ is the only view which is focused upon the individual and the sin of the individual. All other views are focused upon his atonement for the sin of mankind. So – evangelism under the other views is not hyper-focused upon the individual’s sin leading to “what’s in it for me?” – but rather upon ‘this is what has already been done for you and all of mankind who will accept the grace freely given’.

The penal view focuses upon the ‘punishment’ aspect, whereas most of the other views regard the holistic impact of Jesus’ sacrifice – which gives the hearer a better balance on both the temporal and eternal (or, to be short – emphasizes sacrifice and redemption over sin and hell)

8   Chad    http://www.chadholtz.wordpress.com
June 8th, 2008 at 11:53 am

i.e. It really is GOOD NEWS.

9   Chad    http://www.chadholtz.wordpress.com
June 8th, 2008 at 12:03 pm

Hello, hello. I agree. Thank you for pointing that out.

10   Chris P.    
June 9th, 2008 at 8:50 am

What about the Biblical view?

Not on the buffet menu here.

11   Tim Reed, Owosso MI    http://churchvoices.com
June 9th, 2008 at 8:57 am

Chris P,
You must have gotten one of those Commie Bibles. I suggest that you get a Bible that isn’t missing vast swaths of scripture.

12   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
June 9th, 2008 at 9:00 am

What about the Biblical view?

Not on the buffet menu here.

Uhmmmm, Chris – all 6 are ‘Biblical’ views. The Bible doesn’t proscribe one mechanism of atonement.

The article was already too long, or I would have also brought in the concept of Jesus’ death fulfilling the covenant between God and Abraham, which doesn’t describe an atonement method, but does shed light on at least one promise fulfilled by it.

We also did not get into all of the arguments for and against each view. For instance, since God does not sin, suggesting that penal substitution is the only viable view sits in contrast to multiple passages, the simplest being:

It is not good to punish an innocent man – Pr 17:26

So, if the “Biblical view” wasn’t mentioned, what is it?

13   Phil Miller    http://pmwords.blogspot.com
June 9th, 2008 at 9:06 am

So, if the “Biblical view” wasn’t mentioned, what is it?

Let me take a wild guess…

It’s probably whichever one that he thinks is best. So convenient how that works out, isn’t it?

14   Rick Frueh    http://judahslion.blogspot.com/
June 9th, 2008 at 9:32 am

Chris L. was very gracious about not demeaning the penal substitionary view. I am not an expert about all the parsings, but even if the penal essence is removed the substitionary essence remains – right?

15   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
June 9th, 2008 at 9:42 am

I am not an expert about all the parsings, but even if the penal essence is removed the substitionary essence remains – right?

The substitutionary essence does remain in the others, though it is more of a corporate substitution than an individualized one.

16   Phil Miller    http://pmwords.blogspot.com
June 9th, 2008 at 10:02 am

I guess the “issue” I have with the penal substitution view, at least the way in which it is presented most often, is that it explains why Jesus died, but it doesn’t say anything about why He rose. Sure He took the penalty for our sins, but if that’s all He did, there was no reason He had to be risen. Ironically, it ends up supporting liberal theology like that of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, depsite its association with more conservative Christianity.

That’s why, in my opinion, the Christus Victor view (and even Ransom theory) seems to be a more compelling narrative. Jesus died in humanity’s place, and in doing so conquered death and the grave. It seems to me that a view that focuses more on the death than the resurrection is a bit lacking. Note, I’m not saying it’s wrong, but more like incomplete.

17   Dave Muller    http://blog.thewebsiteguy.com.au
June 9th, 2008 at 11:46 pm

There has been a great deal of discussion lately on the subject of “atonement”, sin, and the nature of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.

Thanks for that article, Phil, Chris and Chris. It was very helpful to see the view over the ages, and to see that should one view be “correct” there would be a thousand years of peope going to “hell”.

18   Doug Gibson    
June 23rd, 2008 at 1:45 am

The writer wrote, ‘It wasn’t a substitute for punishment, but rather a substitute for the necessity of punishment.’ I would like to modify this in a view I think better defines it: In the governmental view Jesus wasn’t punished by God instead of sinners (satisfaction/payment of debt theory) rather his death is a substitute for our punishment. Atonement in its general sense is a SUBSTITUTE for punishment. Wikipedia is more accurate than theopedia in my opinion on this distinction. blessings

19   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
June 23rd, 2008 at 9:58 am

Thank you, Doug!