Atonement Theories

Throughout the history of Christian thought there have been a variety of models for explaining the mechanics of the Atonement. How exactly does it work, and why did Jesus have to suffer? Most Christians (including Latter-day Saints) seem content to leave the mechanics of the Atonement a mystery, which is fine. But for those interested in pursuing the question, here is a summary of the three traditional theories of atonement and their variations throughout Christian history. This is taken straight from Wikipedia (no need to reinvent the wheel!).

Ransom Theory: The first metaphor, epitomised by the “ransom to Satan” theory, was used by the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa based on verses such as Mark 10:45 – “the Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for the many”. In this metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom. Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind).

Variation 1: A variation of this view is known as the “Christus Victor” theory, and sees Jesus not used as a ransom but rather defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor.

Satisfaction Theory: The second metaphor, used by the eleventh century theologian Anselm, is called the “satisfaction” theory. In this picture mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to sovereign God himself. 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 dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice.

Variation 1: A variation on this theory is the commonly held Protestant “penal substitution theory,” which instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honour, 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 (Galatians 3:13).[7]

Variation 2: Another variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius’ “governmental theory”, which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.

Moral Influence Theory: The third metaphor is that of healing, associated with Pierre Abélard in the eleventh century, and Paul Tillich in the twentieth. In this picture Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates the extent of God’s love for us, and moved by this great act of love humankind responds and is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. This view is favoured by most liberal theologians as the moral influence view, and also forms the basis for Rene Girard’s “mimetic desire” theory (not to be confused with meme theory).

In the Latter-day Saint tradition a few attempts have been made by LDS thinkers to formulate a new theory of Atonement that incorporates LDS thought and scripture. Notable examples are Cleon Skousen’s “intelligence theory”, and Blake Ostler’s “compassion theory” of the Atonement. But, for the most part, Latter-day Saints simply borrow language from all 4 of the above theories and do not have a single unique concept of the mechanics of the Atonement (at least that is my experience). There are various analogies that have become popular among the Latter-day Saints, including President Packer’s “mediator” analogy and Stephen Robinson’s “bicycle” analogy. But these analogies don’t seem to propose a new theory so much as they try to explain an existing theory.

I hope to explore some of these topics further in future posts. There are two other places in the bloggernacle that I’ve found which summarize these theories. Here and here.

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12 comments on “Atonement Theories

  1. aquinas says:

    Atonement theory is quite fascinating. I highly recommend Stephen Finlan. Options on Atonement in Christian Thought. (Liturgical Press, 2007). It’s one of his shorter books and he compactly summarizes much of his prior work on the topic. It is perhaps one of the most illuminating works on atonement theory that I’ve come across. I give a brief review here.

  2. James says:

    Hey thanks aquinas. I think Atonement theory is very interesting, and I’ve learned a lot from reading the discussions at NCT. I’ll also be sure to get my hands on the book you’ve recommended.

  3. EditorJack says:

    Thanks for this nice summary of atonement theory. In my opinion, Mormonism does have its own explanation of the atonement. This explanation is embodied in D&C 45:3-5:

    “Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.”

    Because Jesus suffered unjustly, he can ask the Father for unmerited mercy on our behalf–and get it.

    Simple, really. But I’ve never seen this explanation anywhere else.

  4. DougT says:

    Well I’ll give you a unique Mormon concept that I know to be true by experience, Scripture and revelation (the latter being more the case).

    Mosiah 2:38 presents that hell is where a sense of justice from within US makes us in pain by our conscience. In other words statements about appeasing God are just simplifications to stop people from excusing themselves by claiming no problem from their actions. It is us who need to feel that we have sufferred for our sins.

    I remember when about 11 that I had been burdened by a sin I had committed years before. Every time I thought about it I felt really bad, and the pain stayed with me more or less noticeable. But one day when I thought about it my spirit inside said, “I have sufferred enough for that.” I passed over that at the time somewhat confused. But the Holy Ghost reminded me of that when discussing this subject.

    Christ’s spirit went up into eternity from the garden and came to us who live after and those who lived before Christ. He then suffers and our spirit accepts that sufficient sufferring has occurred and we forgive ourselves. This is done extremely quickly and without any knowledge of it by our head, as we open in true and absolute repentance. From Christ’s perspective this was all done long ago in the garden and all finished.

    A bit of a mind bender for those who don’t understand time and eternity.

  5. James says:

    Thanks to both of you (EditorJack and DougT) for sharing your thoughts.

  6. I think this is a fascinating topic. I know the Atonement is like a microwave—you don’t have to understand how it works; you just have to know how to use it. But I’d still like to know, in part because it can help a person use it better if they understand how it works.

    EditorJack, I think your summary of the Atonement is an awesome one. The question at hand is why does Jesus’s unjust suffering enable him to ask for unmerited mercy on us? It’s OK, though, to be content without an articulable answer. In fact, I think a willingness to have the answer delayed indefinitely is a vital prerequisite before a person is in a frame of mind where they would be prepared to receive an answer. If we insist on a full explanation now, before we’re willing to follow the Lord’s plan, then we’ll never get an answer.

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Aquinas.

  7. James says:

    It is truly paradoxical that the centerpiece of our religion is the hardest piece to understand.

  8. aquinas says:

    James ~ I couldn’t agree more. It is paradox par excellence in that the religious concept that we often stress as the crux of our religion is also the religious concept that we have so little to say about. That is a serious paradox.

    Nathan ~ The book is very thought-provoking. I’d like to hear what you think about it sometime.

    I often hesitate to make comments on this topic because for me it is a very rich and complicated subject.

  9. Does anyone know of a time when Joseph Smith or Brigham Young called the atonement a mystery? I think everyone is trying to make it too complicated. If it is the essential part of the gospel it ought to be the best understood with a simple explanation rather than making it a traditional mystery. William Harris

  10. James says:

    Good question William. I don’t know if Joseph or Brigham ever said anything like that.

    I promise you that nobody wants to make the Atonement more complicated than it needs to be. We want it to be simple and easy to understand. But the more you dig into it the less sure you feel about how it works. At least, that is my experience.

  11. […] Atonement Theories « Lehi’s LibraryJan 31, 2011 … Satisfaction Theory: The second metaphor, used by the eleventh century theologian Anselm, is called the “satisfaction” theory. In this picture … […]

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