So…Atonement is what, exactly?

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I’ve got a pretty odd…okay, varied…group of people who look at this blog. Some of you have been hearing the word “atonement” since before you could spell it. Some of you have more theological education than I do and could be teaching me (some of you are teaching me). Some of you have heard of atonement, and could maybe attempt a definition, but wouldn’t stake your life on it.

If I’m going to be throwing around atonement for the next several weeks, I should probably try to get us all on the same page. The thing is, that’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds. Atonement tries to answer the question, “What was the purpose of Christ on Earth?” And as you can probably guess, there are about as many answers to that question as there are people trying to answer it

Soon I’m going to post my classmate’s run-down on one of the theories of Atonement, the Moral Influence Theory, but first wanted to give you all a quick overview of some of the major theories out there. Here goes:

Ransom Theory (aka Christus Victor)

The Ransom Theory basically holds that original sin (Adam & Eve) placed humankind under subjugation to Satan, and that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan. In this scenario, Christ’s death was God’s victory over the powers of evil and death—hence the “Christus Victor” designation, a name drawn from Gustaf Aulén’s 1931 revisitation of Atonement theories. Ransom Theory was the dominant theology of atonement for the first millennium of Christianity, until Anshelm’s Satisfaction Theory emerged in the 11th century. This view is often associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church today.

Satisfaction Theory

Anshelm thought it was absurd for the devil to be on par with God in such a way that a ransom could be made, so he rejected the Ransom Theory for giving too much power and agency to Satan. However, he maintained, humans did sin, and could only be reconciled to God (make satisfaction) by an act of God. Anshelm’s solution? The Incarnation. God became human to satisfy the outcome of our sin. This is the view espoused by the Catholic Church today.

Moral Influence Theory

Peter Abelard thought it was bad theology and cruel to demand blood sacrifice, and felt there should be no precondition for God’s forgiveness—God can do anything God wants, so why should God have to become incarnate and/or go to the cross to save us? In addition to this question, Abelard notes that Jesus was already forgiving people before he went to the cross. The conclusion: that the main purpose of Christ is love, and when we are not practicing love, we fall into negative ways of being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this view tends to be popular among liberal Protestants. (This is the theory we’ll explore in a bit more depth in the next post.)

Penal Substitution Theory

This is a legacy of the Reformation, and (probably unsurprisingly) is the theory I was brought up with. The Reformers saw a need for law and order in a turbulent society, and as such theorized that Christ brought order our of anarchy. Penal substitution is a very legal understanding that there must be some sort of retribution for the chaos (sin) caused by humans, and the inflexibility of God’s law in this view supported the Reformed tenet of salvation by faith alone. In the perspective of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement, Jesus takes the guilty verdict on himself to spare creation so that we God’s people might learn to be not guilty and to practice something beyond chaos and disorder.

*Tangent: I have one marginally famous ancestor: Hugo de Groot, aka Grotius. His legacy is mostly in international law, and while I knew he did some work in theology (thanks, Wikipedia), I didn’t expect to encounter him in seminary—but it turns out his governmental theory of atonement is actually more than just a footnote in the history of atonement theologies. Neat!

These are some of the major theories of atonement. They’re not the only theories (though many other theories of atonement fall under or are connected to one or more of these). I would also argue that they are not mutually exclusive, though it may seem difficult to hold them together. The complexity, while frustrating, is the result of a complex and living act, and as such is actually a good thing (though my life would be easier if it was a bit more straightforward).

That’s a LOT of information, and a pretty head-heavy post. I promise this will get more interesting, but a little background is going to make further exploration more interesting. I also don’t claim to have gotten everything right, so feel free to call me out if something seems off here, or if I glossed over your favorite view of the Atonement.

That aside, I’d like to hear what you think. Do one or more of these perspectives resonate with you? Do any trouble you or leave a bad taste in your mouth? What do you think was the purpose of Christ on earth?


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