The Moral Influence Theory of Atonement

Today’s post is brought to you thanks to Nancy Hennessey, a delightful lady who I’m glad to call a friend and who is going to be a fantastic priest very soon. She has her own blog for the class, exploring the Atonement in the context of the US Criminal Justice System. It sounds super interesting and I’m excited to read. Posting her paper was an actual class assignment, but I’m glad for it, because I think she speaks succinctly and smartly to the Moral Influence Theory of Atonement. Without further ado, then, here is Nancy’s exploration:

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The Moral Influence Theory recognizes that Christ’s death on the cross was a loving sacrifice and revealed the supreme love that God had for humankind. Rembrandt’s famous painting of the homecoming of the Prodigal Son reflects the moral influence theory of the steadfast love of a father (God) towards his son (humanity) who comes home seeking forgiveness and repentance. (Luke 15:11-32)

Unlike other theories that connect Jesus’ death to the salvation of our sins, the moral influence theory understands the sacrifice Jesus made with his death on the cross as the compelling reason for us to change our sinful ways, to be and live more as Jesus. In other words, to demonstrate the same compassion and love for our fellow human being as Jesus showed for the marginalized, the poor, and the meek. As early as the writings of Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215) he recognized Jesus’ death as the enduring love that God had for us by bringing Jesus into our human world as a living example of an exemplary life. Moral influence theory is more subjective than the other theories, particularly the satisfaction theory brought forth by Anselm.

The moral influence theory was written about by many of the patristic writers including Augustine (354 – 430) who expressed the belief in Jesus’ presence on earth reflected God’s love for humanity. As with other patristic theologians, this theory was “but one element in the Christian understanding of the cross.” (p. 331, McGrath)

It was Peter Abelard (1079 -1142), known as a superior theologian, philosopher, and scholar of his time, which was primarily credited for the development of this theory. He wrote, “the purpose and cause of the incarnation was that Christ might illuminate the world by his wisdom, and excite it to love of himself.” (pg. 332, McGrath) But it has been noted that similar to Augustine, this was not Abelard’s only theological premise for atonement. Perhaps his colorful and romantic personal life of his younger years was what people were most interested in, resulting in giving him exclusive credit for this theory of atonement. J

Unlike the ransom theory, the moral theory is not a payment to Satan, or the restoration of God’s honor as in the satisfaction theory. Instead, God’s expansive love is what is important, not compensation or victory. The responsibility of the atonement is on the Christian who desires a fuller life in Christ and is being led by the example of the life and death of Jesus. His sacrifice for us should draw from us the desire to live out a life that Jesus’ pure life showed us.

It is important to note that the death of Jesus on the cross was not his sole purpose as a penalty or victory – as believed in the other theories. Instead his death is seen as a result of his actions and is within a larger context of his life, death, and resurrection.

In closing, here is a hymn written by Peter Abelard on the atonement. It may shine a additional light into his thoughts and beliefs of the moral influence theory of atonement.

Alone thou goest forth, O Lord, in sacrifice to die;
Is this thy sorrow naught to us who pass unheeding by?
Our sins, not thine, thou bearest, Lord; make us thy sorrow feel,
Till through our pity and our shame love answers love’s appeal.
This is earth’s darkest hour, but thou dost light and life restore;
Then let all praise be given thee who livest evermore.
Grant us with thee to suffer pain that, as we share this hour,
Thy cross may bring us to thy joy and resurrection power.

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