- Atonement in Christianity
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Atonement is a doctrine that describes how human beings can be reconciled to God. In Christian theology the atonement refers to the forgiving or pardoning of sin through the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion, which made possible the reconciliation between God and creation. Within Christianity there are, historically, four main theories for how such atonement might work: the ransom theory/Christus Victor, the satisfaction theory, the penal substitution theory and the moral influence theory.
- 1 Atonement in Christianity
- 2 Main theories in detail
- 3 Other Christian perspectives
- 4 Non-trinitarian theologies
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links and Bibliography
Atonement in Christianity
The English word 'atonement' originally meant "at-one-ment", i.e. being "at one", in harmony, with someone. It is used to describe the saving work that God did through Christ to reconcile the world to himself, and also of the state of a person having been reconciled to God.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have used different metaphors and given differing explanations of the atonement to express how the atonement might work. Churches and denominations may vary in which metaphor or explanation they consider most accurately fits into their theological perspective; however all Christians emphasize that Jesus is the Saviour of the world and through his death the sins of mankind have been forgiven. The four most well known theories are briefly described below:
The earliest explanation for how the atonement works is nowadays often called the moral influence theory. In 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 variously through his teachings, example, founding of the Church, and the inspiring power of his martyrdom and resurrection. This view was universally taught by the Church Fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. It also enjoyed popularity during the Middle Ages and is most often associated in that period with Pierre Abélard. Since the Reformation it has been advocated by many theologians Immanuel Kant, Hastings Rashdall and Paul Tillich. It remains the most popular view of atonement among liberal Christians. It also forms the basis for Rene Girard’s "mimetic desire" theory (not to be confused with meme theory).
Chronologically, the second explanation, first clearly enunciated by Irenaeus, is the "ransom" or "Christus Victor" theory. "Christus victor" and "ransom" are slightly different from each other: in the ransom 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). The "Christus Victor" theory sees Jesus not used as a ransom but rather defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor. This theory 'continued for a thousand years to influence Christian theology, till it was finally shifted and discarded by Anselm'.
The third metaphor, used by the 11th 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.
The next explanation, which was a development by the Reformers of Anselm's satisfaction 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 (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 ( ). A 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.
Compatibility of differing theories
Some theologians say that 'various biblical understandings of the atonement need not conflict'. Reformed theologian J. I. Packer, for example, although he maintains that 'penal substitution is the mainstream, historic view of the church and the essential meaning of the Atonement... Yet with penal substitution at the center', he also maintains that 'Christus Victor and other Scriptural views of atonement can work together to present a fully orbed picture of Christ's work'. J. Kenneth Grider, speaking from a governmental theory perspective, says that the governmental theory can incorporate within itself 'numerous understandings promoted in the other major Atonement theories', including ransom theory, elements of the 'Abelardian 'moral influence' theory', vicarious aspects of the atonement, etc.
Others say that some models of the atonement naturally exclude each other. James F. McGrath, for example, talking about the atonement, says that 'Paul ... prefers to use the language of participation. One died for all, so that all died (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is not only different from substitution, it is the opposite of it.' Similarly, Mark M. Mattison, in his article The Meaning of the Atonement says, 'Substitution implies an "either/or"; participation implies a "both/and."' J. Kenneth Grider, quoted above showing the compatibility of various atonement models with the governmental theory, nevertheless also says that both penal substitution and satisfaction atonement theories are incompatible with the governmental theory.
Confusion of terms
Some confusion can occur when discussing the atonement because the terms used sometimes have differing meanings depending on the context they are in. For example:
- Sometimes 'substitutionary atonement' is used to refer to 'penal substitution' alone, when the term also has a broader sense including other atonement models that are not penal.
- Penal substitution is also sometimes described as a type of satisfaction atonement, but the term 'satisfaction atonement' functions primarily as a technical term to refer particularly to Anselm's theory.
- Substitutionary and penal themes are found within the Patristic (and later) literature, but they are not used in a penal substitutionary sense until the Reformed period.
- 'Substitution', as well as potentially referring to specific theories of the atonement (e.g. penal substitution), is also sometimes used in a less technical way—for example, when used in 'the sense that [Jesus, through his death,] did for us that which we can never do for ourselves'.
Care needs to be taken to understand what is being referred to by the various terms used in different contexts.
Main theories in detail
- Pierre Abélard
- Hastings Rashdall
Ransom and Christus Victor
- Penalty or punishment satisfaction: John Calvin, Calvinism, and imputed righteousness
- Vicarious repentance, John McLeod Campbell and Robert Campbell Moberly
Other Christian perspectives
An early theory of the atonement is the recapitulation view, first comprehensively expressed by Irenaeus. In it, Christ succeeds where Adam failed, undoing the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to eternal life (including morality).
Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism have a substantively different soteriology; this is sometimes cited as the core difference between Eastern and Western Christianity. Salvation is not seen as legal release, but transformation of the human nature itself in the Son taking on human nature. In contrast to other forms of Christianity, the Orthodox tend to use the word "expiation" with regard to what is accomplished in the sacrificial act. In Orthodox theology, expiation is an act of offering that seeks to change the one making the offering. The Greek word that is translated both into propitiation and expiation is "hilasmos" which means "to make acceptable and enable one to draw close to God". Thus the Orthodox emphasis would be that Christ died, not to appease an angry and vindictive Father, or to avert the wrath of God, but to change people so that they may become more like God (see Theosis).
Roman Catholic views on atonement and reparation
As expressed by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor, in the Roman Catholic tradition the concepts of atonement and redemption are often seen as being inherently related. And atonement is often balanced with specific Acts of Reparation which relate the sufferings and death of Christ to the forgiveness of sins.
Moreover, in Miserentissimus Redemptor the Pontiff called acts of reparation a duty for Roman Catholics:
- "We are holden to the duty of reparation and expiation by a certain more valid title of justice and of love." ... "Moreover this duty of expiation is laid upon the whole race of men"
Pope John Paul II referred to the concept as:
- "the unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified".
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expands the doctrine of the atonement complementary to the substitutionary atonement concept, including the following:
- Suffering in Gethsemane. The Atonement began in Gethsemane and ends with Christ's resurrection. ( ; Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-19; Mosiah 3:7; Alma 7:11-13. Christ described this agony in the Doctrine and Covenants as follows: "For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent... Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit..." (Doctrine and Covenants 19:15,18).
- The relationship of justice, mercy, agency, and God's unconditional love. Christ's infinite atonement was required to satisfy the demands of justice based on eternal law, rendering Him Mediator, Redeemer, and Advocate with the Father. Thus, he proffers divine mercy to the truly penitent who voluntarily come unto him, offering them the gift of his grace to "lift them up" and "be perfected in Him" through his merits (2 Nephi 2 and 9; Alma 12, 34, and 42; Moroni 9:25; 10:33; compare ).
- No need for infant baptism. Christ's atonement completely resolved the consequence from the fall of Adam of spiritual death for infants, young children and those of innocent mental capacity who die before an age of self-accountability, hence all these are resurrected to eternal life in the resurrection. However, baptism is required of those who are deemed by God to be accountable for their actions. (Moroni 8:10-22)
- Empathetic purpose. Christ suffered pain and agony not only for the sins of all men, but also to experience their physical pains, illnesses, anguish from addictions, emotional turmoil and depression, "that His bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities" (Alma 7:12; compare ).
"The word (atonement) describes the setting 'at one' of those who have been estranged, and denotes the reconciliation of man to God. Sin is the cause of the estrangement, and therefore the purpose of the atonement is to correct or overcome the consequences of sin." (Bible Dictionary in the LDS version of the King James Bible.)
According to the doctrine of The New Church, as explained by Emanuel Swedenborg, there is no such thing as Substitutionary atonement. Swedenborg's account of atonement has much in common with the Christus Victor doctrine.
- ^ atonement. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atonement (accessed: January 15, 2011): '2. (sometimes initial capital letter) Theology. the doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind ...'
- ^ a b atonement. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atonement (accessed: January 15, 2011): '2. (often capital) Christian theol a. the reconciliation of man with God through the life, sufferings, and sacrificial death of Christ b. the sufferings and death of Christ'
- ^ Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (London: Macmillan & Co, 1956), p. 71-2
- ^ Niels-erik A. Andreasen, 'Atonement/Expiation in the Old Testament' in W. E. Mills (ed.), Mercer dictionary of the Bible (Mercer University Press, 1990)
- ^ Matthew George Easton, 'Atonement' in Illustrated Bible Dictionary (T. Nelson & Sons, 1897).
- ^ Ward, K. (2007) Christianity – a guide for the perplexed. SPCK, London, p. 48- 51
- ^ A. J. Wallace, R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011)
- ^ Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 2004; first published 1984), p. 64-5: 'The simplest and most obvious understanding of the cross is to see it as the supreme example. ... This is a favourite theme in the early Fathers, as H.E.W. Turner showed in The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption. ... It can scarcely be denied that much of the second century understanding of the cross was frankly exemplarist.'
- ^ J. F. Bethune-Baker, An introduction to the early history of Christian doctrine to the time of the Council of Chalcedon (London: Methuen & Co, 1903), p. 351-2 : 'From this review of the teaching of the Church it will be seen that... in the earliest centuries... the main thought is that man is reconciled to God by the Atonement, not God to man. The change, that is, which it effects is a change in man rather than a change in God. It is God's unchangeable love for mankind that prompts the Atonement itself, is the cause of it, and ultimately determines the method by which it is effected.'
- ^ H. N. Oxenham, The Catholic doctrine of the atonement (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865), p. xliv,114
- ^ H. N. Oxenham, The Catholic doctrine of the atonement (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865), p. 114
- ^ D. Smith, The atonement in the light of history and the modern spirit (London: Hodder and Stoughton), p. 96-7: 'THE FORENSIC THEORY...each successive period of history has produced its peculiar type of soteriological doctrine...the third period--the period ushered in by the Reformation.'
- ^ Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (London: Macmillan & Co, 1956), p. 71-2: '...the four main types, which have persisted throughout the centuries. The oldest theory is the Ransom Theory...It held sway for a thousand years. [...] The Forensic Theory is that of the Reformers and their successors.'
- ^ L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920), p. 191: 'Before the Reformation only a few hints of a Penal theory can be found.'
- ^ H. N. Oxenham, The Catholic doctrine of the atonement (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865), p. 112-3,119: '...we may pause to sum up briefly the main points of teaching on Christ's work of redemption to be gathered from the patristic literature of the first three centuries as a whole. And first, as to what it does not contain. There is no trace, as we have seen, of the notions of vicarious satisfaction, in the sense of our sins being imputed to Christ and His obedience imputed to us, which some of the Reformers made the very essence of Christianity; or, again, of the kindred notion that God was angry with His Son for our sakes, and inflicted on Him the punishment due to us ; nor is Isaiah s prophecy interpreted in this sense, as afterwards by Luther; on the contrary, there is much which expressly negatives this line of thought. There is no mention of the justice of God, in the forensic sense of the word; the Incarnation is in variably exclusively ascribed to His love; the term satisfaction does not occur in this connection at all, and where Christ is said to suffer for us, huper (not anti) is the word always used. It is not the payment of a debt, as in St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo, but the restoration of our fallen nature, that is prominent in the minds of these writers, as the main object of the Incarnation. They always speak, with Scripture, of our being reconciled to God, not of God being reconciled to us.' [p. 112-3]; 'His [Jesus'] death was now [in the Reformation period], moreover, for the first time viewed as a vicarious punishment, inflicted by God on Him instead of on us.' [p. 119]
- ^ J. I. Packer, What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution (Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973): '... Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon and their reforming contemporaries were the pioneers in stating it [i.e. the penal substitutionary theory]...What the Reformers did was to redefine satisfactio (satisfaction), the main mediaeval category for thought about the cross. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, which largely determined the mediaeval development, saw Christ’s satisfactio for our sins as the offering of compensation or damages for dishonour done, but the Reformers saw it as the undergoing of vicarious punishment (poena) to meet the claims on us of God’s holy law and wrath (i.e. his punitive justice).'
- ^ See for example, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.15.5-8
- ^ a b Trammel, Madison, 'Cross Purposes' in Christianity Today, 2 Jul 2007. (accessed 20/12/10)
- ^ J. Kenneth Grider, The Governmental Theory.
- ^ James F. McGrath, 'What's Wrong With Penal Substitution?' on Exploring Our Matrix Friday, December 14, 2007 (accessed 30/12/10)
- ^ Mark M. Mattison, The Meaning of the Atonement (accessed 30/12/10). See section entitled Substitution or Participation?
- ^ J. Kenneth Grider, The Governmental Theory: 'At the same time, [the governmental theory] is not so eclectic that it has any affinity for the main elements of two of the major Atonement theories: the payment of a debt in the `satisfaction' theory; and Christ's being punished, as in the `punishment' theory'; '...the governmental theory cannot incorporate into itself the understanding that Christ paid the penalty for us, or that He paid a debt for us...'.
- ^ J. K. Mozley, The doctrine of the atonement (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916), p. 94-5: 'The same or similar words may point to the same or similar ideas; but not necessarily so, since a word which has been at one time the expression of one idea, may, to a less or greater extent, alter its meaning under the influence of another idea. Hence it follows that the preservation of a word does not, as a matter of course, involve the preservation of the idea which the word was originally intended to convey. In such respects no doctrine demands more careful treatment than that of the Atonement.'
- ^ Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence, It Is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), p. 15: 'What we hope to do in the fourteen expositional messages in this book is simply to show that the doctrine of penal substitution is clearly taught in the Bible' -- compare with title of book: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement.
- ^ Mark David Baker, Proclaiming the scandal of the cross (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): '...many assume that "substitutionary atonement" is merely a shorthand way to refer to "penal substitutionary atonement." [...] Substitution is a broad term that one can use with reference to a variety of metaphors.'
- ^ Derek Flood, Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor (accessed 31/12/10): 'This hurtful image of God is largely based on a way of understanding the cross that is known as "Vicarious Atonement", "Penal Substitution", or "Satisfaction-Doctrine".'
- ^ John Launchbury, Change us, not God (WCF Publishing, 2009), p. 7: '...Anselm...introduced the Satisfaction Theory'
- ^ D. Flood, 'Substitutionary atonement and the Church Fathers' in Evangelical Quarterly 82.2 (2010), p. 141,143,153
- ^ Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (London: Macmillan & Co, 1956), p. 31. Compare J. I. Packer: 'It would ... clarify discussion if all who hold that Jesus by dying did something for us which we needed to do but could not, would agree that they are regarding Christ’s death as substitutionary, and differing only on the nature of the action which Jesus performed in our place and also, perhaps, on the way we enter into the benefit that flows from it.' ('What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution' )
- ^ H. N. Oxenham, ‘‘The Catholic doctrine of the atonement’’ (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865), p. 114-118
- ^ E.g., James Bethune-Baker, An introduction to the early history of Christian doctrine to the time of the Council of Chalcedon (London: Methuen & Co, 1903), p. 334: 'Just as mankind in Adam lost its birthright, so in Christ mankind recovers its original condition'.
- ^ Robert S. Franks, A history of the doctrine of the work of Christ in its ecclesiastical development vol. 1 (London: Hodder and Stoughton), p. 37-38
- ^ Fr. James Bernstein, author of Surprised by Christ: My journey from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity, The Illumined Heart Podcast, May 22, 2008. See also Clark Carlton. The Faith: Understanding Orthodox Christianity - An Orthodox Catechism (Salisbury, MA) Regina Orthodox Press, 1997. 139-146.
- ^ Ann Ball, 2003 Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices ISBN 087973910X
- ^ Pius XI, Miserentissimus Redemptor (08/05/1928)
- ^ Vatican archives http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_20001021_riparatrici_en.html
- ^ Michael Freze, 1993, Voices, Visions, and Apparitions, OSV Publishing ISBN 087973454X
- Kim, Jintae. The Concept of Atonement in 1 John: A Redevelopment of the Second Temple Concept of Atonement (2003)
- Kim, Jintae. The Concept of Atonement in Hellenistic Thought and 1 John (2001)
- Kim, Jintae. The Concept of Atonement in Early Rabbinic Thought and the New Testament Writings (2001)
- Kim, Jintae. Targum Isaiah 53 and the New Testament Concept of Atonement (2008)
- Kim, Jintae. The Concept of Atonement in the Gospel of John (2009)
- Nonviolent Atonement and the Victory of Christ
- Philosophy and Christian Theology > Atonement from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- "Atonement" in the Jewish Encyclopedia
- "The Doctrine of Atonement" from the Catholic Encyclopedia
- "Atonement" from the Christian Cyclopedia (Lutheran)
- Articles on the Atonement (Calvinist/Reformed)
- Historical Opinions as to the Nature of Christ's Atoning Death (Arminian/Wesleyan)
- The Atonement of Christ (Latter-day Saint)
- Online academic articles on atonement
- The Relationship of the Atonement
- Wallace, A.J., Rusk, R.D. Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011) ISBN 9781456389802
- Chalke, Steve. The Redemption of the Cross. In The Atonement Debate: Papers From the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement (eds. Tidball, Hilborn, and Thacker), 2008, pp. 34–45.
- Finlan, Stephen. The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition. (Minnesota: Liturgical Press; 2008)
- Chalke, Steve. Cross Purposes: Biggest Christian conference splits amid growing atonement debate. In Christianity Today, July, 2007.
- Finlan, Stephen. Options on Atonement in Christian Thought. (Minnesota: Liturgical Press; 2007)
- Finlan, Stephen. Problems With Atonement. (Minnesota: Liturgical Press; 2005)
- Finlan, Stephen. The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature (SBL); 2004)
- Chalke, Steve. The Lost Message of Jesus (London: Zondervan; 2003)
- Paul Fiddes, Past event and present salvation: the Christian idea of atonement (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1989)
- Rashdall, Hastings. The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology. (London: Macmillan, 1919)
Part of a series on Christianity Jesus Christ Foundations Bible Theology History and
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Eastern: Eastern Orthodox · Eastern Catholic · Oriental Orthodox (Miaphysite) · Assyrian
Nontrinitarian: Christadelphian · Jehovah's Witness · Latter Day Saint · Oneness Pentecostal · Unitarian
Topics Christian Soteriology
Absolution • Adoption • Assurance • Atonement • Baptism • Calling • Conversion • Faith • Forgiveness
Glorification • Grace • Imputation • Justification • Mortification • Ordo Salutis • Predestination
Reconciliation • Redemption • Regeneration • Repentance • Resurrection • Sanctification • Theosis • Union with Christ
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