Church Education Trust

Christian Belief

e. ST006/5 Atonement Theories.


Various Theories concerning the Atonement.

Generally speaking the testimony of church history and the history of Christian doctrine is that the various doctrines of the Church have been thought out and stated in terms satisfactory to the Church and in accord with the teaching of the Scriptures during times of heresy and opposition; they have in other words, been beaten out on the anvil of experience and earnest thought.

This was so in the case of the doctrine of the Work of Christ. During the early days of the Church and right up to the time of Augustine, thought was given first to the Godhead and to the Person of Christ, and then to the doctrine of man and sin. It was not till after the time of Augustine, in the scholastic period of the Church, that any serious consideration was given to the doctrine of the atonement, and it was not really finally settled till the Reformation.

In the days of the Early Fathers mostly purely Scriptural language was used concerning the work of Christ without giving any explanation as to its meaning. Two theories, however, were formulated. One by Irenaeus, that the atonement was a victory over Satan, and an advance on this by Origen to the effect that the ransom price was paid to Satan.

The first real attempt at a theory was from Anselm. The best method of considering the theories is probably not in historical order but according to the main type of theory. These main types are the

  1. Satisfaction theories.
  2. Governmental theories.
  3. Moral Influence theories.
  4. Sacramental theories.

The Satisfaction Theories.

The type of theory commenced with Anselm. Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093-1109 and the epoch making book which set forth his doctrine of the incarnation and the atonement was entitled ''Cur Deus Homo?" ( Why did God become man?). This was the first really scientific statement concerning the meaning of the atonement.

Anselm first of all rejects completely the idea of the death of Christ as a ransom price paid to Satan. Wiley summarizes Anselm's theory as follows - "Sin violates the divine honour and deserves infinite punishment since God is infinite. Sin is guilt or debt, and under the government of God, this debt must be paid.

This necessity is grounded in the infinite perfections of God. Either adequate satisfaction must be provided or vengeance must be exacted. Man cannot pay this debt, for he is not only finite but morally bankrupt through sin. Adequate satisfaction being impossible from a being so inferior to God as man is, the Son of God became man in order to pay the debt for us.

Being divine, He could pay the infinite debt; and being both human and sinless, could properly represent men. But as sinless He was not obliged to die, and owing no debt on His own account, He received as a reward of His merit, the forgiveness of our sins."

The strength of Anselm's theory lies in his emphasis on the dire nature of sin and the need for satisfaction. There have, however, been various interpretations of the meaning he gave to this satisfaction. It seems clear that in Anselm's own mind the satisfaction which Christ rendered to divine justice was not through bearing the penalty of a broken law, but indirectly by the acquisition of merit.

"The sacrifice of Christ being infinite, was of greater value than the demerit of sin, and consequently this merit accrues to Christ, and overflows to all who believe." From this it would seem that the emphasis is on the quality of the satisfaction provided by Christ's death and not merely on the quantity.

On the other hand, the idea of debt and payment is a commercial one and does lay emphasis more on quantity than on quality, and some interpretations of his theory state that it implies that Christ paid the debt in the exact amount of suffering that would have been required of sinners throughout eternity.

He certainly seems to have believed, as did Augustine, that Christ died only for the elect and his theory just as certainly did lay the basis for the more developed penal satisfaction theory generally held by the Calvinists, which we must consider briefly now.

This theory is sometimes referred to as the Anselmic theory but it is really a considerable advance on this with a slightly different but important emphasis. It is usually connected with the Reformed Churches of the Reformation and is generally known as the Calvinistic theory.

It must be remembered, however, as with many of these theories, that there are considerable differences of opinion among Caivinists themselves and many do not hold the extreme views of the earlier Calvinists, though it does seem that they are really inconsistent in not doing so.

The Reformed Theologians took over from Anselm the idea of satisfaction but gave it the meaning of substitution instead of merit", Dr. A.A.Hodge, a Calvinist of the federal type, sums up the theory as follows,

  1. Sin for its own sake deserves the wrath and curse of God.
  2. God is disposed from the very excellence of His nature, to treat His creatures as they deserve.
  3. To satisfy the righteous judgment of God, His Son assumed our nature, was made under the law, fulfilled. all righteousness, and bore the punishment of our sins.
  4. By His righteousness, those, who believe are constituted righteous, His merit being so imputed to them that they are regarded as righteous in the sight of God." (Outline of Theology p.309).

On the surface this seems perfectly in order. But when its meaning is sifted and explanations given, problems arise. There is undoubtedly a very valuable element of truth in this type of theory (which is usually called the "penal satisfaction " theory). The death of our Lord was indeed a substitutionary one but it is possible to conceive of the substitutionary character in too mechanical a way.

Dr. Miley shows the problems which arise in dealing with the subject and the diversities of opinion given in the explanation. He writes "The effect of the imputation of sin to Christ, and the nature and degree of His penal sufferings, are questions entering deeply into the difficulties of the subject.

  1. Did imputation carry over sin, with its turpitude and demerit, or only its guilt to Him?
  2. Did He suffer, instead of the elect, the same punishment they must otherwise have suffered?
  3. Did He endure penal suffering equal in amount though differing in kind, to the merited punishment of the redeemed?
  4. Did He suffer an equivalent punishment, less in amount but of higher value, and thus a penal equivalent with justice?
  5. Did He suffer the torment of the finally lost?
  6. Was His punishment potentially or intensively eternal?

Such questions have been asked and answered affirmatively; though a negative is now mostly given to those of more extreme import. The boldness of earlier expositors is mainly avoided in the caution of the later. The former are more extravagant, the latter less consistent." (Syst. Theol. II p.142).

It will be sufficient to mention just three of the ideas which are latent in the theory and have arisen from it, to which objection must be made.

  1. It is stated that Christ became our substitute in the sense that our sin was actually transferred to Him and was penally dealt with in His death on the Cross. The sinner and the substitute, however, cannot strictly speaking be punished for the same offence. The theory, therefore, leads either to universalism or unconditional election.
  2. The natural outcome of the above is the theory of predestination and unconditional election and historically the penal satisfaction theory is connected with that of unconditional election.

These two points are brought out by Dr. Charles Hodge and Dr. Symington, "If the claims of justice are satisfied they cannot again be enforced. This is the analogy between the work of Christ and the payment of a debt.

The point of agreement between the two cases is not the nature of the satisfaction rendered, but one aspect of the effect produced. In both cases the persons for whom the satisfaction is made are certainly freed.

Their exemption and deliverance is in both cases, and equally in both, a matter of justice." (Syst. Theol. II p.472). "The death of Christ being a legal satisfaction for sin, all for whom He died must enjoy the remission of their offences,' (Atonement and Intercession p.190).

Dr. Boyce in his argument for Calvinism against Arminianism also says, "It does not accord with justice that any should suffer for whom a substitute has actually borne the penalty and made full satisfaction. It makes salvation the result in part of faith: but faith is the result of reconciliation, not its cause; it is the gift of God. (Syst. Theol. p.337).

  1. The theory leads also to antinomianism. Not only is this the case from the point of view of unconditional election but also because many types of the theory hold that Christ's "active obedience is imputed to believers in such a manner, that it is esteemed by God as having been done by them." This does away with the real necessity of, and incentive to, obedience on the part of the believer himself.

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