Church Education Trust

Christian Belief



The Governmental or Rectoral Theories

This type of theory lays emphasis on the obligation of divine government and the necessity for God to uphold the majesty of that government. The theory was first put forward by James Arminius and his follower Hugo Grotius. They agreed to uphold not the exactitude of divine justice mainly, but also the just and compassionate will of God as a true element in the atonement.

The theory was really a protest against the extremely rigorous and mechanical penal satisfaction theory just mentioned. Grotius, however, later departed from the original agreement between them and laid the emphasis on the fact of the necessities of government.

He limited the satisfaction made by Christ's death to the dignity of the law, the honour of the Lawgiver and the protection of the universe. He even went so far as to say that God could forgive sin apart from the satisfaction of divine justice and holiness, but that He must uphold the majesty of His law and government.

The central idea of this theory is, that God is not to be regarded merely as an offended party, but as the Moral Governor of the universe. He must, therefore, uphold the authority of His government in the interests of the general good. Consequently the sufferings of Christ are to be regarded, not as the exact equivalent of our punishment, but only in the sense that the dignity of the government was thereby upheld and vindicated as effectively as it would have been, if we received the punishment we deserved.

The weakness in the theory is that it fails to lay emphasis on the sinfulness of sin in the sense of outraging God's nature as holy, as well as His moral government. It does not make clear that death as the penalty for evil goes deeper than broken law and therefore the satisfaction required must go deeper.

It gives the impression that the atonement was nothing more than an expedient whereby God could demonstrate the importance of the moral law, rather than an absolute necessity for the salvation of mankind. There have been several forms of this theory, however, and they do not all go as far as Grotius.

The propitiatory nature of the atonement is included, while emphasis is given to the governmental aspect. A more modern form of the theory is that of Dr. John Miley, who out of the fundamental principles of the theory, constructs one which is distinctly his own.

3. The Moral Influence Theories

This type of theory takes many and varied forms and it will not be possible to deal with them all. It will be necessary to limit our remarks to two of the more important theories.

(a) The Socinian Theory

This was first advanced by Laelius and Faustus Socinius in the 17th century and was the rationalistic reaction against the rigorous penal satisfaction theory, just as we have already seen that the Rectoral Theory was the orthodox reaction.

Actually the theory was advanced much earlier by Abelard who was a contemporary of Anselm, and was an objection to Anselm's theory. The modern successor of both these is Unitarianism. The theory denies any necessity for, or idea of, propitiation or satisfaction.

The only barrier which needs to be broken down is on man's side and the atonement was therefore the "winning exhibition of God's love". Christ died merely as a martyr for the truth, whose loyalty to truth and duty acts as an incentive to man towards moral improvement.

We are saved by repentance and following: Christ's example. The theory is connected with a false conception as to the Person of Christ. It denies that He was deity, the Second Person of the Trinity, God in human flesh.

The objections against such a theory are many, but the three most important are:-

  1. The awfulness of sin revealed in the Scriptures and the judgment of God upon it are overlooked. Sin cannot merely be passed over.
  2. The fact is also overlooked that the emphasis of Scripture is not on the life of Christ but on His death. It is in every case the death of Christ which is the basis for our receiving His life.
  3. The theory does not explain why Christ's death as a martyr was so different from that of other martyrs. It does not explain its awfulness, the horror of great darkness that hung over it and the cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?".

(b) The Sympathy Theory

This is the name given to the theory advanced by Dr. Bushnell. It has sometimes been called the best statement of the moral influence theory and Dr. Miley called it the theory of "Self-propitiation by self-sacrifice".

Christ's priesthood becomes nothing more than "sympathy", using the word in its original meaning of "suffering with". Certain moral elements are similar in God and man, such as the repulsiveness of sin and resentment against wrong. These must not be removed from the character of God, but must be mastered and allowed to remain.

Thus God forgives as man forgives, though as man's rebellion against God is so great, it costs God more. This is revealed in "the sacrifice on the cross, that sublime act of cost, in which God has bent Himself downward in loss and sorrow, over the hard face of sin, to say, and in saying to make good 'Thy sins be forgiven thee." (Bushnell, Forgiveness and Law p.35).

But there is no real propitiation in Christ's death according to this theory. Christ's death is only to convince men that God has no obstacle on His part to the forgiveness of man's sin by His suffering in and with these sins. The theory is really little different from the Socinian one and has been held in various forms. Others who have held it in some form or another are F.V. Robertson of Brighton and Schleiermacher of Germany.

The objections to this theory can be summarized by saying that it emphasises the love of God to the exclusion of His holiness; and also that it uses the word "vicarious" in the sense of suffering "with" humanity and not "instead of" or "on behalf of", thus making the death of Christ nothing more than a moral influence on man.

4. Roman Catholic and High Church Theories

This type of theory was adopted by the Council of Trent in December 1545. The Council of Trent was the Roman Catholic reaction to the Reformation. It was the Roman Catholic counter-Reformation.

The theory is a thoroughly Sacramentarian one. It identifies in a sense the incarnation and the atonement, the very union of the divine and human natures is considered as in some way sanctifying the race. The believer is united with Christ in actual fact in the sacraments and in this way His merits are transferred to the believer, or rather the one partaking of the sacraments.

The sacraments are considered as an "extension of the Incarnation". Quite apart from any objection to the theory from the point of view that the sacrament itself cannot convey grace, it cannot possibly be scriptural in view of the fact that the New Testament says very little concerning the incarnation, whereas, all through the emphasis is on the death of Christ. Moreover, our Lord's passion seems unnecessary and unjustifiable on the basis of this theory.

< back to previous page >

©2008 Church Education Trust