As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Concept of Atonement in Christianity

A number of theories of the atonement have been advanced by Christians to explain how and why the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ redeem. Concerning them, their usefulness, and their role C. S. Lewis wrote:

We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ's death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at.[1]

Catholic view

Held by many Christians, this view holds that Jesus willingly sacrificed himself as an act of perfect obedience (the Gospels show him struggling with this in the Garden of Gethsemane), atoning for the disobedience of Adam, and thus cleansing Mankind of the stain of original sin. Jesus's sacrifice was an offering of love that pleased God more than man's sin offended God, so now all who believe in Jesus and keep his commandments may receive salvation in his name, see also Great Commission and Sermon on the Mount.

Judicial (Protestant) view

By contrast, the Catholic view off-shoot titled the judicial view was held by Martin Luther, and a major cause of the Reformation. It is held by the majority of Protestants.

This view emphasizes God as Judge. Humanity had sinned and God was therefore required, in His justice, to punish humankind. However, God sent His Son, who was sinless, to take the sin of the world on his shoulders, so that anyone who accepted the gift of Jesus's act could be freed from the consequences of his sin, without violating God's judgement.

The result is that through Christ's death, the Old Covenant passed away and all things became new in a New Covenant. The veil separating man and God was torn, and the people were free to work out their own salvation through the only true Mediator, Jesus Christ, rather than seeking salvation through rituals, rules, or an exclusive priesthood. People who hold this view generally believe that only acceptance of Christ's sacrifice is necessary for salvation, not a ritual or a sacrament. See also Antinomianism.

This view of the theological significance of Jesus's resurrection is analogous to the Jewish Day of Atonement, by which the sins of the Israelites were put onto a flawless scapegoat, who was then released into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with him.

Christus Victor

The Christus Victor view, which is more common among Lutherans (see, e.g. G. Aulen's book Christus Victor), and Eastern Orthodox Christians, holds that Jesus was sent by God to defeat death and Satan. Because of his perfection, voluntary death, and Resurrection, Jesus defeated Satan and death, and arose victorious. Therefore humanity was no longer bound in sin, but was free to rejoin God through faith in Jesus.

In contrast to the Judicial view, the Christus Victor model emphasizes a spiritual battle between good and evil. This battle is on a cosmic scale. The Judicial view would require Christians to believe that God voluntarily punished Jesus for their sins, whereas the Christus Victor view sees humanity as formerly in the power of Satan, who was defeated by Jesus; and God, through Jesus, broke us out of Satan's power.

The Christus Victor sometimes has also been used to argue that Jesus defeated sin and death for everyone, whether or not they hear of Jesus, granting non-Christians the chance of eternal life (or a guarantee thereof, depending on the particular theology in question).

First Man view

The First Man view, held by a small minority of Christians, especially Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians, states that Jesus was a person just like the rest of humanity, but due to his remarkable faith, purity, sinlessness, and perfection, he earned eternal life, and was resurrected because Death could not hold him. They also believe that by following his teachings and example others may also ultimately earn eternal life.

The First Man view can be compared with the Old-Testament stories of Enoch and Elijah, who walked with God to such a degree of faithfulness that they were not required to die. Enoch 'was no more,' and Elijah was carried in a whirlwind. In the same way, Jesus was faithful to such a degree, that even though he was killed, his Faith earned him Eternal Life. And in the same way, if we are faithful to the same degree, we can also be free from death.

Christus Victor

Main article: Christus Victor

Ransom: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa

Scapegoating: William Tyndale (who invented the word from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts), René Girard, James Alison, Gerhard Förde see 'In Christianity' in Scapegoat

[edit] Physical Theory

Recapitulation: Irenaeus, Athanasius, Cappadocian Fathers, Eastern Orthodox Church

Edward Irving, T. F. Torrance

Moral Influence

  • Pierre Abélard (It is questionable whether Abélard himself taught this model of Atonement)

Hastings Rashdall


Divine satisfaction: Anselm of Canterbury & Salvation in Catholicism

Penalty or Punishment satisfaction: John Calvin, Calvinism, & Imputed righteousness

Vicarious Repentance, John Mcleod Campbell, R. C. Moberly



Denominational Perspectives

Roman Catholic

The Roman Catholic Church does not limit itself to a single theory but several, including, but not limited to, the Ransom, Penal Substitution, Moral Influence theories and the primacy of the Incarnation. Rather, these multiple perspectives are needed to express the fullness of the Atonement.

On looking back at the various theories noticed so far, it will be seen that they are not, for the most part, mutually exclusive, but may be combined and harmonized. It may be said, indeed, that they all help to bring out different aspects of that great doctrine which cannot find adequate expression in any human theory.[5]

Rather than considering these different views as theories, it is better to consider them as expressions or representations. While theologians may at times emphasize one idea, this does not imply that the others are any less true or valuable. To consistently emphasize only one aspect of the Atonement is dangerous.

Eastern Orthodox

Eastern Orthodoxy has a substantively different soteriology; this is sometimes cited as the core difference between Eastern and Western Christianity. The Orthodox view is closely related to the Incarnation and is thus closest to the Physical redemption theory.


The almost unanimous, contemporary Protestant view is that of penal substitution. The view is so widely believed that few Protestants are aware of alternative understandings of the Atonement. In the rare instances when they encounter other Christians who profess non-substitution views, Protestants usually consider these views heretical.

However, Protestants still use the language of alternative understandings prolifically especially where they are used in the Bible. Usually this is done because, while they consider the penal substitution theory as the literal understanding, they still feel free to use other differing ideas as figurative language about the Atonement. This is true, for example, of the Christus Victor view. There are instances when Protestants confuse other views as the satisfaction view, Matthew 20.28, for example. Jesus said of himself, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

Of course, there are always exceptions. More liberal Protestants, particularly scholars, are more likely to relate with the Moral Influence view.


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