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Why are there so many models of the atonement? In your view, is there one model that merits priority over others?
There are many models of the atonement. Some models have developed in specific eras and have been affected by the culture and influences of the day. The Christus Victor theory was influenced by the pressure the early church was under. The satisfaction model was affected by the feudal system. For a time, a model seems to be valued, but then, weaknesses are recognised, critiqued and other models develop.
The Reformation had a significant influence on how the atonement was viewed and particularly the change in the legal system. This essay will describe some of the main influences on how these models developed and my preferences.
The first main model developed in the early church and was important in the Western church until the Enlightenment. It focused ‘upon the victory gained by Christ over sin, death, and Satan through his cross and resurrection.’
Christ ‘having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’
Christ’s victory was by the cross. However, Baker and Green argue there was, ‘little explanation on how the cross provided salvation.’
During the C2nd, church leaders such as Irenaeus, were querying, ‘why Jesus had to die on the cross and how that affected our salvation.’
The early church was being persecuted and was experiencing conflict and violence. The Roman empire was strong and believed, Caesar was Lord, not Jesus.
‘It is not surprising that Christians framed their discussion of the cross and resurrection in terms of a cosmic conflict between God and the forces of evil, with the resurrection sealing Jesus Christ victory over sin, the devil and powers of evil.’
There are two main approaches within this model, Christus Victus as recapitulation, which focused on Adam and Eve’s sin and Christ being the second Adam and Christus Victus as ransom.
Christus Victus as Ransom.
Irenaeus developed this approach focussing on Mark 10v45 and 1 Timothy 2v6. If Christ’s death was a ransom, where did the ransom go? Irenaeus argued it was to the devil. Gregory the Great developed this and stated that legally the devil had authority over humankind, because of the fall. He argued that the way humanity could be released, was by the devil exceeding his authority. Gregory suggested this could happen if the devil did not notice a sinless person and ‘overstepped the limits of his authority, and thus be obliged to forfeit his rights.’
This approach was criticized for portraying the devil as being too powerful and a lack of explanation as to why the cross had power over the devil.
These models fit the early centuries, where the Christian Church was being persecuted. A model of Christ being victorious was something to hang on to and give people hope.
‘The imagery of victory over the devil had enormous popular appeal.’ The harrowing of hell was attractive to medieval peasants. As the enlightenment approached, which focused on reason and rationality, these models were described as ‘outmoded and unsophisticated,’ and became increasingly unpopular.
During the C18th, people became more sceptical about the resurrection. Reason queried how people could have faith, when they had not seen Jesus die or rise again. Secondly, a belief in the devil waned, he ‘was dismissed as premodern superstition.’ However, following World War 1 it was acknowledged that there was much evil in the world. Sigmund Freud, published his work, raising beliefs that people could be ‘spiritually imprisoned by the hidden forces within their subconscious.’ So, despite, during the enlightenment, belief in the devil waned. The C20th recognised the prevalence of evil and that humans were not all reason.
This approach re-emerged with Gustaf Aulen in 1931. He argued that this theory ‘had dominated Christianity until the Middle ages, when …legal theories began to gain ground.’ He explained that Anselm was an objective theory, which focused on a change in God and Abelard was a subjective theory, which focused on a change in human awareness.
The Satisfaction model developed by Anselm of Canterbury.
Pugh explains, ‘apart from the Christus Victor approaches…all theories of the atonement, … have their roots here.’ Anselm highlights how ‘Christ’s sacrificial death offers satisfaction to God for the debt owed to God by sinful humanity.’
Anselm’s work, was written during the medieval ages, which had a significant impact. Anselm was living in a ‘medieval world of chivalry and feudalism, of knights, lords and vassals. It was a society of a carefully managed series of reciprocal obligations.’
Anselm had issues with the Christus Victus model which he thought made ‘assumptions about the rights of the devil and an implicit suggestion that God acted with less than total honesty in redeeming humanity.’
Anselm believed that humankind was created to be in a relationship with God. This was fractured by sin. Anselm believed, ‘the situation can only be remedied if a satisfaction is made for sin.’ Only God can resolve this. He argues that Jesus ‘would possess both the ability (as God) and the obligation (as a human being) to pay the required satisfaction.’ Jesus was born, so humanity could be redeemed.
‘Anselm saw the death of Christ in terms of private law: many individuals owed God a debt which could not be repaid, so Christ pays the debt in their place. This does not involve punishment; it is simply payment of debt.’
There has been ‘debate over …the idea of a satisfaction.’ Some have suggested that it originated from Germanic laws, where an offence ‘had to be purged through an appropriate payment.’ However, most scholars believe that Anselm was working within the framework of the church. People had to confess their sins regularly and were often given a penance to perform by the priest, such as prayer, pilgrimage or charity work.
Anselm claimed a human can pay a human debt and only a human with no debt, can pay a debt for anyone. Jesus was the one person who could do this.
There were several issues with this model. Firstly, the penalty seemed more about who was offended. The higher ranking the Lord, the worse the penalty. Baker & Green describe how Anselm uses the feudalistic system as a framework. They believe this system affects his model too much, he focuses too much on the honour of the lord and not enough on the ‘relational understanding of sin central to Biblical writings.’
Secondly, Anselm views, ‘sin as something that can be deleted, like a debt,’ rather than a sin causing hurt and needing healing and forgiveness. Baker and Green highlight, how ‘for Anselm redemption is to become free from indebtedness, whereas in the New Testament redemption is freedom from slavery, including slavery to sin.’
Thirdly, Anselm believed that Jesus was needed to redeem humanity, whereas other theologians believe that God would have found another way.
Anselm lived in a Benedictine monastery, where he learnt the Rule of St Benedict, which focused on obedience. Anselm was clear that Christ went, ‘voluntarily to the cross; God the father did not force him to die on the cross.’
‘Anselm does not present a wrathful God punishing Christ in our place; rather, Christ satisfies, or pays, a debt we owe.’
The Moral Influence Model.
Abelard, explained the cross was a demonstration of God’s love. It is sometimes called the ‘subjective’ theory. Migliore argues this model, ‘tended to sentimentalise God’s love, underestimated the power and tenacity of evil in the world and depicted Jesus as merely a good example for people to follow.’
The Reformation had a massive impact on how the atonement was viewed. With Anselm, there was a focus on debt and reparations.
At the Reformation, the criminal justice system changed significantly. ‘Most of Europe made the transition from the private to the public, from what we would call out of court settlements that involved compensating victims, to prosecutions,’ by the state. Anselm’s approach was reviewed following this change.
‘Three main models were used at this time, to understand the manner in which the forgiveness of human sins are related to the death of Christ.’
The Representation Model
This model is where Christ is seen to be the representative of all humanity. By Christ dying on the cross, others could benefit from all he achieved, through faith in him.
McGrath states that satisfaction theory was a representational model.
Migliore claims that satisfaction theory is not clear as to whether it is representational or substitutional. Personally, I am more persuaded by Gunton, who says, ‘Jesus is our substitute because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.’
The Participation Model
‘Through faith, believers participate in the risen Christ.’ One of the main advantages of this model, is not just that we are forgiven, but that ‘by sharing in Christ’s death, one dies to the power of sin.’
‘This idea is central to Luther’s soteriology…faith unites us to Christ, and thus enables us to participate in his attributes.’
The Substitution Model
Late Medieval Spirituality
There ‘was a shift in popular devotion from a kingly, exalted Christ in heaven to a very human Jesus suffering and dying on a cross.’
Pugh suggests there was, ‘growing misery of ordinary people, … widespread rural poverty and immigration to the cities where sanitation was poor and life expectancies short.’
A suffering human Christ, was someone that people could relate to, rather than a victorious Christ. Passion meditation, became a discipline where Christians would focus on the wounds of Christ. ‘Luther recommended it as a route to conviction of sin.’
There are several substitution models, but this essay focuses on penal substitution, which has developed from the satisfaction model.
Luther began to ‘shape atonement theology in the direction of penal substitution.’ He uses Galatians 3v13 to explain how Christ, ‘fully absorbs the sins of every man, that none are visible outside of him.’
‘The French reformer John Calvin is commonly acknowledged to be the one who organised and systematized Lutheran ideas.’ Calvinism went on to become the most widely exported theological product of the reformation.’ He identified the problem of sin and how the substitution of Christ destroyed our guilt and satisfied the wrath of the father. Calvin uses Isaiah 53, to explain how Jesus took the punishment and death, that we deserved.
Charles Hodge wrote the Penal Substitution Model in the 1800s. Hodge explained that God was a just God and could not forgive human sin, without a satisfaction.
Hodge believed that God’s justice meant that there needed to be punishment for sin and the punishment of Jesus was sufficient. Jesus’ death was God’s survival plan for humankind.
Hodge explained, ‘penal substitution provides deliverance from the power of sin and Satan.’ He did not support the Christus Victor model. He believed that humans are in bondage, that Satan can inflict suffering and the death of Christ can deliver us from the penalty of the law, the curse of the law and freedom from the power of Satan.
Baker and Green criticise Hodge saying he was too affected by the criminal justice system and that his understanding of sacrifice was flawed.
The Old Testament (OT) shows how the Israelites had a rhythm of making sacrifices to be in a relationship with God. Stott argues that a substitutionary principle, ‘was built into the OT sacrificial system.’
Stott states that when we consider the OT, ‘the shedding and sprinkling of blood, the sin offering, the Passover, the meaning of ‘‘sin bearing’’. The scapegoat, Isaiah 53 and consider its New Testament (NT) application to the death of Christ, we are obliged to conclude that the cross was a substitutionary sacrifice. Christ died for us.’
John Stott defends the model of penal substitution. He grounds this theory in the satisfaction method, rather than Hodges approach. He focuses on, ‘the need for God to satisfy himself.’
Scott goes on to discuss who is Christ when he dies for us? Stott discusses this in detail and concludes that our substitute is God in Christ, ‘who was truly and fully both God and man, and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them.’ He explains that ‘God and Christ were together active in the work of reconciliation.’
There are many models of the atonement, which have developed over time, influenced by the society, systems, and theology of the day. Christus Victor was influenced by the violence and persecution of its day, the satisfaction model was influenced by the feudal system and the penal substitution by the legal system.
For me, penal substitution is still the model that makes the most sense. I value the backdrop of the Old Testament, with the history of sacrifice, which gives the foundation for Jesus being the ultimate sacrifice for humankind.
I preferred John Stott’s view and how he built on the satisfaction model and focused on the self-substitution of God.
Though I prefer penal-substitution, I see value in the Christus Victor and Anselm’s satisfaction model, and they should not be disregarded. Anselm’s satisfaction model is the foundation of the substitution models, they have the advantage of building on what has gone before them and are grounded in the sacrificial message of the Old Testament.
Whilst reading, I noticed, every theory was criticised. I valued this quote,
‘Humans are not saved by a theory of atonement but by the fact of atonement.’
And was reminded of,
‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’
- Baker, M.D. & Green, J.B. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2011.
- Baxter, C.A. ‘The Cursed Beloved: A Reconsideration of Penal Substitution.’ In Atonement Today, edited by John Goldingay, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1995.
- Franks, R.S. The Work of Christ. London: Thomas Nelson, 1962.
- Gunton, C.E. The Actuality of Atonement. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991.
- Johnson, A.J. Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed. London:Bloomsbury T&T Clark. 2015.
- McGrath, A.E. Christian Theology: An introduction. Chichester: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2011.
- Migliore, D.L. Faith Seeking Understanding. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004.
- Pugh, B. Atonement Theories: A Way through the Maze. USA: Cascade Books, 2014.
- Stott, J. The Cross of Christ. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986.
- Sykes, S. The Story of the Atonement. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1997.
 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An introduction (Chichester, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2011), 322.
 Colossians 2v15.
 Mark D. Baker & Joel B. Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press), 2011, 143.
 McGrath, Christian Theology, 323.
 Ibid., 322.
 Ibid., 323.
 McGrath, Christian Theology, 323.
 Baker et al., Recovering the Scandal,151.
 Ben Pugh, Atonement Theories: A Way through the Maze (USA: Cascade Books, 2014), 45.
 Baker et al., Recovering the Scandal,151.
 Pugh, Atonement Theories, 153.
 McGrath, Christian Theology, 327.
 R.S. Franks, The Work of Christ (London: Thomas Nelson 1962), 135.
 McGrath, Christian Theology, 327.
 McGrath, Christian Theology, 327.
 Pugh, Atonement Theories, 61.
 Baker et al., Recovering, 158.
 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 190.
 Ibid., 74.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding,
Christina A. Baxter, ‘The Cursed Beloved: A Reconsideration of Penal Substitution,’ in Atonement Today, ed. John Goldingay (London: SPCK, 1995), 58.
 Pugh, Atonement Theories, 64.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 190.
 C.E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991.) 165.
 Pugh, Atonement Theories, 65.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 172.
 Ibid., 173.
 John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), 161.
 Pugh, Atonement Theories, 107.
 Stott, The Cross, 185.
 Pugh, Atonement theories, 87.
 1 Cor1v18.
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