Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.
In another version of the atonement that was quite popular during the first millennium of Christianity, but virtually snuffed out in the West by penal substitution, Jesus Christ is seen as a moral exemplar, who calls us toward a better life, both individually and corporately.
In this view, the Hebrew scriptures record effort after effort by God to get people on the right track. Through personal interaction, the Law, the prophets, and the sacrificial system, God tried to get the people to live morally upright lives. But each of those attempts failed.
So God sent his son, Jesus, as the perfect example of a moral life. Jesus’ teachings and his healing miracles form the core of this message, and his death is as a martyr for this cause: the crucifixion both calls attention to Jesus’ life and message, and it is an act of self-sacrifice, one of the highest virtues of the moral life.
We see Jesus’ death, and we are inspired to a better life ourselves. But there’s more to it than this.
The Moral Exemplar view of the atonement was the first post-biblical view articulated in the very earliest, post-Apostolic church. You can read about it in some of the earliest Christian writings, like the Epistle to Diogentus, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the letters of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, and the Martyrdom of Polycarp.
For [Christ] came down, for this he assumed human nature, for this he willingly endured the sufferings of humanity, that be being reduced to the measure of our weaknessm he might raise us to the measure of his power. And just before he poured out his offering, when he gave himself as a ransom, he left us a new testament: “I give you my love.” What is the nature and extent of this love? For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other.
With this quote, one immediately sees that free will is a core component of the moral exemplar theory. Except for one of its major proponents: Augustine!
That’s right, Augustine, the proto-Calvinist who wholeheartedly embraced predestination, wrote in support of Jesus as moral exemplar.
But the most articulate defender of this version of the atonement was Peter Abelard (1079-1142), the tragic figure who was castrated by the Church because he fell in love with his young student, Héloïse. He also happened to be a brilliant philosopher and theologian.
Abelard reject the Augustinian notion of Original Sin. While human beings are guilty and sinful, this is not because we’ve inherited some depravity from Adam. Humans cannot be held liable for another person’s sin, Abelard argued. That is not justice. We are inclined toward sin because of Adam, but we are not guilty of his sin. Neither can someone achieve absolution for someone else’s guilt. Neither is that justice.
So a human being is not absolved of sin because of Christ’s death on the cross. Absolution is achieved only by confession and repentance. Instead, Christ’s death serves as an example that beckons us to lives of sacrificial love:
We are joined through his grace to him and our neighbor by an unbreakable bond of love…Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear—love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found
In the moral exemplar theory, we have an ancient version of the atonement—the most ancient version—without all of the spiritual warfare and demonology required by Christus Victor and Ransom Captive.
The problem for many Protestants, however, is that Moral Exemplar seems to downplay the crucifixion. In fact, it can be asked whether the crucifixion is necessary at all if Jesus is merely an example of a good moral life. How is Jesus any different than, say, Ghandi? This is the very reason why many Protestants consider Moral Exemplar an important secondary understanding of the atonement, a supplement to the dominant Penal Substitution.
But proponents of Moral Exemplar say that’s selling their view short. Jesus is not merely an example. He’s not merely anything.
God is not coercive. God does not demand. Instead, God invites and beckons. (Here you may rightly hear parallels with process theology.) And the cross is the ultimate invitation to each human being to live the life that God wants us to live.