Some Theories of Atonement, or Love, Not Honor or Substitution

Today is the feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  Yet many of us have no idea what that triumph means, or what exactly the mechanism of that triumph was.  Without going on too long, I want to lay out briefly some theories of atonement.  But first I want to say one thing quite clearly: The New Testament never speaks of God’s anger in the context of the passion of Christ.  Never.  So nor should we.  The motive for God’s action in Christ was love, not anger.  More on that later.

Let me lay out three positions.

The first theory is that of Christus Victor.  This is an ancient theory, found particularly in the Fathers of the Church.  Here the dialectic is between Christ/Life and Satan/Death.  According to this theory, the Resurrection is the real salvific moment, the soteriological moment par excellence. This made more sense in the early centuries of the life of the Church because of the popularity of well known myths of resurrection such as surrounded Hercules, Apollo, Dionysius, and so on.  Either way, the focus was on Jesus conquering Satan and death by his death and resurrection.  Gregory of Nyssa’s The Catechetical Oration, for example, describes Christ as the bait on the hook that Satan the fish took, thereby destroying himself.  Or in Augustine, the cross of Christ is like a mousetrap that the devil bites into and is destroyed by.  In the East, this continues to be the main model.

The second theory is Anselm’s well known Expiation Theory of Atonement. While the idea of “expiation” is clearly present in the New Testament, it’s primary locus of meaning is found in the feast of Yom Kippur.  This is the setting in which Paul discusses expiation, and also the setting of the entire book of Hebrews.  But Anselm’s theory has quite a different context.  In the West, God’s honor became a central concept.  According to Anselm’s theory, God’s honor was offended and there was an imbalance in the world.  Since man committed this sin, man had to set it right.  But since it was against God and thus an infinite offense (an argument that Scotus find specious), only God could set this right.  Such a theory is of course nowhere to be found in the Gospels, but, derived from Paul, it found a home in Anselm’s feudal context.

Anselm never calls the crucifixion “punishment.” This is an important point to make, since it is often thought that in Anselm’s theory God is “punishing” humanity vicariously through his son.

One spinoff of Anselm’s theory is Calvin’s theory of Substitutionary Penal Atonement.  According to this theory, Christ steps in so that God punishes him on our behalf.  It is interesting to me how this theory has made its way, probably via certain evangelical and fundamentalist camps, into the Catholic Church.  I can remember leading a retreat once while at Franciscan University of Steubenville (my Alma Mater).  I was given some notes to use to help me prepare my talk on the passion of Christ.  The notes tell a story, more or less, of a train track operator whose baby is stuck on the tracks.  But at the same time, the tracks are out of line, and he only has time to do one or the other: save his son or line up the tracks for the whole train packed with people.  (Or something like that, it’s stupid).  Anyway, this was supposed to be an analogy for the Atonement of Christ.  Needless to say, I was as appalled then as I am now.  This substitutionary theory is Calvinist through and through and has no place in Catholic theology.  To say that “Christ died for us” is not the same thing as saying that God substituted the death of his son for our death, as if God is bound by some law of atonement (such as we find in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”).

The third theory is the one most associated with modern liberal scholarship.  According to this theory, Christ saved by his teaching.  His influence was primarily pedagogical in nature, and by his wisdom and life we learn how to overcome our own weakness.

It is important to note that the Church has never accepted as doctrine any one particular theory of atonement.  It is likewise important to note that the primary motive for God’s action in Christ was love, not honor.  God saved us in Christ because he loved us, not because his honor was offended, nor because he was bound by some law of necessity.  Nor did God “directly” will the horrific death of Christ.  Rather, Jesus’ death was the inevitable result of his perfect, unconditional love meeting a broken world.  How exactly Christ took upon himself the sin of the world is a mystery.  What matters is that he did, and that he has offered a way of salvation.  I tend to find in authors such as Rene Girard and N.T. Wright good answers to these questions.  But the most important thing on this feast is to revel in the unconditional love of God showered upon us in Christ.

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  • Mark Gordon

    My faith was literally revolutionized by Rene Girard’s work, which definitively answered for me this fundamental question: Why did it take the cross? James Alison provides a helpful (if incomplete) overview of the Girardian perspective on atonement HERE.

    • Jordan

      Rene Girard’s interpretation of the paschal mystery is perhaps the best agnostic take on the doctrine. It’s almost as if Girard has been able to detach (to a great degree, but not completely) the mystery from its socio-historical implications. Girard has interpreted Oedipus Rex through his theory, I used Girard’s general theory to examine Tertullian and Mithraism, and James Alison has reinvestigated Girard’s theory as a new prism through which to view Catholic soteriology and a LGBT liberation theology.

      The only risk for a believer, I suppose, is the possibility that any Christian doctrine can be resignified and placed into service for or against any ideology. And yet, almost any aspect of the gospels and epistles can be refashioned (distorted?) for even the most atheistic ideologies. Girard’s re-examination of the atonement, then, derives from a long line of re-fashioners of Christian theology.

  • Brandon Watson

    It’s always seemed to me that the common tendency to emphasize the ‘feudal’ character of St. Anselm’s theory is misplaced; yes, he occasionally uses examples from his society, but so does everyone in every age. We’re talking Anselm here, and in general any interpretation of Anselm that makes his position a relatively simple and straightforward one is suspect; he is far and away the most abstract thinker among the Doctors of the Church. And the feudal interpretation requires us to assume that right down the center of one of his most sophisticated arguments is a complete lack of abstraction, built not (as everything else in Anselm is built) on abstract logical reasoning but on crude analogy. It’s often overlooked that Anselm’s quite clear that what he means by God’s honor is our justice, in a broad sense — we fail to honor God by failing to be just (and therefore not rendering our due to God). Thus restoring God’s honor for Anselm is nothing other than making us so that we can again honor God as we should. And this requires that God not merely forgive our sins but do so in such a way that we, ourselves, again fully render God His due. (This is part of the reason why Anselm repeatedly talks about our taking our place among the angels to make up the heavenly city throughout his argument, which is always treated as merely tacked-on in the feudal interpretation, whereas Anselm himself clearly sees it as an integral part of his argument: the only way for us to render honor to God is to take our rightful place in the heavenly city, and it would be inappropriate both to God’s justice and to His mercy merely to forgive our sins without also making it possible for us to do so.)

    I agree with your general argument, though.

    • Dante Aligheri

      This is an interesting angle, and I have never heard Anselm explained like this before. In a way, it sounds similar to the Fathers. Humanity is created to be something – that is, fully human. In fulfilling that nature – taking our place in the heavenly city – we glorify God. Justice therefore is intrinsic to us – the right way of existing, an affliction upon us rather than God (as I always thought Anselm meant – an affront to God as if God could be affronted). According to what you’re saying, I think, God could not simply forgive sin (in an extrinsic and judicial “snow-covered dung hill” sense if that’s even possible, which I doubt) without providing a rectification of the situation.

  • Mark VA

    I think you’re onto something, Nathan. I couldn’t agree more that “… Jesus’ death was the inevitable result of his perfect, unconditional love meeting a broken world. How exactly Christ took upon himself the sin of the world is a mystery”.

    Sometimes, thru God’s mercy, what can’t be expressed in one way (as with words), can be expressed via other means. For me, the Andante movement of the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, KV. 453, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is a meditation on the mystery of “et incarnatus est”.

    The cross, His profound sadness for our ingratitude, and His determination powered by love, are all there. Of course, it also helps when the soloist, such as Piotr Anderszewski, is not a mere technician.

    “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. “

  • A Sinner


    The Catholic Church “hasn’t accepted” any one theory of atonement because they are in, in some sense, all correct. That is to say, they’re all analogies, and as such can all be apt.

    Specifically, I’d argue, that which analogy is more or less popular is going to be based, more or less, on the socio-economic structure of the day and thus the symbolic construct of value in that culture. It makes total sense that Anselm’s theory took hold in feudal culture. This is neither wrong nor right, it’s just the cultural context of how the truth was parsed in that age.

    It’s probably not so convincing to our age. But then, let’s not absolutize the value-structure of our age either in some theory.

    Also, when you say things like “Rather, Jesus’ death was the inevitable result of his perfect, unconditional love meeting a broken world,” but then disavow God’s Wrath, I find this incoherent. As one meaning of “God’s Wrath” IS simply the incompatibility of His Love with human sinfulness.

    If the Crucifixion is in any sense a demonstration of human depravity (in fact, the ultimate example of it!) then it is also, by definition, a demonstration of God’s Wrath. Sin is murdering God. But the Death of God is also the punishment for sin. Which is to say: sin is it’s own punishment, and that punishment (the death of God) may at the same time be called God’s Wrath (identifiable with God Himself) because in Christ He “became sin,” became Dead God, which is also to say He became our punishment for sin (because sin is its own punishment).

    The Death of God as the result of Sin IS the punishment for sin. This is true on the grand cosmic scale, but also just in the individual soul: when we mortally sin we lose the state of grace, thus “killing God” in our own soul, and this death of God we wrought is itself the punishment for sin, and this death may be called His Wrath. The caveat being, of course, the Resurrection and the fact that sin can be forgiven and that we can be restored to the state of grace.

    But let’s never forget the intimate IDENTITY of God’s Love and God’s Wrath, the fact that the act of punishment and the act of salvation are the same, they are not at all mutually exclusive concepts. If God didn’t CARE He wouldn’t be angry, He’d just not care.

    I’m afraid tendencies to move away form the language of anger or wrath also mean moving away from the fact that Hell is right at the heart of the Christian mystery. Indeed, if we deny Hell and its centrality, how can God descending INTO it have any meaning at all? If we aren’t being saved FROM something, then what’s the point of salvation? As Dorothy Sayers said, “Nobody knows the true love of God until they realize how wicked they are.” God’s Love is meaningless without a constant meditation on His corresponding Hatred (which is our sin).

    • digbydolben

      Actually, Sinner, I think–along with John Henry Newman, on the subject of the primacy of theology in all serious discussions “among serious men”–that you have it ass-backwards regarding the effect of some socio-economic structures being the key to theological interpretations; to wit, I believe, along with Newman, that one’s THEOLOGY, especially one’s idea of a correct soteriology is the key to understanding where one’s ideas about political and economic justice come from. And it seems to me that these ideas of Rene Girard’s have a greater potential of healing a broken world and a broken communion than do yours and Anselm’s emphasis on “substitution” and “wrath.”

    • Mark VA


      I think it’s interesting that you propose that “… which analogy is more or less popular is going to be based, more or less, on the socio-economic structure of the day and thus the symbolic construct of value in that culture.”.

      To this effect, I’m re-contextualizing on old joke to fit our age and its current construct of Value, from which flow our changing socio-economic meta-narratives of the day, with their mutating structural linguistics:

      “And Jesus proposed unto them, “And whom do you say that I am?”

      To which they replied, more or less: “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.”

      • A Sinner


        Well but exactly!

        One of the major problems with Modernism broadly so-called is that it actually objectifies and reifies its own analogy. It assumes that all the other analogies are AT BEST analogies, but that somehow its own language (even though it is very obtuse and abstract for common people) gets “behind” analogy and reveals what the analogies “really mean” even though all its doing is parsing things in NEW analogy (perhaps we might call it that of “experiene”)…but an analogy that’s missing something exactly because of that arrogance, exactly because it is “disenchanted” as it were, exactly because it makes the pretension of denying analogy.

      • Trellis Smith

        Re: MarkVA, While it’s rather hard not to get your point, within your construct it should be noted that the Ground of Being is a Thomisitic notion and not a modern invention. This better illustrates that theology and in particular the theology of atonement is a conversation towards a development of theology across time and not merely situated within a particular period. So while one cannot escape subjectivity, there are objectve criteria leading to further development and hopefully better understanding.

  • Morning’s Minion

    Thank you for this. My dear old Jesuit friend and mentor used to make this very point all the time. He was the only one who ever did. God bless the Jesuits!

  • turmarion

    Reblogged this on The Chequer-board of Nights and Days and commented:
    This ties in with some of the themes I’ve been exploring in my “Legends of the Fall” series, and so I’m reblogging it and placing it in that series. I especially like the emphasis that the idea of satisfying God’s wounded honor is peculiarly Western and is not based on Scripture. Also, I, like Father O’Halloran, am rather appalled at how Substitutionary Penal Atonement has crept into Catholicism, to which it is actually quite alien. Kudos to Fr. O’Halloran for this post.

  • crystal

    Interesting, that combination of the Trolley Thought Experiment with atonement theory :)

    I like your emphasis on love instead of substitution. It reminds me of a past article by Jesuit Ken Overberg … “The Incarnation: God’s Gift of Love” …

  • James Chastek

    Athanasius’s theory of atonement is worth mentioning too: while he uses words like “substitution” or “exchange” when dealing with Christ’s death, he uses them in a very different way from Calvin. For Athanasius, the act of becoming incarnate elevates the human race through a sort of solidarity – If a some greatly admired person visits a prison, it’s the prison that becomes more admirable, as opposed to the admirable person looking more like a convict. This elevating solidarity is at the heart of the Incarnation, understood not as the first moment of life but as the whole existence and life of Christ, even until now. The crucifixion thus becomes a special moment within the Incarnation, one which allows human death to become something new though Incarnational solidarity.

    Athanasius famously sees the Incarantion as a solution to a divine dilemma: i.e. how can God both keep his promise that all men have to suffer death and still liberate and save the human race from evil? The Incarnation preserves justice so far as all men die, but it makes this death a gateway to something new. It is part of a re-creation of the world, which is exactly for Athanasius why it has to be undergone by the Logos of God, who first created the world. Athanasius’s solution therefore maps pretty well onto a modern theory like N.T. Wright’s (which is emphatically about a new creation of the world through Christ) or Benedict’s theory of the removal of guilt through the sort of communion that can only happen in the Sacred Heart.

    • Hector_St_Clare

      Yes, I was going to bring up Athanasius. He more or less buys into, what I understand is called the Recapitulation theory of the Atonement. And he sees the incarnation as a whole, more than Christ’s death in itself, as the process by which we are brought back into relationship with God.

  • Ronald King

    With ignorance of theology and God’s Love I was raised in the Catholic faith which emphasized shame and fear. It seems to me that shame and fear have been the most consistent and powerful building blocks influencing the formation of faith throughout human history. Consequently, theories about God’s honor and justice as experienced and expressed through the lens of shame and fear appear to resonate with the sins they hope to erase. What seems to occur within this resonance is the continuation and reinforcement of a tradition which seems to harm the soul rather than heal it. It appears to me that the Church lacks awareness of its shame and the psychological defenses built it has constructed to prevent such awareness from taking place. This is understandable because if such an awareness would take place it would create an identity crisis and plunge the entire Church into a dark night of the soul and leave it with the awareness that all of its material posessions which it has used to define itself are distractions and defenses used to protect itself from the history of shame and fear continuing to attack its soul. It is my perception that the Church is fearful of being nothing just as every human being is fearful of the same thing. Only Love can free us to feel the suffering of being nothing and heal the shame which creates the distorted perceptions of honor and punishment.
    On the Cross God’s Love experienced the weight of suffering of all Creation through the human fear of being nothing. The weight of that suffering consists of every human being’s belief that “I am not loveable and I am nothing.” Love opens us to the empathy required to feel and know the other’s suffering and the weight of that suffering. Love will influence one to desire to release the other from that suffering. That is the integrity and justice of true Love.
    Thanks Fr. Nathan for this meditation. I thank God for this site.

  • Serena

    The best argument I’ve heard against Substitutionary Atonement is that Christ’s resurrection isn’t necessary only his death, whereas with Christus Victor it is. It was actually from Protestant Tony Jones’ book “A Better Atonement”.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    In the email for the daily readings that I get, the additional commentary for the feast was by St. Ephrem:

    Our Lord was trampled down by death but, in return, he cleared a way that crushes death. He submitted to death and underwent it willingly so as to destroy it in spite of itself. For, at death’s orders, our Lord “set out bearing his cross” (Jn 19,17). But he cried out on the cross and drew the dead from hell…

    He is the glorious “son of a carpenter” (Mt 13,55) who, on the chariot of his cross, emerged from the insatiable jaws of the dwellings of the dead and has transferred all humankind into the dwelling place of life (Col 1,13). And since, on account of the tree of paradise, humankind had fallen into the dwellings of the dead, it is on account of the tree of the cross that it has passed into the dwelling place of life. Bitterness had been grafted onto the wood of the former; but onto the latter sweetness has been grafted so that we might recognise in him the leader whom nothing created can resist.

    Glory to you! You have thrown your cross like a bridge over death so that men might cross it from the land of death to that of life… Glory to you! You clothed yourself with the body of mortal Adam and made it the source of life for all mortals. Yes, you are alive! For your torturers treated your life like sowers: they sowed your life in the depths of the earth as grain is sown so that it might rise up of itself and bring with it much fruit (Jn 12,24).

    Come, let us make of our love a great and all-embracing censer; let us pour out songs and prayers to him who made of his cross an incense to the Godhead and who has lavished bounty on us all by his blood.

    This beautifully illustrates the Christ Victor model you so aptly summarized.

  • Dante Aligheri

    Leaving the fanciful “mousetrap” model aside (which – while rhetorically effective – gives the Devil entirely too much power in the World; God alone is in charge, even over the demons), I think the Christ Victor model is by far one of the better ones. In the East, death and original sin are practically coterminous in that death means the loss of God’s Spirit dwelling within – which is also what original sin is. Without the Tree of Life (the Spirit, the true ambrosia), we fall into our natural state of contingency and decay. The Word became unified with a Man – becoming the prototype of a new kind of Spirit-filled man. The Word took upon Himself the entirety of our lives and offered Himself to die our death willingly. This death was decreed by God but something we are doomed naturally to given the loss of the Spirit. In the Resurrection, all humankind is raised. As others have pointed out, Athanasius explains this beautifully. Also, I think that C.S. Lewis’ “Lion, Witch, Wardrobe” fits more comfortably within this model wherein we are condemned by our own natural mortality and Christ “substitutes” Himself.

    Personally, I feel that Adam was the beginning phase of something greater – something which I think might have required him to undergo a kind of “death” similar to the Assumption before passing through the Resurrection.

    I see this in John Duns Scotus who believed that the Incarnation was predestined even before sin so that perfect and divine love could be offered back from Creation divinized to the Divine Father.

  • Dante Aligheri

    I know this is off-topic. However, according to Tradition, was Adam immortal to begin with or could he have died only to be resurrected to a new kind of life – growing to a more complete union with God? I know Athanasius believed Adam’s immortality was supernatural and not natural to his condition which was mortal. However, I’m not sure whether Adam could have “died” prior to receiving a spiritual body. I personally prefer this position but am not sure about this is in accordance with the Faith.

    • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      Dante, it depends. For the majority, immortality is a supernatural gift. Augustine is the closest I think to a “natural” immortality. But even he is very close to Athanasius, emphasizing the need for Adam to hold on to God if he wants to remain in the state. The problem for Augustine is that he is not thinking “essentially” about nature, but “historically.” So he distinguishes between first nature and second nature. First nature holds on to good and has immortality. Second nature does not hold on. So first nature is essentially nature + supernatural aid in the later models. Scotus and Aquinas both say that immortality was a supernatural gift.

      • A Sinner

        Hm. I think they’d say preternatural.

        The immortality of original innocence was a preternatural gift lost through sin. The glorified life of the resurrection is what is supernatural.

        Dante: you’re theory in itself is probably not admissible. But it is certainly theorized especially by the Incarnationalists that, even without sin, at the eventual Incarnation man would have been “raised” from the level of Original Innocence/Justice to the life of Glory. From grace to beatific vision. This is when begetting new children would have stopped etc.

        But I don’t think we’re supposed to postulate that it would have happened through death.

        • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

          No, the language of preternatural was late Medieval. Before that “supernatural” was preferred.

          • Ronald King

            Nathan, It seems that one can have the grace to have a beatific vision and still not possess wisdom. Wisdom seems to be a gift that is obtained through suffering. It is suffering and death that awakens the soul to awareness.

        • A Sinner

          Linguistically, maybe, but there were still two “versions” of the supernatural then; the gifts of original innocence, and the state of glory, which were two states not identified as the same in Aquinas etc.

  • Trellis Smith

    “The third theory is the one most associated with modern liberal scholarship. According to this theory, Christ saved by his teaching. His influence was primarily pedagogical in nature, and by his wisdom and life we learn how to overcome our own weakness”
    I believe you mean by modern scholarship the rediscovery of the pre Augustine views of the early Church, wherein Christ saved not only by his teaching but by the moral example of his life.
    I’m sure you have heard it said that in the creeds, the greatest life on earth is expressed as a comma! which is an apt summation of how our theologies of atonement can engage in a reductionism that misses the point.

  • Dante Aligheri

    Could Adam have entered into union with God through a dormition similar to that of Mary before undergoing an assumption?

  • Dante Aligheri

    A Sinner, I never thought about the divinized Adam and Eve ceasing to bear children before (even though it is in the Gospels and some later Jewish commentaries on Genesis). I know this sounds ridiculous, but part of the reason I was convinced that Adam and Eve needed to die before glorification is because immortality per se in their present state would an infinite number of children. Logistically, this seemed unlikely. I guess the resulting question is this: if Adam and Eve had not sinned would there have been any time between glorification and their present life at all so that children could be born. If not, would this not seem to imply the human race is a result of losing glorification?

    I know this is one of those odd theological hypotheticals, but they are interesting to ponder.

    • A Sinner

      Yes, there would have been time, in the traditional theological speculation. Glorification would have resulted after the full intended number of the human race had been born. When this would have happened is disputed. The Incarnationalist school (the “Franciscan thesis”) would say that this would have happened upon the incarnation. Christ might then have been the last person born.