A Neglected Theory of the Atonement? (The “Governmental Theory”)
*Preface: This is an old blog post that I have edited and amended. When I first wrote and posted it here some years ago I intentionally did not mention the atonement theory’s name. Because of some discussion here lately, however, I am naming it “up front.” You will notice some differences in writing and editing between the original essay and the materials I have added (e.g., capitalization of atonement theories, etc.). I have simply chosen not to go through the whole essay to “iron out” the differences between the original (shorter) version and this one which contains some added paragraphs.
Evangelical theology has fallen into another debate over the atonement. Or perhaps I should say we are in the midst of another phase of that long running debate. One of the central questions is whether the penal substitution theory is central to evangelical belief in the atoning death of Jesus. I’ve discussed the controversy here before, so I won’t go over it again. Let me just say that, as I read the literature of the debate, there seems to be a missing view of the atonement. Most of the surveys of atonement theories (penal substitution, “Christus victor,” satisfaction, moral example/influence, etc.) neglect this one. I’m not sure why since millions of evangelical Christians have been taught some version of it over the past centuries.
Before spelling it out, however, I want to say that the so-called “atonement theories” all have somewhat varying versions depending on who is expounding them. For example, “penal substitution” is more a category of views than a single, monolithic view itself. Every time I read a proponent of it I get a slightly different angle on it. For example, compare Thomas Schreiner’s exposition of it in The Nature of the Atonement (IVP) with, say, Hans Boersma’s in Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross (Baker). Both claim to be expositions and defenses of the penal substitution theory, but their details and even emphases are different. The same can be said of Greg Boyd’s and Gustaf Aulen’s and J. Denny Weaver’s versions of the Christus victor theory.
So, what follows here is just one version of a particular historical atonement theory. And I’m not going to name it because, I am convinced, its traditional label tends to bias people against it before they’ve even considered it. It’s also an atonement view widely misunderstood and misrepresented and dismissed as what it’s not especially by Reformed critics.
I expound this neglected atonement theory in twenty propositions. And, by the way, the biblical support for it is the same as for the penal substitution theory. It assumes, for example, that Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus. (I discussed the debate about that and we discussed it here recently, so I won’t go into that again.)
My invitation to you is to comment on it. Is it a viable theory of the atonement? Why or why not?
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
The widely neglected theory (Governmental Theory):
- A viable theory of the atonement must take into account and, in some way, explain why Jesus’ death was necessary for salvation (or at least why he did die to save us). Why did Jesus have to die for us to be saved?
- The cross of Jesus can have had more than one result. A viable theory of the atonement needs to get at the one or more crucial results that address and redress our deepest needs.
- Scripture talks about our guilt, shame, captivity, ignorance, indebtedness, deserving death, etc. But underlying all is alienation from God—a condition of being estranged from God due to sin.
- A viable theory of atonement must include an account of how the cross reconciles us with God or makes reconciliation between us and God possible.
- Put another way, a viable, satisfying theory of the atonement must somehow answer the question “Why didn’t God just forgive us instead of using Jesus’ death as the means of reconciliation?”
- A viable theory of atonement cannot ignore Scripture’s numerous references to the wrath of God against sin or God’s love for sinners.
- Without doubt the cross represents a divine victory over Satan (or the powers that enslave), but how does that address the issues of wrath and guilt?
- Without doubt the cross represents a powerful demonstration of God’s love, but how does that address the issues of wrath and guilt?
- Something like Anselm’s satisfaction theory and Calvin’s and Wesley’s penal substitution theory is necessary to address the issues of God’s wrath, our guilt and our estrangement from God in light of God’s righteousness and love. Only they seem adequately to answer the question “Why did Jesus have to die for us to be saved?” by incorporating those biblical aspects of our condition and redemption.
- However, those theories raise profound questions about God’s character, especially God’s love and God’s justice.
- Is there something like a “law” either inside God or outside of God (but to which God is bound) that requires death as punishment (or satisfaction) for sin? If not, why didn’t God just forgive? Or did he and the cross is simply a demonstration of God’s love? Or a conquest over evil powers?
- Scripturally, God is holy, righteous and just as well as loving. The combination of our sin and guilt and God’s righteousness creates a problem. God wants to forgive sinners, but cannot merely forgive without appearing to condone sin. (It’s not that God is bound by some law but his character and moral governance of the universe require demonstration of how seriously God takes sin.)
- God’s main motive in the cross is not anger or retributive justice but twofold: love and desire to uphold his righteousness (and moral government of the universe).
- The cross is not God taking out his vengeful anger against us by punishing an innocent man instead of us; it is rather God lovingly taking on himself the display of his righteousness in order to uphold his righteous government of the universe (i.e., to not condone sin).
- In the cross event, God himself, in the person of his Son, voluntarily suffers the consequence of our sin, takes the punishment we deserve (not “our punishment”), pays the penalty we owe, etc.
- The cross does not change God from angry to loving, from wanting to destroy us to wanting to forgive us. It expresses the true character of God as both loving and just. It is God’s way of relieving the tension between his own love and justice created by our sin.
- The cross does not reconcile God to the world; God is always already reconciled to the world. The cross vindicates God’s decision to forgive sinners by demonstrating his abhorrence of sin. It is not “merely educative” (as some critics claim).
- The result of the cross is that God stands ready and able (morally) to forgive anyone who repents.
- There are other results of the cross: victory over evil powers, demonstration of God’s love, restoration of creation, justification of sinners, etc., etc.
- All theories of the atonement have an element of truth, but none gets at the heart of Christ’s “work” for our salvation as biblically and incisively as this one which in no way excludes other facets of Christ’s work for salvation.
Now I will name this presented theory of the atonement with its historically-given name: the Governmental Theory. Most historical theologians trace it back to Arminian-Remonstrant thinker Hugo Grotius (17th c.) who is better known in intellectual history as the founder of modern international law. He lived in the Netherlands (then known as the United Provinces) and was a supporter of Jacob Arminius and his followers the Remonstrants. He was imprisoned for that but escaped. The story of his escape is dramatic, but I won’t get into that here.
As I hinted earlier, one problem the Governmental Theory has had is its name; that’s just not a very appealing name for this or any view in theology. I tend to think one attraction of the “Christus Victor” theory is its name; it’s appealing to many people. The same is true of the “Moral Example” or “Moral Influence” theory. Both “Penal Substitution” and “Moral Government” (and I could throw in “Satisfaction”) are unpleasant sounding especially to modern and postmodern ears.
It seems to me that the Governmental Theory has not been “given a chance” by contemporary Christians interested in holding a theory about why Christ died and how his death reconciles us with God. It seems to me to take the best of the Penal Substitution theory while leaving the worst of that theory behind. And, unlike other theories such as Christus Victor and Moral Influence, it takes into account the New Testament’s language about Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and our sin and guilt—as separating us from God.
The Governmental Theory was very popular in the 19th century in the U.S. and widely held by New England Congregationalists who were throwing off Puritanism but did not want to become Unitarian. It was also popular among Methodist theologians. During the 20th century it popped up especially among Nazarene theologians such as H. Orton Wiley and Kenneth Grider.
Now, however, whenever I see it described in books about atonement theories I think to myself “That’s not the Governmental Theory!” Reformed theologians have routinely derided it as reducing Jesus’s death on the cross to being “merely educative”—a display of how seriously God takes sin. They overlook the fact that for classical Governmental Theory theologians the cross was substitutionary in that Jesus suffered what we deserve—although not “my” or “your” punishment. He suffered an equivalent punishment to our deserved punishment in order to reconcile God’s love with God’s justice and make it possible for God to forgive sins without setting aside his holiness and justice. In this way it is objective and not mere subjective as Reformed theologians have claimed.
I have to suspect that one major reason Reformed theologians have so often misrepresented the Governmental Theory and rejected it—as almost heresy—is this suspicion: If many people adopted this instead of the Penal Substitution theory it would take away one of their (Reformed theologians’) main arguments against universal atonement. They argue that universal atonement combined with any substitutionary theory of Christ’s death would lead inexorably to universalism. Because, if Christ took on everyone’s deserved punishment for sin God could not justly send anyone to hell because that would be to punish the same sins twice. (This is, of course, ludicrous, but that’s for another blog post.)
Sometimes I suspect they (Reformed critics) intentionally misrepresent views other than their own. I recently spoke with a student who was told by some Calvinist friends that, because she’s not a Calvinist, she cannot believe in God’s sovereignty. (I advised her to go back and tell them that God is sovereign over his own sovereignty!) One influential American Reformed theologian and apologist is famous for implying that if you are not a Calvinist you might as well be an atheist. (“If there is one maverick molecule in the universe, God is not God.”)
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