A Better Atonement: Moral Exemplar

A Better Atonement: Moral Exemplar March 14, 2012

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.

This ebook is available now

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.

Here’s Clement:

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.

Peter Abelard

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.

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  • Phil Miller

    “God is not coercive. God does not demand. Instead, God invites and beckons.”

    This right here would probably cause much outcry among many people. A lot of people can’t fathom a God who doesn’t demand to have His way. Heck, a few years ago John Piper actually wrote a book entitled What Jesus Demands from the World

    It is kind of interesting, though, that that is a stumbling block. Clearly if anyone else demanded we love them, we would bristle at it. If you try to make someone love you, what you get in return isn’t love.

  • I had Robin Meyers come preach at Plymouth Church, Seattle, when I was there. The appearance was part of his promotional effort for his book, “Why the Christian Right is Wrong.” He preached a sermon attacking the doctrine of original sin, called “Original Goodness.” Railed against, “Ah well, s/he’s only human.” Then at the Adult Forum he railed for an hour against the absolute evil of George Bush, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, et al., but provided no means of understanding where all that badness came from.

    It’s fine to challenge the doctrine of original sin, and heaven knows its excesses have wrought destruction. But without a replacement that accounts for evil behavior in the world and evil inclinations in you and me, the attack doesn’t help me. Rather it seems a blind spot in current progressive theology. Karl Barth imbibed the progressive spirit before WW I. After the carnage, though, he sat down with a blank sheet of paper and wrote, “Romerbrief 1.1” on the top. He had to start all over, because classical liberal theology couldn’t account for the harsh reality of Europe in 1919.

    Your subtitle evokes for me this disconnect in progressive theology. I look forward to reading the book and seeing what you do with it.

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  • Tony, it is obvious you are copying someone else’s homework.

    You are proving many correct about their prediction of emergent doctrines by rehashing 20th century liberal theology.

    • Melody

      Everyone copies someone else to some extent. Yes, even conservatives.

      Aside, if you hate Tony’s writings so much, why do you read them?

  • Troy

    Good Post, Tony! I’ve been enjoying your series, as someone who is recovering from conservative Evangelicalism, I have only really been exposed to Penal substitution so this has been really helpful! Keep it up bro!

  • Mary

    Tony, thanks for this series. I so appreciate it. Referencing ancient ideas, their “homework” is potent and shows depth of thought and careful consideration; which could be an admirable anecdote for our modern cookie cutter approach to faith (i.e. “one interpretation should fit all”).

  • Josh

    from your post …”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 … 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.”

    I’m confused. This IS the doctrine of Original Sin, not that we inherit the guilt, but the depravity/the bent/the inclination to sin…as I’ve been taught and understood it. Was that not what Augustine taught?
    What’s the distinction between depravity and inclination in your presentation?

    I do get the justice part though as very different from Anselm/penal substitution…that you can’t die in another’s place AND that’s not really forgiveness if someone has to die…it’s just transferred anger.

    thanks for the posts. Peace to you.

  • Chris

    I think Im down with Moral Exemplar as an aspect of something (among many things) that happened at the cross. I’m not sure I get how this is a theory of atonement. Atonement implies a reparation of some kind or on some level. So what exactly is being atoned for in Moral Exemplar and by whom. The Atonement Theory label here just seems mis-applied. Or perhaps I missed something.

    • Phil Miller

      I suppose a case could be made that the way in which Jesus was an examplar was that who perfectly fulfilled the role of Israel’s (or by extension, humanity’s) position as Eikons or image bearer’s of God in the world. By fulfilling that role He made a way for us to follow in His steps. He atoned for us by doing something we couldn’t do on our own.

      • Chris

        If this were the case then you’re still left with the provocation of a penal substitution, i.e., a man dying a gruesome death to accomplish something that we can’t do for ourselves. A substitution. Why couldn’t we follow in his footsteps without Jesus dying horribly. As was pointed out previously, many people follow The Buddha, and he never had to suffer a fate like that of Jesus.
        It does seem to me that the problem that people have with Penal Substitution is mostly the “penal” part. I may not have the exact academic understanding of PST, but I never understood it to mean that God needed to kill Jesus in order to turn His wrath away from us because we are so wretched and sinful and lousy, but rather that all do in fact sin and that sin cannot abide in Gods presence without something to mitigate that sin. Jesus’ death is that mitigating factor which provides a way for me to ultimately be united with God. I suppose in PST Jesus dying so horrifically in my place would be an awful explanation if his death were the end of the story. But God is raised, glorified, and sits with God the father at his right hand. He pushed me out of the way of the bus and took the brunt of it. How can that be bad?

        • Carl

          Amen, Chris.

        • Buck Eschaton

          You’re very close to understanding it all. It is not God that cannot abide with our sins (sin meaning our hates/jealousies/violence/diseases/economid debts) it is us.
          I like to think of an example like this. You’re at work. Your team is working on a project together. You’ve screwed something up. You know it, and you’re very afraid that if your boss finds out you’ll be disciplined/fired. You really want to remain part of the team so you want this “sin” to go away, to have someone tell you it’s ok that you’re going to remain part of the team. That doesn’t happen, but one day someone else visibly screws up and you’re so happy, because it’s that other person’s fault, and then there are others in the group with the same worries about screwups that you have. You all suddenly want to point to this poor guy who visibly screwed up, and you want to blame him for everything. You want him to carry all your screwups, all your shortcomings, the screws up of everybody. You want him to be blamed for everything. For the failures in whatever project your working on.
          You feel really good when you’re with your teammates, after the poor guy has been fired for the failures of the project that you all contributed to.
          You can all go back to working hard and not worrying about your past screwups being found out, since the guy who was fired carried them out the door with him.
          Jesus is essentially the guy who was fired.

          • Carl

            Nice sentiment, Buck, but that doesn’t square with Scripture in the least. God repeatedly says He cannot abide with sin. He is Holy. In Him is no evil, nor can there be evil near him.

            As for your analogy, while decent, it has a couple issues. One, Jesus didn’t screw up at all. He came in and took the blame for the sin that Buck and Carl committed, though he wasn’t guilty of it. Two, the analogy falls short on the other end, since when an employee is fired for something (even if it is something you did instead of him), you’re still concerned about screwing up in the future. A boss is perfectly willing to fire whomever he needs to get good employees. With Christ, we don’t have to worry about getting fired ever. We are forgiven and righteous entirely because of Him.

  • Buck Eschaton

    I’m not sure if this fits the point of Moral Exemplar or not. It is the total revealing of God and Sin. It is God Himself, Yahweh, going to the cross. Bearing (Forgive/Bear are same word) the sin (sin and debt are same word) of the people, just as the many Servants of old who bore the sins of the people in the shape of stones being thrown at them so that their communities could be peaceful and sane.
    The Father God did not place sins on Jesus. Jesus took the sins, He intercepted the sin/wrath, he stood in between people to absorb their violence that they were going to commit against each other (He became their substitute). He took away their sicknesses, he inaugurated the final Great Jubilee where literal economic debts were to be forgiven (because Jubilee was the peaceful erasure of debts, because it often occurred violently, the outcasts/debtors that left because they were to become slaves would come back and kill the rulers and burn the debt records.) And anyway this may have been why John the Baptist was in the Wilderness because he was telling the debtors that left/that were hiding to Repent (meaning Return) because the Jubilee was here and your debts are to be forgiven, you will be made righteous and can return safely to society (i.e your children won’t be slaves).
    Sorry got off track there. But anyway the crucifixion is like the sudden display that the world is round and not flat. In the crucifixion it is the sudden display of your sin. It is your sin that kills. Yahweh/Jesus was completely innocent. It was your sin that killed Him. We put Him on the Cross. It was our wrath in the form of crazed, violent mob that put him on the Cross. You can never go back and truly believe that your scapegoats are guilty. You can never again attempt to force your sins on to other people. You will know have to learn to live with and to love the people you have hated.

    • Lyndon James

      Thank you, Buck. Though the John the Baptist speculation hits me as a bit of a stretch, but certainly worth pondering, the body of what you have written makes perfect sense as a summation to me, at least.

  • BTW, Tony, since Jesus invited us to see cross as moral example (“take up your cross and follow”), I’m into that. But I agree with Chris about its uneasy fit as an atonement theory.

    Loving your series! Fun to hear you chat with Miroslav. Wish it could have been longer! Wanna join forces to bring him here sometime soon?


  • One thing I get out of the Crucifixion Story is that no matter how bad it gets, God will be there with us. So if you take your solace in God, it can’t get as bad as all that. Jesus said, take up your cross and follow me, which I think says that if you follow him, you an expect to end up where he did, and we should be off our ass and on with it. The unique thing about Jesus is that as Shepherd he went first, so we can just follow and not worry, whereas he was off into the darkness. Work hard and don’t worry. Be angry and do not sin. More easily said than done.

    Does Scott McKnight’s King Jesus as the capstone of the OT story fit into a theory of substitutionary atonement?

  • Casey

    One question that needs to be addressed in Tony’s “Better Atonemet” series is this. Assuming we can show that several “models” are warranted by Scripture itself, then how do these “models” cohere? Are they merely there for the picking and choosing? Or is there logic and intelligibility to them, established by Scripture itself?

    I clearly see a Christus Victor “model”–Christ by his death is victor over sin and death–presented in the narrative storyline of Scripture. But why is it that so many of those who hold this “model” up as the central intention of Jesus’ atoning work, seem to only begrudgingly concede that PSA is found in a “few” texts? And rarely do we see hard work expended in the effort to show how these two views of the atonement should be integrated. What is most often seen is the work in question denigrates PSA as a sort of minor voice, puffs the preferred “model” of Christus Victor, and attempts no integration. I think it can be shown that if one begins with the centrality of PSA, which is grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it. The way Christ triumphs over sin and death is by becoming a curse for us, by satisfying the just demands of his heavenly Father, thereby silencing the accuser, and rising in triumph in resurrection splendor because sin has done its worst and been defeated by the One who bore its penalty. Moreover, in the light of such immeasurable love, there are inevitably exemplary moral commitments that Christ’s followers must undertake. In other words, it is easy to show how various biblical emphases regarding the atonement cohere if one begins with PSA. It is very difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.

    [Forgive me for the repost. I posted in the wrong thread earlier.]

  • Carl Gregg

    “Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ, not because she suffered for taking her stand (or keeping her seat, in her case), but because she had the courage to believe in her own dignity and fought for it in spite of the conflict that resulted. Nelson Mandela is an imitator of Christ, not because he suffered in prison, but because he held out for peace and justice, and led a nation to resurrection. In each case it is not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil” (John Mabry, “Crisis and Communion,” 129; http://amzn.to/saZtPc). #MoralExemplar

  • Tony Metz

    I don’t feel warm and fuzzy about the doctrine of original sin (who does? It’s not a very lovable doctrine), but it’s the only doctrine that speaks to the honest truth about me and my situation (not able not to sin, much like my friend Paul [Rom. 7:15ff])…I am helplessly inclined toward sin. Christ as Moral exemplar doesn’t help me…just gives me an example that I’m not able to live up to. Just sounds like works-righteousness theology to me and, you’re right, that kind of theology isn’t new at all…it’s the oldest theology around, but that doesn’t make it true.

    Bought the book, will read it.

  • Serena

    This theory makes more sense in light of the Catholic/Orthodox view of transubstaniation and the eucharist.