Theories of Atonement

Theories of Atonement February 14, 2011

There’s been a lot of good discussion in the last post by Sola Ratione. I just thought I should point out one thing: the idea that the crucifixion was a blood sacrifice to obtain God’s forgiveness is not the only explanation. Lemme explain.

John Shelby Spong once said that at the outset of Christianity, all Christian theology consisted of the words, “Jesus is Lord.” Everything that has come after that has been an attempt to explain what those words mean.

That’s a bit simplistic, but it gets the point across. The earliest Christians probably believed that Jesus was divine, but weren’t sure exactly how. In the same way, they most likely believed that his death meant something, but were not unified or articulate in what that meaning was.

Over the eons, Christian theologians have come up with a number of theories as to how his death brought about salvation. Sabio over at Triangulations charts out the major ones. The most common in American Evangelical Christianity is the “Penal Substitutionary Theory.” (I think. I haven’t actually seen statistics.) The late Ken Pulliam made a hobby out of dismantling this theory.

There are other theories. I grew up with a variation on the Christus Victor theory, which stresses Christ’s victory over death, and the Moral Influence theory, which stresses Christ’s example of self-sacrifice.

I suspect that all the theories have some problems. Some have actually become dated. The idea that Jesus was a blood sacrifice was probably the earliest theory, developed at a time when it was assumed that Gods required sacrifices. Now it’s uncomfortable to even consider.

St. Anselm developed a more pleasant theory, but it hinged on an understanding of honor that was current in his day. It was updated again to become what we now call Penal Substitutionary Theory by John Calvin.

By arguing against this theory, you’re probably arguing against most conservative Protestants in America. Since these are our normal focus, that’s probably fair. But despite what these folks would have us believe, it’s not the only theory.

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