It might be surprising to find out that something as foundational as the doctrine of the Atonement has been interpreted very differently throughout history. Here I would like to review the history of Atonement theory in Christianity. It would be interesting to extend this back into the history of Judaism but that is another topic on it’s own. In Reform Theology and in most LDS discussion the dominant theory of Atonement is that of Penal Substitution. However, this theory was not developed until the Reformation. There had been several other theories before this one. I’ll go through some of these theories here as well as one more modern theory. Later on, I will discuss my own understanding of the Atonement.
The Ransom Theory
According to the Ransom Theory, Christ’s Atonement was a ransom payment made to the devil to deliver our souls from Hell. Satan was tricked into thinking that he could keep the soul of Christ captive after this transaction. But since Christ is divine Satan was unable to hold him captive. Scriptural basis for the theory comes from a few sources. In Mark, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). From Paul, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). This theory was promoted by Origen (185-254) as well as Irenaeus (d. 202) and Tertullian (160-220).
The Satisfaction Theory
According to the Satisfaction Theory, Christ suffered to satisfy the demands of God’s honor and merit. This theory is best understood in terms of the feudal society in which it developed. This theory was put forward by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Anselm compared God to a feudal lord who had been wronged by his surfs and needed to maintain his honor. No mere mortal, or surf, could satisfy the injury to the honor of a lord. Only a lord, or God, could satisfy God’s honor. This theory emphasizes God’s justice, which must always be satisfied. It’s emphasis on justice makes it very similar to the Penal Substitution Theory.
The Governmental Theory
This theory is very similar to the Satisfaction Theory and the Penal Substitution Theory. The Governmental Theory says that God is the great lawgiver and that he must uphold the law. Whenever a law is broken there must be a punishment to sustain order in the universe. Christ thus suffers the penalty for the broken law. This Theory was developed by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) who was, incidentally, a jurist.
The Moral Theory
In this theory, Christ’s sacrifice is not so much intended to affect God the Father at is intended to affect us. The Atonement of Christ demonstrates the supreme love of God for us and thus moves us to repentance and love for God. This theory was developed by Peter Abelard (1079-1142). A similar idea was promoted by Faustus (1539-1604) and Laelius Socinius (1525-1562). They saw the Atonement was the most beautiful demonstration of God’s love. It also an example of supreme love for God, inspiring us to love God to the same degree. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21).
Penal Substitution Theory
This is the dominant view in the Reform Tradition and probably the most common explanation of Atonement given today. According to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, penal substitution is “the view that Christ in his death bore the just penalty of God for our sins as a substitute for us” (p. 1251). “This view is sometimes called the theory of vicarious atonement. A ‘vicar’ is someone who stands in the place of another or who represents another. Christ’s death was therefore ‘vicarious’ because he stood in our place and represented us. As our representative, he took the penalty that we deserve” (ibid. 579). This theory was largely developed by John Calvin (1509-1564).
These are the major theories of Atonement throughout the history of Christianity. However, there is one more theory I would like to mention since it is my favorite and the closest to my own view. It is called the Compassion Theory, developed by Mormon theologian and philosopher Blake Ostler in the second volume of his series Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God.
Ostler defended his theory in another paper titled Atonement in Mormon Thought (see link below). In this paper he listed five questions he felt that any theory of Atonement should address:
1. How are Christ’s life, death and resurrection either necessary or uniquely beneficial to expiate or eradicate the effects of sin in our lives so that we are reconciled to God here and now?
2. Why can’t we just be forgiven without someone suffering?
3. Why does Christ’s suffering and experience atone for our sins in a way that the Father and the Holy Ghost do not?
4. How could Christ “bear our sins” or “take our sins upon him” that we commit in the here and now in a way that caused him to suffer?
5. How do the ordinances of sacrament and baptism (among others) signify what occurs in atonement?
He also proposes that any theory of Atonement should meet Abelard’s Constraint, that is to say it be “neither unintelligible, arbitrary, illogical, nor immoral.”
The Compassion Theory takes advantage of the meaning of the word “com-passion” which etymologically means “feel in union with”. In The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, Ostler says: “The purpose of Atonement is to overcome our alienation by creating compassion, a life shared in union where we are moved by our love for each other. ‘The Passion’ also refers to Christ’s suffering—and thus com-passion is to share in Christ’s suffering and he in ours, that we might share also in the unsurpassable joy of each others’ lives… The purpose of the atonement in LDS scripture is to ‘bring about the bowels of mercy’ so that God is moved with compassion for us and we are moved with gratitude to trust him by opening our hearts to him. The result of the Atonement is that we are free to choose to turn back to God, and he is free to accept us into a relationship of shared life. Atonement removes, casts out, and releases the guilt that alienates us; and it also brings us together into shared life. When we let go of our past and release the painful energy of alienation, Christ experiences that release and receives into himself the pain that we have experienced to be transformed by the light of his love. If we refuse to let go of our past histories and the pain that arises from our sins, we will continue to experience pain. If we let go of that pain; however, then Christ experiences the very pain that we release, but we no longer have to. In his Passion we find compassion. He literally feels our and pains is thereby filled with compassion for us. In this sense, Christ suffers for our sins and bears our iniquities” (235-236).
So there is a brief review of the major theories of this most important doctrine. Later, I will talk about my own understanding of the Atonement in response to scripture and in response to personal experience.
Blake Ostler’s Atonement in Mormon Thought