Theories of Atonement
The various theories of Christ’s atoning death can be broken down based on the object or focus or orientation of his sufferings. In other words, on whom or on what do the sufferings of Jesus terminate? Objective theories of the atonement are those that envision his death as terminating on God. Subjective theories insist that Christ’s sufferings focus on human beings with a view to inducing some change or experiential reaction in us.
A. Theories Emphasizing the Objective Nature of Christ’s Atoning Death
These are theories that interpret the sufferings of Christ as terminating primarily on God.
1. The Satisfaction Theory of St. Anselm – In keeping with Anselm’s own method, we shall examine his theory by means of several questions.
a. What is sin? Anselm defines sin as the withholding by the creature from God the honor that is due him. Therefore, sin is debt, or the failure to render to God full and proper obedience:
“One who does not render this honor [i.e., obedience in every act of will] to God takes away from God what belongs to Him, and dishonors God, and to do this is to sin” (Book I, ch. 11).
“So then, every one who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God” (ibid.).
b. Under what obligation does sin place mankind? According to Anselm, mankind is under a three-fold obligation: (1) we must immediately render to God full and proper obedience in everything; (2) we must pay back the honor due unto God of which, by our sin, we deprived him; and (3) we must pay back more (reparation) than we have taken away; this is because of the infinite degree of the insult we inflicted on God by dishonoring him. Hence, total obedience, repayment, and reparation are required of all humanity.
c. What are the possible options left to mankind? There are only two: either we must be punished or we must make the required satisfaction. Punishment is less than desirable for all concerned, for God’s plan to bring eternal happiness to his creation would suffer. Satisfaction is the only viable alternative.
d. Is mankind able to make the required satisfaction? No, and for two reasons. First, we already owe God complete obedience and thus have nothing to offer to make satisfaction that is not already rightfully his. Second, sin is infinitely heinous because God, against whom it was committed, is infinitely holy. Thus, whatever satisfaction we make would be eternal in duration, for our sin offended an eternally righteous God.
e. Why cannot God, in love and mercy, simply dismiss the offense and forgive us our sins? There are two reasons. First, if sin is not punished, it is not subject to any law or regulation. The sinner and saint would thus have equal standing before God, the former being regarded no differently than the latter. Second, it would overturn justice if the creature could defraud the creator of that which is his due. The justice of God has no less a right for expression than do his love and mercy.
f. How, then, can satisfaction be made? Anselm put it this way (with slight paraphrasing):
“Satisfaction cannot be made unless there be some One able to pay God for man’s sin something greater than all that is beside God. . . . Now nothing is greater than all that is beside God except God Himself. None therefore can make this satisfaction except God. And none ought to make it except man. . . . If, then, it be necessary that the kingdom of heaven be completed by man’s admission, and if man cannot be admitted unless the aforesaid satisfaction for sin be first made, and if God only can, and man only ought to make this satisfaction, then necessarily One must make it who is both God and man” (Book II, ch. 6).
In other words, only we owe the debt, but we cannot pay it. Only God can pay the debt, but he does not owe it. Therefore, only a God-man, i.e., Jesus Christ, can both bear the guilt of human sin and pay the debt incurred by it. This is Cur Deus Homo . . . this is why God became man!
g. How could the death of Christ honor God and sufficiently outweigh the sins of men? Anselm gives us three answers. (1) Since the God-man offered to God a gift he did not owe, the gift is adequate to pay for our sins. (2) The God-man did not deserve to die. His death was entirely voluntary. Thus his death, unlike that of all other men, was meritorious in God’s sight. (3) Anselm points out that the assault on Christ is the greatest sin imaginable (Book II, ch. 14). Therefore, since he willed to endure this greatest of all injustices, the merit of his death is itself the greatest imaginable and more than suffices to outweigh the sins of mankind.
2. The Penal Substitutionary Theory
This understanding of the atonement builds upon the model of Anselm. It was the view of Luther, Calvin, and most other reformers. Perhaps the best example of this tradition is found in 19th century America among Reformed theologians.
a. William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) – Shedd followed the reformers by insisting that the atonement of Christ was grounded in God’s justice. He argued that divine justice is not an arbitrary appointment of the divine will, easily rescinded or abrogated, but is a necessary and intrinsic quality constitutive of the being of God:
“Retributive justice is necessary in its operation. The claim of the law upon the transgressor for punishment is absolute and indefeasible. The eternal Judge may or may not exercise mercy, but he must exercise justice” (Dogmatic Theology, II:436).
However, Shedd points out that whereas sin necessitates punishment, it need not fall upon the sinner:
“Hence, in every instance of transgression, the penalty of law must be inflicted, either personally or vicariously; either upon the transgressor or upon his substitute. The remission of penalty under the Divine administration is not absolute, but relative. It may be omitted in respect to the real criminal, but, if so, it must be inflicted upon some one in his place. . . . [T]he exercise of justice, while necessary in respect to sin, is free and sovereign in respect to the sinner. Justice necessarily demands that sin be punished, but not necessarily in the person of the sinner. Justice may allow of the substitution of one person for another, provided that in the substitution no injustice is done to the rights of any of the parties interested” (I:373; cf. also II:451).
b. Charles Hodge (1797-1878) – Hodge differs only in emphasis, placing more stress on the concept of covenant in the atonement. Just as God ordained for Adam to stand vicariously as the covenantal or federal head of his people, such that his action (the fall) and its consequence (guilt and death) become that of his posterity, so also Christ stood vicariously as the covenant head of those who by divine election were so related to him. His action (obedience) and its consequence (righteousness) are likewise imputed to those whom he represented. Other American theologians who followed suit were A. A. Hodge (1823-86; son of Charles), Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921), and more recently Leon Morris.
There were also a number of Scottish theologians who embraced the doctrine of penal substitution.
c. George Smeaton (The Doctrine of the Atonement as taught by Christ Himself  and The Doctrine of the Atonement as taught by the Apostles ) – He clearly argues for penal substitution:
“. . . the sufferings of Christ were penal in their character, or, in other words, that they were judiciously inflicted in the execution of a law which demanded punishment on the sins of men” (183).
d. James Denney (1856-1917) – Denney wrote several important treatises, among which were The Death of Christ (1902), The Atonement and the Modern Mind (1903), and The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation (1917). Denney placed more emphasis on Christ’s passive sufferings and less on his obedient life than his American counterparts:
“If He had not died for us, He would have done nothing at all” (CDR, 274).
“The work of reconciliation, in the sense of the NT, is a work which is finished, and which we must conceive to be finished, before the gospel is preached” (DOC, 101).
In other words, Christ has done something outside of us and apart from our cooperation, into the benefits of which we are now able to enter through faith. Commenting on 2 Cor. 5:14-15,
“Plainly, if Paul’s conclusion is to be drawn, the ‘for’ must reach deeper than this mere suggestion of our advantage: if we all died, in that Christ died for us, there must be a sense in which that death of His is ours; He must be identified with us in it; there, on the cross, while we stand and gaze at Him, He is not simply a person doing us a service; He is a person doing us a service by filling our place and dying our death” (Commentary on 2 Corinthians, 194-95).
“It is a death in which the divine condemnation of sin comes upon Christ, and is exhausted there, so that there is thenceforth no more condemnation for those that are in Him” (Studies in Theology, 108).
Concerning the word “substitution” he writes:
“It declares that God forgives our sins because Christ died for them; and it maintains unambiguously that in that death of Christ our condemnation came upon Him, that for us there might be no condemnation more. This is the truth which is covered and guarded by the word ‘substitution’” (Studies in Theology, 126).
3. The Theory of Vicarious Confession and/or Repentance
John McLeod Campbell (1800-1872) – This theory was articulated by Campbell in his book The Nature of the Atonement (1856). It may well be that Campbell embraced this theory principally to maintain his belief in the universal extent of the atonement, for he believed the penal substitutionary theory logically entailed restricting the benefits of Christ’s sufferings to the elect. He says this concerning John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ:
“As addressed to those who agreed with him as to the nature of the atonement, while differing with him as to the extent of its reference, this seems unanswerable” (1873, 4th ed., 51).
Some contend Campbell derived his theory from Jonathan Edwards, who wrote:
“It is requisite that God should punish all sin with infinite punishment; because all sin, as it is against God, is infinitely heinous, and has infinite demerit, is justly infinitely hateful to him, and so stirs up infinite abhorrence and indignation in him. Therefore, it is requisite that God should punish it, unless there be something in some measure to balance this desert; either some answerable repentance or sorrow for it, or other compensation” (Essay on Satisfaction for Sin, NY ed. I:583).
Yet Edwards rejected the possibility of an “answerable repentance,” for repentance is possible only by those who have sinned, and whatever degree of repentance someone might produce, it “is as nothing in comparison with the injury” done by him in sinning.
Campbell begins by affirming that Christ suffered as an atoning sacrifice but not as a penal substitute:
“The sufferer suffers what he suffers just through seeing sin and sinners with God’s eyes, and feeling in reference to them with God’s heart. Is such suffering a punishment? Is God in causing such a divine experience in humanity inflicting a punishment? There can be but one answer” (117). And that answer is No.
“While Christ suffered for our sins as an atoning sacrifice, what he suffered was not – because from its nature it could not be – a punishment” (101)
He then argues, contrary to Edwards, that Christ himself offered an adequate sorrow, confession, and repentance for sin. He explains:
“That oneness of mind with the Father, which toward man took the form of condemnation of sin, would in the Son’s dealing with the Father in relation to our sins, take the form of a perfect confession of our sins. This confession as to its own nature must have been a perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God on the sin of man. . . . That response has all the elements of a perfect repentance in humanity for all the sin of man, --- a perfect sorrow --- a perfect contrition --- all the elements of such a repentance, and that in absolute perfection, all except the personal consciousness of sin; and in that perfect response in Amen to the mind of God in relation to sin is the wrath of God rightly met, and that is accorded to divine justice which is its due, and could alone satisfy it” (117-18).
God’s justice is thus satisfied, not by Christ enduring the penalty of the law, but by his perfect confession of sin on our behalf. Christ uttered forth in his life and death a heart-felt “Amen!” to the assessment of God against human rebellion:
“We feel that such a repentance as we are supposing would be the true and proper satisfaction to offended justice, and that there would be more atoning worth in one tear of the true and perfect sorrow than in endless ages of penal woe” (125).
[For a more positive assessment of Campbell’s concept of atonement, see Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996), pp. 287-317.]
B. Theories Emphasizing the Subjective Nature of Christ’s Atoning Death
Subjective theories of the atonement are those which envision the focus or aim of Christ’s sufferings to be the human soul rather than God himself. This model is referred to either as the moral influence theory or the example theory.
1. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) - Abelard argued that there is nothing in God’s nature that necessitates satisfaction or prevents him from indiscriminately forgiving all at any time. He argued that the love of God in giving up his Son was designed to kindle in our hearts a corresponding love and repentance which together become the ground for the forgiveness of our sins. Thus the object of Christ’s death is not God but man. His aim was not to satisfy the Father’s wrath but to stimulate our love. Consider Abelard’s comments on Romans 3:19-26, perhaps the most important NT statement on the death of Christ:
“Now it seems to us that we have been justified by the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this way: through this unique act of grace manifested to us – in that his Son has taken upon himself our nature and persevered therein in teaching us by word and example even unto death – he has more fully bound us to himself by love; with the result that our hearts should be enkindled by such a gift of divine grace, and true charity should not now shrink from enduring anything for him” (A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, ed. Eugene R. Fairweather, 283).
“Yet everyone becomes more righteous – by which we mean a greater lover of the Lord – after the Passion of Christ than before, since a realized gift inspires greater love than one which is only hoped for. Wherefore, our redemption through Christ’s suffering is that deeper affection in us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also wins for us the true liberty of sons of God, so that we do all things out of love rather than fear” (284).
In fairness to Abelard, it would be a mistake to conclude that he omitted all reference to the sacrifice of Christ as a payment for our sin. Yet, his emphasis is clearly on the subjective effects of that sacrifice rather than its objective relationship to the wrath of God.
2. The example theory of Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) - The Anselmic satisfaction theory of the atonement, as well as that of both Luther and Calvin, was grounded in the belief that justice is an immutable and necessary attribute of God’s character. Socinus correctly perceived that to overthrow this foundational principle would undermine the concept of penal substitution. He states,
“If we could but get rid of this justice, even if we had no other proof, that fiction of Christ’s satisfaction would be thoroughly exposed, and would vanish” (De Servatore, III, i).
“There is no such justice in God as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished, and such as God himself cannot repudiate. There is, indeed, a perpetual and constant justice in God; but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works. . . . Hence, they greatly err who, deceived by the popular use of the word justice, suppose that justice in this sense is a perpetual quality in God, and affirm that it is infinite. . . . Hence it might with much greater truth be affirmed that that compassion which stands opposed to justice is the appropriate characteristic of God” (Praelectiones Theologicae, Caput xvi; Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, I, 566).
W. G. T. Shedd comments on Socinus’s concept of divine justice:
“It is plain that Socinus conceived of the attributes of justice and mercy as less central than will. By a volition, God may punish sin, or he may let it go unpunished. He has as much right to do the latter as the former. There is no intrinsic right or wrong in either case that necessitates his action. Justice like mercy is the product of his optional will. It is easy to see that by this definition of justice Socinus takes away the foundation of the doctrine of atonement; and that if it be a correct definition, the Socinian theory of forgiveness upon repentance is true. If sin is punishable only because God so determines; and if he decides not to punish it, then it is no longer punishable, -- if punitive justice is the product of mere will, and may be made and unmade by a volition, then it is absurd to say that without the shedding of blood, or the satisfaction of law, there is no remission of sin” (Dogmatic Theology, II, 378-79).
The Socinian concept of divine justice is directly related to their emphasis on the utterly free and arbitrary divine will. According to Socinus, we can never say that God must act in a particular way. We cannot even say that he must act in accord with moral principle. The Racovian Catechism put it this way:
“It belongs to the nature of God that He has the right and supreme power to decree whatsoever He wills concerning all things and concerning us, even in those matters with which no other power has to do; for example, He can give laws, and appoint rewards and penalties according to His own judgment, to our thoughts, hidden as these may be in the innermost recesses of our hearts.”
Thus God could have conceivably freed mankind from the guilt of their sin without the work of Christ, indeed, apart from the work of any sort of mediation or sacrifice or anything other than the arbitrary decree of His own will.
One section of the Racovian Catechism bore the heading, “Refutation of the Vulgar Doctrine about the Satisfaction of Christ for Our Sins.” How, then, does Jesus Christ accomplish our salvation? Socinus answers:
“The common and, as you would say, orthodox view is, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, because He made full satisfaction for our sins to the divine justice through which we sinners deserved to be condemned, and this satisfaction is through faith imputed by the gift of God to us who believe. But I hold, and think it to be the orthodox view, that Jesus Christ is our Savior because he announced to us the way of eternal salvation, confirmed, and in his own person, both by the example of his life and by rising from the dead, clearly showed it [i.e., eternal life], and will give that eternal life to us who have faith in him. And I affirm that he did not make satisfaction for our sins to the divine justice, . . . nor was there any need that he should make satisfaction” (De Servatore, chp. 1).
“Christ takes away sins because by heavenly and most ample promises He attracts and is strong to move all men to penitence, whereby sins are destroyed. . . . He takes away sins because by the example of His most innocent life, He very readily draws all, who have not lost hope, to leave their sins and zealously to embrace righteousness and holiness” (Prael. Theol., 591).
Thus, Christ bore our sins in the sense “that he took them away from us by inciting us to abandon them” (G. B. Stevens, The Christian Doctrine of Salvation, 159). In all that he did, Christ inspires us to repent and forsake our sin in order that we might walk in obedience; and it is by this repentance and obedience that God receives us into his favor. The Racovian Catechism states:
“But what reason was there that Christ should suffer the same afflictions, and the same kind of death, as those to which believers are exposed? There are two reasons for this, as there are two methods whereby Christ saves us: for, first, he inspires us with a certain hope of salvation, and also incites us both to enter upon the way of salvation and to persevere in it. In the next place, he is with us in every struggle of temptation, suffering, or danger, affords us assistance, and at length delivers us from eternal death. It was exceedingly conducive to both these methods of saving us, that Christ our captain should not enter upon his eternal life and glory, otherwise than through sufferings, and through a death of this kind” (ch. 8).
3. F. Schleiermacher (1768-1834; so too, Albrecht Ritschl; 1822-1889) – Schleiermacher denied the objective focus of Christ’s death and insisted that no barrier to reconciliation with man (such as the demands of divine justice) exists in the heart of God. Christ’s death terminates entirely upon humanity. He emphasized not what Christ does for us but what he does in us, namely, bringing us into a deeper consciousness of complete dependence on God and thus participation in His life.
4. Horace Bushnell (1802-76) and Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924) – Bushnell openly denies any form of substitution in Christ’s death and articulates an updated version of Abelard’s moral influence theory:
“On the other hand, we are not to hold the Scripture terms of vicarious sacrifice, as importing a literal substitution of places, by which Christ becomes a sinner for sinners, or penally subject to our deserved penalties. That is a kind of substitution that offends every strongest sentiment of our nature. He cannot become guilty for us. Neither, as God is a just being, can He be anyhow punishable in our place – all God’s moral sentiments would be revolted by that” (Forgiveness and Law, 79).
“By the previous exposition Christ is shown to be a Savior, not as being a ground of justification, but as being the Moral Power of God upon us, so a power of salvation. His work terminates, not in the release of penalties by due compensation, but in the transformation of character, and the rescue, in that manner, of guilty men from the retributive causations provoked by their sin” (449).
Rashdall (The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, 1919) advocates a similar view. Note his comments on Acts 4:12,
“There is none other ideal given among men by which we may be saved except the moral ideal which Christ taught by His words, and illustrated by His life and death of love; and there is none other help so great in the attainment of that ideal as the belief in God as He has been revealed in Him who so taught and lived and died” (463).
C. The Theory of Christus Victor
1. Origen and the Ransom to Satan (Classic) Theory - Origen is somewhat enigmatic in his comments on Christ’s death. According to Mozley, Origen “sees its [Christ’s death] effects in so many different ways that it is never possible to be certain that any one passage, however strongly worded, represents his dominating idea” (The Doctrine of the Atonement, 102). His concept of Christ’s death as a ransom to Satan, however, seem clear enough:
“If then we were ‘bought with a price,’ as also Paul asserts, we were doubtless bought from one whose servants we were, who also named what price he would for releasing those whom he held from his power. Now it was the devil that held us, to whose side we had been drawn away by our sins. He asked, therefore, as our price the blood of Christ” (In Rom. II, 13; cf. In Exod., VI, 9).
“To whom gave He His life ‘a ransom for many’? It cannot have been to God. Was it not then to the evil one? For he held us until the ransom for us, even the soul of Jesus was paid to him” (In Matt., XVI, 8).
This theory often takes one of four forms.
· First, some contend that Christ paid a direct ranson to Satan, the latter being deceived as to the true nature of the transaction. This is based on the principle of the rights of war in which the conquered becomes the slave of the victor (hence, we to Satan through the fall). When Satan accepted Christ as the ransom for our deliverance he was unable to hold him because of his sinlessness. How was Satan deceived? He was duped into thinking that Christ was but a higher form of angel. Satan is the fish, the humanity of Christ is the bait, and the invisible hook is Christ’s deity. Augustine actually spoke of the cross as a mouse-trap and his blood the bait!
· Second, some reject the idea of God deceiving Satan as unjust. Thus they retained the idea of the ransom but asserted that it was perfectly righteous. Satan is simply a fool in having overextended himself by demanding the person of Christ as a ransom, one over whom he had no power.
· Third, a view emerged that is similar to the above two but omits the idea of ransom. Here Satan is said to have the power over man due to the latter’s sin. Christ, being sinless, conquered sin, thus breaking Satan’s hold and effecting the release of mankind.
· Fourth, some argued that the conquest of Satan was entirely ethical. He was defeated in that he was unable to seduce Christ through temptation to sin. Thus he lost his power and forfeited his right to mankind.
2. Gustaf Aulen (b. 1879) - Gustaf Aulen, theologian at the University of Lund in Sweden, is a modern advocate of the so-called “classic” theory.
“Its central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ – Christus Victor – fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself” (4; special appeal is made to 1 John 3:8).
In effect, Aulen resurrects the patristic theory of the atonement, but modifies it by eliminating the crude imagery of Christ’s blood as a ransom to Satan. He focuses on the victorious conflict of Christ against the powers of evil. His view is thus dualistic, but in this sense:
“It is used in the sense in which the idea constantly occurs in Scripture, of the opposition between God and that which in His own created world resists His will; between the Divine love and the rebellion of created wills against Him. This Dualism is an altogether radical opposition, but it is not an absolute Dualism; for in the scriptural view evil has not an eternal existence” (5).
D. The Theory of Recapitulation
1. Irenaeus (115/125 – 195-202) - Irenaeus drew upon the terminology of Eph. 1:11 (“with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ”) for his doctrine of recapitulation. Other words he used were restitution, renewal, and review. The thought is similar to that in biology where an organism during its embryonic development passes through stages in which certain ancestral formations or structures are repeated. Christ is viewed as having passed through every stage of existence, from that of a small child to that of an old man (Irenaeus believed Jesus lived to the age of 50).
What Christ did was to reverse or recapitulate the evil brought about by the fall. His atoning work began with his birth and ended with his resurrection. During his life he renews all that was destroyed and regains all that was lost. In some sense Christ “re-thought” and “re-spoke” and “re-lived” the entire scope of human existence since the fall of Adam. He placed great stress on Jesus being the last Adam, reversing the effects incurred by the first Adam. If Adam descended, Christ ascended. Whereas infants were born in sin, Christ in holiness. Whereas in adolescence we erred, he lived in purity. The sin of the adult was dismissed by the righteousness of the man Jesus. He writes:
“Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which he had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all through means of Himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God – infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, . . . a youth for youths, . . . an old man for old men” (AH, II, 22.4).
“Wherefore also He passed through every stage of life, restoring to all communion with God” (AH, III, 18.7).
Emphasis is placed on the incarnation and substitutionary life of Jesus. By living and doing successfully what Adam and all his posterity failed to do in every stage of life, Christ effected our deification. His theory has thus been called the physical theory of redemption, in which the primary purpose of the incarnation was to re-create and re-establish man in the image of God. Deification and sanctification are given priority over the removal of guilt. He also asserted that just as Christ rectified the disobedience of Adam, so also Mary rectified the disobedience of Eve! As Eve, being a virgin (!?), brought forth death to the human race through disobedience, “so also did Mary, having a man betrothed to her, and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race” (AH, III, 22.4). This analogy thus indicates “the back reference from Mary to Eve, because what is joined together could not otherwise be put asunder than by an inversion of the process by which these bonds of union had arisen so that the former ties be cancelled by the latter, that the latter may set the former again at liberty” (AH, III, 22.4; emphasis mine). He declares that “what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free through faith” (ibid.). In sum,
“for Adam had necessarily to be restored in Christ, that mortality be absorbed in immortality, and Eve in Mary, that a virgin, become the advocate of a virgin, should undo and destroy virginal disobedience by virginal obedience” (Proof, 33:69).
|Adam / Eve||Christ / Mary|
|disobedience & descent||obedience & ascent|
|disobedience via a tree||obedience on a tree|
|tempted, not being hungry||tempted while hungry|
|made from virgin (untilled) earth||made from a virgin womb|
|tempted & defeated by devil||tempted but conquered devil|
|no physical father||no physical father|
|plunged all into death by sin||elevated all to life by obedience|
|sinned on 6th day of the week||crucified on 6th day of the week|
|Eve / a virgin who disobeyed||Mary / a virgin who obeyed|
|brought death via her sin||brought life via her obedience|
|bound all by unbelief||released all via faith|
|deceived by an angel||received good news via angel|
E. The Governmental Theory
1. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) - Law, according to Grotius, is a positive statute or enactment. “It is not,” he says, “something inward in God, or in the Divine will and nature, but is only the effect of his will” (iii). Law is thus a product of God’s will by which not even He is bound. He may change it or abrogate it entirely as he sees fit:
“All positive laws . . . are relaxable [emphasis mine]. Those who fear that if we concede this we do an injury to God, because we thereby represent him as mutable, are much deceived. For law is not something internal in God, or in the will itself of God, but it is a particular effect or product of his will. But that the effects or products of the Divine will are mutable is very certain. Moreover, in promulgating a positive law which he might wish to relax at some future time, God does not exhibit any fickleness of will. For God seriously indicated that he desired that his law should be valid and obligatory, while yet at the same time he reserved the right of relaxing it, if he saw fit, because this right pertains to a positive law from the very nature of the case, and cannot be abdicated by the Deity” (iii).
W. G. T. Shedd analyzes this statement:
“By this idea and definition of law, Grotius reduces everything back to the arbitrary and optional will of God, and thus differs from Anselm and the Reformers. According to them, the Divine will cannot be separated from the Divine nature, in this manner. God’s law is not positive and arbitrary but natural and necessary, because it flows out of his essential being. The Divine will is the executive of the Divine essence. Law, therefore, is not the effect or figment of mere and isolated will, but of will in immutable harmony with truth and right. Both law and penalty, consequently, in the theory of the Reformers are the inevitable and inexorable efflux of the Divine Essence, and contain nothing of an optional or mutable nature. They can no more be ‘relaxed’ or waived than the attributes of omnipotence or omniscience can be” (Dogmatic Theology, II:355).
As with law, the penalty that it carries is also a positive and not a natural or necessary component. It does not spring inevitably out of the nature of law nor from God’s being, but is attached to the statute by a positive decision of God’s will, which decision is mutable and optional. In other words, just as law is capable of being rescinded, so also the penal sanctions connected with it.
That all sin deserves punishment, Grotius would not deny. But it does not follow that all sin must be punished. Nothing, not even God’s nature, necessitates the actual enactment of the penal sanctions of the law. God must disapprove of and condemn sin, but it does not follow that he must punish it. Why he must disapprove and condemn sin will shortly be explained.
When we speak of God in relationship to the world, man, and sin, Grotius insists that we view him not as an offended party, i.e., as One whose character has been violated by the transgressions of his creature. Neither are we to view God as creditor (Anselm) to whom the sinner now owes the debt of satisfaction and obedience. Rather, we are to view God as the Supreme Moral Governor of the created order, who always acts in the interests of the common good.
Grotius then proceeds to describe God’s reaction against sin not in terms of retributive justice which arises from God’s character, but in terms of rectoral justice as related to the interests of public law and order, by whose maintenance alone the general good can be conserved.
From the preceding considerations, Grotius contends that it is entirely feasible for God to relax the claims of his law and save the sinner apart from any satisfaction or punishment. Why, then, if there is nothing in the being or attributes of God that demands strict and exact infliction of punishment on the sinner, does not God dismiss the sinner from all obligation and save him by a mere act of will? In other words, why did Christ have to die at all?
Grotius argues that although God can remit the penalty of sin without satisfaction, as far as his own inner nature is concerned, he cannot do so in view of the welfare of the created order. God has created all things, in relation to which he now stands as Ruler and Governor. The necessities of such a moral order make it unsafe for him to exercise his power and right of remission of penalty. Notes Shedd, “on the ground, therefore, that the interests of the creature need it, and not on the ground that the attributes of the Creator require it, must there be an atonement in order to remission” (II:358).
The final cause of atonement, therefore, is external to God. The cause is what the interests of the universe require, not what the nature of God might demand. Christ’s death is thus primarily a tribute to the sanctity of divine government. His death demonstrates that while God remits (or relaxes) the penalty, he detests sin and desires to deter its spread within the created order. A good governor cannot allow his subjects to sin with impunity, for to do so would encourage them to continue in sin. Thus Christ died as a penal example (but not a penal substitute), an exhibition of God’s displeasure with sin designed to encourage us to forsake our evil ways. Cave explains:
“The concern of this theory is not the expiation of divine justice, but its manifestation; its interest is prospective, not retrospective” [in other words, the stress is on the prevention or deterrence of future sin, not the forgiveness of past sin] (The Doctrine of the Work of Christ, 177).
Anselm and the reformers understood vicarious satisfaction to be the substitution of a strict equivalent for the penalty incurred by human sin. The sufferings and death of Christ are equal or adequate to the eternal penalty which all humans deserve. There is no relaxation of the claims of divine justice: the punishment which was deservedly ours was borne in full measure by Christ.
Grotius, on the other hand, while speaking of Christ being “punished” in our place, does not mean what the reformers meant. He simply means that Christ’s afflictions were accepted by God in the place of our punishment. His sufferings were not equal in value or kind to what we would have received, but were “accounted” as such by God as he “relaxed” the claims of justice. This theory has been called the Acceptilation Theory of the atonement. This word refers to the action of a creditor who discharges his debtor without full or literal payment being made. He may cancel the debt entirely by declaring it paid or by receiving a partial payment in lieu of a full one. Thus God is conceived as forgiving humanity or eliminating their debt by receiving instead the payment offered by Christ in his sufferings. His death is not a strict equivalent to what man owed, but God accepts it as such. Stevens summarizes:
“Christ’s death is the equivalent of our punishment only in the sense that by it the dignity of God’s government is as effectively proclaimed and vindicated as it would have been by our punishment” (164).