As the second installment in this pre-Easter series on the atonement I decided it would be useful to give and overview of many of the popular traditional views on the atonement of Christ. Just a little Web searching turned up some very useful information. I’ll give some brief info on them and comment on the possible connections to Mormonism.
“The earliest of all, originating with the Early Church Fathers, this theory claims that Christ offered himself as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Where it was not clear was in its understanding of exactly to whom the ransom was paid. Many early church fathers viewed the ransom as paid to Satan.” An extension of this is the “Christus Victor” view which focuses less on paying Satan off as a Ransom and more on defeating Satan (somehow) through the atonement.
It seems to me that discussing the atonement in terms of being a ransom would not raise any eyebrows in a Gospel Doctrine class. The Book of Mormon describes us as being in danger of becoming (or remaining?) captives to the Devil after all. But I doubt many Mormons would fight hard for the ransom theory to the exclusion of the other theories to follow.
“The formulator of this theory was the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1034-1109), in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. ‘Why the God Man’). In his view, God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Anselm offered compelling biblical evidence that the atonement was not a ransom paid by God to the devil but rather a debt paid to God on behalf of sinners.”
I think this one would fly in any given Mormon Sunday School class as well. We often hear it in the form of our coming to earth, getting muddied up and needing to blood of Christ to clean our clothes/garments/souls before entering God’s perfectly clean house. Certainly the debt analogy is very popular in Mormonism (as evidenced by the popularity of Robinson’s “Parable of the Bicycle”).
The Penal-Substitution Theory:
“This view was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselm’s Satisfaction theory… Reformers saw [the satisfaction theory] as insufficient because it was referenced to God’s honor rather than his justice and holiness and was couched more in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. This Reformed view says simply that Christ died for man, in man’s place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of man’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.”
I suspect that this might be the most popular theory in Mormonism. It has been taught numerous times in General Conference and many feel that the sermons in Alma 34 and 42 support it (though some dispute this idea – I’ll try to review and 1999 Dialogue article by Dennis Potter later and will cover Blake Ostler’s rejection of penal substitution theory in a later post as well). A perfect example of penal substitution theory is the story of little hungry Jim who stole an apple in school and big healthy Tom who volunteered to “take his licking” for him. Elder Faust repeated that analogy in his October 2001 General Conference talk called The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope.
“Christ died to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, but teaches instead that His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. Thus, the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but towards man with the purpose of persuading him to right action. Formulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) partially in reaction against Anselm’s Satisfaction theory, this view was held by the 16th century Socinians. Versions of it can be found later in F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Horace Bushnell (1802-1876).”
You don’t hear this one in Mormonism much at all, though it appears to me that Blake’s views in his new book are more sympathetic to aspects of this theory than is common in Mormonism. More on that later.
“God made Christ an example of suffering to exhibit to erring man that sin is displeasing to him. God’s moral government of the world made it necessary for him to evince his wrath against sin in Christ. Christ died as a token of God’s displeasure toward sin and it was accepted by God as sufficient; but actually God does not exact strict justice. This view was formulated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and is subsequently found in Arminianism, Charles Finney, the New England Theology of Jonathan Edwards (the younger), and Methodism. See main page on Governmental theory of atonement.”
“Governmental theory holds that Christ’s suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve, but it did not consist of Christ receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin by punishing his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Christ’s suffering and death served as a substitute for the punishment humans might have received.”
This is one that I’ve never specifically heard in a Mormon context – unless it could be equated to God’s mercy satisfying the demands of justice (as opposed to justice being completely exacted from Christ as penal substitution theory holds.) Potter argues something similar in his article.
So do you have a favorite here? It seems to me that we Mormons tend to sort of accept several of these. It is probably the result of us not thinking through the implications clearly enough though because mostly of these theories are competitive with each other, not complementary. I don’t wholly buy any of them right now. I hope to formulate a stronger opinion and perhaps a variation theory that I think works by the end of this week, though. (Blake Ostler actually discusses each of these theories in his new book so I will slip ahead and read that chapter and his “Compassion Theory of the Atonement” tonight to see if he answers these questions better than others have in the past.)
[Asociated radio.blog song: Gorillaz – Don’t Get Lost in Heaven]