Theories of Atonement
This is an article from the Church Times, that I have adapted slightly. I thought it might be of interest. You might also like this YouTube video that Drew made a few years ago to explain two of them, watch it here
Ransom, substitute, scapegoat, God: is there one doctrine of the atonement?
29 MARCH 2018
No, says Ben Pugh, there are only theories. The creed tells us that there was an atonement: that — for our salvation — Christ came down and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, was made man, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was buried, and rose again. But it does not tell us how such events achieved our salvation, or even what salvation is. The result is open season where doctrines of the atonement are concerned.
Theories of atonement fall into four main types. In chronological order of their emergence they are as follows:
The Christus Victor theory of atonement consists of two distinct approaches, both emerging within the first couple of centuries of church history, and holding sway until the Middle Ages.
1 The ransom-to-Satan theory
This theory believes our main problem to be our captivity to Satan. The atonement is a victory over Satan which procured our release. Difficulties arise, however, when God is depicted as deceiving the devil by letting him think that he had the ‘ransom money’. Little did he know that Jesus could not be held by death, and would soon escape.
But, as well as the idea of God’s deceiving the devil, there is also the assumption that the devil had some kind of legal right, or authority, over humans which even God could not contravene.
There is a biblical basis for seeing the cross as a victory over Satan, although it is not extensive: Colossians 2.15; Hebrews 2.14; Revelation 12.11.
With this theory, everything that Adam did Jesus undoes. Everything that Adam failed to do the Second Adam does. Adam was disobedient; Jesus is obedient. He even dies our death in obedience to God.
This has a much clearer biblical basis. In particular, there is the whole Pauline notion of our participation in Christ: Romans 5.12-21; 1 Corinthians 15.45-50.
This participation can be read both ways: the Son of God unites himself to human nature, thus potentially renewing the whole human race; but we also become partakers of the divine nature. He descends into our humanity, suffering our frailties and dying our death, but then he takes us up into his resurrection and glorification. And so death’s hold over us is destroyed, as we now find ourselves caught up with the immortal and incorruptible God.
There are basically two of these:
This theory was set out by St Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury) in 1099. We have all robbed God of the honour that is due to him. For that honour to be fully repaid, something greater than all creation needs to be offered in compensation: the debt is total; the obligation to pay it is total; the power to pay it is zero. God has to become human, and, in that human nature, pay the debt. That he should offer himself is more than enough to satisfy divine justice; so, in fact, it merits a reward. The Son has no need of such a reward; so freely bestows his merit, his reward, on all those who believe in him.
The closest thing to a biblical text directly supporting the theory is Hebrews 10.12,14, where the writer emphasises that Christ’s single offering was utterly sufficient.
2 Penal substitution
The bearing of penalty implies that God needed to punish sinners, and that something actually happened to Jesus on the cross which was accepted by the Father as an equivalent to this punishment. Substitution goes beyond representation, pointing to the idea that, on the cross, Jesus was doing something without our participation — and, indeed, to spare us.
Penal substitution, originates with Martin Luther in 1535. In Anselm, the Son freely offers himself to the Father; in penal substitution, the Father pours out his wrath and judgement on the Son. Secondly, the aim is different: in the satisfaction theory, judgement is averted; in penal substitution, payment is demanded.
The clearest New Testament support for a fully penal view of the atonement would be 2 Corinthians 5.21 and Galatians 3.13, although many parts of Isaiah 53 are susceptible of similar interpretation.
A contemporary of Anselm was Peter Abelard. His writings were concerned with ethics. He argued: the cross changes our ethical behaviour because there, in the crucified Christ, we come to understand something of God’s love for us. This love motivates us to change the way we live. This is how we are saved from our sins. That Christ’s death impresses us with the love of God and inspires in us a life of dedication to him, is indeed a scriptural truth: Romans 5.8 and 2 Corinthians 5.15. The moral-influence theory was wholeheartedly endorsed by theologians within the German liberal tradition of the 19th century, who were all repulsed by penal substitution.
We now come to a fourth, and very recent, way of looking at the work of Christ. Mostly from René Girard: we want to be like others and have what they have, mimic them, but Satan makes sure we can’t all have that. As this process carries on, and frustrations intensify, whole communities can become inflamed with violence. It’s a war of all against all. Satan then presents a marginal person (Jesus) who is slated as being the true cause of all the unrest. The whole community then turns on Jesus; it’s now a war of all against one. A temporary peace is achieved by this. This is called the ‘scapegoat mechanism’.