The Atonement: An Introduction


This book is concerned with the complexities of the Christian view of the atonement — that is, the saving work of Jesus Christ. Broadly speaking, the term atonement — one of the few theological terms that is “wholly and indigenously English” — refers to a reconciled state of “at-one-ness” between parties that were formerly alienated in some manner. According to the great eighteenth-century evangelist John Wesley, “Nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of the atonement.” Wesley wrote those words during the same century that gave birth to the Enlightenment. Since that time more than a few theologians have taken leave of Wesley’s sentiments. Writing in the late 1980s, Colin Gunton noted that over the previous two decades, matters other than the atonement had come to capture the attention of theologians, reducing the former “flood” of works on this topic to a virtual “trickle.” A similar observation, no doubt, led to Colin Grant’s mid-1980s announcement of “the abandonment of atonement.” Today however, two decades later, the waterway has begun to flow anew, and the atonement is again a matter for serious and widespread discussion at the theological roundtable.

A number of factors have served to foster renewed conversation and exploration concerning the atonement within Christian theological circles. A number of feminist and womanist critiques of traditional interpretations of the atonement have highlighted what many consider to be two troubling aspects of this central Christian doctrine. Here certain traditional atonement theories (i.e., satisfaction and penal substitution) are seen as encouraging apathetic tolerance of abuse by unduly glorifying the experience of suffering. Related to this, certain models are said to foster the idea that “cosmic child abuse” (i.e., the Father’s willing sacrifice of the Son) is the divinely ordained path to salvation.

Another impetus behind the current renewed interest in the atonement involves the interdisciplinary reflections of literary critic René Girard and his scapegoat theory of ritual violence. According to Girard, societies commonly avoid widespread internal conflict and thus preserve the social order by channeling innate human hostility toward a scapegoat. Though truly innocent, the scapegoat, typically a person or group outside of or at the margins of the society, is identified as the source of the conflict and is consequently “sacrificed,” that is, punished, killed, or banished from the community. For Girard the gospel story offers what no other scapegoat scenario does: it clearly reveals that the scapegoat — Jesus — is innocent, and in doing so unmasks the ritual violence associated with the scapegoat myth for the tragic mistake that it is. In Girard’s assessment, however, Christian theology through the ages has all too often slipped back into an endorsement of sacred violence by encouraging the (re)interpretation of Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms and the like. While Girard’s take on the atonement leaves little of the traditional understanding of Christ’s saving work intact, there is no question that his theory has been an important force in the recent renaissance of atonement studies.

Another factor that is highlighted in many of the current conversations surrounding the work of Christ is the ongoing quest for the most suitable image or theory by which to understand the atonement. This aged quest has always been complicated by the fact that the New Testament itself offers a wide variety of images to explain the atonement. John Driver has noted no less than ten motifs around which the New Testament atonement images can be clustered: conflict/victory/liberation; vicarious suffering; archetypal (i.e., representative man, pioneer, forerunner, firstborn); martyr; sacrifice; expiation/wrath of God; redemption; reconciliation; justification; and adoption-family. From the patristic period onward, Christian theologians generally can be found acknowledging the rich diversity of ways that the manifold aspects of the atonement can be expressed while at the same time seeking to identify the heart of the atonement — the primary image that most powerfully and completely expresses the crux of the saving work of Christ. Particularly among evangelical theologians today, the question of how best to conceive of the atonement remains an important and contested issue, with the question of status of the penal substitution model often turning up at the core of the debate. Among the recent spate of new books on the topic, a good number represent adherents of the penal substitution theory responding to a variety of critics and in the process correcting what they perceive to be unflattering characterizations of their views.

In no small part due to the landmark work of Gustaf Aulén’s (1879-1978) Christus Victor, the variety of atonement images and theories have come to be commonly categorized under three broad paradigms: Christus Victor (or classic/dramatic), objective and subjective. In essence, each of these paradigms focuses the primary emphasis of the atonement in a different direction. That is, each paradigm sees the central thrust of the work of Christ as designed to address a different fundamental problem that stands in the way of salvation.

The Christus Victor Paradigm

The Christus Victor paradigm, known alternatively as the classic or dramatic model, can be described as Satanward in its focus. In Aulén’s words, the central theme of this approach 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.”

More specifically, the Christus Victor paradigm understands the work of Christ primarily in terms of his conflict with and triumph over those elements of the kingdom of darkness that, according to the New Testament, hold humanity in their clutches, that is, Satan and his demonic hosts (Lk 13:10-16; Acts 10:38; 2 Tim 2:26; Heb 2:14-15), the sin power (Jn 8:34; Acts 8:23; Rom 6; 7:14-25; 8:2), death (Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 15:56; Heb 2:15) and even, particularly in its curse elements, the law (Rom 7:8- 13; 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:13). In addition, the harrowing of hell motif has fed into the Christus Victor theme from ancient times (i.e., Eph 4:8-10; 1 Pet 3:18-20).

In one form or another, this view seems to have dominated the atonement theology of the early church for the first millennium (thus the label “classic view”). In certain quarters this general approach crystallized into a more defined model — the so-called ransom theory of the atonement. In the ransom theory, this conflict-victory theme was conjoined with the redemption-ransom motif to produce an explanatory model in which Jesus became the ransom by which God redeemed humanity from Satan’s power. Several elements came to characterize the theory: (1) Satan gained mastery over humanity when the first couple chose the path of sin in the garden. Satan retains this hold on humanity through the powers of the kingdom of darkness (sin, fear, death, etc.). (2) Through death, Jesus’ innocent life became the ransom price that was acceptable to Satan for the liberation/redemption of humanity. The New Testament passage often used to support this idea came from the very lips of Jesus: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45; cf. 1 Tim 2:6). (3) Finally, the ransom theory typically emphasizes that Christ’s victory was achieved by outwitting the devil. The inherent injustice of taking an innocent life as a ransom is the basis on which Christ defeats Satan (a notion tied to the words of Paul in 1 Cor 2:8).

Among the more notable exponents of some version of the ransom theory are Irenaeus (at least in its embryonic form), Origen (the first to explicate the theory in any kind of detail), Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great and Rufinus. A good number of other writers from the early centuries of the church can be found aligning themselves with the broader Christus Victor theme to one degree or another, whether in conjunction with an explicit ransom theory or not, including Tertullian, Chrysostom, Athanasius, Augustine and John of Damascus.

However, with the coming of the eleventh century and Anselm’s satisfaction theory (including his critique of the more idiosyncratic elements of the ransom theory) came the demise of the predominance of the Christus Victor paradigm. Under Aulén’s assessment, Martin Luther revitalized the Christus Victor approach. According to Aulén, however, beginning with Melanchthon himself, Luther’s reappropriation of the classic theme was quickly lost within later Protestant circles as more objective, “Latin,” theories were allowed to displace it. Others question whether Aulén’s reading of Luther’s atonement theology as primarily rooted in the Christus Victor, as opposed to the objective, paradigm is truly reflective of his thought. In recent years there has been a growing consensus that the Christus Victor approach has played a central role in much Anabaptist thought on the atonement over the last several centuries.

While aspects of the Christus Victor view and Aulén’s presentation of it have been subjected to criticism — for example, since Anselm’s famous critique, many have charged that it fosters a dangerous dualism, one that, among other things, threatens the very sovereignty of God — it nonetheless is widely acknowledged as highlighting an important element of the atonement that went largely neglected for centuries. At the very least it is clear that since the advent of Aulén’s book in 1931, a number of scholars have picked up on the Christus Victor theme, and have made it an important, if not the central, theme by which to understand the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Intriguingly, in recent years a number of theologians are making use of the Christus Victor paradigm and its conflict-victory motifs in order to flesh out a nonviolent liberationist (if typically demythologized) vision of the atonement.

The Objective Paradigm

A central characteristic of any objective model of the atonement will be its “Godward” focus. That is, an objective theory of the atonement understands the work of Christ as primarily addressing a necessary demand of God. This trajectory of atonement theories has been denoted by such labels as “substitutionary,” “Latin,” “commercial” and “Anselmian.” Theories that fall within this paradigm tend to emphasize such New Testament motifs as vicarious suffering, sacrifice, justification and propitiation/expiation. Those passages that reflect the sin-bearing elements of the paradigmatic Isaiah 53 are important here. Many see Paul as capturing the heart of the objective paradigm when he writes: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). And from another key Pauline text:

Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:23-26 NRSV)

Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement is the classic example of this type. Although the seeds of Anselm’s theory can be traced back to Tertullian (with his emphasis on penance and the satisfaction due to God from sinful humanity, a notion inspired by Roman law) and Cyprian, it was Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who in his famous little book Cur Deus Homo? (Why God Became Human) delineated this view in a robust form.

The main outline of Anselm’s theory can be summarized by the following six points: (1) The essence of sin is humanity’s failure to render to God what is rightfully due him; sin dishonors God. (2) It is humanity’s responsibility to restore to God what they have robbed him of, as well as to make reparation above and beyond for injuring and offending him. God’s honor inherently demands such restoration and reparation. (3) Humanity can never restore such a debt. Even if humans did their best and did not sin further, they would only be rendering what God is already due; the necessary reparation above and beyond would always be left undone. Beyond this, humanity lives in a state of bondage to the devil. (4) God is left with two basic options: punish humanity as they deserve, or accept satisfaction made on their behalf. (5) But now the predicament: satisfaction can only be made by a human since it is humanity that owes God the debt, yet no mere human has the resources to make satisfaction for the race. (6) The sole solution is to be found in the mystery of Jesus Christ, the God-man. As God, he has the ability to make satisfaction; as man, his satisfaction can be made on behalf of humanity. Anselm grounds his discussion of both the incarnation and the atonement on terms of reason and necessity. In the final dialogical exchange between his two interlocutors, Boso says, “All things which you have said seem to me reasonable and incontrovertible … For, in proving that God became man by necessity, … you convince both Jews and Pagans by the mere force of reason.”

C. H. Dodd, arguing for the expiation view, opened up the debate with his article “hilaskesthai, its Cognates, Derivatives, and Synonyms in the Septuagint,” Journal of Theological Studies 32 (1931): 352-60. Leon Morris eventually offered his well-known counterargument, first articulated in “The Use of hilaskesthai, Etc. in Biblical Greek,” Expository Times 62 (1951): 227-33, and later expanded in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 144-213.

The attractiveness of Anselm’s theory in the Middle Ages is at least partly to be explained by the fact that it capitalized on a notion that was intimately tied to the church’s practice of penance as well as the recently arisen feudal system — namely the idea of satisfaction. The satisfaction theory had the advantages of avoiding the eccentricities of the ransom theory while providing an explication of the work of Christ that both takes human sin seriously and offers a reasonable explanation of how Jesus’ death satisfies the demands of God’s honor.

With the advent of the Reformation period came not only theological innovations but societal transformations as well, changes that would prove to have a bearing on atonement theory. Within Europe the gradual fading of the feudal system and the emergence of Teutonic political theory and its notion of law paved the way for a new expression of the objective paradigm: penal substitution. Here the fundamental issue is that of a legal penal transaction between God and Christ for the salvific benefit of humanity. As a righteous judge, God cannot allow his law to be broken without punishment. Christ’s sacrifice satisfies God’s requirements of justice. It thus propitiates God’s wrath toward sinners and is the basis on which divine forgiveness can righteously be extended to them. A wide variety of biblical passages can be marshaled in support of this view. Isaiah declares that the suffering Servant was “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5 KJV). Paul asserts that Christ was “delivered over to death for our sins” (Rom 4:25), and that God “made him who had no sin to be sin” (2 Cor 5:21). The first epistle of John affirms a similar understanding when he states that Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 2:2).

The roots of the penal substitution view are discernable in the writings of John Calvin (1509-1564), though it was left to later expositors to systematize and emphasize it in its more robust forms. The penal substitutionary view has come to characterize the standard Reformed/Calvinist approach to the atonement. A long line of respected evangelical thinkers have embraced some version of it, including Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd, Louis Berkhof, John Murray, Leon Morris and John Stott.

During the Reformation period, another expression of the objective paradigm arose: the moral government theory. This theory, first championed by the erstwhile Calvinist turned Arminian Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), offers something of a third quotient over against the satisfaction theory of Anselm and the moral influence theory of Abelard — or, as the lines were drawn in Grotius’s day, over against the Reformed penal substitution theory and the Socinian moral example theory. Like the penal substitutionary approach, it strives to take God’s law and justice seriously. Similar to the subjective theories, however, it emphasizes that God primarily is to be viewed as loving Creator-Father rather than wrathful Judge.

The moral government theory views God as both the loving Creator and moral Governor of the universe. As loving Creator, God has no intrinsic need to punish us before forgiving us. Rather, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, God is always waiting with open arms to forgive. On the other hand, as the just moral Governor of the universe, God cannot simply pass over human sins as if they were nothing. In Christ’s death, God shows us the seriousness of violating his law, which then deters us from further sinning. While he requires that sin be dealt with, God does not necessarily require a penalty or punishment equal to the offense in every case. As long as sinners are deterred from committing future sins, God has justly upheld his governing role. Thus, rather than punish humanity, God’s hatred of sin is demonstrated by the suffering of Christ. The moral government view has often been adopted by those within the Wesleyan/Arminian tradition.

The Subjective Paradigm

The subjective trajectory of atonement theories — alternatively known as the moralistic, humanistic or Abelardian paradigm — are held together by the common conviction that the primary focus of the atonement is humanward, that is, the atoning work of Christ is designed first and foremost to effect a change in human beings. Subjective theories draw primarily from New Testament themes such as the reconciliation, revelatory (i.e., Jesus as revelation of God’s love) and family-adoption (i.e., God as loving Father) motifs. The healing motif found throughout the Scriptures offers another important humanward dimension of the atonement (Isa 53:5; Mk 2:17; 1 Pet 2:24), one that is put forward in this book by Bruce Reichenbach for consideration as the primary lens through which to understand the atoning work of Christ. For many expressions of this paradigm, a banner passage is Paul’s declaration in Romans: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Any New Testament text that proclaims God’s love for humanity and consequent desire to save sinners can be brought forth as evidence for this interpretation of the atonement (e.g., Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:8, 16).

It is commonly acknowledged that the most famed exponent of the subjectivist approach is Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard, like Anselm, had little time for the ransom theory of the early church, with its conviction that Satan possessed some sort of legitimate rights over sinful humanity. Such a dualistic view was tantamount to making the devil into a rival god. On the other hand, Abelard was also repulsed by certain features of the Anselmic satisfaction theory, which (at least in its easily caricatured forms) one could construe as turning God into a wrathful devil. Abelard’s primary answer to the atonement question came in the form of a third broad paradigm: The work of Christ chiefly consists of demonstrating to the world the amazing depth of God’s love for sinful humanity. The atonement was directed primarily at humanity, not God. There is nothing inherent in God that must be appeased before he is willing to forgive sinful humanity. The problem rather lies in the sinful, hardened human heart, with its fear and ignorance of God. Humanity refuses to turn to God and be reconciled. Through the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ, the love of God shines like a beacon, beckoning humanity to come and fellowship. Abelard’s view, which has come to be known as the moral influence theory, was joined with a fairly strong doctrine of election (something missing from most of the contemporary Abelardian reconstructions). Abelard was eventually challenged in his views by Bernard of Clairvaux, condemned by the Council of Sens (1140), and finally excommunicated. His general approach to the atonement, however, has lived on in various forms throughout the last millennium.

During the Reformation era another form of the subjective view was proposed by Faustus Socinus (1539-1604). It is rooted in a basic rejection of vicarious satisfaction as having anything to do with the work of Christ. Socinus’s view, which has come to be known as the moral example theory, emphasizes that the true value of Jesus’ death is to be found in the fact that it offers us a perfect example of self-sacrificial dedication to God. Thus, according to Socinus, “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, and will give that eternal life to us who have faith in him.” Socinus has, of course, been charged with any number of heretical teachings, including an antitrinitarian theology proper, a mistaken Christology, and a Pelagian view of humanity and sin. To these castigations, critics of the subjective paradigm would also add an anemic, overly human-centered theory of the work of Christ.

The rise of modern liberal theology brought a new appreciation for the Abelardian approach to the atonement. In North America, Horace Bushnell became a well-known exponent, and his counterpart in Britain was Hastings Rashdall. Others whose thought evinces sympathies with the subjective paradigm include Fredrick Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl and R. S. Franks.

Four Views On the Atonement: An Evangelical Dialogue

The purpose of this book is to foster dialogue between four different interpretations of the atonement. Each contributor offers an essay explicating and defending their particular view of the atonement. Each of the four major essays is followed by responses from the other three contributors. The four views offered are (1) the Christus Victor view, presented by Gregory Boyd; (2) the penal substitution view, presented by Thomas Schreiner; (3) the healing view, presented by Bruce Reichenbach; and (4) a kaleidoscopic view, presented by Joel Green. The first two views, of course, fall squarely within one of the standard paradigms — the Christus Victor and the objective, respectively. The third view, atonement as healing, while not reducible to a merely subjective approach, does emphasize the subjective dimension of the atonement in a way that other common evangelical models do not. Finally, the kaleidoscopic view suggests that the wide variety of New Testament atonement images should lead us to conclude that, while each of the paradigms play an important role in explicating the work of Christ, none of them has a claim to priority. It is important to note that all of the contributors represented in this book acknowledge that the New Testament provides a plethora of images by which to understand Christ’s work, and that each of them provides a valuable window into the workings of the atonement. However, each of the first three views (Christus Victor, penal substitution, and healing) will contend that their particular theory has a justifiable claim to priority over the others, while the kaleidoscopic view argues that none of the views has a priority status and that to emphasize only one is to misunderstand the atonement.

We would like to thank each of our contributors — Greg Boyd, Joel Green, Bruce Reichenbach and Tom Schreiner — for their valuable role in this project and for their collegiality throughout the process. Our thanks also goes to our IVP editor Dan Reid, who encouraged and nurtured this project from start to finish. We also offer a word of grateful remembrance for Philip Quinn. Professor Quinn began this project as one of our contributors but passed away before the project was brought to completion. He will be remembered for many things, among them being the way that he brought his acute philosophical sensibilities to a variety of theological considerations, including the atoning work of Christ. As always, we are forever grateful for the loving encouragement of our families, especially our wives, Michelle Beilby and Kelly Eddy. Finally, we want to express our gratitude to our teacher, our mentor and our friend David K. Clark. It is to him that we dedicate this book.