Monday, August 11, 2008

Atonement Theories

The Ransom Theory -- God deceitfully bribes and tricks Satan:

This was the dominant belief in the early Christian church. It has also been called the "Classic" theory of the atonement. It was accepted by church leaders for about a millennium, from the second to the twelfth century CE. There are very few theologians outside of the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Protestant Word-faith Movement who believe in it today. 1 However, one might argue that this concept may be the most accurate theory of all, because it was accepted by Christian leaders within two centuries after Yeshua's (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) and Paul's death. This happened when memories of their teachings were still relatively fresh.

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Satisfaction theory: Jesus appeases God via a ritual human sacrifice:

The Roman Catholic Church teaches this theory of the atonement (or a variation on it), as do most Protestant denominations. However the Catholic Church does not raise the theory to the level of dogma.

This theory is grounded in the concept of personal honor found in the European feudal culture. During the Middle Ages, a serf had to honor both God and the feudal lord who controlled his/her life and land. Human sin dishonors God. A price must be paid to satisfy God and restore his divine honor. The only penalty suitable to God was Christ's obedience when he willingly suffered torture and death at his crucifixion. 8

The satisfaction theory is related to the ancient Hebrew ritual sacrifice of animals at the altar of the Jerusalem Temple. Such sacrifices were made in the centuries before Yeshua's (a.k.a. Jesus Christ's) birth, during his lifetime, and only ended with the destruction of the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem by the Roman Army in 70 CE. By allowing himself to be ritually sacrificed, Yeshua's death replicated in many ways the ritual sacrifice of animals were slaughtered in the Temple.

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The Moral Theory
(a.k.a. Moral Influence Theory)

The Moral Theory was first fully developed in the writings of Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) in the 12th century CE. 2 Abelard was an French abbot, theologian and philosopher. His birth surname was du Pallet; he took the nickname Abelard while in college. He had a rather interesting private life. Abelard fell in love with a woman whose uncle-guardian owned the house where he was boarding. After she became pregnant, they were secretly married. But in order to keep his job and professorship at Notre Dame Cathedral, he was forced to pretend that he was still single and celibate. The uncle became convinced that they were not married, that he had ruined her reputation, and that he was preparing to abandon her. The uncle hired some thugs to seize Abelard and castrate him. He recovered, but his wife, Heloise, went into a convent and became a nun. Later she became an abbess. After an unsuccessful experience as a monk, he returned to teaching.

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Penal Theory

The Penal Theory is a modification of Anselem's Satisfaction Theory. He had based the latter from the feudal culture in which he lived. In his era, human sin was seen as an insult to God's honor that he cannot simply overlook. Just as an insult by a serf against the honor of his lord demanded satisfaction, God also required compensation for the dishonor created by human sin. The only suitable action to offset the dishonor was the death of a perfectly sinless god-man who represented all of humanity.


bulletOne of Jesus' main messages was that we must love our enemies, forgive those who injure us, and overcome evil with good. These teachings appear to be totally opposite to God's demand for blood and a torture death of an innocent man. Fr. John Mabry views the Penal Theory as " oppressive theology, and inauthentic in light of Jesus' teaching." He asks: "how can a God who in Jesus told us that we were never to exact vengeance, that we were to forgive each other perpetually without retribution, demand of us behavior that God 'himself' is unwilling or unable to perform?...why can God not simply forgive as we are instructed to do, rather than mandating that some 'innocent and spotless victim' bear the brunt of 'his' reservoir of wrath? The ability of humans to do this when God will not or cannot logically casts humanity as God's moral superior. This is of course absurd!"
bulletPresumably, the Penal Theory would require that any new human sins committed after Yeshua's execution would also have to be punished. They would necessitate the ritual sacrifice of a second God-Man. Thus, multiple incarnations and executions would be required over the millennia of human history since the first century CE. An indefinite number of human sacrifices might eventually be required.
bulletIt seems logical that if the death of Yeshua satisfied God's need for justice, and if humans made no contribution to the process, then salvation and atonement should be granted to everyone -- to Christian believers and unbelievers alike. It is unclear why only those individuals who trust Yeshua as Lord and Savior will attains salvation, atonement, and Heaven. To send those who have not trusted Yeshua to Hell for eternal punishment is to penalize a person for committing a thought crime -- a despicable act in today's world.

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Paul Enns
: Various theories of atonement

Throughout church history several different views or theories of the atonement, some true and some false, have been put forth at different times by different individuals or denominations. One of the reasons for this is that both the Old and New Testaments reveal many truths about Christ’s atonement, so it is hard, if not impossible, to find any single “theory” that fully encapsulates or explains the richness of this doctrine.

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John Piper :substitutionary atonement

Answer: The “substitutionary atonement” refers to the fact that Jesus Christ died on behalf of all sinners. The Scriptures teach that all men are sinners (read Romans 3:9-18 and Romans 3:23). The penalty for our sinfulness is death. Romans 6:23 reads, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Mark M. Mattison: Meaning of atonement

Yet another is the Arminian "Rectoral" or "Governmental" theory, most prominent within Wesleyan churches (particularly the Church of the Nazarene). This theory is an attempt to take the Socinian critique seriously while not fully discarding Penal Substitution. It rejects full substitution, characterizing Christ's death as a "partial payment" instead. This theory also emphasizes sacrifice and Atonement as a precondition to forgiveness, not the direct cause of forgiveness. Some Arminians combined this with the Socinian approach by emphasizing Atonement as sacrifice without trying to explain the mechanics of sacrifice.

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Anselm :Satisfaction Theory

The eleventh-century scholar Saint Anselm didn't like the Ransom Theory. He believed that an outlaw like the Devil had no right to exert power over humankind, and therefore God didn't need to pay him anything for our release.

To replace the Ransom Theory, Anselm put forward another explanation known as the Satisfaction Theory (or Debt Theory). According to this theory, humankind owes a debt to God because we dishonored him through our disobedience and sin. But his pride, as well as universal justice, prevents him from simply forgiving us. To resolve the matter, Jesus volunteered to pay our debt for us by suffering and dying on the cross. God accepted this act of love as a full atonement, and thus satisfied, he then forgave us and offered us salvation.

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The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement

Girard's entire work is dedicated to helping theologians with a theology of the cross by offering an anthropology of the cross. For him anthropology aids the work of theologians. He makes use of mimetic theory's fundamental distinction between myth and Gospel. Both involve stories foundational to culture, but myth is from the perspective of the perpetrators of founding violence and Gospel is from the perspective of the victims. The Resurrection of Christ represents the permanent establishment of the victim's perspective in history.

Girard: "It is easier than in the past to observe collective transferences upon a scapegoat because they are no longer sanctioned and concealed by religion. And yet it is still difficult because the individuals addicted to them do everything they can to conceal their scapegoating from themselves, and as a general rule they succeed. Today as in the past, to have a scapegoat is to believe one doesn't have any."

James Alison, On Being Liked,

It seems to me that one of the things that we are still flailing about looking for in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council is an account of our salvation which makes sense to us. The old default account, common to both Catholic and Protestant "orthodoxy" was some variation on the "substitionary theory of the atonement." That is, some version of a tale in which Jesus died for us, instead of us who really deserved it, so as to pay a bill for sin that we could not pay, but for whose settlement God himself immutably demanded payment. Not only does this not make sense, but it is scandalous in a variety of ways. It has been one of the principal merits of the thought of René Girard that at last it is enabling us to scrabble towards a new account of how we are being saved which is free from the long shadow of pagan sacrificial attitudes and practice. ... The real question is: how can we understand anew that Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, come among us, undergoing murder and rising again so that we can be unbound from our sin and enabled to live for ever. This is what I begin to re-imagine in chapter 3 by trying to find a non-resentful understanding of forgiveness, and it leads to what has been for me a hugely difficult imaginative shift: that of seeing "God wanting us to share in the act of creation from the inside" rather than "God dealing with sin" as being the central axis of the Christian story.

Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross [Eerdmans, forthcoming Summer 2006]. The Eerdmans webpage on this book says, "In order to highlight the dimensions of his argument, Heim carefully and critically draws on the groundbreaking work of French theorist and biblical scholar René Girard. Yet Heim goes beyond Girard to develop a comprehensive theology of the atonement and the cross through his fresh readings of well-known biblical passages and his exploration of the place of the victim."

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