Over the years, Christians, theologians, and other scholars have struggled to understand the foundational truth of Christianity and Gods fulfillment of the old covenant sacrificial system through Jesus Christs crucifixion for human race redemption from sins.
This has led to development of numerous theories of atonement which attempt to explain the relationship between the life and death of Jesus and the salvation of humanity. The doctrine of atonement is critical element of Christianity since it was the point of transition from objective to subjective aspects of Christian theology.
Due to the abundance of Biblical testimony on the facts of atonement, theologians and other scholars have adopted varying explanations of atonement which reflect their views and conceptualization of Jesus life and role he played in salvation of mankind. While over the years, many theories of atonement have been developed, none of the theories have singled out to be the most valid.
With this in mind, we are going to critically analyze some of the theories that have been put forward to explain the doctrine of atonement while considering their strengths and weaknesses in order to appreciate the complexity that underlies the doctrine of atonement.
Theories of atonement
Theories of atonement in their most simplified form are metaphors that seek to enrich and broaden the Christian perspective of Jesus saving works (Marshall 1994, 105). According to (Marshall 1994) these theories are not mutually exclusive; rather, they present an alternative form of imagery which is essential in understanding the proposed impact of Jesus life and death on human redemption and reconciliation with God.
The writer presents the theories of atonement in a schematic form which incorporates the classical view (the ransom theory) which was most popular from the forth through to the eleventh century (Marshall, 105), the orthodox (Satisfaction theory) as well as the moral influence theory which were developed in the eleventh century.
Despite the fact that these theories vary widely in terms of imagery and explanation of the doctrine of atonement, they often converge in certain areas since they all operate in quite prescribed circumstances (Schmiechen 2005, 316).
Classical theory (ransom view)
The classical theory was developed by Irenacus and Gregory of Nyssa and its imagery is based on the ancient and medieval institutions of slavery where people could be saved from servitude upon payment of a particular price (Marshall 1994, 105).
The classical view claimed that humanity had voluntarily given in to the powers of evil incarnate in the devil; consequently, the devil had held in bondage the entire human race which prompted God to provide a ransom which was His son Jesus as the required price to free humanity from the powers of sin (Marshall 1994, 105).
In Mark 10:45, Jesus gives the reason for his presence on earth as To give his life as a ransom so that the human race would be saved. One of the early Christian scholars, Origen, describes the ransom theory of atonement by describing the historical events that led to Jesus crucification (Martin 1993, 253).
According to Origen, the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden led to Gods abandonment of mankind which gave the devil an opportunity to exert his power on the human race. However, due to the forgiving nature of God, He agreed to pay Satan a ransom which would lead to freeing of mankind from the powers of the devil (Martin 1993, 254).
According to Origen, the devil accepts the bargain because he believes that he is going to have Jesus in return (Russell 1987, 193). However, the devil is tricked by God who knows that upon sacrificing his son to free man from his sins, the devil will be unable to keep the prize offered by God. Hence, the son escapes from the powers of Satan and is reconciled with the father after the human race has already been saved.
According to (Martin 1993), the ransom view as presented by Origen provides a crude explanation and attribute to God qualities of a character that is unworthy of a divine being. It goes against Christians view of God as a morally upright supreme being who would not use trickery to manipulate Satan or any other being for that matter (Martin 1993, 254).
Augustine held different views in the theory of ransom and argues that devil got tricked by God not because of Gods deception but due to his pride that led to his own downfall. Augustines perception of God was influenced by the Christian view that God is good and that human beings are a battleground on which both God and the Devil can conquer (Rist 1996, 262).
He argued that everything evil was either caused by a soul other than God and it was only allowed by God on a good course or for reasons of justice. (Rist 1996) criticizes Augustine claiming that he fails to face the questions regarding Gods ability to perform logically and hence sees no difficulty in predicating all the traditional moral virtues such as justice and the Christian moral virtues of mercy of God (Rist 1996, 262).
Proponents of the theory of ransom claimed that the primary aspects of Christs atonement was his ransoming of souls of the souls of human beings from the devil who was controlling them at the time and the principle of the theory was incorporated in some of the early church practices such as baptism and exorcism (Adams 2007, 17).
(The Franklin and Marshall college 1868) observed that these theories, which seemed to satisfy the mind of the church since reformation were being brought under new examination due to the increasing desire to reach a consensus on the theory that best satisfies all the conditions of the doctrine of atonement (Franklin & Marshall College 1868, 397). Hence, there are constant efforts by modern theologians to present the problem in a new and clearer light as evidenced by the recent works of Young and Bushnell
The ransom theory is supported by some passages in the New Testament. Matt. 20:27-28 states that whoever wishes to be the first among you must be your slave just as the son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. Mark 10:45 emphasizes that Jesus gave his life a ransom for many and this is further confirmed in 1 Tim 2:5-6 which says that Jesus purchased us with his own blood.
The ransom theory further addresses the reality of the power of evil over us (Park 2009, 7). As still is the case, the human race is not free but in the bondage of sin (Cronk 1982, 207). In addition, the theory stresses on the importance of integration of Jesus death and resurrection for his work of salvation since it highlights the decisiveness of the resurrection of Jesus in his redemptive work.
However, the theory has several weaknesses as outlined by (Park 2009): the theologians developed a biblical idea of ransom too literally which made it less practical. This is because the theory paints God as a trickster1 and Satan as an unintelligent being (Park 2009, 7).
In addition, the claim that Satan had held humanity to ransom due to their sinful nature is not necessarily true because human beings committed sins against God and not Satan. Further, if Jesus purchased us back from Satan, all human beings are supposed to be free in daily life which is not the case (Park 2009, 8).
The moral-influence theory
The moral influence theory of atonement was developed by Peter Abelard in the eleventh century (Marshall 1994, 105). According to this theory, one of the greatest human problems is our fear of God and our subsequent inability to respond to grace.
Focusing on Jesus as the supreme manifestation of Gods love, the moral influence view suggests that humanity is drawn to God by that love (Marshall 1994, 105). The theory views the death of Christ as a demonstration of Gods love to us (Hustad and Erickson 2001, 251).
Peter Abelard conceptualizes sin as the contempt of God or the consent of evil and denies the original sin. He further disagreed that Jesus died for the forgiveness of the original mankind sins and asserts that it is cruel and wicked that anyone should demand blood for an innocent person as a price for certain actions and therefore Consequently, God would not have considered the death of His Son as an exchange for achieving reconciliation with the entire human race (Park 2009, 19).
Abelard explains his position on atonement by about the meaning of Jesus death for the human race atonement. He claimed that Jesus did not incarnate to deliver mankind from the bondage of the devil and criticized the traditional doctrine of the devils rights as absurd (Park 2009, 19).
Abelard felt that it was much easier for God to forgive sinners without having to deal with the devil and saw the death of Christ on the cross as the expression of Gods love to humanity that provides teachings by the example of Jesus and concluded that the suffering of Christ was Gods revelation of his love for mankind (Park 2009, 19)
The moral influence theory therefore suggests that Jesus helped humanity to obtain salvation by setting an example and hoped that this would inspire mankind to repent their sins and establish a renewed communion with God (Weaver 1997, 198). Jesus provided numerous teachings in his preaching regarding the way of life and through his own life provided a perfect moral example (Wayment 2009, 154). Consequently, he did not have to die on the cross in order to provide this moral example.
This theory did not receive much attention until it was popularized by Bushnell and Rashdall who proposed that Gods nature is essentially love and minimized the emphasis on justice holiness and righteousness (Hustad and Erickson 2001, 251).
The writers concluded that human beings need not fear God justice and punishment rather they should focus on their attitudes that separate them from God rather than worrying that they have violated Gods law and that God will punish them (Tuomala 1993, 1). If human beings repented and turned to God in trust and faith, God would surely forgive them hence reconciliation.
Clement on the other hand, understood that Jesus power was poured to save mankind from sin through the grace of repentance (Park 2009, 18). The process of redemption is not automatic; rather, the blood of Christ saves us through the indispensable process of repentance.
He further asserts that Jesus endured and suffered on the cross and observes that blood of Christ does not solely save us without our repentance but the blood of God graces us with repentance (Park 2009, 18). Consequently, by emphasizing Jesus for our repentance, he underpins the moral influence theory.
The moral influence theory of atonement proves right in that it emphasizes on the necessity of repentance and true holiness as the condition for mankind to achieve redemption and salvation from God (Purswell and Grudem 1999, 256). Even the modern Christians acknowledge this fact and the Bible scriptures are too straight forward to leave any room for any deviation of opinion (Edwards et al.1861, 287).
The scriptures clearly state that human beings must repent of their sins or they will otherwise perish in everlasting suffering (Miller 2011, 44). Mark 1:15 says that the time has come, the Kingdom of God is near, Repent and believe in the Good News The Gospel of Mark further highlights the work of Jesus disciples stating that they preached that people should repent.
Psalms 34:18 states that the Lord is close to the broken hearted and those who are crushed in spirit while Matthew 9: 13 states that I desire mercy not sacrifice, for I have not come to call the righteous but the sinners.
The moral influence theory further affirms that redemption and internal life are pledged to all those who sincerely repent and turn to God hence walking in the newness of life (Edwards et al. 1861, 287). In addition, its claim that the life and death of Jesus is preeminently the source of moral influences that has resulted in mens need for repentance and attempts to live holy lives.
The fact that Jesus gave himself to mankind so that he may redeem them from all iniquity and demonstrate their love for humanity has highly influenced the way of life of Christians.
The theory fails in that it denies any real and universal necessity for the work of Christ because it implies that if men repented their sins only through the moral influences, then his works were unnecessary in humanity redemption (Edward et al. 1861, 288). The theory also detracts from the real moral power of the atonement by making its designed efficacy and value to consist exclusively in its moral power.
Edwards et al argued that whatever was confessedly done solely to impress mankind became for that very reason comparatively uninfluential (Edwards et al. 1861, 288). Suffering done only to furnish us with a moral example has less ability to inspire us with a spirit of endurance than suffering necessarily involved in securing some end. By solely emphasizing on repentance as the only avenue to salvation, the atoning work of Christ is negated (Giles 1869, 32).
The theory further presents the work of Jesus as having no peculiar efficacy as a means of human salvation (Edwards et al. 1861, 289). They present the work of Christ as influencing men just like every other event in human life would exert good moral influence. Consequently, Christ is portrayed as a savior not the savior2 since his acts of self denial for the sake of others have the same influence as everything else.
This goes against the scriptures which clearly describe Jesus as The savior in Matt1: 21. The theory further fails to satisfy the awakened moral judgment of men.
Inadequate convictions of sins as presented by the theory provides sinners with an opportunity to be contented with real penitence while letting their consciousness be made sensitive. The theory also offers no satisfactory explanation of numerous passages of scripture which connect the salvation of men with the work of Christ.
Orthodox (satisfaction) theory of atonement
This theory was also developed around the eleventh century by Anselm of Canterbury after rejected the Ransom theory claiming that it gave the devil far too much power (Mattison n d, 1). Its imagery was based the institution of feudalism where law and order rested on strict code of honor (Marshall 1994, 105).
The theory asserts that humanity failed to show gratitude to their creator by disregarding Gods commandments and disobeying his rules which led to violation of Gods honor. The extent of human disobedience had become so engraved in society that the humans themselves would not make restitution with the only option being that the humanity would have to make appropriate satisfaction to God (Marshall 1994, 105).
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