Chapter 2 – A Brief History Regarding Atonement Theories

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

Very little about the topic of atonement was written in early centuries of the church. Most of what is found are scattered general comments which can apply to, and be claimed by, the proponents of various atonement models, typically called “atonement theories”. The very early Church Fathers just did not seem to have had a need to dissect this doctrine. Perhaps there was no need to do so due to a lack of controversy, as if there was a rather unified understanding already in place.

Controversies related to this doctrine, as well as many other fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, became inevitable as the decades and centuries rolled on. No doubt, a large part of the reason for the controversies is because the Jews were expelled from the early churches, and this purge eventually led to a time when later generations of Christians read the Hebrew scriptures in a vacuum of Jewish thought. Scriptures written by ethnic Hebrews became interpreted within the thinking of the Greco-Roman culture, with their philosophies and non-Jewish linguistics. Once the interpretation of the scriptures were disconnected from the language, customs, and culture of the Jewish people, the path was open to read the Bible with many ideas which had never been part of the thinking of the early church, and due to this change many Bible passages and concepts were interpreted in a different framework, a different lens or frame of understanding, and the doctrine of atonement is no exception. This author’s intent is to attempt to locate this original frame of reference in the biblical text so as to make all of the relevant scriptures coherent in their original context.

Since this book is not intended to be an in-depth review of the various atonement views, these theories and others will only be given a passing review. There are numerous other sources available for additional research.

Ransom Theory The Ransom theory was a dominant explanation for the first thousand years of church history. This is a view that at least does use actual biblical terminology, since the Bible does specifically state that Jesus “came to give his life as a ransom for many.” (See the word “ransom” in these relevant passages: Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, 1 Corinthians 1:30, 1 Timothy 2:6, Titus 2:14, Hebrews 9:15, 1 Peter 1:18-20, Revelation 5:9, discussed in Chapter 10 of this book.) The problem with this theory is that the word “ransom” is often read in a literal sense and results in having Jesus die as a ransom payment to Satan or God, and both of these ideas have problematic consequences. If Jesus died to pay a ransom to God, then God is the one who was holding humanity captive. Conversely, if Jesus died as God’s payment to Satan, then this makes Satan more powerful than God, who had to pay Satan a ransom to get us back. It is this author’s conclusion that the biblical word “ransom” is supposed to be understood in a metaphorical or figurative sense, meaning “to liberate”, and not to pay. This word study will be expanded further in Chapter 10.

 Cristus Victor Theory This may be the most widely held explanation throughout church history. However, the term “Christus Victor” was not applied to this view until Gustaf Aulén (1879-1978) published his book “Christus Victor” in 1931. It can be loosely explained as being similar to the Ransom Theory view except that the ransom is figuratively understood as a release from the bondage of sin and a victory over the powers of darkness. It is often summarized as, “Jesus became what we are so that we can become what he is”, a statement that seems to be a deep theological truth, but which has a lot of problems if a person pauses to seriously reflect on what could be projected into that claim. The statement, “Jesus became what we are so that we can become what he is” can be understood by some as saying that God became a man so we can become God. Other problems exist due to incongruities with the biblical text and basic logic that are outside the scope of this book.

Cristus Victor is the view that appears closest to reflecting both the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic atonement teaching – however, neither of these churches give their view a specific name and they will have their own nuances as to how they explain and apply their views. In fact, most practicing Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics have probably never heard of the Cristus Victor atonement theory, nor have they thought through the topic from a biblical perspective. It would therefore be incorrect to narrowly and dogmatically state that the official atonement doctrine of these two churches is the Christus Victor model. This is simply the model that at best is an approximation of what they teach.

Recapitulation Theory The Recapitulation theory, promoted by Irenaeus, claims that Jesus reversed the failure of Adam. By believing in Jesus we are awarded the benefits that apply to his followers, including forgiveness and reconciliation with God. This theory is scriptural in the sense that Jesus is the second Adam and succeeds where Adam fails, but remains overly simplistic with regards to the mechanism of forgiveness and sacrifices. Irenaeus also has mankind’s recapitulation continuing until deification, becoming God, or gods. However, it is likely that proponents of his theory do not normally take it to that extreme.

Moral Influence Theory The Moral Influence theory was proposed by Peter Abelard around the year 1100. In short, it claims that Jesus lived and died to show us a good example to follow, a demonstration of God’s love that is supposed to guide us back to God. This much is true and biblical, as the moral example of Jesus Christ is certainly pointed to in the Bible as our example. But simply believing in a good example without significant additional supporting doctrines to deal with the Bible’s statements regarding sin, sacrifice, the cross, and other elements, only leaves us with a very shallow and hollow atonement doctrine.

Governmental Theory The Governmental theory was proposed by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). It proposes that God is to be seen as the supreme cosmic ruler and He chose Jesus to represent humanity. As a representative of humanity, Jesus could take our place as a substitute for our punishment. At a certain level this seems to be sensible, but it remains little more than an improved version of PSA.

Satisfaction Theory The Satisfaction Theory was proposed by the Roman Catholic theologian Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, England from 1093 to 1109. This is often regarded as a precursor to the Penal Substitution atonement theory, although PSA proponents will often deny this, claiming that PSA has always been the biblical teaching. The Satisfaction Theory, in short, teaches that as supreme ruler, God’s honor was violated by humanity’s sin and the way to restore God’s justice, honor, and the broken relationship was for a person of infinite worth to die in our place. By dying in our place, Jesus satisfied God because a restitution was made so God’s justice and honor would not be violated. This theory is not about Jesus receiving man’s punishment, but about restoring to God the honor that we had taken from Him. 

The Satisfaction Theory may have made some degree of sense to the biblically illiterate who lived within the social arrangement of Anselm’s time, but it falls apart if we actually examine the biblical text.

Penal Substitution Theory The penal substitution theory (shortened in this book to PSA) is the most common view taught today among Protestant churches. It is an additional step developed from the Satisfaction Theory, with an added legal framework mostly developed by Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 1500s. This view primarily focuses on God as our wrathful Judge, and Jesus being the one who is punished as the object of that wrath in order to take the punishment that humans deserve for their sin. By being punished, Jesus is our substitute and fulfills the legal judgment of God. This is a retributive form of justice by which an imagined legal ledger reflecting our debt becomes balanced and God can therefore forgive us without violating any debt that was listed on the ledger. Furthermore, not only is our ledger wiped clean, but we are also credited with additional righteousness from Jesus to cover future sin. 

This book presumes that the reader is generally familiar with the PSA view, since it is practically the standard in non-Catholic and non-Greek Orthodox Christianity. Briefly, most PSA teaching can be summarized with the following points, although points 11 through 15 are more debated:

  1. Man has a sinful nature, making him incapable of choosing or doing right or living righteously.
  2. God has extreme anger, wrath, against all sinners. 
  3. God has infinite justice as a primary attribute.
  4. Only a perfect, infinite being could step up and absorb God’s wrath and save humanity.
  5. Jesus had our sins transferred to himself while on the Cross.
  6. God took out His wrath against our sin on Jesus, who absorbed it in our place.
  7. Jesus thereby paid for all the sin of humanity (or at least the sins of those who were going to be saved). 
  8. The payment which Jesus made applied to sins before the cross and after the cross.
  9. The perfect, sinless life which Jesus lived also counts as righteousness.
  10. God deleted all sins listed on our record and added all the additional righteousness of Jesus to our record, or ledger, to give us a positive ledger balance.
  11. Since God now has “paid in full” written on our accounts, anything we do beyond minimal, simplistic faith is considered a work which is an insult to the work that Jesus has already done for us.
  12. Repentance (turning) from sin and living a holy and obedient life is not mandatory, and maybe even dangerous, since we might get the idea that we are saving ourselves.
  13. Since Jesus paid for all the believers’ sins, even their future sins, it is impossible for a once-upon-a-time believer to ever fail to receive eternal life.
  14. A restored and an ongoing relationship with God is a good idea for believers who wish to receive maximum blessing, but it is still entirely optional.
  15. There will be no future judgment or condemnation for those who believed the gospel, regardless of their later disobedience or faithlessness.

Conclusion The above listed theories, or models, are or have been the most common atonement views. There are various additional views which will not be listed here. The fact that there is an abundance of models brought forward from many sources indicates that this has not been a simplistic topic.