As we have seen, the New Testament teaches that our
Lord died for us and redeemed us by His blood, but it does not tell us how
(see Chapter 28).
Nor has the Church defined any dogma on the subject.
Very different theories have been put forward at different times.
The Atonement is a mystery that perhaps we shall never completely understand.
In this chapter the principal theories of the Atonement will be briefly
The first theory of the Atonement is that to which Dr. Gustav Aulén [Pronounced
Owl-ain.], Bishop of Strägnäs [Pronounced
Streng-nace, to rhyme with face.] in Sweden, has given the title "classical".
Christ saves men who have fallen through their own fault into the power of the Devil by breaking that power.
He became Man for this purpose.
He lived and died and rose again that He might break the chains by which men were bound.
It is not His death alone
but the entire Incarnation of which His death was a necessary part
that freed men from their captivity to Satan.
By becoming Man,
living a sinless life,
and rising from the dead
(which He could not have done unless He had first died),
He introduced a new power into human nature.
This power is bestowed on all men who are willing to receive it through the Holy Ghost.
Those who receive it are united with Christ in His mystical body, the Church.
The corrupted human nature (the bad habits and evil desires which St. Paul calls "the old man": Rom.6.6; Eph.4.22; Col.3.9) is driven out by degrees until at last it is expelled altogether, and the redeemed person becomes entirely obedient to the will of God as our Lord Himself was when on earth.
The prisoner who was mentioned in the last chapter is set free from the inside.
His mind and body are both changed.
He comes to know what freedom is,
to desire it,
and by the Holy Ghost working within him,
to break his chains, turn the key, and leave the dungeon.
Thus he is freed from the power of sin.
God forgives him as an act of pure love,
but the condition of his forgiveness is that he must sin no more.
While we were yet sinners
Christ died for us
but if we continue to be sinners, Christ's death for us will have been in
and we are made capable of ceasing to be sinners by the power of Christ's resurrection.
The advantage of this theory is that it is firmly based on the New Testament.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself
The act of reconciliation is effected by God in the Person of His Son,
for it is man that needs to be reconciled to God,
not God that needs to be reconciled to man.
The expression in Article 2, to reconcile His Father to us, is not based on Scripture but on later theories of the Atonement (its immediate source is the Augsburg Confession, cf. Irenaeus, v. 17. 1).
Throughout the New Testament we find the proclamation that Christ has broken the power of the Devil to which mankind was subject:
see Luke 10.17-18, 11.22; Rom.6.22; I Cor.15.25; Gal.1.4; Col.2.15; II Tim.1.10; Heb.2.14; John 10.11, 12.31, 16.11; I John 3.8; and frequently in Revelation.
Moreover, the classical theory of the Atonement requires no "legal fiction", and attributes no immoral or unrighteous action to God.
Man is not made suddenly good or treated as good when he is not good.
He is forgiven not because he deserves to be forgiven
but because God loves him,
and he is made fit for union with God by God's power,
his own will cooperating (no one is saved against his will).
[His own will can only cooperate by means of Divine grace.
To deny this is the Semi-Pelagian heresy.]
He is saved from the power of sin by the risen life of Christ within him,
and from guilt of sin by God's forgiveness of which his own repentance is a condition.
Dr. Aulén claims for the "classical" theory the support of all the Greek Fathers from St. Irenaeus to St. John of Damascus, and some of the Latin Fathers including St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Leo, and St. Gregory the Great. [Christus Victor, pp. 32-76.]
Two minor theories, or corollaries, were sometimes held along with the "classical" theory.
One, the "recapitulation", contains an important element of truth. The other, the "ransom paid to the Devil" has long been universally discredited.
St. Irenaeus (Against all Heresies, 3. 18) says,
The Son of God, when He was incarnate and was made man, summed up in Himself the long explanations of men in one brief work achieving salvation for us, that what we had lost in Adam, our being in the image and likeness of God, we might recover in Christ Jesus.
Thus, because it was not possible for that man who had once been conquered and thrust out by disobedience to be new moulded and obtain the prize of victory, and again it was impossible for him to obtain salvation who had fallen under sin, the Son accomplished both, being the Word of God coming down from the Father and made flesh, and fulfilling the economy of our salvation.
Christ is the second Adam (I Cor.15.45; cf. Rom.5.14),
and as Adam was all mankind, so Christ is in a sense all mankind.
He was made mankind afresh so that mankind is no longer sinful.
This doctrine is called the "Recapitulation".
But since we know that each man commits sins as an individual and find even
the conception of corporate sin difficult, the idea that Christ is identified
with all mankind is very difficult for us.
But it may none the less be true.
The theory of the "ransom paid to the devil" is an attempt to explain
to give His life a ransom for many
(cf. I. Tim. 2.6:
having given His life a ransom for all).
The word "for" represents ὑπέρ,
on behalf of, in I Tim.,
whereas in St. Mark and the parallel passage, Matt.20.28,
it represents ἀντί, instead of.
The word for "ransom" is λύτρον in the two Gospels,
but in I Tim. ἀντίλυτρον.
Ransom was a familiar idea to the ancient world.
A person carried off by pirates or slave dealers might be freed by the payment of money.
Our Lord told His disciples that He would save His people by His death.
His blood was the price that must be paid for their deliverance.
But if we press this metaphor and ask to whom the price is to be paid,
we at once find ourselves in difficulties.
The metaphor was not meant to be pressed.
The theory that the ransom was paid to the Devil,
though we find the beginning of it in Origen,
was first fully developed by St. Gregory of Nyssa;
but his friend St. Gregory of Nazianzus vigorously repudiated it.
Nevertheless, it became the prevailing theory,
at any rate in the West, until the eleventh century.
Man through his sin, it was held, fell into the power of the Devil like
a person captured by robbers.
The Devil, however, had a right to control man because man had deliberately surrendered to him.
Christ gave Himself as ransom to the Devil,
but the Devil had no right to put Him to death because He was sinless.
Thus the Devil overreached himself and lost his rights over mankind.
Some held that the Devil's rights were a usurpation,
but, in any case, our Lord deceived the Devil,
who did not realize that He was God
and, therefore, that he could not keep Him in his power.
Some spoke of our Lord's human nature as the bait by which God caught the Devil on His hook.
St. Augustine compared the Atonement to a mouse trap;
Christ was the bait by which the Devil was caught like a mouse in a trap.
This implied by the well-known Passion Hymn of Venantius Fortunatus
( English Hymnal, 95; Hymns A. and M., 97).
Thus the scheme of our salvation
Was of old in order laid,
That the manifold deceiver's
Art by art might be outweighed,
And the lure the foe put forward
Into means of healing made.
This theory has long ceased to be held by anyone.
St. Bernard was perhaps the last great theologian to maintain it.
But unfortunately the discredit into which it has fallen has been extended to the "classical" theory in general which is not bound up with it.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, as we have seen, rejected it
and would not admit that the ransom was paid to God either.
St. John of Damascus taught that the ransom was paid, not to the Devil, but to God.
St. Anselm put the second great theory of the Atonement forward.
The doctrine of satisfaction or compensation given by man to God is first found in Tertullian as a necessary condition of absolution.
St. Cyprian taught that the excess of merit in Christ was applied to the forgiveness of man without injury to the justice of God.
But St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109), in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), was the first to work out these ideas into a consistent theory.
He held that human sin was a debt to God, which men could not pay;
and regarding man as God's feudal vassal,
he taught that as long as this debt remained unpaid,
God's honour was violated.
Christ took upon Himself to pay the debt on man's behalf,
which He could only do by identifying Himself with man.
Thus man was freed from the debt, and God's honour was satisfied.
Christ had given His life as the ransom for men.
There are several objections to this theory, but it is better than the theory
then prevalent that God deceived the Devil by holding out to him Christ's
human nature as a bait.
In consequence, the "classical" theory, which was wrongly thought to be bound up with the ransom paid to the Devil, gave way to the theory of St. Anselm.
The Scriptural basis of St. Anselm's theory is not sufficient,
and the feudal ideas with which it is connected
make it appear unreal now that feudalism has disappeared.
The emphasis laid on the personal honour of God,
rather than on His justice and His love,
reduces Him to the level of an earthly despot.
[F. J. Hall, Dogmatic Theology, v. 7, p. 27.]
Here it is God that is reconciled to man, not man to God.
The act of reconciliation does not come from God, but from Christ as Man.
The Father and the Son are separated, and this was to have disastrous consequences in the later developments of the theory.
Moreover, to regard sin as a debt that can be paid off is to ignore the depth to which sin penetrates.
The whole being of a sinner is changed from what it ought to be.
Sin affects him internally, not merely externally, like a debt.
Also the living union between Christ and His Church is not enough emphasized.
According to St. Anselm, the death of Christ alone,
not as in the "classical" theory the whole work of the Incarnation, is what saves us.
Hence the theory of St. Anselm is not satisfactory;
but it has this merit, that it requires the moral position of man to be changed before God's purpose can be worked out.
The third theory of the Atonement is the theory of penal substitution developed
from St. Anselm through St. Thomas Aquinas who confused satisfaction with
The Reformers, particularly Melanchthon and Calvin, taught that Christ's righteousness was imputed to us and our sin to Him by a kind of legal fiction.
Someone had to suffer in order to satisfy the justice of God.
Our Lord, though innocent, took upon Himself our sins and our punishment and suffered not merely on our behalf, ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν, but instead of us, ἀντὶ ἡμῶν.
Calvin went so far as to say that at His death He suffered the torment of Hell (Gehenna). [Calvin, Institutes, Book 2, xvi. 10.]
Wherever the New Testament says that Christ died "for us",
the word used is ὑπὲρ, on behalf of
(Rom.5 .6, 14.15; I Cor.15.3; II Cor.5.14-15; I Thess.5.10; I Tim.2.6),
or διά, because of (I Cor.8.11),
or περί (Acts 20.28).
The only places where ἀντὶ , instead of, is used are Mark 10.45; Matt.20.28.
Here, as Swete says [H. B. Swete, St. Mark, ad loc.], the word "instead of" is part of the imagery of ransom.
Certainly if Christ had not died, we should have died,
but that does not mean that He was a substitute for us.
Moreover, it is not even certain that ἀντὶ here means "instead of".
In Matt.17 .27 it clearly means "on behalf of".
Therefore the belief that Christ died as a substitute for us has no Scriptural basis at all.
The belief that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, though emphasized
by the Reformers and by Evangelical theologians ever since and found in the
Augsburg Confession, has no Scriptural basis either; for what is imputed
or reckoned to us for righteousness, according to Rom.4, is not Christ's
righteousness but our own faith.
Still less are our sins imputed to Him, so that He was punished instead of us. Isa.53.7-11 cannot mean this.
The justice of God cannot be satisfied by the punishment of the innocent
and the escape of the guilty.
The belief that this was the orthodox doctrine of the Atonement has driven many to deny that Christ died for us in any sense, and others to repudiate the Christian religion altogether.
Legalism is quite out of place in the relations between God and man.
It is unfortunate that theologians thinking in Latin have always been inclined to turn theology into a branch of law.
The Reformers, by rejecting belief in the visible Church, the perpetual priesthood of Christ, and the Eucharistic sacrifice through which the Church shares in Christ's continual offering of Himself, made it much harder for their followers to understand the mystery of the Atonement.
The fourth theory of the Atonement was developed by J. McLeod Campbell (1800-72),
and R. C. Moberly (1845-1903).
They taught that since perfect penitence is required for the removal of sin, and since sinners cannot be perfectly penitent because sin deadens the conscience and the will, Christ, in order to save men, identified Himself so completely with mankind as to become the perfect Penitent.
This theory contains the valuable idea that persons are not completely separate,
but can penetrate one another.
Christ in this way identifies us with Himself.
But not many have accepted it.
It has no Scriptural basis, and the view that the ideal penitent is sinless appears to most people unreal;
for penitence is sorrow for one's own sin, which could not exist in Christ.
The fifth theory of the Atonement, if it can be called a theory of the Atonement,
is the subjective or exemplarist theory put forward by Peter Abelard (1079-1142),
and revived by Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924), Dean of Carlisle.
Christ, it is said, died not for us but to be an example to us and to increase our love by the contemplation of His sufferings.
This is true and important as far as it goes; but if it is regarded as sufficient, it is contrary to fundamental Christian truth for it makes our Lord no more than the greatest of martyrs.
He no more died for us than St. Stephen or St. Laurence, and His death did no more to effect our salvation than theirs did.
But the belief that Christ died for us has been the very heart of the Gospel ever since the earliest books of the New Testament and is enshrined in the Creed ("who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven").
Rashdall admitted that St. Paul taught it, as did the original Apostles before the conversion of St. Paul (I Cor.15.3), but he held that the Apostles derived this doctrine not from our Lord but from a mistaken interpretation of Isa.53 (Acts 8.35).
He explained away the "ransom for many" (Mark 10.45), and he rejected as legendary the walk to Emmaus during which our Lord is said to have given this interpretation (Luke 24.27).
But a theory which rejects the greater part of the New Testament as fundamentally mistaken cannot be called Christian, and the experience of Christians of all ages and all parties has shown that the Christian religion would not be the Christian religion if it were stripped of the doctrine that Christ died for us.
Other theories of the Atonement may be imperfect or unsatisfactory.
A Christian cannot hold this one if he is to remain a Christian.
(The opinion that Christ did not die for us, but only as our example, was the subject of perhaps the most serious of the charges brought against Bishop Colenso who was deprived of his bishopric of Natal and excommunicated by the Provincial Synod of the South African Church in 1863.)
The Church has not formally committed herself to any of these theories.
The Confession of Augsburg, as we have seen, asserted the imputation of Christ's merits to us;
[This does not prevent the Bishop of Strägnäs from strongly supporting the "classical" theory which he believes to have been the real teaching of Luther, though others point to passages in Luther's works in which he takes the same view as Melanchthon.]
but this doctrine is carefully avoided by the Anglican formularies which are content to say that He "made, by His one oblation of Himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world".
The use of the word "satisfaction" seems to imply the theory of St. Anselm,
as does the phrase used by the Council of Trent: "He satisfied God for us".
But neither the Anglican nor the Roman Communion goes farther than this.
No theory of the Atonement is completely satisfying;
but the "classical" theory of the Greek Fathers appears to be the most firmly based on Scripture and the least open to modern objections.
This at any rate is certain, that Scripture and experience alike teach that
He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by His precious blood.
English Hymnal, 106; Hymns Ancient and Modern, 332.
Note. The following passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles refer to the Atonement:
Article 2. "One Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men."
Article 11. "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings."
Article 15. "Christ came to be the Lamb without spot, who by sacrifice of Himself once made, should take away the sins of the world."
Article 18. "Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved."
Article 31. "The offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone.
Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits."