Atonement Theories and Cultural Understandings

The major atonement theory among Christians today is the Reformer’s Penal Substitutionary Theory, which dominates in the evangelical churches. But the major atonement theories have all paralleled cultural understandings and conditions.

The Penal theory hasn’t always been the one Christians adopted from the Biblical texts. The earliest attempt to conceptualize what Jesus did for the world on the cross was first advanced by Irenaeus and developed by Origen. Based upon Mark 10:45, it is called the Ransom Theory. According to this theory, human beings fell under the jurisdiction of Satan when we fell into sin, and Jesus’ death paid the ransom for our release. John Hick comments: “Ransom had a poignant meaning in the ancient world, when a considerable proportion of the population lived in the state of slavery…Being ransomed, and thus made free, was accordingly a vivid and powerful metaphor whose force most of us can only partially recapture today. [The Metaphor of God Incarnate (Westminster, 1993), p. 114)]. And such a version of the atonement stood for roughly nine hundred years as the generally accepted one.

St. Anselm set forth another theory in a different social climate for the people of his day in the 11th century. Of the Ransom theory, he asked why anyone should believe that the Devil has any valid legal rights over the infinite Creator God to demand a ransom in the first place? Anselm then proceeded to argue for a Satisfaction Atonement Theory. According to Anselm, our sins are an insult to God and detract from his honor. Therefore God’s honor must be restored and the insult must be undone, but only through the death of the God-Man can God’s honor be restored and satisfaction be made, since the satisfaction must be in proportion to the amount of sin, and the amount of sin is infinite.

According to John Hick, Anselm’s theory “made sense within the culture of medieval Europe,” in that it reflected “a strongly hierarchical and tightly knit society.” (p. 117). The whole idea of satisfaction “had long operated in both church and society.” “The idea of disobedience, whether to God or to one’s feudal lord, was a slight upon his honour and dignity, and required for its cancellation an appropriate penance of gift in satisfaction.” “When one did something to undermine the dignity and authority of one’s earthly overlord, one had either to be punished or to give sufficient satisfaction to appease the lord’s injured dignity.” (p. 117). John Hick offers a very brief critique of this view with these words: “In our own more democratic age it is virtually impossible to share Anselm’s medieval sense of wrongdoing…The entire conception, presupposing as it does a long-since vanished social order, now makes little sense to us.” (p. 118). Leon Morris writes: “In the end Anselm makes God too much like a king whose dignity has been affronted. He overlooked the fact that a sovereign may be clement and forgiving without doing harm to his kingdom.” [Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Baker Books, 1984), “Atonement,” p. 101]. Michael Martin adds, that “the very idea of God’s pride being so wounded and demanding such satisfaction that the voluntary sacrifice of his innocent son is required, assumes a view of God’s moral nature that many modern readers would reject.” [The Case Against Christianity (Temple, 1991), p.256].

In the sixteenth century, the Reformers introduced the Penal Substitutionary Theory, which still holds sway in conservative Christian circles. The Reformers used Paul’s understanding of justification as their Biblical backdrop, but according to Hick, they understood Paul “in a legal sense.” [John Hick, p. 118].

“The concept of justification, and hence of salvation as being counted innocent in the eyes of God, emerged from the background of an understanding of law that had changed since Anselm’s time. In the medieval world, law was an expression of the will of the ruler, and transgression was an act of personal disobedience and dishonour for which either punishment or satisfaction was required. But the concept of an objective justice, set over ruled and ruler alike, had been developing in Europe since the Renaissance. Law was now thought to have it own eternal validity, requiring a punishment for wrongdoing which could not be set aside even by the ruler. It was this new principle that the Reformers applied and extended in their doctrine that Christ took our place in bearing the inexorable penalty for human sin—a powerful imagery that has long gripped the Christian imagination.” (p. 119).

Richard Swinburne’s Relationship Atonement Theory (which I critique in my book), is merely the acknowledgment that we as modern democratic people value every person equally and we deal with people on an individual basis ("created equal" the Declaration of Independence says), and is therefore based on our modern understanding of relationships between people. So Swinburne examines how we restore a relationship when we damage it, and he constructs an atonement theory based on this. [in Responsibility and Atonement (Clarendon Press, 1989].

In my opinion the penal theory is being phased out, because our cultural understandings have changed. What we believe is based largely on where and when we were born. That's why I have proposed The Outsider Test... for your faith. Does it pass muster?


'Seph Sayers said...

I agree with you in regards to the error of necessarily putting one's faith ahead of one's reason (as Paul seems to suggest).

This isn't faith, this is blind faith. Not the same thing.

You may be interested in reading "The Darkly Enlightened Brother" ( ).

I personally believe that not only are faith and reason compatable, but also necessary.