Sunday, May 8, 2011


What Difference Does Christ Make? 
Evaluating different theological models
of the Atonement.
John Bailey

Introduction: The Penal Substitutionary Model

A prolific American preacher and peace activist begins his widely read on-line essay on the meaning of the atonement with these words:

“The foundational truth of Christianity is that Christ Jesus died on the cross for our sins (1 Cor 15:3). In this way he fulfilled the old covenant sacrificial system, reconciled us to God, and changed our lives forever. That is the doctrine of the Atonement. Its reality is not in dispute. However, many Christians struggle to understand and live this doctrine better. We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear.”   (Mattison)

In stating that Christ died “for” our sins in fulfilment of the Hebrew sacrificial system, but professing agnosticism as to the precise mechanics, the author presents a picture of the atonement that most Christians would accept. Many would go further, however, and insist on explicating the phrase “died for our sins” to mean “died in our place to suffer the divine punishment for our sins”. This more specific doctrine, known as penal substitution, is not univocally supported by the New Testament but has much to recommend it:

·      It can be argued strongly from Scripture (e.g. Ro 3:25);
·      It harmonises God’s perfect love and perfect justice;
·      It is ruthlessly honest as to the nature and cause of humanity’s predicament;
·      It makes sense of the absolute necessity of Christ’s death;
·      It tends to inspire vigorous personal and corporate evangelism.

However, it is impossible to ignore the testimony of the many Christians who have reservations about forensic and sacrificial atonement theories. Quite apart from those (e.g. J. D. Crossan) who see Christianity as divorced from the Jesus events, there are many to whom “the language of either empty because it is unintelligible, or offensive because it is morally primitive.” (Heim, 2001). It is by no means certain, moreover, that forensic atonement honours the spirit of the sacrificial system depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures in quite the way its proponents claim. The Catholic historian Lawrence Boadt writes:

“Sacrifices were well known throughout the ancient world, but in Israel, unlike in some Canaanite cults, the sacrifice was never considered a magical ritual that brought God to act in a certain way. The spirit of adoration and silence and the obedience of the people before Yahweh always stand out. And when the prophets do condemn abuses of sacrifice, they almost always attack that slipping over into a conviction that God must accept this gift and then do what is requested.” (Boadt, 1984, pp.272-3)

The New Testament did not invent vicarious suffering and death,[1] but as Boadt describes the five sacrifices decreed in Leviticus 1-7 (viz. Holocausts, Grain Offerings, Peace Offerings, Sin Offerings, Guilt Offerings), it is evident that the forensic interpretation of the Cross is not a perfect conceptual match for any of them.

My conclusion is that theological models function like parables; however much they have to tell us, their analogies can only be pushed so far. Indeed, different models act as a check on one another, and I am confident that many of the alternatives put forward in good faith over the centuries can provide complementary insights into the richness of God’s saving grace.

I will be using as an organising framework for this review of some alternative models one of the key Reformed texts of modern times, Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (Berkhof, 1958, pp384-391). I do so not out of unreserved concurrence with his opinions, but because he marshals all the most important theories and the key arguments against them in chronological order – an approach that often throws light on the dialectical process that produced them. And unlike Berkhof, I will be looking for helpful insights in these diverse models as well as weaknesses.

Types of Atonement Theory

Theories of the atonement cover a broad spectrum of ideas, and have been more influenced by cultural predispositions than their proponents would admit. However, they can generally be mapped in relation to the following axes:

·      Objectivity – humanity’s real situation, including God’s attitude towards us; Christ typically characterised as hero and victim;

·      Subjectivity – humanity’s perceptions of reality and its attitude towards God and others; Christ seen primarily as revelator and teacher.

Most commentators distinguish from these a third set of ideas focusing on humanity’s knowledge or understanding of its situation and potential, in which Christ is seen as reconciler and healer.[2] These ideas are present in most theories, however, and the key distinction is whether God’s or man’s attitudes are seen as paramount.

The Ransom Theory

The Ransom model belongs in the first category, the family of objective theories in which Christ is characterised as the conquering hero or sacrificial victim who brings about a difference in humanity’s situation. First proposed by Irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd century C.E., it was predicated on the rather dualistic belief[3] that human sin had given Satan legitimate rights over humanity. Versions of the theory differ as to just how Christ’s death annulled these rights[4], but whether by combat, fair payment or trickery God emerged victorious over the powers of darkness.

The scandal of a crucified Messiah and the psychology of a persecuted minority led the early Church Fathers to express these ideas in rather shallow triumphalistic terms,[5] but pictures of Christ as victor over dark forces are clearly biblical (1Co 15:57; Eph 4:8) and as empowering in spiritual warfare today as in their original context.[6] Gustaf Aulén’s influential “Christus Victor” (1930) stressed the authentic note of victory in Irenaeus’ theory over its mythic elements, and this theme of victory in Christ may prove particularly valuable in adapting orthodox Christian soteriology to the needs of growing churches in the Third World where spiritual and socio-economic struggles go hand-in-hand.

The Recapitulation Theory

The Recapitulation Theory, also associated with Irenaeus, held that that Christ recapitulates or replays all the elements of human life inherited from Adam – including those associated with sin. The point of the theory is that the obedience of Christ compensates for Adam’s disobedience and reverses the consequences of the Fall; in the process, he communicates immortality and a real ethical transformation to those who are united to him by faith.

Few atonement theories fit neatly into a single category. Recapitulation is primarily another way for Christ to bring about a difference in the objective human situation, i.e. a cosmos corrupted by the Fall. However, it seems to foreshadow later subjective and mystical theories in which Christ is presented as mediator of a change in humanity itself. In the mystical theory, the divine life is said to have entered the life of humanity in order to lift it to the level of the divine; Christ’s identification with men and women is such that he was able to purify human nature by his life of obedience, and able by his death to eliminate the very principle of depravity that separated humanity from God. It is the resulting progressive transformation in our subconscious nature that really constitutes redemption.

These later mystical theories generally fare better than the original Recapitulation model in explaining the value and necessity of Christ’s death, and why Christians continue to struggle morally. Nevertheless, Irenaeus’ picture of Christ as the second Adam has strong Pauline roots (e.g. Ro 5:12-21) and makes a parallel appeal to the Hebrew scriptures; it evidently helped the early church in its struggles against heresy and persecution, and there is a clear accessibility for both modern and post-modern cultures in its vision of a humanity whose heredity is blessed and cursed with conflicting moral and relational polarities.  

The Satisfaction Theory

There is a reverent and sentimental hopefulness about the atonement theories of the early church that makes them easy to warm to, however short on intellectual rigour they may appear in hindsight. In contrast, the Satisfaction Theory of Anselm, which dates from the late 11th century, is of all models one of the hardest to like.

It was based on a sound realisation that the time-honoured Ransom Theory accorded too much status to Satan, and reasoned that if a ransom was paid at all it must have been payable to God himself. This was the first of the family of formal soteriologies that focus attention on the difference Christ’s death makes to God’s attitude vis-à-vis humanity, and it paved the way for the propitiatory language of the Protestant Reformation over 400 years later.

However, Anselm’s conception of satisfaction differed from Luther’s in at least one crucial respect: it regarded sin as an offence not against God’s perfect justice but against his personal honour. Such an offence needed to be vindicated by either punishment or satisfaction, and since God in his mercy rejected punishment the only possible source of the infinite satisfaction required was the death of his Son. Christ’s obedience was actually no more than his duty as a man, but by suffering and dying in a way he was not obligated to do by any sinfulness of his own, he delivered to God the infinite glory needed to cancel out the dishonour of human sin. In doing so he earned a “supererogatory credit” or reward that could be passed on to those who live according to the commandments of the gospel.

The distinction between this and the later theory of penal substitution may seem pedantic to some, but the differences are actually quite profound. Berkhof manages to sound condescending when he says that the concept of supererogatory credit is rather like the Catholic doctrine of penance applied to the work of Christ, but the parallels with discredited penitential practices are not imaginary. Unwittingly perhaps, Anselm brands God with the same medieval human values of status, honour and morality that underpinned duelling – the spilling of blood for the sake of honour – and the indulgence system that would one day provoke Luther to rebellion.

Anselm deserves credit for working out a God-centred objective picture of the atonement that the Reformers would build on to better effect. However, he neglected the revelatory significance of Christ’s living ministry – an omission the Reformers would rectify through a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience –and it is perhaps due to this that he fails to provide a credible basis for the transference of Christ’s supererogatory credit to humanity. Ultimately, his theory tends to undermine a proper sense of gratitude to Christ or moral responsibility for his suffering, and it has sometimes been disparagingly called the Commercial Theory.

The Moral Influence Theory

This foundational model of subjective atonement was advocated by Anselm’s near-contemporary Abelard, possibly in shocked reaction to the former’s suggestion that Christ’s suffering and death gave God some kind of grim satisfaction. Depicting Christ principally as Revealer and Educator, the theory holds that his death was no more or less than a revelation of divine love and solidarity in suffering that softens human hearts and leads to the repentance that brings divine forgiveness. It is firmly rooted in a certain strand of biblical theology (notably Luke/Acts and the prophetic tradition), and has attracted massive support since the Enlightenment – in fact it is probably the principal rival to sacrificialism in orthodox Christianity today.

It has been plausibly objected by Berkhof (p.387) and others that “this theory robs the atonement of its objective character, and thereby ceases to be a real theory of the atonement. It is at most only a one-sided theory of reconciliation.”[7] And whether or not this is accepted, there are other objections to Abelard’s theory:

·      It predated the scholarship that understands biblical theology as dynamic process. The leading evangelical author of the 20th century comments on Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts ch.2, one of the key supporting texts for this theory, “No developed doctrine of the Atonement is yet expressed” (Stott, 1990, p.75);
·      It ignores the sheer weight of sacrificial language in the New Testament, along with the many pointers to God’s justice and wrath (e.g. Romans ch. 1), and thereby risks making repentance and divine forgiveness cheap;
·      It does not really explain the need for Christ’s death, and is thus held by many to introduced a note of arbitrary cruelty into God’s supposed love.[8]
·      It does not explain how salvation reaches those who lived before the Incarnation, children, or others who are incapable of apprehending or responding to Christ’s moral influence.

As a complement to objective models, however, this theory has much to teach us about the role in salvation of human repentance and God’s forgiving heart – themes whose centrality to a proper understanding of the Hebrew sacrificial system has all too often been overlooked (Morris, 1988). Moreover, this theory need not be presented in a way that detracts from the uniqueness of salvation in Christ, and it inhabits a universal episteme that erects few barriers to transculturation. Above all it provides solid theological foundations for a Christianity that is engaged with the practical needs of the world – it is no coincidence that social reformers and campaigners for peace and justice are often deeply committed to Abelard’s picture of the atonement.

The Example Theory

Abelard’s ideas were developed in a more radical direction by the Socinians in the 16th century, in reaction to the penal substitution theory of the Protestant Reformers. This version of subjective atonement is based on a sweeping assumption that there is no principle of retributive justice in God that insists on the punishment of sin. In consequence, said Fausto Sozzini (Socinius), salvation is achievable through humanity’s own God-given moral faculties.

The Socinian theory is based on the lowest of all Christologies; Christ is not understood as divine in any meaningful sense, there is no direct connection between his death and human salvation, and in revealing the way of individual faith and obedience he is scarcely even unique.[9] Berkhof sees this as a “revival and concoction” of several ancient heresies: a Pelagian denial of human depravity, an adoptionist Christology, a Scotist attribution of arbitrariness to God’s will, and a retrograde appeal to the Anselmian ideas that he deems the Reformation to have rendered obsolete.

Berkhof is generally too sweeping in his rejection of alternatives to Reformed orthodoxy, but the crux of the matter here, as he succinctly puts it on p.388, is that “Christ is our Redeemer before He can be our example.” The Christian certainly is called to follow Christ’s example, but imitation alone is an inadequate response to God’s self-revelation.[10] Abelard’s theory is friendly to this principle as its fundamental dynamic is one of heartbreak, repentance and forgiveness. In contrast the Socinian model is an arrogant and divisive construct; it clashes directly with objective atonement theories and thus does nothing to enrich our understanding of God’s grace.

The Governmental Theory

The Governmental Theory, which still has a considerable following in Arminian and Wesleyan circles, was put forward by Huig de Groot (Grotius) in the early 17th century in an attempt to mediate between Reformed and Socinian positions. It creates  as many problems as it solves, however. At its heart lies an assumption that the Law is a creation of God’s arbitrary will rather than an expression of his essential character and being. On this most fragile of pretexts, it is argued that God’s justice does not demand that all the Law’s requirements be met. The sinner theoretically deserves death, but God chooses to set the penalty aside for believers. In the final analysis Christ did not die in man’s place to secure forgiveness, but to demonstrate the inviolability of God’s law and so uphold his moral government.

Perhaps we see in this theory an echo of the concurrent struggle of Europe’s nation states to consolidate their own governmental authority. Either way it is fatally compromised on logical as well as theological grounds; it is superficially objective in its focus on God’s sovereignty and Christ’s sacrifice, but it attributes no substantive benefit for humankind by Christ’s life or death since it sees our forgiveness as the result of the Father’s arbitrary will to forgive. There is thus little purpose to Christ’s death beyond demonstrating the inviolability of a Law which God’s own actions have shown to be violable. The one practical value of Christ’s death in this scenario might have been as a deterrent to future infractions of the Law – had not God already shown his willingness to set the penalty aside. Most offensive of all is the suggestion that God might be existentially disintegrated, his essence and his actions mutually at odds. Indeed I am little more sure than with the Example theory that this model is truly Trinitarian.


I have barely scratched the surface, but I have attempted to show by a few case studies how we can enrich our understanding of Christ’s work through a humble but critical consideration of different theological models. I would like to finish by demonstrating with the aid of quotations from three credible theologians that this approach is neither arbitrary nor vague.

Dr. Tom Wright, a highly respected Anglican theologian and former Bishop of Durham, describes the Cross in one characteristic passage as

“the moment when the evil and pain of all the world were heaped up into one place, there to be dealt with once and for all… 
“Jesus’ final great act of love draws to a climax all those actions throughout his ministry…in which we see the deeply human…and characteristically God-filled Jesus truly at work.”  (Wright, 2000, p.68)

If Wright does not feel a need to identify the precise mechanism by which this great act of love deals with the world’s evil and pain, Dr. Michael Ramsey, another leading Anglican thinker of the 20th century, sees not the human theological construct of atonement but rather the God-given signs of Death and Resurrection as the events that characterise the nature of Christianity. He continues,

“It is a gospel of life through death, of losing life so as to find it . . . the Christian’s act of allegiance to the risen Lord Jesus was, and still is, an act of acceptance of the way of the Cross.” (Ramsey, 1985, p.31).

And finally the influential Catholic liturgist James Empereur, SJ, stresses the importance of reserve in using theological models:

“Tolerance of pluralism is the only solution. No benefit will result from trying to impose any one model as the last word . . . [The theologian] is called to go beyond these images. He/she must use the image in a reflective and critical way . . . The use of models in theology should emphasise for us that at no time do our concepts and symbols actually capture the infinite that lies behind our liturgical experiences. And since all models have their limitations, the task is to work with several models as complementary.”  (Empereur, 1987, p.66)

I continue to believe that Christ died in my place for my sins, and I find in forensic theories the most complete and satisfying explanation of his work. However, some of the alternative frameworks I have outlined help to open up the extraordinary richness in God’s mercy in a way that no one intellectual construct ever could.

In consequence, and in spite of Stott’s persuasive argument for “an understanding of [the atonement] which reclaims from misrepresentation the great biblical concepts of ‘substitution’, ‘satisfaction’ and ‘propitiation’” (Stott, 1986, p.10), I find the term “participation” as used by Mattison in some ways more illuminating; it integrates more smoothly with non-sacrificial language, and above all it emphasises our calling to go to the cross with Christ rather than merely letting him occupy it for us. It is in these terms that I can most clearly see Christ’s blood as the seal on a new covenant between God and man, and preach to myself and others an active sacrificial concern for the needs of a suffering world.


AULÉN, G. (1969) Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement New York, Macmillan.

BELLINGER, C. (2001) Bibliography on the Doctrine of the Atonement [on-line] Available:

BERKHOF, L. (1958) Systematic Theology Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust.

BOADT, L. (1984) Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction New York, Paulist Press.

­EHRMAN, B. D. (2000) The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings New York, Oxford University Press.

EMPEREUR, J. (1987) Worship: Exploring the Sacred Washington D.C., The Pastoral Press.

HEIM, S. M. (2001) “Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?” in The Christian Century 7 March 2001, pp.12-17 [online] Available:

KÜNG, H. (1993) Credo: The Apostles’ Creed Explained for Today London, SCM Press.

MATTISON, M. M. (undated) “The Meaning of the Atonement” in The Open House Church Articles [online] Available:

MCGRATH, A. E. (1998) Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.

MCGRATH, A. E., Ed. (2001a) The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd Ed. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.

MCGRATH, A. E. (2001b) Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.

MORRIS, L. L. (1988) “Atonement” in Ferguson, S. B. and Wright, D. F., Ed. New Dictionary of Theology Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press.

RAMSEY, M. (1985) The Christian Priest Today London, SPCK

SCHAFF, P. (undated) “The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia of Religious Knowledge” in Christian Classics Ethereal Library [online] Available:

SIDER, R. J. (1993) Good News and Good Works: A Theology for the Whole Gospel Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Books.

STOTT, J. R. W. (1986) The Cross of Christ Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press.

STOTT, J. R. W. (1990) The Message of Acts Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press.
UNDERHILL, E. (1944) Light of Christ London, Longmans.
WRIGHT, N. T. (1996) Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God vol. 2) London, SPCK.

WRIGHT, N. T. (2000) The Challenge of Jesus London, SPCK.

[1] The idea was common to both Jewish and Greek thought; it occurs more than once in the deutero-canonical writings and is the central device in Euripides’ drama Alcestis of around 438 B.C.E. (Ehrman, 2000, p.257).
[2] The English mystic Evelyn Underhill, for example, refers to Christ the Teacher, Christ the Healer and Christ the Rescuer (Underhill, 1944).
[3] Perhaps resulting from an over-literal reading of Mk 10:45, which states that Christ died “to give his life as a ransom for many”.
[4] Gregory the Great, for example, saw Christ’s humanity as bait and his divinity as the hook.
[5] Such was the embarrassment of the crucifixion to much of the early church, it was not until the conversion of Constantine that the cross achieved emblematic status (Küng, 1993, p.65).
[6] Indeed, the theory still attracts considerable popular support. I quote from a recent and widely circulated e-mail chain letter (no attribution available): “And what will you do when you get done with [humanity]?” Jesus asked. “Oh, I’ll kill ‘em,” Satan glared proudly. “How much do you want for them?” Jesus asked . . . Satan looked at Jesus and sneered, “All your tears, and all your blood.” Jesus said, “DONE!” Then He paid the price.
[7] Over against Berkhof, it could be argued that reconciliation is at the heart of the atonement – the term itself is thought to have been coined by Tyndale as a translation of the L. reconciliatio. This counter-argument cannot be pushed too far, however, as reconciliatio itself is not a wholly adequate translation of the Gk. katallage, which in Hellenised Jewish culture carried rich overtones of exchange (Gk. vb. katallasso) as well as the interrelated Hebrew concepts of “covering” (kopher) and ritual atonement (kipper).
[8] As Berkhof states in slightly cumbersome syntax on p.387, “The sufferings and death of Christ were a manifestation of God’s love only, if it was the only way to save sinners.”
[9] Although there is an anomalous and rather Anselmian assumption in the Example Theory that Christ passes on to believers some kind of reward received for his own obedience.
[10] As George Bernard Shaw has Don Juan answer a companion in Hell who is complaining that all her good deeds have been wasted: “No: you were fully and clearly warned. For your bad deeds, vicarious atonement, mercy without justice. For your good deeds, justice without mercy. We have many good people here.” (Man and Superman Act III, s.166)

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