Subjective and Objective Theories of the Atonement

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In the history of the Christian Church the spectrum of views on this topic extends from subjective or 'exemplarist' theories of the Atonement, such as those associated with Peter Abelard in the early twelfth century1 and Hastings Rashdall in the early twentieth century,2 to objective views, such as those associated with Anselm of Canterbury in the late eleventh century3 and Gustav Aulen in the mid-twentieth century.4 As we shall see, there is more to 'subjective' views than just the provision of an example, in the life and death of Jesus Christ, of costly love in action, for us to be won over by, and for us to follow. But the emphasis is on the change in us actually inspired by the Gospel story. Objective views, by contrast, stress a change in our state achieved by what God did in Christ, prior to and irrespective of our own reactions; although, of course, much is also said about the consequent transformative effects in us of what God did. In particular, by his death on the cross, Christ is held to have defeated the powers of evil, or purchased our liberation, or endured in our place the penalty of sin, or offered a sacrifice sufficient to expiate or 'atone' for our guilt. This last suggestion makes one aware of the twofold meaning of the word 'atonement'. In its etymological sense, it simply means 'at-one-ment' and is virtually synonymous with 'reconciliation'. As such it can be used, without difficulty, in connection with subjective or exemplarist theories. But it also has a narrower use in connection with theories ofsacrifice, whereby propitiation or expiation is made for guilt incurred by wrongdoing, as in the sacrificial cult of ancient Israel.

Philosophers of religion, reflecting on this doctrine, will, as always, be concerned to examine these theories for their intelligibility and coherence; but they will also be concerned to probe their moral tenability. Moral philosophy has, of course, been a guiding element in our enquiries in previous chapters, not least in connection with the goodness of God and the goodness of Creation. But theories of the Atonement give rise to moral questions in an even more insistent way. This is not just a matter of facing up to moral objections from secular ethicists. Such objections have to be listened to and responded to. But, for Christian philosophy, it is more a question of Christian ethical criticism, and of probing the moral sense of the doctrine in the context of a developed Christian theology of the love of God.

These issues are raised and explored in a dense and searching essay by Donald MacKinnon: 'Subjective and Objective Conceptions of Atonement', in the Festschrift for H. H. Farmer.5 MacKinnon's dissatisfaction with exemplarist theories stems from his recognition that the deepest contradictions of human life require more than just enlightenment or inspiration, if justice is to be done to them and they are to be overcome. There is a risk of trivializing the work of Christ if we fail to capture the sense of the lengths to which God in Christ was prepared to go in order to redeem the world. The meaning of the cry of dereliction on the cross ('my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?') cannot be grasped simply in terms of an example of costly, self-sacrificial love. We have to be made to face up to the truth about ourselves, and we have to be enabled to change. MacKinnon shows how, in the fourth Evangelist's depiction of Christ's Passion, these themes of judgement, truth and atonement are inextricably woven together. By his own identification with human suffering and evil, with the effects of betrayal, cruelty and judicial murder, God in Christ at once shows us the truth about ourselves, reveals the nature and the cost of the divine forgiveness and draws us into union with the triune God. To this theme ofidentification we shall be returning later in this chapter.

MacKinnon himself was aware of the moral objections that have been raised against objective theories of the Atonement. He implies that the primary focus of these objections is the use made of categories 'borrowed from the history of the religious institution of sacrifice, from types of redemption-mythology, from the contractual order of feudalism, from the conceptions of retributive justice embodied in traditional penal systems';6 and the purport of his essay is to delve more deeply into the moral requirements that remain despite these questionable categories. Other defenders of an objective view are equally critical of some of the aforementioned theories. Thus Richard Swinburne, in his Responsibility and Atonement,7 (of which much more will be said below), rejects the notion of Christ's death as a victory over the powers of evil on the grounds that it makes no sense. It does not explain either how our guilt is removed or why the powers of evil could not have been defeated more directly. Swinburne also rejects the view that Christ's suffering and death constitute a ransom paid to the devil. Quite apart from the question whether belief in a personal devil makes any sense, this view fails to explain why such a ransom was required in the first place. Similarly, the penal substitution theory is rejected by Swinburne for its lack of moral intelligibility. For God to punish himself, in the Person of his Son, in place of us is compatible with neither love nor justice. To Swinburne's preferred sacrificial theory we shall return.

These objections are endorsed, and pressed further, by J. R. Lucas in his chapter in the Swinburne Festschrift.8 'The hypothesis of a personal Devil with rights sits uneasily with the sovereignty of God', he observes. Equally dubious is the element of trickery involved in the depiction of God's dealings with the Evil One such as is found in C. S. Lewis's well-known children's book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lucas refers to Charles Taliaferro's defence of this view in his essay, 'A Narnian Theory of the Atonement'. But a reading of Taliaferro's essay fails to convince. Neither the case against literal belief in the Devil nor the above-mentioned points about divine sovereignty or divine trickery are seriously considered by Taliaferro. The penal substitution theory is also rejected categorically by Lucas: 'That all too easily portrays God the Father as a wrathful power demanding the death of Jesus because other people deserve punish-ment.'11 Quite apart from this point, the penal theory presupposes an implausible hard-line retributivism in the ethics of punishment. We shall return to this aspect ofthe matter shortly, as we shall to Lucas's criticism of Swinburne's sacrificial view and to his own preferred 'identification' theory.

The most trenchant objection to objective views is expressed by John Hick in his contribution to the Swinburne Festschrift.12 It is that all these views leave no room for divine forgiveness. Hick points out that there is no hint in Jesus' words about forgiveness (in the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example ) that God's forgiveness depends on an atoning death. We shall have reason to appreciate the force of this point in the course of the present chapter; but it should also be noted that it is his non-incarnational Christ-ology (discussed, above, in chapter 4) that leaves Hick with no alternative but to embrace a purely exemplarist view.

Before we consider Swinburne's sacrificial view and Lucas's identification view, some attention must be given to philosophical reflection on the themes of sin, judgement and forgiveness, which provide the context for the doctrine of the Atonement in all its forms.

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  • martha allan
    What are the objections raised against atonement theories?
    8 years ago
  • efrem
    What are the differences between the subjective and objective theories of the atonement?
    2 years ago

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