Classical Theories Of Atonement

Before turning to these writings, however, let us briefly review the Christian doctrine of atonement concerning God's redeeming and reconciling activity in and through the suffering and death of Christ. Several types of atonement theory have emerged in the Christian tradition to explain how and why Christ's atonement took place and what it accomplished. The earliest type, known as the classic or dramatic theory, was first worked out by the Greek church father Irenaeus, whose interpretation became the dominant view among both Eastern and Western theologians in the patristic period and, according to one school of interpretation at least, was later revived and deepened by Luther.44 The central claim of this theory is that a cosmic drama took place between God and Satan, the power of evil that held humankind in bondage and suffering in the world. Atonement or reconciliation between God and the world was initiated and effected by God through the death of Christ as a ransom or payment to Satan in order to secure the freedom of humankind from sin, death, and the devil. The second type, dubbed the Latin or legal theory, introduced by Anselm (1033-1109), archbishop of Canterbury, in his treatise CurDeus Homo (Why God Became Human), can be found in medieval, Reformation, and postReformation Protestant theology.45 According to Anselm, Christ came not to make satisfaction to Satan but to God, whose honour was violated by the transgressions of humankind, thereby requiring a penalty to be paid for the remission of sin.46 Since no human being is worthy to be an acceptable sacrifice to God, Christ voluntarily makes satisfaction for sin in our stead by his sinlessness and perfect obedience unto death.47 A variant of the penal theory, called the sacrificial theory, is based on the New Testament book of Hebrews and the Old Testament tradition of making a sin-offering or sacrifice to expiate (atone for) rather than to propitiate (appease God for) the sins of humankind.48 In this version, found in both patristic and Reformation theology, Christ is viewed as the representative of and substitute for human beings. He is both the High Priest and the sacrificial victim through whose death humankind is redeemed and a new covenant is mediated between God and his chosen people. The final type, variously identified as the exemplar, subjective, or moral influence theory, was formulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142), a younger contemporary of Anselm who was critical of both the legal and classic theories of atonement. Abelard's alternative emphasizes the role of Christ as example and teacher whose life

44 Cf. Aulen (1950: 20-76, 119-38). Contra Aulen on Luther, see Althaus (1966: 218-23); Siggins (1970: 108-43).

45 Aulen (1950: 97-111, 139-49). 46 Anselm (1962: 202-3,206-10).

47 Ibid. 192-4, 198, 232-4, 237. 48 Richardson (1976: 23-4).

of love, forgiveness, suffering, and death stirs the hearts of human beings to repentance and love in response, which become the basis for their reconciliation with God.49 This theory took hold in liberal Protestant theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most notably in Schleiermacher and his followers.50

Of course, many theologians cannot be pigeon-holed as advocating a single type of atonement theory, and it is to be expected that Kierkegaard will defy classification as well. Moreover, speaking in the voice of a pseudonym, Kierkegaard observes that dogmatic theologians seek to comprehend the mystery of the atonement by pondering and illuminating its eternal significance, whereas the believer is commanded to believe rather than to try to comprehend it; thus 'the death of the Holy One has a totally different meaning for him' (WA 58-9). Like the believer, Kierkegaard is content to rest in faith and concern himself only with the meaning of the death and atonement of Christ for the believer, which is the believer's personal reconciliation with God in and through Christ.

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