The Doctrine of Christ (part 12)

June 01, 2008     Time: 00:33:29


Craig continues on the Doctrine of Christ (Christology). Penal theory of atonement. Moral Influence view of atonement. Existential theory of atonement. Human analogy of transfer of guilt. Imputation.

We’ve been talking about the atonement and the work of Christ – how the death of Jesus on the cross accomplishes our redemption and reconciliation with God. We began to look last week at some of the different theories of the atonement that have been proposed down through church history.

To recap what we said last week, you’ll remember the earliest theory has been called the Christus Victor model of the atonement which held that Christ’s death was a ransom for sin and that he offered his life in order to bring man back from under the power of Satan in whose clutches he had fallen. But Christ, being sinless, could not be rightfully held by Satan and so after having paid the ransom Christ himself broke free from Satan’s power thus breaking the bonds of death and hell and the Devil. This Christus Victor theory of the atonement was very wide spread in the early church among the church fathers.

A second theory that we then looked at was St. Anselm’s Satisfaction theory. We saw that this model grows out of the Catholic practice of penance. In Catholic doctrine, in order to deal with sins committed after one’s baptism, one needs to conduct penance. This will consist of confession of sin and then doing some sort of work to offer satisfaction to God for one’s sin and thereby one’s sin is absolved. Anselm used this model as a theory of the atonement. We saw that Christ became a man in order to offer satisfaction to God for the sins of mankind. Man, by falling into sin, had dishonored God and therefore owed God an infinite debt of satisfaction which he could not pay. Christ, having lived a sinless life and in giving his life in death, rendered to God the satisfaction for man and thereby accrued merit that could be applied to man’s debt and thus cancel man’s indebtedness before God.

The theory that we want to turn to today has been called the Penal theory of the atonement. This theory is associated with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers. In Luther’s understanding, the death of Christ should not be understood in terms of satisfaction. It is not that Christ is offering his life to God and thereby accruing merit which can be applied to man. It is not substitutionary merit which is wrought to God thereby earning man’s salvation. Rather, in Luther’s view, the concept of the atonement is punitive and hence the name Penal theory. The death of Christ is a substitutionary punishment for sin. It is not a substitutionary satisfaction; it is a substitutionary punishment. Christ on the cross bears the punishment for sin that you and I deserve so that we need not be punished for our sins insofar as we identify with Christ by faith. On Luther’s view, our sin and guilt are somehow born by Christ – he becomes our sin bearer. He carries our guilt, and by being punished in our place he thereby removes our guilt so our penalty is paid and we can be justified before God.[1]

This is essentially a model, as I say, of substitutionary punishment by God for sin. As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we tend to hold this view in Protestant circles. It would be the Penal theory of the atonement that most evangelical Protestants would just assume by second nature having imbibed it as it were with their mother’s milk. The Penal theory is the view that we’ve come to be accustomed to.

Another theory of the atonement could be called the Moral Influence view, or sometimes it is called the Liberal view of the atonement because of its association with classical liberal theology in the late 19th century. The view is actually anticipated by a Medieval thinker however by the name of Abelard. You may have heard of Héloïse and Abelard, the famous lovers. This is the same fellow. Abelard, who lived during the 12th century, was a 12th century priest and developed this Moral Influence view of the atonement. In Abelard’s view the death of Jesus serves to show God’s love for us in that we see how far God is willing to go in order to redeem us to himself. We see the extent of God’s love that carried him even to the excruciated death on a cross. This display of love on God’s part then awakens in our hearts love in response. It awakens a reciprocal love on our part. So on the Moral Influence view the atonement works as an influence on us. It morally influences us to love God, to come to God, because we reciprocate or respond to this radical demonstration of God’s love. So the essential power of the atonement is its moral influence on people. It is the supreme example of self-abandonment as Christ gives his life for us and thereby shows how much God loves us. But in all fairness it should be said too that Abelard also did conceive of the death of Christ to be a substitutionary punishment for our sins. So his model is not simply Moral Influence.

But in liberal theology, in the late 19th century, the moral influence aspect of the doctrine did come to be exclusive and dominant. For example, the late 19th century theologian Albrecht Ritschl was one of the great liberal theologians of that era. On Ritschl’s view, God does not need to be propitiated or reconciled to humanity. God is not angry with us because of our sin; rather, God stands ready to forgive. God is anxious to forgive and have man reconciled to himself. Therefore, it is human beings who are estranged from God. It is not God who is estranged from human beings; it is we who are alienated from God and need to be brought back to God. Therefore, God does not need to be propitiated or reconciled. God on the contrary is ready and willing to forgive us. But man needs to be somehow motivated or drawn to God. This is what the cross does. The cross reveals the love of God to us. It is the seal, as it were, of God’s love for humanity. By seeing the cross as a demonstration of God’s love, it moves people to respond to God in love as well. On this view, there is no need for the divinity of Christ. In fact, Ritschl did not believe Christ to be divine. He thought Christ was simply a human being, but the cross, as a demonstration of God’s love, exerts a tremendous moral influence over people to draw people to God in view of this demonstration of his self-giving love.[2]

A final theory of the atonement that we want to look at is what we could call the Existential theory. This is influenced by the philosophy, as you might expect, of existentialism, particularly in the writings of the 20th century German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, a tremendously influential 20th century German theologian. According to Bultmann, the death of Christ should not be understood as a substitutionary punishment. Rather, the death of Christ shows the powerlessness of death. As Jesus bravely embraced his death and went willingly to the cross to die, we see that death had no power over him. He was unafraid of it. He went unflinchingly to his death. Similarly, we too can live bravely and authentically in a finite life that ends in death. So the message of the cross, once you demythologize it (and that was one of Bultmann’s essential programs – remove the myth from these Christian stories and to reveal their genuine kernel of truth) . . . When you demythologize the story of the cross, the existential truth that Bultmann finds in it is that we must give up worldly meaning and find meaning in self-giving. In the same way that Christ gave himself and went to his death on the cross, we too can find meaning in self-giving and living for others. This robs death of its power. We no longer fear death. So we can live authentically in the face of death and in a life that is doomed to end in death.

It is very interesting that in the recent debate I had with John Shelby Spong, the Episcopalian bishop, Spong really advocated, I think, a very similar view of the cross. He says that the message of the resurrection of Jesus is the same as the cross; namely, the cross tells us that it is only in giving love away that we truly find love. It is only in giving life away that we find life. So the message of the cross is this message of self-giving love and genuine authentic existence even in the face of death.

There is no hope of immortality here or life beyond the grave or personal relationship with God. Rather, it is all a matter of finding authentic existence in a finite life which is doomed to end in death. The cross is said to provide the key to that significance.

Those are the principal theories of the atonement of Jesus that I wanted to survey with you. What I would like to do now is give some assessment of these models. The first thing that we notice in assessing these models is that there is no theory of the atonement that has been universally endorsed by the church. The church has affirmed in its great ecumenical creeds that are accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike that Christ died for our sins but it doesn’t embrace or authenticate any particular theory of the atonement. I think when we look at these various theories, we’ll find that virtually all of them have something positive to say, and that probably no one of them has the complete truth. The atonement seems to be a very multifaceted event, and each one of these theories picks out one facet of it to develop but doesn’t exhaust them all.[3]

So, for example, take the Christus Victor model, the first model of the atonement. I think what we could say in assessing this theory is that it is quite good in emphasizing the victorious element in the atonement. That in the cross Christ triumphs over Satan. He triumphs over sin and over death and over hell. That is certainly a motif that you find in the New Testament. One thinks of Colossians for example where Paul says that on the cross Christ led the powers and the principalities in triumphal procession, triumphing over them in the cross. On the other hand, I think a major drawback of this theory is that on this view the atonement is primarily Satan-directed. That is to say it is directed toward Satan as its principal object. Christ offers his life as a ransom that is paid to Satan who has held man captive. Surely that goes against the New Testament doctrine that the death of Christ is something that is offered to God. That God is the principal object of the atonement or the death of Christ. Satan should not be the one whom the atonement seems to be offered. Also you will notice this Christus Victor model lacks any elements of guilt. There is no taking away of the guilt of our sin or Christ bearing our guilt or bearing our sin. All of this is lacking in this model. There are no instances of substitution in this model as well. There is no suggestion on this view that in dying Christ somehow was our substitutionary sacrifice. That his death was vicarious in that way. So while this model is good, I think, in its emphasizing Christ’s triumph over the powers of darkness and the cross, it is really quite seriously deficient in these other respects.

What about the Satisfaction model? I think this is a more adequate theory of the atonement than the Christus Victor model. I think it is excellent in being God-directed. It is God’s honor and majesty which has been affected by man’s fall into sin, and therefore the atonement is offered to God. It is directed toward God, not toward Satan. I think it is also very positive in the way this model emphasizes the ethical aspects of the atonement. You remember it is primarily because of man’s sin that Christ needs to become incarnate to deal with our guilt. It emphasizes man’s debt before God, which is certainly a New Testament motif – that we owe God this incalculable debt which we are incapable of paying. Finally, also on its emphasis on the necessity of the incarnation. This is not something that man could have taken care of. Man could not have paid the debt on his own. God could not simply wink at sin and just cancel it. The debt had to be paid, and thus the necessity of the incarnation. In all of these respects, I think the satisfaction model is quite positive.

On the other hand, the theory seems to be weak in using the motif of satisfaction rather than substitutionary punishment. On this model God takes on the appearance of a sort of offended potentate whose honor has been maligned and who needs to be satisfied. Somehow this debt needs to be paid. But you don’t have the element of substitutionary punishment; that Christ somehow bore the punishment for our sin or that he was taking our place in dying on the cross – that he died for us in this vicarious sense. So although the Satisfaction model has some very positive features to it, I don’t think that it comes to encapsulate the true New Testament doctrine of the atonement.

The Penal theory of Martin Luther, I think, does come closest to Pauline ideas in the New Testament.[4] There we do seem to get the notion that Paul conceives of Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sin. Christ was made to be sin for us. Somehow our guilt and our sin were born by Christ, and he bore the wrath and punishment of God so that we might be free. I think this Penal theory does come closest to Pauline ideas.

On the other hand, having said that, there are, I think, very serious objections to the Penal theory that arise from ethical considerations. For example, it is very difficult to understand how an innocent person can pay the penalty for someone else’s punishment. That is to say, how is it ethical for an innocent person to be punished in the place of another? We can imagine a person paying the debt of another, but that would be more like the Satisfaction model where I could pay your traffic fine, for example. That would be similar to the Satisfaction model. But is it ethically possible for an innocent person to actually bear the punishment for somebody else. How can a criminal’s responsibility in guilt be taken away by, for example, some other innocent person volunteering to be scourged or to go in jail or be punished in his place? How can that other person be rightly punished for something that he didn’t do but someone else did do? The answer that I think Luther would give here is that our guilt is imputed to Christ. Somehow Christ takes my guilt upon him and therefore can be punished in my place. But this is a very difficult conception, if you think about it. How can one person become guilty for another person’s sins? How can guilt be transferred in that way?

I have to confess that this is an area where I myself have not done a great deal of work philosophically. My interest as a Christian philosopher have been in other areas. So I don’t have, unfortunately, much to say about these questions. I think these are deep questions that need further exploration. But let me offer just a few tentative thoughts on this that might serve to make this doctrine more plausible.

I think we do have human analogies for understanding the transference of guilt from one person to another, whereby guilt we understand to be liability to punishment. By saying that we do not mean that Christ literally became sinful in bearing our guilt. We don’t mean that Christ himself became a sinful person on the cross and therefore liable to punishment. In saying that Christ bore my sin, I don’t think we want to say that Christ himself became sinful, although some of the statements made by Martin Luther might suggest that. He has a passage where he says, Look to the cross and there you will see the world’s greatest adulterer, the world’s greatest murder, because he is bearing the sin of the world. But I don’t think we should understand it literally in that way because Christ being the second person of the Trinity is holy and impeccable. He cannot be sinful. So I think what we want to say is that Christ bears our guilt insofar as he bears our liability to punishment.

There are human analogies to this. For example, I was talking once with an insurance salesman and he said to me, “Oh, I understand this idea. That is imputation.” And I was stunned because imputation is a part of the theological vocabulary. It is a theological concept. So I was surprised to hear it from this insurance salesman. But he said, “We use imputation all the time in the insurance industry.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “For example, under certain policies, even though you may not be the driver of the automobile that gets in the accident, because you are the policy holder and, say, your teenage son or daughter gets in the accident, the responsibility is imputed to you even though you are completely innocent.”[5] You were not in the car, you were not driving the car, you didn’t do anything wrong. Yet, the court holds you liable because under this particular policy the responsibility for the accident or the breach of the law is imputed to you, and therefore you become liable for whatever punishment there is. Similarly, in a stockholders’ meeting, we sometimes have voting by proxy where you assign someone else to stand in for you and to vote in your place. Whatever that person does, you do. He becomes your proxy. That is, in essence, your vote. Therefore, you are responsible for how your proxy votes. I think something like this could very well be going on in the atonement. Christ is our proxy before God in the atonement. In that sense, he would be similar to Adam who, in the garden, acted as our proxy before God in the fall into sin. So the doctrine of original sin and the doctrine of atonement are like mirror images of each other. If Adam can act as our representative or proxy before God as the federal head of the human race and thereby implicate us in his sin, similarly Jesus, as the second Adam, acts as our proxy before God in bearing the penalty for our sin and thereby freeing us from the wrath and justice of God. So in the atonement our sins are imputed to Christ as our proxy. He becomes liable to our punishment, and therefore bears our punishment.

The flip side of that, of course, is that Christ’s righteousness then is imputed to us so that in him we become the righteousness of God, as Paul said. So there is the greatest transaction in human history taking place at the cross. My sin imputed to Christ; Christ’s righteousness imputed to me. This would be a type of transfer that doesn’t mean I literally become righteous in my experience. This would be a kind of forensic transaction – a legal transaction. Insofar as I am identified with Christ by faith, I am righteous in him. I am declared righteous by God. Then, of course, as I grow in my understanding of salvation and as I grow in grace and filled with the Holy Spirit, while I am forensically and positionally in Christ will become true experientially as I am sanctified and live a more and more holy life with less and less sin. Nevertheless, regardless of my experiential status, my forensic status is that I am justified in Christ in virtue of the imputation of his righteousness to me and the imputation of my sin to him.

As I say, much, much more deserves to be said about this and deserves to be worked out. I hope that some Christian philosophers will taken this doctrine of the atonement. I think we’ve yet to see a really good defense among Christian philosophers of the Penal theory of atonement. But as the theory that comes closest to New Testament ideas, I think this needs to be done. These, I think, would be some tentative forays in that direction.

Let me say a word about our two remaining theories of the atonement: the Moral Influence theory and the Existential theory.

The Moral Influence theory is certainly good at emphasizing God’s love. It is the love of God that drove Christ to the cross. Certainly, we do respond with love when we see the extent of God’s love for us. So many people, as you know, were moved by Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ in seeing Christ bear that horrible pain and suffering. Their hearts were moved in response to turn to God. But unfortunately this Moral Influence theory is altogether lacking in the elements of God’s holiness, God’s wrath, and God’s judgment upon sin. All of these elements are lacking.[6] In fact, when you really think about it, on the Moral Influence theory nothing really happens at the cross. Nothing really takes place. There is no exchange of sin for righteousness, no satisfaction, no imputation of sin and guilt to Christ. Nothing really goes on at the cross. It is just Jesus dying on the Christ, and then later on it has a moral influence on people down through history. In that sense it is just altogether inadequate to the New Testament data which indicates that Christ’s death was a sacrifice for sin and a vicarious death on our behalf.

Finally, the Existential theory – well, it is hard to find anything, I think, that is good about this model. In fact, I would say that the model is completely wrong in that far from showing us the powerlessness of death and showing us how to live authentically in the face of death, what the cross really shows, if anything when you reflect on it, is the tragedy and the futility of life. If there is no life beyond the grave then the cross is the supreme tragedy. It shows that this is what happens to good people when they try to do the right thing. They end up dying and suffering horribly and innocently. It shows the futility of life because the cross accomplished nothing. All the good things that Jesus tried to do and accomplish come to an end at the cross. So it seems to me that on atheism, which is what this view is, really is the exact opposite of Bultmann’s interpretation. Rather than showing us how to live authentically in the face of death in a finite life, it really shows the futility and the tragedy of life. In fact, on this view, there is really no need for Christ at all. You can simply live bravely in the face of death wholly apart from Christ or his death on the cross. Therefore, I think more consistent existentialist theologians like Schubert Ogden have espoused what they call a Christ-less Christianity. Just dispense with Jesus Christ; Christianity doesn’t need Jesus Christ on the Existentialist view. Indeed, this is just existentialist philosophy which says that in the face of death and finitude, you live bravely and authentically and you don’t need Jesus Christ to live that kind of humanistic, existentialist philosophy.

So in short I think that the Penal theory of the atonement comes the closest to Pauline ideas. Although it involves some very deep problems that merit further discussion, I think that this view is capable of being defended in light of certain human analogies with respect to imputation and responsibility.

That completes what I wanted to say about the doctrine of the atonement. Next time we will turn to the culmination of Christ’s work, which is his resurrection.[7]

[1] 5:11

[2] 10:15

[3] 15:05

[4] 20:00

[5] 25:00

[6] 30:00

[7] Total Running Time: 33:29 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)