Doctrine of Christ (Part 12)

November 19, 2011     Time: 00:26:04

To come back to our lesson we have been talking about – the work of Christ and different theories of the atonement – we looked at the Christus Victor model of the atonement (or the Ransom Theory of the atonement) last time and the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement developed by St. Anselm. Now we come to another theory of the atonement which is called the Moral Influence Theory of the atonement, or sometimes it is called the Liberal View of the atonement because of its association with classical liberal theology in the late 19th century.

Moral Influence Theory

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. Well, 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 served 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 excruciating death on a cross. And this display of love on God’s part then awakes in our hearts love in response. It awakens a reciprocal love on our part. 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 the 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.1


Question : Why is there no need for the divinity of Christ in that? It seems if Jesus is not unique, or God dying for our sins, why is that no longer necessary in that view?

Answer : Well, I think what you are seeing here is that there really isn’t anything unique about Christ. There could be other similar displays – couldn’t there? – of God’s love and readiness to forgive. So really it is hard to see why Christianity is special and why Christ would be the only way of salvation. Indeed it would seem that other human persons could exemplify and show forth God’s love in a sacrificial way. But on this view, there isn’t any need for the deity of Christ because nothing really happens at the cross, in a sense. It is just through its influence like leaven throughout human culture and society – you see this example of self-giving love and that motivates you then to be a selfless and kind person as well.

Question : So if nothing is happening, how is this a show of love?

Answer : Well, that is a really good question! I think that that is a critique that one might exert on this Moral Influence Theory. You could say what this is a show of horrible barbarity and cruelty – right? – on the part of the Romans. I guess the idea would be here that Christ is willing to die for those that he loves. But, yes, if removed from the whole notion of sin and so forth, it is hard to see how that really shows God’s love for us. I think you are right that that is a difficulty with the view.

Question : I think the issue of all these theories, or a lot of these theories, is that justice is giving people what they deserve and grace is giving them something better than they deserve. Without some sort of substitutionary atonement, how does God stay fully graceful and fully just?

Answer : That is a good question with regard to this view because, as I said, it is not as though there is any kind of satisfaction for sin, any kind of punishment or payment for sin; it is simply the idea that acts of love and kindness are imitated by others and influence others. So the whole problematic that you are talking about just would not be of concern to these liberal theologians. I think they would feel that God, being all loving, can just forgive people’s sins, and there doesn’t need to be justice met. He can just say, “I forgive you,” and he is ready to do that on this view.

Question : I don’t understand your leap from Abelard to Ritschl. Are you saying that the moral viewpoint deteriorated from that time from Abelard? You left out 600 years.

Answer : Well, I guess what I am saying is that typically if you look through history backwards – look at it through the rear view mirror – you can see the roots of Ritschl and these other liberal theologians further back in Abelard’s emphasis on the moral influence of the incarnation. But I am not suggesting that that was Abelard’s full theology which then deteriorated. Just we are looking back and saying “Where can we find the roots of this liberal view of the atonement?” Well, here are some antecedents that might serve as its roots far back in history.

Question : Coming into the current times, bringing it up to date – for those in what we might call the emerging church or emergent church that many deniers of the atonement at various levels, are they appealing to this Moral Influence argument?

Answer : You know, that is a really good question that I can’t answer because I have not honestly read the emerging church literature. To me, it hasn’t been sufficiently interesting or important to distract me from my major research. I mean, there is only so much you can read, so you have to just leave some things to be handled by your colleagues. I know people like Scott Smith are working hard on theology of the Emergent Church. But insofar as Emergentists might feel uncomfortable with the idea of a wrathful God whose justice must be propitiated or who must be satisfied, that would tend to open the door to a Moral Influence sort of theory of atonement. But whether they have gone that far, I do not know. Do you know if they have moved in that direction? Followup: I do not know if they have actually articulated that. They are so murky in the way they describe all of their theology it is very hard to pin them down on it.2

Question : I was just wondering, with all these theories together, I am not sure how . . . I guess I am not understanding exactly how this explains why someone has to explicitly accept or believe in or accept the gift or the example in order to benefit from it. If you know what I mean.

Answer : I think I do. In other words, on the Moral Influence Theory, we can imagine someone like, oh, I don’t know, Gandhi or someone living a selfless life for the betterment of his countrymen and the improvement of humanity without embracing Christianity, without embracing Christ. I imagine that people like Ritschl would be not unhappy with that because for liberal theology, as I said a moment ago, the uniqueness of Christ really tends to be sacrificed. He may stand out as a sort of pinnacle of human virtue and God-dependency and selflessness. But it is not as though he is one of a kind. So I think you are sensing there a difficulty, at least from a biblical perspective, with this point of view.

Question : Gandhi was a good example in that he carried a New Testament with him, and he had two hymns sung at his funeral – Christian hymns – but still remained a Hindu.

Answer : Yes, he admired Jesus – didn’t he? – as a man, but no more than that.

I see that in my survey here I skipped over point (c) and so let me go back and pick that up. We would be very neglectful if we didn’t talk for a moment about the Penal Theory of the atonement.

Penal Theory

The Penal Theory of the atonement is the theory that was defended by the Protestant Reformers. Calvin and Luther would be advocates of this view of the atonement. On this view, they emphasized, not satisfaction, as Anselm had. Remember for Anselm, God’s honor had been deprived him. He had been maligned or insulted by sinful man and therefore there needed to be some sort of reparation or satisfaction made to God for this insult that he had suffered. But for Calvin and Luther, what Christ achieved was not satisfaction so much as substitutionary punishment – that Christ bore the punishment for sin that man deserved. That then meant that the demands of God’s justice were satisfied in Christ’s vicarious suffering. Christ’s death and suffering was vicarious in that he served as our substitute. Again, the emphasis in their theory was not on his substitutionary merit that he brought to God on behalf of those who believed in him, but rather on the satisfaction of God’s justice – the demands of God’s justice – by bearing the punishment for sin, so that his righteousness could be imputed to human beings, and they could be constituted right before God. But it is not as though there was this treasury of merit that Christ has accumulated, and to which saints might add, which might be applied to the deficits that sinners had accrued. This is obviously, I think, the theory that most of us have become familiar with who are Protestants – the Penal Theory of the atonement or the “substitutionary atonement” in which Christ’s death is thought to be a vicarious punishment that he undergoes in our place.


Question : First of all, let me state that I believe there is no way to the Father except through Christ. Then I’d like to point out that Ezekiel says that if a person who has done wrong will just start trying to do right, God will forgive him. So Christ did have to die for our sins – take the punishment for our sins. But it wasn’t to the true God, it was the God we became ourselves when we took the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.3 So we are cut off by sin from knowing true God, but what we have in his place, because we have a darkened mind and we are all guilty and all running from God in our subconscious. So no one will turn until a payment has been made. We know we feel the real condemnation at least at a subconscious level. So Christ died for our sins and so that is how he reconciles . . .

Answer : I hear you affirming a sort of substitutionary punishment. It seems to be you are affirming that. Wouldn’t you say that this satisfies the demands of the Father’s justice – that sin must be punished?

Followup : In Ezekiel, he didn’t make that requirement. But what it is is we don’t believe God. Christ had to die for our sins because we won’t believe him – that God really loves us and forgives us. It is like we set the price. In other words, to be reconciled to God you must give up your own self interest and will and take God’s will. Let his commandments, let his way be your way. He created us with his life when he first created Adam. In the fall, we could no longer keep those same desires because it would have reminded us. . . the fruit of the judgment we are condemning ourselves.

Answer : It seems to me, though, that if we think that sin is genuine, culpable wrongdoing, it can only be culpable before God the Father. Therefore, if we want the Father’s forgiveness – if Christ does die as a punishment for sin – it would only be with respect to God the Father. His justice would demand such punishment. Otherwise, it would be illusory. I mean, I could understand how you could have a false guilt complex about your sin that you would think that it needed to be paid for or someone had to die for that sin. But if you think there is a genuine culpability here, it can only be before the bar of God’s justice, before God the Father.

Followup : I agree with that. God says the soul in sin shall die, so death is appointed to all of us for having died. But God’s mercy is to give us a new life that can be our life. So he takes the sting of death away from that. We have a new hope in him, so you are born again as it says in 1 Peter – a lively hope. But God clearly says in Ezekiel, if a person will stop trying to do what’s wrong and try to do what’s right, he will forgive him. All that he had done before that’s wrong will not be counted against him.

Answer : Yeah. . . , well, I would say if that is the case, it would only be because Christ has died for those sins. God certainly can offer to forgive; but I don’t think that that would mean that we have the ability by moral reformation of our own lives to just achieve God’s forgiveness. That really is a moral influence view. That is really what you are talking about there, a kind of self-reformation.

Followup : The real sting of death is . . . nobody here really understands what that is. . . that is the spiritual death and separation from Christ . . . and we are terrified of that. Christ really did have to die for our sins and show us the way, but not only did he make the way of salvation on the cross, he was the first one to use it to come back. That is how much he loves us; he totally cut himself off and made the new way back.

Answer : All right, but if you want to move beyond moral influence to either some kind of penal view or satisfaction theory, then I think we are going to have to say that there is genuine sin that we are responsible for that needs forgiveness; and then in some way Christ’s death actually serves to achieve that forgiveness.

Question : Ezekiel was the old covenant. Christ hadn’t come yet. He was planned, but that was under the old promise that still required the sacrificial lamb for every single sin. So after a Jewish person would sin, they would sacrifice, and then they would have to try and do right. The only way they could accomplish going to heaven was living a completely pure life, which was impossible. So the only way for God to turn around and love someone was if they were perfect; but nobody can be perfect, but they could try. In Ezekiel, the Old Testament, there was no way to God. That is why he had to give Christ up.4

Answer : Yeah. . . , well, now I think you have got to be careful. You don’t want to say there was no way to God, right? I mean clearly the Old Testament saints had a relationship with God; they knew him. But I think what you want to say is that these sacrificial offerings that were made were merely provisional and tentative and if anyone’s sins were ever forgiven, including these Old Testament persons, it would be through the atoning death of Christ, right?

Followup : Right! I am just saying you were so hung up on the Ezekiel part, whereas there is more afterwards.

Question : There is a current book, The Great Exchange . . . that supports this theory. It uses a lot of Scripture, refers to (as the last person just said) the old covenant as being a foreshadow and then uses much New Testament Scripture to support this theory.

Answer : So he supports the Penal Theory, you are saying?

Followup : Yes. 5

Existential Theory

Let me mention one more theory, then, today before we close. And that is what I’ve called the Existential Theory. This comes out of existentialist theologians who were influenced by secular philosophical existentialism, which emphasized the individual and the meaninglessness of life in the face of one’s personal death.

An example of such an existential reinterpretation of the atonement would be the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who was a mid-20th century New Testament theologian. He interprets the cross to have the message that we ought to give up worldly meaning and instead to find meaning in self-giving. It shows us that we should abandon trying to grasp at life, to hold on to the things of life. Instead the cross is an illustration of giving up one’s self for others. In giving up of yourself, in self-sacrificial love and giving, he says, this robs death of its power over us because now we face death without fear. We can live bravely and authentically in a life that is doomed to end in death. So the message of the cross is not that there is life beyond the grave, not an eternal life or reconciliation to God, but simply that we can live meaningful, self-giving lives fearlessly and authentically in the face of our own impending death.

Another contemporary exponent of this sort of view would be the liberal Anglican bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong says pretty much the same thing as Bultmann. Spong will say that he believes in the resurrection of Jesus; but to him that doesn’t mean that Christ is actually physically raised from the dead. For Spong, that sort of nature miracle never occurs. Rather, the resurrection means that you can live life authentically and bravely, knowing that you are going to die and that that is the end of it.

So you can see how these existentialist theologians reinterpret the message of the cross in a very, very non-traditional way. Yet this is where many contemporary theologians in the Christian church (broadly construed) go with it.


Question : Does it seem to you in the liberal theology, there is something of a speculative free-for-all? It is sort of tennis without a net or without borders or anything like that. It is like, whatever you want.

Answer : No shot is out of bounds! Yes, I agree. Once you get rid of Scripture as your authoritative guideline, then anything goes. So anyone’s speculative reinterpretation of Christian doctrine is equally valid, it seems – unless you are a traditionalist! Then that is off limits.

Question : Are these all mutually exclusive?

Answer : No! I think that is a very appropriate comment, as we draw to an end today. These views could be complementary, couldn’t they? There could be elements of truth in many of these different views, and perhaps the atonement is a richer reality than any one of these theories suggests.6 I think you can tell from my sympathy with your question that that is, in fact, the line I am going to take. So, like a diamond that is multifaceted, I think the atonement of Christ also has many facets, and that is why different Christian theologians fastening upon, or seeing the reflection of one facet, have taken that to be their theory of the atonement, when actually all of them, or most of them anyway, can have some insight into the significance of Christ’s death.

I think, on that happy note, we will close for today, and the next time, then, we will give some assessment of these theories of the atonement and attempt to defend a particular view.7


1 5:05

2 10:05

3 15:00

4 19:56

5 The questioner says the author is a “Jerry Beddenfield,” but it appears he is mistaken. The book The Great Exchange, subtitled, “My Sin for His Righteousness”, is co-authored by Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington.

6 25:07

7 Total Running Time: 26:04 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)