Doctrine of Christ (Part 16): The Work of Christ (9) - Moral Influence Theory

May 26, 2017

The Moral Influence Theory

Today we come to the moral influence theory of the atonement. This theory of the atonement is most often associated with the twelfth century logician and theologian Peter Abelard. You may have heard of Abelard in a different connection with this because of the famous love affair between Eloise and Abelard. As a young priest, Abelard was hired by a family to tutor their young teenaged daughter Eloise. He seduced her, more or less forced himself upon her sexually, but she fell in love with him. They began this love affair that finally culminated in marriage. But her father, to say the least, was not pleased about Abelard’s seducing his daughter and so he hired a gang of thugs to break into Abelard’s residence one night and they castrated him in bed whereupon Eloise was then consigned to a nunnery for the rest of her life. Abelard went on to become a very famous theologian and philosopher.

So, the moral influence theory of the atonement! [laughter]

According to atonement theories of this type, Christ achieved our reconciliation with God, not by ransoming us from the devil or by satisfying God's justice, but rather by moving our hearts to contrition and love as we contemplate Christ’s voluntarily suffering on our behalf so horrible and torturous a death. On this theory nothing actually happened between God and man that afternoon on Golgotha when Jesus was crucifixion. No sins were punished, no debt was paid. The entire power of the cross to make atonement lies in its serving as an example which then produces a subjective response in us as we contemplate Christ's voluntarily laying down his life for us.

In his commentary on the book of Romans when he reaches the section on the atonement in Romans 3:24-26, Abelard tries to explain how Christ’s death achieves atonement. He agrees with Anselm in rejecting ransom theories of the atonement. He says Satan has no rights over human beings that God has to respect. That raises the question, “What need was there, I say, for the Son of God, for the sake of our redemption, when he received flesh to endure so many great fasts, reproaches, lashings, spitting, and finally the most violent and shameful death of the cross. . . .?”[1] This is exactly the same question that drove Anselm’s inquiry in Why Did God Become Man?. Abelard realizes that any ransom that is paid to redeem mankind has to be paid to God, not to the devil. The devil is at very most merely our jailer and torturer by God’s permission. But the devil doesn't have any rights over us which God must respect. On the other hand neither does Abelard seem to be persuaded by Anselm’s answer to the question that Christ’s death was a compensatory offering to God to satisfy divine justice. He exclaims,


How very cruel and unjust it seems that someone should require the blood of an innocent person as a ransom, or that in any way it might please him that an innocent person be slain, still less that God should have so accepted the death of his Son that through it he was reconciled to the whole world!”[2]


On Abelard's view, neither a ransom theory nor a satisfaction theory suffices to explain why Christ would come and submit to such a gruesome and horrible death.[3] His answer to the question is very different. This is what he says in his commentary on Romans 3:24-26:


Nevertheless it seems to us that in this we are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God, that it was through this matchless grace shown to us that his Son received our nature, and in that nature, teaching us both by word and by example, persevered to the death and bound us to himself even more through love, so that when we have been kindled by so great a benefit of divine grace, true charity might fear to endure nothing for his sake.[4]


Here Abelard seems to suggest that the way the atonement works is that Christ's dying this horrible death ignites in us a flame of love by means of his teaching and his example so that we are fortified to endure even unto death in obedience to him. The example of Christ's death inflames us with love to follow him, become his disciples, and be obedient even unto death.

I think it is noteworthy that on this theory the objectionable fact about the traditional view such as Anselm had is that on Anselm's view, Abelard says, God needed to be reconciled to the world by Christ’s death. But on Abelard’s view we need to be reconciled to God by Christ’s death. It is not God who needs to be reconciled to us; it is we who need to be reconciled to him. It has become almost an axiom among contemporary proponents of moral influence theories that God does not need to be reconciled to sinners; the entire obstacle to reconciliation lies on our side. God stands with open arms ready to receive us, but our hearts need to be changed so that our hostility to God evaporates and we embrace his love. So Abelard sees atonement achieved as Christ’s passion enkindles in our hearts a love for God within us. We are liberated then from sin as we come to love God more and more and so become more and more righteous. The atonement works by means of Christ's exemplary death on the cross which then produces in us this effect of loving God more and more so that we become progressively freed from sin. That's the theory.

Now taken in isolation, the moral influence theory might seem far too thin to do justice to the biblical data concerning subjects like God’s wrath, for example, which lies on unbelievers, or Christ’s substitutionary death (his suffering is vicarious in nature), or what the Bible has to say about justification before God, and so on and so forth. The moral influence theory taken in isolation seems to amount to little more than a sort of self-improvement inspired by the example of Christ. That seems far too weak a theory to be plausible as representing a New Testament doctrine of the atonement.

But significantly, scholars have in recent years called into question the assumption that this passage that I've just quoted from Abelard's commentary on Romans 3 really represents Abelard’s full atonement theory rather than just a facet of it.[5] For example, in his comment on Romans 4:25 (just one chapter later) Abelard writes the following,


He [Christ] is said to have died on account of our transgressions in two ways: at one time because we transgressed, on account of which he died, and we committed sin, the penalty of which he bore; at another, that he might take away our sins by dying, that is, he swept away the penalty for sins by the price of his death, leading us into paradise, and through the demonstration of so much grace. . . he drew back our souls from the will to sin and kindled the highest love of himself.[6]


In this remarkable passage Abelard actually appears to endorse the penal substitution theory which would later be expounded at greater length by the Protestant Reformers. Here Abelard affirms that Christ bore the penalty for our sins, thereby removing the penalty from us. This is penal substitution. The moral influence of Christ’s death is mentioned in the final clause of the sentence where he says “through the demonstration of so much grace. . . he drew back our souls from the will to sin and kindled the highest love of himself.” The moral influence of Christ's death is now seen to be just a part of a much more comprehensive theory—just as it was for Anselm. Anselm also speaks of the influence of Christ’s voluntary suffering. So both of them have the moral influence of Christ's death as merely one facet of a broader theory that in Abelard's case, at least, seem to include penal substitution as well.

As one element in a more complex, multifaceted theory, the moral influence theory does make a valuable contribution to understanding how the benefits that have been won by Christ’s death come to be appropriated. We are moved by Christ's voluntary suffering and death to respond to the offer of his love and forgiveness and so come to embrace the forgiveness and the salvation that are won by means of his satisfying divine justice.

As just a component of a broader theory it seems to me that there is real value in the moral influence theory even though as a standalone theory it would be woefully inadequate.


Student: Friedrich Schleiermacher is considered, I think, to be maybe one of the authors of the view that Christ's death was not necessary to pay for our sins or discharge our punishment but instead to convince us humans that God is not really mad at us. Do you fit that into this moral influence theory? Is that part of the same idea?

Dr. Craig: You mean a kind of a continuation of this moral influence theory?

Student: Yes.

Dr. Craig: It is very interesting you should ask that because when I did my doctoral exams in theology under Wolfhart Pannenberg, we had our oral exams. One of the questions he asked me was, What was the role of the death of Christ in Schleiermacher's theology? And I couldn't think of anything. I said, I don't know. And he said, It plays no role whatsoever! For Schleiermacher the death of Christ doesn't have any inherent significance in it except, as you say, as this kind of moral influence. So I would see Schleiermacher's view as a kind of extension of this broad view that nothing really happens at the cross.[7] The whole impact of the cross is that it somehow has a subjective impact upon us. For Schleiermacher what it did was not augment our love of God, as it did for Abelard, but our consciousness of God. For Schleiermacher Christian salvation involved coming into a deeper consciousness of God and our dependence upon him moment by moment. The death of Christ could play a role in that sense – that we would come into a greater God-consciousness. But really, this is so typical of modern theology that in getting away from satisfaction theories, whether of Anselm's type or penal substitution, there is little left in the atonement except for this sort of moral influence. This kind of theory broadly speaking is, I think, extremely widespread today.

Student: David Wells, who I think was your colleague at Trinity, he taught a class on history of the atonement. He seemed to trace this moral influence theory back to Schleiermacher. But you take it back to Abelard.

Dr. Craig: It is normally associated with Abelard because of the passage that I read where he talks about how, after rejecting Anselm's view and the ransom view, he propounds this view that it kindles our hearts and love to follow him and so become more righteous and overcome our sins. But I could see why in modern theology Schleiermacher would be an influence upon the modern movement. After all, that would have been in the nineteenth century, and we are talking here about twelfth century (much, much earlier during the medieval period).

Student: It seems to me that this is so dangerously close to what a lot of the other cults and world religions think about Jesus – that he was just a good, moral example and a good man or a good prophet. It is this miscategorization of who the person of Jesus was that has led us to this modern idea that there is a good heaven with a good God and good people go there and as long as you just try and you send out good feelings on Facebook to people that are in trouble that surely at the end the good will outweigh the bad and Jesus was a good example. It is the theistic moral – what do you call it?

Dr. Craig: Oh, therapeutic moral deism!

Student: Yeah. It seems to me that this was kind of the precursor to all of that. The modern idea that most Americans seem to believe now.

Dr. Craig: I appreciate what you are saying. You pointed out an effective point. Abelard may have believed in the deity of Christ, but Schleiermacher did not. You don't need Christ to be God on this theory, do you? In order for his death to exert a subjective influence on people and kindle love in their hearts there is no need for the deity of Christ here. This would be very congenial to modern theologians who want to abandon traditional doctrines of Christ's deity and sinlessness and so forth. It does have this vision of God of a God without wrath. I remember there was a characterization of liberal theology during the nineteen century that said On liberal theology, a God without wrath leads men without sin into a heaven without a hell by means of a Christ without a cross. That is sort of the way in which this leads because it is purely subjective in its impact.

Student: That’s exactly what I was just going to say. It dispenses with the uncomfortable problem of telling people they are sinners and acknowledging that we are sinners. If all of a sudden he is just some sort of a moral example that will lead us to God then it dispenses with the guilt and problem of sin and death that we have.

Dr. Craig: Let's not be unfair. It is a theory about how sin can be overcome. It recognizes that we are sinful before God but here is how sin can be overcome by God's awakening in our hearts a devotion to him so that we live more righteous lives and come to be conformed to his character and so forth. But I think where you are right is what it dispenses with is a God of wrath.[8] There is on this view no God that needs to be propitiated. There is no divine justice that needs to be satisfied and no divine wrath that needs to be quelled. The entire obstacle, as I say, lies on man's side of the equation. We need to be reconciled to God. God doesn't need to be reconciled to us. That is, as I say, become almost axiomatic among contemporary theologians. God doesn't need to be reconciled to us; we just need to be reconciled to him. That is predicated upon this idea that divine wrath and justice don't need to be propitiated.

Student: I really appreciate how you bring up prominent theologians through history. A lot of times I haven't heard of them; I'm sure most of us haven't all read about them. I found myself wondering about this often about the theologians you discuss – particularly about Abelard – what was his contribution? Is he a guy who happened to represent a theory that was going out over the time and he happens to be the figurehead that we talk about in this? Was he the originator?

Dr. Craig: I do think it would be fair to say that he was the originator of this moral influence theory. He was a figure of considerable controversy during his day. I didn't mention this, but one of the persons that bitterly opposed him was Bernard de Clairvaux, the great monk. Bernard de Clairvaux denounced Abelard to the Pope and said that his views were heretical. It became subject of great controversy during his lifetime. This was important, yes. This was not obscure. It caused real controversy in the church because of his views.

Another thing that just came to mind as you were speaking about Schleiermacher. He was raised in an orthodox Christian home. There is a very moving letter that he wrote to his father when he was a student explaining to his father how he could just no longer believe in these traditional doctrines like the atonement and the vicarious suffering of Christ. I think in the Wikipedia article on Schleiermacher this letter may be quoted there. I think you might be able to find it there. But it is very tragic; it is very sad as you see this young man raised in an orthodox home letting go of orthodoxy because of the problems that he perceived partly in the doctrine of the atonement.

Student: Do we still consider him a theologian if he has rejected the doctrine of atonement?

Dr. Craig: Yes. He is called the father of modern theology – Schleiermacher is – because he then went on to write a book called The Christian Faith in which he lays out his new vision of what the Christian faith really is. Then German theology by the end of the nineteenth century had just degenerated into theological liberalism that was described by me a moment ago as A God without wrath leading men without sin into a heaven without hell by means of a Christ without a cross. That was classical liberal theology and was in a sense the legacy of Schleiermacher. If you think this is just among academic theologians, this is what then came to dominate in Protestant mainline denominations that up until the 1950s were culturally dominate in the United States but now are more and more losing members. They are in free fall as the mainline denominations are collapsing and evangelical Christianity – which has stayed true to biblical faith – is resurgent.

Student: I was a little confused between the difference of us being reconciled to God and God being reconciled to us. Could you explain that a little bit more for me?

Dr. Craig: It is very interesting when you read the New Testament that nowhere is the word “reconciliation” (in the Greek katallasso) used with respect to God. Instead it is always used with respect to man – that by Christ’s death we were reconciled to him. Although this is an argument from silence, the fact that it never says “God is reconciled to us” has led many, many modern theologians to say that God doesn’t need to be reconciled to us.[9] He has his arms out; he is a welcoming God. All we have to do is come to him. And so the purpose of the atonement is to overcome our hostility to God. Whereas on traditional atonement theories even if you don’t call it reconciliation God’s wrath is upon the unbeliever. The first three chapters of the book of Romans are all about how God’s wrath is upon Jew and Gentile alike because of their sin, and it is through Christ that this wrath is propitiated and taken away. Even if the New Testament doesn’t use the word “reconcile” with respect to God, the concept is there in that the death of Christ propitiates God – it satisfies his justice, it removes his wrath. So I think the concept of reconciliation is there if not the word.

Student: These things seem all fragmented in emphasizing a particular quality of Christ’s work, but I think they are more inclusive. For example, talking about what we were just mentioning, if you seek reconciliation you are seeking to remove the wrath of God and you are taking this path that you want to be reconciled. It is part of repentance and changing your mind. I see these as multiple facets of Christ’s atoning work rather than exclusive one to the other.

Dr. Craig: You are absolutely correct about this. I’ve become convinced of this more and more. At one time I had nothing but disdain for the moral influence theory. But as I’ve said and as you indicate, as a facet of a broader, richer theory this is a vital part of, I think, a full-blooded atonement theory about how Christ’s death moves our hearts to repentance and faith so that we appropriate the benefits of what he did. If this just, say, happened in secret (Christ was slain by God in a cave somewhere and no one ever reported it, saw it, or knew about it), all of that moral influence of his death would be lost. What a powerful influence that has been historically upon mankind – not only people coming to Christ but Christians enduring terrible suffering even unto death inspired by his example. So this theory as a facet of a broader theory does have a role to play.

Student: Just a few thoughts. The Old Testament also says that God did not have to be reconciled. We need to be reconciled to him. In Ezekiel it says if the guy who is doing wrong will stop doing wrong he’ll live. We have a conscience. So we keep bringing that back up and condemning ourselves. In the Fall, the New Testament says man darkened his mind. In the Old Testament the word shalom is be made whole. God gives us a picture of what happened when God walk covenant with Abraham. The concept of the walking covenant is you split the animals in two and you walk between them in your pledge. If any party was to break that pledge they would be split in two like those animals were split in two. We break the pledge, our concept of God splits in two. So now we no longer know God. In fact, that is why we darken our mind – to escape the self-condemnation. When God said if we sin we will die; he didn’t say I’ll kill you, but he said, You will die. And we did die spiritually. What Christ did is he showed us the level it requires a new life which we all know. Anybody that hangs on the tree – even the tree of life – is cursed. Right? So you need a new hope in you – remember? 1 Peter says we are born again of a lively hope. So he died to give us a new hope that is not anything we can do. It is in what he did for us. If you can be content with that, you have that new hope and the sting of death of not doing your own will – because what is death but your life and your wills and your desires. So you are now able to live God’s true will with peace, even in the midst of trouble.

Dr. Craig: OK, can you wrap it up here?

Student: Well, remember we don’t know ourselves as we are truly known by him but as you overcome you do.

Dr. Craig: All right.[10] What I would want to respond to is to say look again at our survey of the biblical data involving the Old Testament sacrifices. I think it is very evident in those Levitical sacrifices that God provided a means of propitiation. Those sacrifices were given by God so that his wrath and justice would be propitiated by the animal sacrifices. So I think that the death of Christ is foreshadowed in those sacrifices and shows that it is not just we who need reconciliation to God, but that God also needs to be propitiated in order for us to come to him.


Let me move on to the penal substitutionary theory of the Protestant Reformers.

The Protestant Reformers, while appreciative of Anselm’s satisfaction theory and recognizing Christ’s death as satisfying divine justice, interpreted the satisfaction of God’s justice not in terms of compensation (as Anselm did) but in terms of punishment. That is to say, Christ voluntarily bore the suffering which was due to us as the punishment for our sins. Therefore there is no longer any punishment due to those who are the beneficiaries of Christ’s death. God’s wrath is propitiated on this view by Christ’s substitutionary death because the demands of God’s justice have been met.

More than that, according to the Protestant Reformers, our sins have been imputed to Christ, and so our sin is expiated by Christ’s substitutionary death. So God’s wrath is propitiated by the death of Christ, and our sin is expiated by the death of Christ because his substitutionary punishment removed from us the punishment due to us for our sins.

On the view of the Reformers, the imputation of our sins to Christ is purely a legal transaction. Christ in himself remained morally pure – a paradigm of love and selflessness and courage and so forth. But legally our sin was imputed to Christ’s account. Although this imputation of our sins to Christ was purely a forensic or legal matter, Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther could speak of it in very colorful terms. In his commentary on the book of Galatians, this is what Luther writes:


Being the unspotted Lamb of God, Christ was personally innocent. But because He took the sins of the world His sinlessness was defiled with the sinfulness of the world. Whatever sins I, you, all of us have committed or shall commit, they are Christ’s sins as if He had committed them Himself. Our sins have to be Christ’s sins or we shall perish forever. . . . Our merciful Father in heaven . . . therefore sent His only Son into the world and said to Him: ‘You are now Peter, the liar; Paul, the persecutor; David, the adulterer; Adam, the disobedient; the thief on the cross. You, My Son, must pay the world’s iniquity.’ The Law growls: ‘All right. If Your Son is taking the sin of the world, I see no sins anywhere else but in Him. He shall die on the Cross.’ And the Law kills Christ. But we go free.[11]


Moreover, Luther thought just as our sins are imputed to Christ, his righteousness in turn is imputed to us through faith in him. Luther writes, “Believe in Christ and your sins will be pardoned. His righteousness will become your righteousness, and your sins will become His sins.”[12]

So in Luther’s view at the cross there is this marvelous transaction that takes place.[13] Our sins are legally imputed to Christ, his righteousness in turn is legally imputed to us. He suffers the punishment due to us for our sins thereby freeing us from punishment and leaving us with the imputed righteousness of Christ whereby we are justified and counted as righteous in God’s sight.

Having sketched the Reformer’s view of the penal substitution theory I want to say something more about it next week by looking at one of the greatest of the post-Reformation theologians, the French-Swiss theologian Francis Turretin who developed the penal substitution theory in considerable sophistication.

So the next time we’ll meet we will look at Turretin’s development of the penal substitution theory.[14]



[1] Peter Abelard. Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Ed. Steven Cartwright. Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011, Bk 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] 5:28

[4] Ibid.

[5] 10:16

[6] Ibid.

[7] 15:00

[8] 20:02

[9] 25:12

[10] 30:14

[11] Martin Luther, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, trans. Theodore Graebner, Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1939), pp. 63-64.

[12] Ibid., pp. 54-55.

[13] 35:11

[14] Total Running Time: 37:02 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)