Some Theories of Atonement, or Love, not Honor or Substitution

Today is the feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  Yet many of us have no idea what that triumph means, or what exactly the mechanism of that triumph was.  Without going on too long, I want to lay out briefly some theories of atonement.  But first I want to say one thing quite clearly: The New Testament never speaks of God’s anger in the context of the passion of Christ.  Never.  So nor should we.  The motive for God’s action in Christ was love, not anger.  More on that later.

Let me lay out three positions.

The first theory is that of Christus Victor.  This is an ancient theory, found particularly in the Fathers of the Church.  Here the dialectic is between Christ/Life and Satan/Death.  According to this theory, the Resurrection is the real salvific moment, the soteriological moment par excellence. This made more sense in the early centuries of the life of the Church because of the popularity of well known myths of resurrection such as surrounded Hercules, Apollo, Dionysius, and so on.  Either way, the focus was on Jesus conquering Satan and death by his death and resurrection.  Gregory of Nyssa’s The Catechetical Oration, for example, describes Christ as the bait on the hook that Satan the fish took, thereby destroying himself.  Or in Augustine, the cross of Christ is like a mousetrap that the devil bites into and is destroyed by.  In the East, this continues to be the main model.

The second theory is Anselm’s well known Expiation Theory of Atonement.While the idea of “expiation” is clearly present in the New Testament, it’s primary locus of meaning is found in the feast of Yom Kippur.  This is the setting in which Paul discusses expiation, and also the setting of the entire book of Hebrews.  But Anselm’s theory has quite a different context.  In the West, God’s honor became a central concept.  According to Anselm’s theory, God’s honor was offended and there was an imbalance in the world.  Since man committed this sin, man had to set it right.  But since it was against God and thus an infinite offense (an argument that Scotus find specious), only God could set this right.  Such a theory is of course nowhere to be found in the Gospels, but, derived from Paul, it found a home in Anselm’s feudal context.

Anselm never calls the crucifixion “punishment.” This is an important point to make, since it is often thought that in Anselm’s theory God is “punishing” humanity vicariously through his son.

One spinoff of Anselm’s theory is Calvin’s theory of Substitutionary Penal Atonement.  According to this theory, Christ steps in so that God punishes him on our behalf.  It is interesting to me how this theory has made its way, probably via certain evangelical and fundamentalist camps, into the Catholic Church.  I can remember leading a retreat once while at Franciscan University of Steubenville (my Alma Mater).  I was given some notes to use to help me prepare my talk on the passion of Christ.  The notes tell a story, more or less, of a train track operator whose baby is stuck on the tracks.  But at the same time, the tracks are out of line, and he only has time to do one or the other: save his son or line up the tracks for the whole train packed with people.  (Or something like that, it’s stupid).  Anyway, this was supposed to be an analogy for the Atonement of Christ.  Needless to say, I was as appalled then as I am now.  This substitutionary theory is Calvinist through and through and has no place in Catholic theology.  To say that “Christ died for us” is not the same thing as saying that God substituted the death of his son for our death, as if God is bound by some law of atonement (such as we find in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”).

The third theory is the one most associated with modern liberal scholarship.  According to this theory, Christ saved by his teaching.  His influence was primarily pedagogical in nature, and by his wisdom and life we learn how to overcome our own weakness.

It is important to note that the Church has never accepted as doctrine any one particular theory of atonement.  It is likewise important to note that the primary motive for God’s action in Christ was love, not honor.  God saved us in Christ because he loved us, not because his honor was offended, nor because he was bound by some law of necessity.  Nor did God “directly” will the horrific death of Christ.  Rather, Jesus’ death was the inevitable result of his perfect, unconditional love meeting a broken world.  How exactly Christ took upon himself the sin of the world is a mystery.  What matters is that he did, and that he has offered a way of salvation.  I tend to find in authors such as Rene Girard and N.T. Wright good answers to these questions.  But the most important thing on this feast is to revel in the unconditional love of God showered upon us in Christ.

2 Responses to Some Theories of Atonement, or Love, not Honor or Substitution

  1. Bryce Evans says:


    While I agree with you that none of these theories should be taken in isolation, and that not all are deserving of equal emphasis, I think you are somewhat unfair to the ‘expiation’ theories of Anselm and Calvin.

    In defense of Anselm: A sense ‘divine honor’ is not without its biblical warrant (notably in the prophets), nor is that of the cosmic imbalance incurred by the injustice of sin. This need not imply any egotism on God’s part, if properly understood. Moreover, the obedience of Christ in the garden, John’s dating of the Crucifixion, and Jesus’ reference to himself as a ‘ransom’ (Mark 10:45) all provide a Gospel context for the notion of expiation, if not indeed of substitution. ((And contra Scotus: Anselm never actually describes man’s offense as infinite, but rather as exceeding the value of all creation, and thus exceeding man’s capacity to correct)).

    In defense of Calvin: in addition to the above-mentioned self-description of Jesus, one might also point out the Pauline description of the curse Jesus took upon himself for our sake, as well as several poignant lines in Isaiah’s suffering servant songs as evidence of some sort of substitution on the part of the Christ. Calvin’s account may be unbalanced, but we cannot deny its biblical roots. Nor can we dismiss all of his thought as un-Catholic on account of his heresy. If it’s in scripture, its Catholic, and needs to be addressed.

    On that note, I’m not sure how advisable it is to flatly deny God’s will as operative in the crucifixion of Christ without further nuance. Granted that a proper understanding of providence will always exclude any direct ‘willing’ of evil on God’s part, but it’s pretty tough to ignore a strong sense of divine purpose with regards to the crucifixion in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of John.

    Might I suggest that our discomfort with these models of atonement has more to do with our modern sensibilities than with a concern for the content of revelation, perhaps due in part to a loss of an adequate sense of divine justice? I don’t claim any special comfort with these matters for myself, but in such situations, I think we need to allow ourselves to be challenged by the scriptures, so that, in the apparent darkness, we might find some new light.



  2. George Watson says:

    Where does Scotus comment on Anselm’s Explanation ?

    Given the amount of suffering in the world and the degree

    that even babies suffer – I have to admit – as irrational as it

    seems – that Original Sin is far worse than any of us can imagine.

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