Atonement Through History – A Brief Survey – Part Two: Why God Became Man

“There are two major atonement theologies in the Middle Ages. The first of these is quite famous and originates from Anselm of Canterbury, who is probably most notable for his Ontological Argument for the existence of God. However, for this intent and purpose, Anselm is also known for offering the view of the atonement known as “the satisfaction theory,” which first appears in his work Why God Became Man. Before understanding Anselm’s satisfaction theory, one must understand Anselm’s culture. Anselm lived in a day and age where feudal systems ruled. This meant that overlords provided protection for serfs, which provided food and services for their lords. As Gregg R. Allison points out,

In this feudal system, restitution of honor was a key concept. If a serf dishonored his lord by stealing ten chickens, for example, the satisfactory solution to this problem was not merely restoration of what had been stolen – ten chickens. Satisfaction demanded a payment that went beyond what was due, so the serf owed, say, fifteen chickens to his lord. Anselm picked up on this concept of satisfaction and viewed the solution to human sin in the same light [in his theory of atonement]. (Allison 395)

Therefore, the feudal system that which Anselm lived in helps explain why Anselm would write this in regard to the atonement,

Therefore, everyone who sins is under an obligation to repay to God the honor which he has violently taken from him, and this is the satisfaction which every sinner is obliged to give to God…it is [not] fitting for God to forgive as in out of mercy alone, without any restitution of the honor taken away from him…it is a necessary consequence, therefore, that either the honor which has been taken away should be repaid, or punishment should follow. (Anselm 283)

To Anselm, not restoring God’s honor is impossible, so he started to focus on a satisfaction – a means to which to restore God’s honor. Through a long chain of reason, mostly consisting of human beings not being able to restore God’s honor due to their own imperfections, and the necessity of humans ironically having to be the ones to restore honor to God, Anselm arrives at the paradox of needing a God-man to restore God’s honor. From here, Anselm proposes that Jesus Christ is the only one in history who is able to offer satisfaction to God for humanity’s dishonoring of God. Thus, the crucifixion of Christ is the sufficient satisfaction that Christ himself willingly offered to God. The development of satisfaction theory of the atonement, then, makes sense given its historical socio-political context.

However, another theologian proffered just as solid an understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection, Peter Abelard, in his work Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans. A notable outspoken critic of Anselm, he sought to correct what he thought were misunderstandings of the atonement. His “moral influence theory” of the atonement was his response to the “satisfaction theory” of Anselm. His theory stated in its simplest form, “The purpose and cause of the incarnation [and therefore the atonement] was that he [Christ] might illuminate the world by his wisdom and excite it to the love of himself.” (Allison 397) The point here is not that God’s honor need restored, but that humanity needed their love for God stimulated into action by an act of love by God. This act of love is the incarnation and willing murder by God’s own creation. God allowed humanity to inflict all their wrath and fear on Christ, in order to realize there is truly nothing to fear, as Abelard writes, “our redemption is that supreme love shown in our case by the passion of Christ which not only liberates from slavery to sin, but [also] wins for us the true liberty of the sons of God, so that we may fulfill all things from love rather than from fear.” (McDonald 175) The point here is the fear of death and judgment is removed in order that the choice to love God and fellow man may be freely chosen. In essence, Christ lived and died as an example of God’s immense love, which propels the human heart to live like Christ. This has caused many modern scholars to believe that he rejected all other views of the atonement, as seen in Allison’s summary of Abelard, “he rejected both of the prevalent theories of his time – the ransom to Satan theory and Anselm’s satisfaction view.” (Allison 397) However, McGrath, would beg to differ when he writes in response to a passage of Abelard’s, “This passage is of especial importance in that it demonstrates Abelard’s awareness of the importance of the interior impact of the love of God for individuals, but should not be taken to imply that he therefore denied other ideas.” (McGrath 300; emphasis mine) McGrath believes that Abelard was a proponent of both the moral influence theory, and the ransom theory, mentioned earlier in writing about the patristic church fathers, as both views are compatible. That said, Abelard’s moral influence theory is a bit curious, given that it is not a byproduct of the feudal system of his day – in fact, it is a cultural oddity; an outlier of sorts, similar to the risen Christ. Abelard was a man before his time, as will be seen later, his theory will be ripe for the liberal Enlightenment theologians.”


For the bibliography of this post, please see part one in my Atonement Through History series.

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Author: Jacob

Stumbling after Christ.

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