Despite the fact that the doctrine of atonement was never discussed openly in one of the church councils during the early Church, it is a doctrine that stirs up controversy in many theological circles.
In its basic form, the atonement refers to the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ. There are several passages in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that speak of the atonement. One of the most known passages in the Hebrew Scriptures is Isaiah 53. Traditionally, this chapter has been considered of speaking about the suffering servant who bores human transgressions and iniquities in order to heal his people. This motif is further developed in the Christian Scriptures, where the suffering servant is identified with Christ. Perhaps, one of the most known verses, in this respect, is John 3:16 that states that out of love God has offered humanity his son in order people can have eternal life. Other biblical support of the doctrine of the atonement are found in 1 John 2:1-2 that speaks of Christ as the atoning sacrifice for sins and Romans 5:9 that speaks of Christ’s work justifying us before God.
The doctrine of the atonement constitutes a fundamental piece in the Christian faith; however, theologians have understood this doctrine in different ways, emphasizing certain aspects depending on the perspective they defend. This diversity of interpretation is something modern theologians must celebrate, and it is in this respect, I will briefly describe the major models in which the atonement have been interpreted.
During the early Church period, the Recapitulation model of the atonement emerged via Irenaeus around the second century of the Common Era. Irenaeus is concerned about the global dimensions of Christ’s redemptive work, or in other words, the implications of Christ’s redemption for the restoration of God’s creation and the shattered image of God in humans. He bases his reasoning on what the New Testament states about God’s restorative and unifying work of the world though Christ. For Irenaeus, Christ constitutes the Second Adam, he is the promised seed who will strike the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). As one observes, Irenaeus seems to emphasize the unfolding and fulfillment of the divine promise made to humanity in the Garden of Eden: God, in some time in the future, will provide the solution to the curse proclaimed in the Paradise. It is Christ’s obedient life and his atoning work, the exact solution to Adam’s failure. In very simple words, what Christ does, for Irenaeus, is undoing the damage that came through Adam’s sin and starting the redemptive process of the restoration of all things.
With the arrival of the first millennium of the Common Era, two major models emerged to understand the atonement. The first one is commonly named as Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory. Anselm rationally and objectively believes that human sin has defrauded and offended God’s honor, and this situation has created a significant human debt which needs to be repaid. Humanity is morally unable to satisfy the demand in their own strength, so it cannot be saved. In order to overcome this impasse, Christ became a man in order to satisfy the debt on behalf of humanity. Although his model has been controversial for many, Anselm thinks the redemption and restoration of humanity must be done by God himself who is the One who can really reconciles humanity with himself and restores humanity. It must be noted that Anselm develops his model as a reaction to another atonement model named the Origen’s’ Ramson model, which was a modified version of Irenaeus’s Recapitulation model. Even though it did not make emphasis on any payment to the devil, Origen’s model did it and argued that God had a debt to the devil because this one had acquired certain rights when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, taking humanity into captivity. To save humanity, Christ needed to die in order to pay the devil a high price for humanity’s liberation. The apparent little biblical support and the implications of this model stirred up controversy during the medieval church.
Abelard, who was also interested in the atonement discussion, rejected Anselm’s conclusions. With this another major perspective emerged: the Moral Influence model. What Abelard dislikes is Anselm’s emphasis on the satisfactory character of Christ’s crucifixion. Instead of modifying Anselm’s model, Abelard took the opposite direction of Anselm: For him the purpose of Christ’s atoning work is showing how great is his love with humanity. With such a degree of love, the human being can repent of his evil deeds and does what is morally correct. Or in other words, Christ is establishing a great example to people making them aware of the importance of the moral life. As one observes, Abelard’s model, while remained its rational character, departed from Anselm’s objective model. He moved the meaning of Christ’s atoning work into the subjective field. It is an interesting movement, although not very appreciated for the orthodox theologian who sees in the doctrine of the atonement a fundamental belief of the Christian faith.
Four hundred years after Anselm, Luther follows his conclusion regarding the atonement. With the work of Luther and Calvin, then, it starts emerging the Forensic Model of the atonement or the Penal Substitutionary Theory. While maintaining the satisfaction motif of Anselm’s model, the new viewpoint does not look for a God who wants divine retribution, but with One who is looking for divine justice: What it needs to be satisfied is God’s wrath because humanity had become to be enmity of him as Romans 8 states. Therefore, Christ died on the cross to satisfy God’s wrath on our behalf, dying in substitution of the human being.
More recently, Aulen offers us a reconstructed and modified model of the Ramson view of the atonement which openly rejects any legal aspect of the atonement. He calls it Christus Victor. Aulen makes two major claims: First, that from her beginning to Luther, the church has traditionally understood the atonement as a victory over the devil and the powers. Second, that the main purpose of Christ’s atoning work was overcoming the devil and liberating humanity from bondage. For Aulen, in the atonement Christ overcomes evil by self-sacrifice in the cross, and there he earned victory over his enemy and reaching his goal. Not surprisingly, the liberation motif has been appealing for more liberal theologies of our times.
Worthy to note is that while Aulen rejects the forensic aspect of the atonement, the Penal Substitution view does not reject at all the victory dimension of the atonement. Aulen’s Christus Victor reconstruction and his modifications fail at the end. Abelard’s emphasis on love and moral example, for instance, is not exclusive of his proposal. Those aspects can easily add to the Penal Substitution model.
With at least five major models to understand the atonement, one question emerges: What is the most biblical model? What might surprise some readers is that each of the models of atonements here discussed have some biblical support. Some views have more biblical support than others. Nonetheless, if one sees the atonement as having both a wide/narrow sense and/ communal/individual dimension, it would allow us to see how the different aspects found in the different theories of the atonement must not necessarily oppose each other. As the Christian Scriptures show, Christ not only died in our place but reconciled us with the Triune God (forensic/substitution), he overcame the devil and the powers of evil in the cross (victory); he provided a solution to the effects of Adam and Eve’s Fall (recapitulation), and gave us an example of how to live the Christian life (moral example). All of these views, if taken individually or in a narrow sense, show only particular aspects of Christ’s atoning work. But if those elements are understood wider as part of a bigger picture, a fullest understanding of the atonement might be formed. In that respect, following Sherman, I shared his view: “The atonement is multifaceted.” Therefore, the question needs to move from generality which asks: “What is the meaning of Christ’s atonement?” to the particular dimension which asks: “What is the meaning of Christ’s atonement in respect to?” In respect to God? In respect to the created order? In respect to humanity? In respect to the church? In respect to the devil and the powers? As a conclusion, while the Hebrew and Christians Scriptures do portray different yet complementary understandings of the suffering servant, and thus of the doctrine of the atonement, those differences can be explained in terms of the gospels’ presentation of the meanings of Christ’s suffering.