Moral influence theory of atonement
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The moral influence view of the atonement holds that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history (see below -- History: Early church -- for references). However, the fact that the concept of God's redemptive love in Jesus was prevalent even among writers in the early church resulted in some scholars' claiming that the moral influence theory was universally taught in the second and third centuries. See, for example: the Epistle to Diognetus, The Shepherd of Hermas, and works by Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria Hippolytus of Rome, Origen, Irenaeus, and Arnobius. Some writers also taught other atonement models in conjunction with it, but Wallace and Rusk claim that the majority of Christian writers in the second and third centuries AD expressed only the moral influence view.
- 1 Eastern Christianity
- 2 Augustine and the Middle Ages in Western Christianity
- 3 The Reformation
- 4 Since the Reformation
- 5 Doctrine
- 6 Conflict with penal substitution
- 7 Common misconceptions about the moral influence view
- 8 Common criticisms of the moral influence view
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 External links
As the Roman Empire split in the fourth century AD along a geographic and linguistic divide (the Latin West and Greek East), so too Christianity eventually divided between the western Catholic Church and the eastern Orthodox Church. Eastern Orthodox Christianity flourished in the Byzantine Empire and a great many theologians composed extensive theological works on Christian doctrine. Byzantine theologians emphasized strongly the importance of moral transformation, and the moral influence view of the atonement can be found universally throughout their writings. Other theories of the atonement became popular during the Byzantine period, such as the ransom theory of atonement and Christus Victor. These views of the atonement were usually added together with the moral influence view, and thus most theologians during the Byzantine period taught several views of atonement simultaneously. Since the East-West split, the Eastern Orthodox Church has continued to teach the moral influence theory of the atonement in combination with other Patristic atonement theories such as the Ransom theory and Christus Victor.
Augustine and the Middle Ages in Western Christianity
Augustine held the moral influence theory of the atonement as his main atonement theory. He emphasized it repeatedly in key points throughout his writings. Augustine also taught the ransom from Satan model of the atonement in some of his writings and sermons in addition to the moral influence view.
In Western Christianity, Augustine's writings were extremely influential during the medieval period. As a result, the moral influence view of the atonement was advocated and taught by a large number of Popes and medieval theologians - including Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard.
In the 11th century, Anselm of Canterbury rejected Augustine's teaching on the ransom theory of atonement and instead proposed his own model, the satisfaction theory of atonement. His newly proposed satisfaction model generated a great deal of controversy among supporters of the moral influence view. Supporters of Anselm's ideas about atonement, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, entered into public conflict with Peter Abelard and other supporters of the moral influence view.
During the Reformation in Western Christianity, the majority of the Reformers strongly rejected the moral influence view of the atonement in favor of penal substitution. However, the Socinian arm of the Reformation maintained a belief in the moral influence view of the atonement. Fausto Sozzini wrote a work defending and advocating the moral influence model at length. Socinianism was an early form of Unitarianism and the Unitarian Church today maintains a moral influence view of the atonement.
The Reformation had little effect on atonement doctrines within Eastern Christianity, however. The Eastern Orthodox Church did not adopt penal substitution, and continued to teach the moral influence view.
Since the Reformation
During the 18th century, versions of the moral influence view found overwhelming support among German theologians, most notably the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. In the 19th and 20th century, it has been popular among liberal Protestant thinkers in the Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, including the Anglican theologian Hastings Rashdall. A number of English theological works in the last hundred years have advocated and popularised the moral influence theory of atonement.
The moral influence doctrine of atonement is typically taught within a paradigm of salvation which focuses on positive moral change as the core of Christianity. God is depicted as concerned with whether a person's inner character is good or evil (where 'good' refers primarily to unselfish love toward others). In this system, God works to bring positive moral change within the hearts of individuals and to transform societies to become more loving. He acted to bring such change through the teachings of the Old Testament Law, the Jewish Prophets, and the teaching and example of Jesus. The inspiring power of Jesus' martyrdom and subsequent resurrection are also often cited as catalysts for moral change. Many holding a moral influence view also believe that the Holy Spirit works to help people toward moral change. In the moral influence view, it is generally believed that God will judge the souls of the dead in the afterlife based on their moral character, attested to by their conduct (a belief that many Evangelical Protestants reject). Most advocates of the view strongly endorse the concept of Free Will, insisting that humans are responsible for their actions and capable of change. However, some advocates (e.g. Augustine) have held the view that humans are incapable of moral change themselves and require God to radically alter their psychology through the Holy Spirit's working in them. The moral influence model of atonement is usually associated with a minimal doctrine of Original Sin or complete denial thereof, although not always (again Augustine is a notable exception).
Advocates of the moral influence over the centuries have ranged from those who fully affirm the Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and the fully divine nature of Jesus Christ to those who claim that Jesus was fully human and not deity. The moral influence model stands somewhat separate from such questions about the divine nature of Christ. It tends to emphasize the following aspects of Christ' work:
- Teacher - a majority of the Gospel accounts focuses on Jesus' teachings. These teachings focus largely on individual and social morality, and encourage love.
- Example - many New Testament passages speak of imitating Christ and following his example. The Gospel accounts provide a rich body of material from which early Christians drew examples.
- Founder and Leader - the Church movement has a large role in the moral influence view, as its purpose is to continue to morally transform individuals and societies.
- Martyr - Jesus' crucifixion is viewed as a martyrdom, in which he was killed as a consequence of his activity to bring moral transformation.
The moral influence view can be combined with some of the other views of atonement. Indeed, Methodist theologian Vincent Taylor, while regarding the moral influence theory of atonement as inadequate by itself, described the moral influence theory as the 'truth' that is the 'presupposition of any worthy doctrine of the Atonement'. In the early centuries of the church, the moral influence view focused around the issue of how people can pass God's final judgment (namely through positive moral change). Some other atonement views, such as ransom from Satan, have nothing to say about final judgment and deal with other concerns. Such views can therefore be easily held in combination with the moral influence view.
Conflict with penal substitution
The moral influence view has historically come into conflict with a penal substitutionary view of atonement, as the two systems propose radically different criteria of salvation and judgment. The moral influence paradigm focuses on the moral change of people, leading to a positive final judgment for which the criteria focuses on inner moral character. By contrast, a penal substitutionary paradigm denies the saving value of human moral change. It focuses on faith in Christ and on his death on our behalf, leading to a positive final judgment based on what Christ has done for us and our trust in that - not on any positive moral qualities that we ourselves possess.
As a result of these conflicts, a strong division has remained since the Reformation between liberal Protestants (who typically adopt a moral influence view) and conservative Protestants (who typically adopt a penal substitutionary view). Debate between these positions has a tendency to focus on the following main issues:
Interpretation of biblical texts
- The large volume of teaching in the Gospels focused on morality.
- The large quantity of moral exhortation in the New Testament letters.
- The 30+ New Testament passages referring to final judgment that all appear to depict a final judgment according to moral conduct.
- The numerous passages throughout the New Testament which encourage moral change and provide the goal of passing God's final judgment as the incentive.
- The various passages in the New Testament letters which speak of the effect of Jesus' life and death on us in terms of moral change.
Those opposed to the moral influence view have typically pointed to the following biblical themes:
- Paul's statements that salvation is by 'faith'.
- Paul's teaching against 'works of the law'.
- Passages speaking of the effects of Christ's death, often using language from the Jewish sacrificial system.
Defences of penal substitution have typically focused on these passages and argued that they teach salvation by faith not works, and that Christ's death had a supernatural effect.
The recent New Perspective on Paul has added significant support to a moral influence view of the atonement by reinterpreting many passages previously used against it. Many scholars now believe that Paul's teachings against works of the law referred only to ritualistic customs such as circumcision and dietary rules, not to moral good works in general. There has likewise been a great deal of discussion about what Paul means by 'faith', and in particular the view that the Greek word concerned generally meant 'faithfulness' is receiving widespread support. Moral influence adherents have pointed out that Paul's statements about salvation (i.e. moral change) through faith (i.e. faithfulness to Christ's teachings) are therefore not in conflict with a moral influence view, and instead support such a view.
Recent scholars analyzing ancient sacrificial systems and ancient concepts of martyrdom have argued that the concept of Jesus as a martyr accounts for the New Testament language regarding Christ's death, and that penal substitution is not required to explain this language.
Advocates of the moral influence view often point to the strong history of Christian belief in the moral influence view, as compared to the relatively recent appearance of the penal substitutionary view. Christian writings from the second, third and fourth centuries AD testify to the universality of the moral influence view among Christians during the first few centuries AD (see above). By contrast, it has long been recognized that penal substitution was not taught in the early church. Penal substitution did not emerge until after the 11th century AD. It is therefore argued that the Bible writers were very unlikely to have taught penal substitution. If they had taught penal substitution, it could be expected that their teaching would have been passed on by word of mouth, and that the writings of Christians in the second and third centuries AD would attest to it. Moral influence advocates also argue that penal substitutionary teaching represents a historical departure from the Christian faith.
Criticisms of penal substitution
Moral influence advocates typically point to a number of logical and biblical problems with penal substitution, which are seen as weakening the case for penal substitution and correspondingly strengthening the case for the moral influence view.
One notable criticism of penal substitution raised by the moral influence perspective concerns God's forgiveness. The moral influence framework depicts God as concerned about only the present and future states of people's moral character, and not their past states. God desires people to become more loving. When people truly change, God is no longer concerned with their previous character and thus is willing to freely forgive their previous actions. The moral influence framework thus teaches that God's forgiveness is free and conditional only on repentance (i.e. moral change). This link between repentance and forgiveness is well-attested to in the New Testament. By contrast, moral influence advocates argue that the penal substitutionary theory portrays God as unable or unwilling to forgive wrong actions and requiring that there be full and complete punishment for all past wrongs, regardless of repentance. They often critique this idea on biblical grounds, pointing to numerous biblical instances of forgiveness and verses that appear to teach that forgiveness depends on repentance. Many also argue that penal substitution's depiction of God as demanding full punishment for every crime regardless of repentance is morally reprehensible and does not reflect a loving, forgiving God.
Harmonization with penal substitution
The recent Evangelical theologian John Stott argued that penal substitution and the moral influence view can be harmonized to an extent. Historically the two theories were considered to be in strong opposition (e.g. Anselm vs Abelard, the Reformers vs Socinianism), so Stott's attempt at harmonization represents a novel approach. Stott's influential work has led many recent Evangelicals to view the moral influence view as an aspect of penal substitution and harmonizable with it. Stott taught that the penal substitutionary view was primarily the correct explanation of the atonement. He regarded the moral influence theory taken alone to be 'untenable'. Yet while rejecting the moral influence view as a whole, Stott believed that some aspects of it (and of the Ransom theory of atonement) could be endorsed by those holding penal substitution. The aspects of the moral influence view he identified as most suitable for harmonisation are its focus on sanctification, and its idea of Christ as a teacher who inspires us. Stott rejected as unharmonizable the teachings of the moral influence theory regarding sin, the cross, and free forgiveness without atonement.
Common misconceptions about the moral influence view
It is often wrongly claimed that the moral influence view originated with Peter Abelard. In fact, Abelard restated Augustine's view on the subject, who in turn was articulating the Christian doctrine current in his time.
The moral influence view is often misconstrued as teaching merely that Jesus willingly died on the cross to demonstrate his love and thus inspire people to follow him. The scope of the full moral influence view is much larger, however. The moral influence view does not focus primarily on the death of Jesus in the same way that penal substitution does. Instead, it focuses on the wider story of Christ's teachings, example, and the church movement he founded. His death is seen as inspirational within that context, but his death was not the whole goal in the way that penal substitution depicts it. The moral influence view depicts Jesus' death as a martyrdom, in which he was killed because of his teaching and leadership of a controversial movement. Jesus' death is thus understood as a consequence of his activity, and it gains its significance as part of the larger story of his life, death, and resurrection.
Common criticisms of the moral influence view
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The following are some of the criticisms and objections commonly made against the moral influence view:
- It underestimates the seriousness of sin.
- It teaches that humans have to save themselves.
- It teaches salvation by moral effort alone.
- It does not support the uniqueness of Christianity.
- It denies the essential importance of the passion and death of Jesus.
- It underestimates the wrath of God against sin.
- It contradicts various biblical passages.
- It ignores the political nature of his death, that he was ‘born King of the Jews’ and therefore a threat to peace under Roman rule.
Yet, in conjunction with the ransom theory of atonement, it was likely the principal theological understanding of atonement in Christianity for the first thousand years of the Christian theology, and traces of it remain in Thomistic soteriology and the soteriology of Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy.
- A. J. Wallace, R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), pp 250-271.
- Hastings Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology (London: Macmillian, 1919), pp 190-292.
- Robert S. Franks, A history of the doctrine of the work of Christ in its ecclesiastical development vol. 1 (London: Hodder and Stoughton), p. 14: 'The above point of view of the Apostolic Fathers may be generally described as a Christian moralism.'.
- Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 2004; first published 1984), pp. 64-5: 'The simplest and most obvious understanding of the cross is to see it as the supreme example. ... This is a favourite theme in the early Fathers, as H.E.W. Turner showed in The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption. ... It can scarcely be denied that much of the second century understanding of the cross was frankly exemplarist.'
- J. F. Bethune-Baker, An introduction to the early history of Christian doctrine to the time of the Council of Chalcedon (London: Methuen & Co, 1903), pp. 351-2 : 'From this review of the teaching of the Church it will be seen that... in the earliest centuries... the main thought is that man is reconciled to God by the Atonement, not God to man. The change, that is, which it effects is a change in man rather than a change in God. It is God's unchangeable love for mankind that prompts the Atonement itself, is the cause of it, and ultimately determines the method by which it is effected.'
- L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920), pp. 13-15: 'The most eloquent statement of this appeal of God’s love is contained in the well-known passage from the Epistle to Diognetus. [...] In the main this is the Moral theory of the Atonement, a theory which indeed is directly suggested by the reference to “persuasion.”'.
- L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920), p. 16: 'The Moral theory is also prominent, in a much less lofty form, in the one passage of the Shepherd of Hermas which alludes to the doctrine of Atonement, though here too it does not stand alone.'.
- Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, volume 1 (1992 ed.), p. 355: 'It is also a moving demonstration of love (1Clem 7:4).'
- L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920), p. 12: 'Here it is quite clear that Clement regards the Cross as central in the work of Atonement, and as resting upon God’s love as its motive cause. And the result of this display of love is to turn us into the way of truth and righteousness, making us sons of God.'
- A. S. Park, Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation (2009), p. 18: 'By emphasizing Christ’s work for our repentance, he underpins the moral influence theory.’
- Clement of Rome, ‘Letter of the Romans’ (16.17), in Holmes (ed.), The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations (2nd ed., 1999), pp. 47-49: ‘You see, dear friends, the kind of pattern that has been given to us. For if the Lord so humbled himself, what should we do, who through him have come under the yoke of his grace?’
- Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, volume 1 (1992 ed.), p. 355: '[Christ's work] serves as an example of obedience (Ign Rom. 2:2).'
- L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920), p. 18: 'This is upon the lines of the Moral theory of the Atonement. Ignatius fees the appeal of God’s love to the heart, “inviting” us. '.
- Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 2004; first published 1984), p. 65: 'Thus we read, 'Let us be imitators of his endurance, and if we suffer for his name's sake, let us glorify him. For this is the example which he gave us' (Polycarp, Ep., 8.2).'
- Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, volume 1 (1992 ed.), p. 355: 'On the Alexandrian side Clement points out that the life of Christ equals the world in value (Quis dives salvetur? 37). Its main force, however, seems to be as an example.'
- L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920), p. 61: 'Beyond this mystical suggestion, with its hint of the Moral theory, Hippolytus has little to say about the Atonement...'.
- Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, volume 1 (1992 ed.), p. 355: '‘In most of his references to the atonement Origen repeats early patristic phrases or ideas, including propitiation (comm in Rom. 3.8) and punishment (comm in Joannem 28.19). Christ’s death also has value as an example (Contra Celsum iii.2.8), and it is as exemplary rather than imputed that the righteousness of Christ saves. ... The power of Christ’s death to evoke a response of love also occurs (4.10).'
- L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920), p. 67: 'And so it is that Origen, with the piacular aspect of Atonement in his mind, can call it a purging or cleansing of our sin. The chastening of God works a real change upon our hearts, and by Christ’s example we are enabled to see that this chastisement is sent by God’s love, and not by His wrath, and to accept it thankfully. ... We may notice, finally, that Origen sometimes uses phrases which suggest the Moral theory: Even apart from the value for all of His death on behalf of men. He showed men how they ought to die for righteousness’ sake').
- L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920), p. 57: 'The real thought of Irenaeus about redemption may be said to be a combination of the Moral and Mystical views. Even the central passage, quoted above, which speaks of a transaction with the devil entered into by God as just seems to regard he efficacy of Atonement as lying rather in a persuasive force appealing to men.'.
- Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, volume 1 (1992 ed.), p. 356: 'Arnobius, like many others, quoted Isa. 53, but with an emphasis on the exemplary side (Inst. Divin. 4.24f).'
- A. J. Wallace, R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), pp 272-277.
- A. J. Wallace, R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), p. 276.
- J. F. Bethune-Baker, An introduction to the early history of Christian doctrine to the time of the Council of Chalcedon (London: Methuen & Co, 1903), p. 351: '[For Augustine,] The manner in which it was all accomplished was also a great example of obedience to us [...] Above all else, it is the love of God for men that is the motive power that originates and guides the whole plan of redemption. Certainly, Augustine had no conception of an angry God needing to be appeased. It is only on the part of man that love is wanting ; and the plan of Atonement was chosen just because it was peculiarly fitted to reveal to men the depth of the love of God, and so to arouse in them a corresponding emotion.'
- Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3rd Edition 2005), p. 44.
- H. E. W. Turner, The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption: A Study of the Development of Doctrine During the First Five Centuries (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004), p. 35.
- J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1978), p. 393.
- Augustine, Sermon number 261.
- Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3rd Edition 2005), p. 38: ' All medieval theology is 'Augustinian' to a greater or lesser extent.'
- Fausto Sozzini, De Jesu Christo servatore (1578).
- Alister McGrath, 'The Moral Theory of the Atonement: An Historical and Theological Critique' in Scottish Journal of Theology, 38, pp 205-220.
- Hastings Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology (London: Macmillian, 1919).
- David A. Brondos, Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle's Story of Redemption (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2006).
- A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011).
- Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (London: Macmillan & Co, 1956), p. 72
- A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), pp. 276-277.
- Chris VanLandingham, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul (Peabody MA:Hendrickson, 2006).
- A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), pp. 198-240.
- A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), pp. 301-303.
- A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), pp. 159-166.
- John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Intervarsity Press, 1986)
- John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Intervarsity Press, 1986), p. 214 'the 'moral influence' or 'exemplarist' theory must be confidently declared to be untenable'
- John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Intervarsity Press, 1986), p. 226 'all of the major explanations of the death of Christ contain biblical truth and can to some extent be harmonized'
- John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Intervarsity Press, 1986), p. 226
- John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Intervarsity Press, 1986), pp. 215-218
- A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011), p. 290.
- Hastings Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology (London: Macmillian, 1919), p. 440-442.
- A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (Bridgehead 2011) ISBN 978-1-4563-8980-2
- Stephen Finlan, Problems With Atonement: The Origins Of, And Controversy About, The Atonement Doctrine (Liturgical Press 2005) ISBN 0-8146-5220-4
- Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (Macmillan 1956)
- H. E. W. Turner, The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption: A Study of the Development of Doctrine During the First Five Centuries (Mowbray 1952)
- Arthur Cushman McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought: Volume 1, Early and Eastern (C. Scribner's sons 1932)
- L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement (Manchester University Press 1920)
- Hastings Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology (Macmillian 1919)
- A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation A recent defence of this perspective.
- "Historical Theories of Atonement" Theopedia gives a brief treatment of the historical and modern theories of atonement from a Calvinistic perspective.
- "The Moral Theory of Atonement" Website gives an explanation of this perspective with common criticisms listed.
- "The Moral Theory" section III.9.3 from Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology, describing the view and arguing against it.