Governmental theory of atonement
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(Scholastic / Reformed)
(Orthodox / Catholic / Arminian)
(Scholastic / Reformed / Arminian)
(Scholastic / Anselmian)
(Scholastic / Reformation)
The governmental view of the atonement (also known as the moral government theory) is a doctrine in Christian theology concerning the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ. It teaches that Christ suffered for humanity so that God could forgive humans without punishing them while still maintaining divine justice. It is traditionally taught in Arminian circles that draw primarily from the works of Hugo Grotius.
The governmental theory arose in opposition to Socinianism. Grotius wrote Defensio fidei catholicae de satisfactione Christi (Defense of the universal faith on the satisfaction rendered by Christ), in which he utilized semantics drawn from his training in law and his general view of God as moral governor (ruler) of the universe. Grotius demonstrated that the atonement appeased God in the divine role as cosmic king and judge, and especially that God could not have simply overlooked sin as the Socinians claimed.
Despite its origin, Grotius's atonement model is typically contrasted with the satisfaction theory formulated by Anselm of Canterbury (11th century), the view currently espoused by the Roman Catholic Church, which was further developed by the French Protestant reformer John Calvin (16th century) into penal substitution theory, the view advanced by Calvinists as well as some Arminian Evangelicals. Grotius's theory can also be contrasted with the Christus Victor model, most often associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church and held by many Lutherans and Anabaptists. The satisfaction view argues that Christ, by His sacrifice on the Cross, made general satisfaction to the Father for the infinite honor debt humanity owes God for its sinful offenses; penal substitution theory posits that Jesus received the full and actual punishment due to men and women, suffering the unbridled wrath of God on the Cross in their stead; while Christus Victor emphasizes the liberation of humanity from bondage to sin, death, and Satan by Christ's freely chosen and sinless submission to the power of death.
By contrast, governmental theory holds that Christ's suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve, but it did not consist of Christ's receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin through the suffering of his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Christ's suffering and death served as a substitute for the punishment humans might have received. On this basis, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus allowing his wrath to "pass over." This view is very similar to the satisfaction view and the penal substitution view, in that all three views see Christ as satisfying God's requirement for the punishment of sin. However, the governmental view disagrees with the other two in that it does not affirm that Christ endured the precise punishment that sin deserves or paid its sacrificial equivalent. Instead, Christ's suffering was simply an alternative to that punishment. In contrast, penal substitution holds that Christ endured the exact punishment, or the exact "worth" of punishment, that sin deserved; the satisfaction theory states that Christ made the satisfaction owed by humans to God due to sin through the merit of His propitiatory sacrifice. It is important to note, however, that these three views all acknowledge that God cannot freely forgive sins without any sort of punishment or satisfaction being exacted. By contrast, the Eastern Orthodox view, whose proponents maintain was also held in the early Church, states that Christ died not to fulfill God's requirements or to meet His needs or demands, but to cleanse humanity, restore the Image of God in humankind, and defeat the power of death over humans from within. In the words of Gustaf Aulen, the satisfaction view (and, by extension, the governmental and penal views) maintain the order of justice while interrupting the continuity of the divine work, while the Christus Victor view interrupts the order of justice while maintaining the continuity of the divine work. He also draws a distinction between Christus Victor, wherein the atonement is "from above", from the side of God, and other views, where the work is offered up from the side of man.
A second feature of governmental theory is the scope of the atonement. According to governmental theory, Christ's death applies not to individuals directly, but to the Church as a corporate entity. Individuals then partake of the atonement by being attached to the Church through faith. Under this view, therefore, people can fall out of the scope of atonement through loss of faith, a consequence which contrasts clearly with the punishment theory, which holds that Jesus's death served as a substitute for the sins of individuals directly (see also limited atonement). And if Christ died for specific individuals and paid the price for their sins, then it may be argued that God would be unjust to punish them even if they did not come to faith. This would lead to the conclusion that those for whom Christ died are predestined unconditionally to life. This means that in Arminianism there is difficulty in reconciling the potential scope with the actual scope of the atonement. But if Christ's death is applied to those who are joined into the Church (or into Christ), and not to individuals directly, then this issue does not arise. More specifically, if Christ did not make a one-to-one substitution, but a general substitution, the issue does not arise. It would also not arise if Christ's substitution was considered to be infinite, so that God could apply the substitution to an arbitrary number of individuals and to their sins.
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This view prospered in 19th century Methodism, although John Wesley did not hold to it himself. John Wesley clearly held to the penal substitution view. The governmental theory has been detailed by, among others, 19th-century Methodist theologian John Miley in his Atonement in Christ and his Systematic Theology (ISBN 0-943575-09-5) and 20th-century Church of the Nazarene theologian J. Kenneth Grider in his 1994 book A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (ISBN 0-8341-1512-3). However, according to Roger Olson, it is incorrect to assert that all Arminians agree with this view because, as he states: "Arminius did not believe it, neither did Wesley nor some of his nineteenth-century followers. Nor do all contemporary Arminians" (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p. 224).
Variations of this view have also been espoused in the New Divinity school of thought (a stage of the New England Theology) by the followers of the 18th-century Calvinist Jonathan Edwards, possibly by Edwards himself (although this is debated) and by 19th-century revival leader Charles Grandison Finney.
William Booth said, “The Scriptures teach that Christ on the Cross, in virtue of the dignity of His person, the voluntariness of His offering, and the greatness of His sufferings did make and present, on behalf of poor sinners, a sacrifice of infinite value. And that this sacrifice, by showing all worlds the terrible evil of the sin humanity had committed, and the importance of the law humanity had broken, did make it possible for the love and pity of God to flow out to humanity by forgiving all those who repent and return in confidence to Him, enabling Him to be just and yet the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.” The Doctrines of the Salvation Army, 1892 Edition, Section 6.
Scriptures commonly cited as evidence
- Matthew 20:28
- Mark 10:45
- Romans 3:24-26
- Romans 5:12 - 21
- 1 Corinthians 15:28
- Galatians 3:13
- Philippians 1:29 - 30
- Colossians 1:24
- 1 Timothy 2:5 - 6
- Hebrews 9:15
- Hebrews 9:22
- Isaiah 42:21
- Atonement in Christianity
- Atonement (ransom view)
- Atonement (satisfaction view)
- Atonement (moral influence view)
- Penal substitution
- Substitutionary atonement
- Christus Victor
- Justification (theology)
- John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, Zephyr Publishing, Ridgewood, NJ, 1998.
- "Christus victor avoids the splitting of the justice of God from the mercy of God as does Anselmian [sic] atonement..."
- Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Atonement.
- For: Allen C Guelzo, Edwards on the Will (Wesleyan University Press, 1989), pp. 135: '...it is plain that Edwards had no hesitation about putting his imprimatur upon the New Divinity doctrine of the atonement [i.e. the governmental theory]; to the contrary, he pledged his own reputation on its appearance'. Against: Mark A Noll, 'New England Theology' in Walter A. Elwell (ed.) Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker Academic, 2001): 'Edwards, by contrast, had maintained the traditional view that the death of Christ was necessary to take away God's anger at sin'. Middle view: The American Presbyterian Church, 'The Governmental Theory of the Atonement': 'Generally, Edwards is acknowledged as the father of this [the governmental] theory, as developed and held in New England, without having held it personally. That is, it is recognized that this theory constitutes a logical development of his theological speculations, but that Edwards was too orthodox to pursue them to such heretical conclusions, although his disciples, being more consistent, generally did so.'; Edwards A. Park, The Atonement (Boston: Gongregational Board of Publication, 1859), p. ix: 'the Governmental theory ... is called " Edwardean," partly from the fact that certain germs of it are found in the writings of the elder Edwards...'