Articles History and the Bible Theories/Syntheses

Which Model of Atonement Is Most Viable Today, and Why?


Jesus Christ died on the cross to atone for each of our sins

By Bartlomiej Staniszewski

In this essay, I will argue that the most viable model of atonement today is what Aulén calls the Latin model, proposed by Saint Anselm, in which atonement (reconciliation between God, humanity, and the world)[1] is achieved by Jesus Christ taking on and satisfying man’s debt towards God.[2] I will argue that Anselm’s view, under the correct reading of Anselm, 1) is an appropriate development of the view held by the Early Church, as opposed to in particular the Moral view and 2) is the only view that guarantees the full reconciliation of man and God, as well as the full victory of Christ over death, hence making it the most viable model of atonement.

1. Aulén, explicating a historical doctrine of atonement, looks to Irenaeus, who writes that ‘by the entrance of the Divine into humanity, human nature is (as it were) automatically endued with Divine virtue and thereby saved from corruption’.[3] What is important for Aulén is that there is no break between the Incarnation and the Atonement. The Incarnation is there for our Atonement, and the Son is not an intermediary being between God and humanity – He is God working with humanity.[4] This is unlike the moral, or subjective, view proposed first by Abelard which claims that Christ is ‘the perfect manifestation in human form of God’s self-sacrificial, condescending love, a helpful example for our imitation or morally powerful influence’.[5] What is important for the moral view is that Christ was a perfect man, and so a perfect moral example for us to follow. But in that, it is the man in Christ doing the work of salvation, insofar as it is the human Christ we take an example from. The Incarnation is not involved in our Atonement according to the moral view, and so, if we want to follow Irenaeus, we must discard it.[6]

Irenaeus also has qualms with views which underemphasize the metaphysical importance of the Atonement. Aulén writes that for Irenaeus the devil has ‘objective existence, independent of sin and death’ that only Christ can triumph over and is not merely an analogy for temptation or our failures.[7] Christ enters ‘under the conditions of sin and death, to take up the conflict with the powers of evil and carry it through to the decisive victory,’ creating a new metaphysical relationship between man and God.[8] The moral view, however, makes no mention of the powers of the devil or death; only of us failing to act morally, unlike Christ. A view is needed which places the fight between Christ and the devil at a metaphysical plane and does not present it as merely the human struggle between virtue and vice.

Furthermore, the moral view presupposes a historically controversial Mariology, since it bounds us to claim that Mary was not also a perfect moral example – merely blessed amongst women and not blessed amongst all men, i.e. not sinless. Unless, we are ready to claim that Christ was altogether unnecessary for our Atonement, and the Atonement could have come just through Mary. The Immaculate Conception is not the only doctrine that the moral view is incompatible with. Aulén claims that Irenaeus was the first to put forward a doctrine of the atonement.[9] Yet, in conjunction with the historic doctrine of the Sacred Tradition (which states that the tradition of the Church infallibly preserves the teachings of Christ), if Irenaeus’ view of the atonement was indeed the only view at the time, it represented the fullness of the tradition at the time and so must be true – and as explained prior, Irenaeus’ view is incompatible with the moral view.

Anselm’s view, however, intimately ties the Incarnation with the Atonement. He thinks the Incarnation was a necessary event (that nothing could affect it being the case)[10] in light of the human need for Atonement; that if the Atonement is to happen, the Incarnation must happen, and that it is the Incarnation that brings about the Atonement. This is because only God had enough to give to make up for what man owes to God, but since it is man that owes it, only man can give it – hence God had to become man if man was to be freed of their debt, and in becoming man, God atones for our sins.[11] As Tanner aptly notes, the Incarnation is not the singular event of Jesus being conceived or born, but rather the Incarnation is the entirety of Jesus’ life and His full experience of humanity.[12] As such, from Jesus being born to giving Himself up on the cross for man, all of His life is the Incarnation, and so His Incarnation is the Atonement, under Anselm’s view. This Atonement also takes place at a metaphysical level; the debt that man owes to God, for Anselm, is not merely one to act morally well, but the debt of ‘all that you are’ since it is in the nature of man that all of man is a free gift from God. Therefore, man has no means to return the favour to God, since man would have to give away their entire existence to God should they not incur any additional debt, but man goes on to sin, which means that their debt is more than they are.[13] It is that nature of the metaphysical relationship between God and man that Christ changes. In the God-man dying, everything is sacrificed, insofar as all is contained within God, therefore the sacrifice made is all that all are, and no longer does man owe their entire existence to God by the virtue of their very nature. This nature is changed by Christ’s sacrifice, a part of His Incarnation.

Furthermore, insofar as Christ is both fully man and fully God, the work of Atonement is fully the work of God while still being the work of man under Anselm’s view – a concern dearly held by Aulén, who seeks continuity of Divine operation in the work of Atonement, something he claims emphasised not only by Irenaeus, but also by many other Church Fathers.[14] Not only this, the reason why the Atonement is necessary is because of God’s Divine agape – it is God’s unconditional love for us that means nothing can change God’s plan of salvation for us and that our debt will be paid rather than left for us to deal with. In that, the Atonement is a work of God.

Another thing common to the tradition which Aulén identifies is the idea of the devil holding man ransom in some sense; man having their rights taken away through the internal self-offering of sin and given over to the devil.[15] While Aulén recognises that this analogy is controversial nowadays, since it gives rights to the devil, he correctly points out that talk of the devil in the Early Church is synonymous to talk of sin and death (also in 1 Corinthians 15:26), insofar as both come from the devil, and it is not as controversial to claim that we are all subject to death, or that man is responsible for their sin – man giving away their rights to the devil means nothing else than man rescinding their salvation as a result of their sin.[16] It is not by coincidence that Anselm employs the analogy of ‘debt’ in his writing; under Anselm’s view, Jesus’ sacrifice is the ransom paid for our debt, and although the debt was owed to God, the debt’s ‘collector’ was the devil, since it was the devil that punished us for not paying it.

Scripture supports Anselm’s view (something recognised even by its opponent, Aulén).[17] Romans 3:23-25 emphasises that none can be saved without Christ, much like Anselm talks about us not being in the capacity to pay our debt, but Christ having that capacity, and that Christ must give Himself up in death – not merely live amongst us.[18] The latter of those points is found again in 1 Corinthians 5:7, while Hebrews 10:11 points at a necessity of a sacrifice greater than man can offer.[19] The Atonement is also clearly shown to have taken place at the time of Jesus’ Incarnation, with St. Paul speaking of us being condemned only in the past tense (Romans 8:1, 3, 34; 2 Cor 3:9). It is also clear in Scripture that before Christ we were set against God by the debt we owed to Him by our very nature – we were intrinsically weak and ungodly (Romans 5:6) and even God’s enemies (Romans 5:10), but Christ is the one who reconciled us as our mediator between God and man and paid our debts (Romans 5:10 again, 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24).[20]

2. Tanner offers an interesting alternative view of the Atonement when she compares Christ’s divine nature exhausting sin to how fire melts wax, light disperses mist, or fire heats metal by their very proximity. Although the ‘life-giving power’ given to us by the proximity of Christ’s divine nature in the incarnation can tell us about how being close to Christ can help us fight the corrupting effects of Original Sin (a theme present in the writings of St Cyril and St Gregory of Nyssa),[21] even were our human nature to be purified of sin in this way, this view does not explain what satisfies God’s justice. It remains that, even though man is no longer corrupted, that man owes a debt to God for all that man is, as Anselm points out. The problem of debt is resolved by Anselm’s view, and although Anselm fails to recognise the purifying effect that the Incarnation has on our moral character, explanations alternative to Tanner’s can be given as to how we overcome Original Sin (like baptism or free election), while only Anselm’s view guarantees that we are reconciled with God in regards to the debt we owe Him.

The need to pay for the debt we owe to God would be erased if the Law according to which man owes satisfaction to God were changed or erased. This is what Aulén suggests, equating the Law to sin and death, and describing it as a hostile power in light of verses such as 1 Corinthians 15:56, Galatians 3:10-13, and Romans 4:4[22] – but as Weber recognises, this has to be understood in the context of the Sermon of the Mount, especially Matthew 5:17. Jesus never contends the validity of the Old Testament or the past prophets. The first part of the Sermon, Matthew 5:1-16, where Jesus commands respect for those thought to be abandoned by God by contemporary interpreters of the Law, is contrasted against Matthew 1:17-48, where Jesus reinforces and clarifies the Law (indeed in Matthew 1:21-48 the contrast also takes place between the very Law and its clarification). The Sermon is meant to be understood dialectically; the Law is meant to be obeyed, but not abused or extended. Jesus’ famous commandment of love comes from the Old Testament, and in that is itself a confirmation of it, and its meaning is to follow the Law and the prophets (Matthew 22:40). Jesus fulfils the Law by perfectly obeying it, and in doing so He self-sacrifices; He is man’s companion in following the Law. Although the Law can be abused and usurped, as was the Law that killed Christ, the letter and the Law are unified (2 Corinthians 3:7) and the letter is how we make use of the Law (Romans 4:4). So, man is held bondage not by the Law, but by what man does with the Law and is in relation to the Law (Romans 7:7); the usurpation of the Law.[23] Hence why it is important that we are not freed of the Law, as Aulén suggests, but of our relation to the Law of being in debt to God, as Christ does under Anselm’s theory.

Indeed, Christ’s victory can only be a full and total victory of God over the devil if God’s will be in no way impeded by the devil’s efforts. Aulén especially emphasises that Atonement is ‘a Divine conflict and victory; Christ (…) fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world.’[24] This is achieved by giving life to man and defeating death, since God’s willed purpose for man is a stainless and happy life, and it is the devil that spoiled it (as described in Genesis 3:1-7). This is achieved under Anselm’s view, insofar as Christ’s sacrifice deprives death of the right to claim all men, but what is unique to Anselm’s view is that it allows for the continuity of Law and justice (insofar as justice is the giving everyone their due, including satisfaction to God);[25] the devil does not compel God to go back on His will which instituted the Law, nor does he manage to make God forgo divine justice.

Nor does Anselm’s view present God, as Harnack argues, as a mythological deity ‘incensed at the injury done to his honor and [who] does not forego his wrath till he has received an at least adequately great equivalent.’[26] Harnack correctly claims God would never demand such a gruesome fate of His own Son, nor be offended like a petty pagan deity. Rashall even accuses Anselm of the morality of a lawyer or a barbaric Lombard king.[27]

In truth, Anselm does not suggest God’s honour is injured. Anselm believes God is impassible, so His honour cannot change, nor can He benefit from the act of satisfaction.[28] Rather, a more fitting translation of his work suggests that we make up for our own dishonour by respecting and worshipping God.[29] The God-man does not die to compensate God for human misconduct, but rather to restore man to his natural purpose. The compensation for sin is not to God, it is for the purpose of restoring man with God. He does not place Atonement at dying in somebody else’s stead, but rather in the whole Incarnation, including at Christ’s glorious victory over and defeat of death.[30] And although Anselm does not explain how the punishment of us as individuals can be borne by a single other man, Weber points at Galatians 2:20 as evidence that with Christ, we are freed of our very selves as individuals, however that may be – in Christ we receive our own being, ‘and in that [we are] a member of his body, [we] receive [our] own self, because [we] lose [ourselves].’[31]

Anselm achieves what Aulén calls impossible – a rational doctrine of the Atonement,[32] reconciling God’s love, in saving man, and wrath, in satisfying God’s justice. While different views, such as the Moral or Tanner’s models shone light on how Christ and the Incarnation help us act morally, only Anselm’s view provides a full Atonement. Anselm’s view is an appropriate development of the view held by the Early Church and guarantees the full reconciliation of man and God as well as the full victory of Christ over the devil, and so is the most viable model of Atonement today.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

Bibliography:

St. Anselm, ‘Cur Deus Homo: Book First’ (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1926), accessed 16/01/2019: ‘http://www.saintsbooks.net/books/St.%20Anselm%20of%20Canterbury%20-%20Cur%20Deus%20Homo.pdf’

G. Aulén, ‘Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement’ (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1965)

T. Charles, ‘A Secular Age’ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007)

B. Davies, B. Leftow (eds.), ‘The Cambridge Companion to Anselm’ (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

A. McGrath, ‘Rectitude: The Moral Foundation of Anselm of Canterbury’s Soteriology’ in ‘The Downside Review: Vol. 99’, (1981)

K. Tanner, ‘Christ the Key’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

O. Weber, ‘Foundations of Dogmatics: Volume 2’ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983)

S. Zahl, ‘Atonement’ in N. Adams et al. (eds.), ‘The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)


[1] S. Zahl, ‘Atonement’ in N. Adams et al. (eds.), ‘The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.633

[2] A. McGrath, ‘Rectitude’ in ‘The Downside Review: Vol. 99’, (1981), p.211

[3] G. Aulén, ‘Christus Victor’ (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1965), p.18

[4] Ibid., p.20-21

[5] K. Tanner, ‘Christ the Key’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p.248

[6] G. Aulén, ‘Christus Victor’ (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1965), p.146

[7] Ibid., p.26

[8] Ibid., p.32

[9] Ibid., p.17

[10] S. Knuuttila, ‘Anselm on Modality’ in B. Davies, B. Leftow (eds.), ‘The Cambridge Companion to Anselm’ (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.122

[11] A. McGrath, ‘Rectitude’ in ‘The Downside Review: Vol. 99’, (1981), p.211

[12] K. Tanner, ‘Christ the Key’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p.257

[13] St. Anselm, ‘Cur Deus Homo: Book First’ (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1926), accessed 16/01/2019: ‘http://www.saintsbooks.net/books/St.%20Anselm%20of%20Canterbury%20-%20Cur%20Deus%20Homo.pdf’, p.43

[14] G. Aulén, ‘Christus Victor’ (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1965), p.5, 37, 48

[15] Ibid., p.30

[16] Ibid., p.49-54

[17] Ibid., p.79

[18] Ibid., p.62

[19] O. Weber, ‘Foundations of Dogmatics: Volume 2’ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p.189-190

[20] Ibid., p.184-186

[21] K. Tanner, ‘Christ the Key’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p.255

[22] G. Aulén, ‘Christus Victor’ (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1965), p.68

[23] O. Weber, ‘Foundations of Dogmatics: Volume 2’ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p.195-197

[24] G. Aulén, ‘Christus Victor’ (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1965), p.4

[25] A. McGrath, ‘Rectitude’ in ‘The Downside Review: Vol. 99’, (1981), p.208

[26] D. Brown, ‘Anselm on atonement’ in B. Davies, B. Leftow (eds.), ‘The Cambridge Companion to Anselm’ (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.291

[27] A. McGrath, ‘Rectitude’ in ‘The Downside Review: Vol. 99’, (1981), p.204

[28] D. Brown, ‘Anselm on atonement’ in B. Davies, B. Leftow (eds.), ‘The Cambridge Companion to Anselm’ (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.293

[29] Ibid., p.291

[30] Ibid., p.293

[31] O. Weber, ‘Foundations of Dogmatics: Volume 2’ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p.206

[32] G. Aulén, ‘Christus Victor’ (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1965), p.155

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