Many years ago, for about twelve months or so, I attended a Bible study led by a slightly eccentric and excitable associate pastor of a prominent church in our college town. One day, this pastor asked the class, “How did the atonement work? I mean, how did Jesus’ death accomplish our redemption?” Nobody else was answering what I thought was a Sunday School 101 question, so I offered up this explanation: “We deserved death because of our sin, and Jesus took on our sin and died in our place.” The pastor jabbed his finger in my direction and responded, loudly and in very rapid speech, “That’s one theory!” One theory?? It’s in the Bible. It’s in the hymns we sing every Sunday morning. What was he talking about? He mystified me even more when he went on to say that the theory came from Amselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, not from Scripture.
This experience gave me my introduction to what are known as Theories of the Atonement. That pastor characterized Anselm’s view as the Substitution Theory and then posited two more theories, which he offered as alternatives to Anselm’s: the Ransom Theory, which sees Jesus as paying Satan the price of our freedom from bondage, and the Moral Influence Theory, in which Jesus essentially acts as a great Example, dying to inspire us to give up our lives to God. I recall the pastor locating the Moral Influence Theory with Abelard in the twelfth century, though I don’t remember where in history he placed the origin of the Ransom Theory. But still, my confusion mounted. The New Testament characterizes Jesus’ death as a ransom for humans five times, and it speaks of following Jesus’ example of humility numerous times. How could a Christian pastor call these approaches “theories”? How could he pit them against one another as mutually exclusive explanations for Jesus’ saving work? How could he suggest that men proposed these theories centuries after the composition of the New Testament?
Since then, I’ve become more confident that this pastor did indeed have a distorted view of the facts. These three views are labeled in the study of theology as “theories,” but they most definitely have Biblical grounding, so we have to say that Abelard and Anselm developed or fleshed out their respective theories. They didn’t concoct them. To think so would be to think that every Scripture-reading Christian in the first thousand years after Christ could only say, “Thank God that Jesus died for me. I wish the Bible said something about it.” I’ve also learned, partly by reading the treatises of Anselm themselves, that Anselm’s theory is not properly known as a substitution theory, but rather as a satisfaction theory. And I see clearly at this point in my life that the Example Theory can’t stand on its own; unless the death of Christ actually accomplished something, it can’t stand as an example of a loving action. “Darling, I love you so much, I’m going to die before our wedding to prove it.”
Still I’d been hoping for some clear confirmation that theologians earlier than the eleventh century – perhaps far earlier – had read the same Bible I do and had seen Substitution, Ransom, and Example in its sacred words. That confirmation came to me recently in reading vol. 1 of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Church Fathers such as Cyprian, Tertullian, Hilary, Irenaeus, and Gregory of Nazianzus (all from the second, third, or fourth century) spoke of all three views of the atonement and, if they argued, argued mostly over which explanation enjoyed primacy over the others, not which one was right at the expense of the others.
Pelikan’s book is more difficult to follow than I had hoped. He gives almost no chronological context, virtually no dates. And he tosses out phrases such as “Antiochene position” and “Apollonarian excess” as if I knew what he meant before he explains the terms. (I went back over what he had said previously about Apollonaris and found that his only quotations of this figure had been in defense of a position that was to become accepted as orthodox, with no apparent “excess.”)
Nevertheless, I’m learning a lot. Church Fathers that I’ve read appear now in the context of the ideas they combatted. Gregory of Nazianzus, for instance, wrote what he did about the nature of Christ in order to counter the idea that Jesus as a man and the Logos as a person of the Trinity teamed up in some dualistic way. Certain lines of the historical creeds that I recite have added significance for me now. “I believe in God the Father, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” for instance, identifies the Father spoken of by Jesus with the Creator of the Old Testament, in opposition to Marcion, who separated the two. According to Pelikan, Origen started his practice of analogical interpretation of the Scriptures partly to find value in the Hebrew Bible, which, although it looked about as foreign to him as it did to Marcion, he recognized as authoritative.
The main theme striking me is that almost all of this theological work came from interpreting the Scriptures. The debates over the status of the humanity of Christ, for instance, arose in the attempt to reconcile such Biblical statements as “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” on the one hand and “The Word became flesh” on he other. Even Arius, eventually labeled a heretic, derived his teaching that Jesus was a creature and thus less than divine from a passage in Proverbs.
I also seek to interpret the Scriptures, which is what prompted me to start going to that quirky pastor’s Bible study to begin with. I stuck with it only a little longer, though. The pastor eventually told the class that people with my theological stances are like “the kooks who stand on streetcorners with sandwich boards.” So I wrote him a nice letter and politely bowed out, and he responded very respectfully. A few years later, his slightly eccentric daughter showed up in my music-theory classes, and we got along great. But I have to say that I’ve never stood on a streetcorner with a sandwich board. I prefer to spread my kookiness on a blog.