by George Sidney Hurd
In considering the diverse theories of the atonement it is important to keep in mind that Christ’s death on the cross as the propitiation for our sins is central to any proper understanding of atonement. Christ’s death on the cross was so central for Paul that he said: “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). He further said, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor 1:18).
None of the Early Fathers formulated anything as fully developed as what we today would call an atonement theory, primarily because at that time there was no major controversy surrounding the atonement, as there was with the Trinity and the deity of Christ. For the most part, in their writings we find only passing comments on Scriptures which relate to it. Some of them emphasized certain aspects of the atonement over others, as we shall see. However, not one of the Fathers denied Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and nearly all of them to one degree or another affirmed it, as I demonstrate in my article, The Early Fathers and Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
A common error in our day which was foreign to the Fathers is the tendency to adhere to one model of the atonement to the exclusion of all others. William Lane Craig aptly compares the atonement to a multifaceted jewel, of which the table or face is Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement. [i] While some insist that the only true model of the atonement is Penal Substitution, other reductionists would insist upon Christus Victor, Recapitulation, or Moral Example as the only acceptable model. However, as I hope to demonstrate, most theories contain certain elements of truth which, when rightly understood, actually complement the others, rather than negating them.
However, that being said, none of the various complementary benefits of the atonement would have been possible apart from Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice in which He, as the Lamb of God, took away our sins by making propitiation/expiation for them, thereby reconciling us to God. For example, in what sense could we say that Christ was victorious over Satan if in fact we are still estranged from God and dead in our trespasses and sins? (Eph 2:1,12-13; Col 1:20-22). In what sense could His moral example benefit us if, in spite of all that He went through, His blood had not made propitiation for our sins? (1Jn 4:9-11).
I see the varied aspects of the atonement as analogous to parts of the human body. Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement is comparable to the heart which is indispensable to the life of the body. While life wouldn’t be the same without other members of the body, we could still go on living. But life would be impossible without the heart. If Christ’s blood hadn’t first and foremost made expiation for our sins before God (Heb 9:12,14-15), we would still be dead in our sins and trespasses and alienated from the life of God. Only His blood shed for the remission of sins makes it possible for God to be just and justify the sinner who believes (Rom 3:24-26). The Christus Victor or Moral Example models, in and of themselves, could never accomplish that.
Recognizing the centrality and indispensability of Christ’s penal substitutionary sacrifice to any proper understanding of the atonement, we must at the same time recognize that some of the other atonement theories contain important parallel and complementary truths. The following is a brief consideration of some of the complementary aspects of the different atonement models.
1) Recapitulation (Eph 1:10; Rom 5:12-21;11:36; 1Cor 15:21-22,28,45; Rev 21:5)
Perhaps the most comprehensive all-encompassing view of the atonement is that of Recapitulation. Recapitulation is from the Latin recapitulatio. The term the Greek Fathers used was ἀνακεφαλαίομαι (anakephalaíomai), which literally means “to reunite under one head.” [ii] The word, as well as the concept it expresses, is found in Ephesians 1:9-10 which reads:
“having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one (anakephalaíomai) all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him.” (Eph 1:9-10)
While Irenaeus of Lyons (130 to 202AD) appears to have been the first to elaborate on the recapitulative aspects of the atonement, he quotes Justin Martyr (100 to 165AD) in support of this view, which would indicate that it was not unique to him. [iii] Athanasius (293 to 373AD) also laid much emphasis upon this aspect of the atonement.
In brief, this view of the atonement emphasizes that through His incarnation, life and death, Christ, as our representative or corporate head, recapitulated the human race, succeeding where Adam failed. He had to be like us in every way in order to qualify as our substitute and representative head.
According to the recapitulation view of the atonement, in Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection, He, as the Last Adam, totally reversed the consequences of the fall and much more. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive... The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Cor 15:22,45).
The universal scope of Christ’s recapitulation of all is a strong argument for Universalism. Athanasius, known primarily for the Athanasian Creed, also emphasized the Recapitulative atonement view and he was a Universalist. [iv] While Irenaeus’s writings are often difficult to decipher, he also seems to affirm the restoration of all when explaining Christ’s recapitulation of mankind. In one place he says:
“Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He wanted to deprive him of the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner forever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.” [v]
Here he says that God, out of His goodness and mercy, kept Adam from eating of the tree, which would have resulted in us living forever in our sinful state. He saw death as releasing mankind from sin so that we might afterwards live in communion with God.
Since the obvious conclusion of such a universal reversal is that all of Adam’s race will one day be restored, the Recapitulation model of the atonement has largely been ignored in the West, but it was prominent in the Early Church and most of Eastern Orthodoxy still emphasizes it.
As with the Trinity and the deity of Christ, the biblical teaching concerning Christ’s recapitulation of Adam’s race took shape in the midst of controversy. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus focused upon the incarnation and life of Jesus, as well as His true humanity, because he was countering Docetic Gnosticism which taught that God did not truly become incarnate in Christ, taking on flesh, but only had the appearance of being a man. It is clear in his writings that he also believed in what we know of today as the Christus Victor model of the atonement including Christ’s substitutionary death for our sins. These are complimentary truths, rather than being mutually exclusive. As to penal substitution, Irenaeus said:
“the Mediator between God and men; propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling our disobedience by his own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker.” [vi]
“...the Word of God, powerful in all things, and not defective with regard to His own justice, did righteously turn against that apostasy, and redeem from it His own property…so that neither should justice be infringed upon, nor the ancient handiwork of God go to destruction. Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man.” [vii]
“For if no one can forgive sins but God alone, while the Lord remitted them and healed men [people], it is plain that He was Himself the Word of God made the Son of man, receiving from the Father the power of remission of sins; since He was man, and since He was God, in order that since as man He suffered for us, so as God he might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts, in which we were made debtors to God our Creator.” [viii]
Here we see that we have sinned against God Himself and therefore it is from Him that we must receive forgiveness. Through His suffering, being obedient unto death, Christ made propitiation for our sins before God and cancelled our sin-debt. While Irenaeus’ primary emphasis was on Christ’s recapitulation of all who fell in Adam, penal substitution is clearly presented by Irenaeus as being that which made the recapitulation of all possible.
Athanasius also saw Christ’s penal substitution as being an integral part of His recapitulation of Adam’s fallen race. He said:
“And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father.” [ix]
“...the Lord suffered these things not for himself, but for us. And he says this again in his own person in Psalm 88: Your wrath has rested upon me; and in Psalm 69: Then I restored that which I did not take away. For although he was not guilty, he died. But he suffered for us and endured the wrath that was meant for us because of our disobedience, as is spoken through the prophet Isaiah: He took on our weaknesses.” [x]
“He it is that was crucified before the sun and all creation as witnesses, and before those who put Him to death: and by His death has salvation come to all, and all creation been ransomed. He is the Life of all, and He it is that as a sheep yielded His body to death as a substitute, for the salvation of all, even though the Jews believe it not.” [xi]
“...to this end He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all... For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death. And thus He, the incorruptible Son of God, being conjoined with all by a like nature, naturally clothed all with incorruption, by the promise of the resurrection.” [xii]
As with Irenaeus, Athanasius presents Adam’s race as owing a debt to God because of their sin. In order to satisfy (make propitiation for) that debt, Christ took upon Himself a body capable of suffering death that He might die in the stead of (as a substitute for) all. Note that both Irenaeus and Athanasius present Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice as propitiating God and satisfying the sin-debt which we owed to Him. Neither held to Origen’s Ransom theory which speculated that the ransom was paid to Satan, but rather saw the ransom as paying the penalty to the Father, satisfying His justice according to His own declaration that the wages of sin is death.
2) Christus Victor (Gen 3:15; Jn 12:31–33; Col 2:13–15; Heb 2:14–16)
Gustaf Aulén put forward his Christus Victor theory of the atonement in his book by the same title, published in 1931. According to this view, Christ was sent to defeat Satan, destroying his dominion over mankind and the cosmos. He claimed that it was the prevailing or classic view of the atonement held by the Church for the first thousand years prior to Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory in the 12th century.
Aulén is correct in that the Church has historically emphasized Christ’s victory over Satan at the cross. Both the Eastern Orthodox and also the churches of the West, which Aulén refers to as “Latin churches” affirm Christ’s victory over Satan and death at the cross to this day.
However, as with most modern theories of the atonement, he emphasized the subjective usward aspects of the atonement – what Christ accomplished for us, while rejecting the objective Godward aspects of the atonement – what Christ’s sacrifice accomplished for God.
First and foremost, the atonement consisted of Christ’s propitiatory/expiatorial sacrifice as our substitute, making it possible for God to be just and justify those who believe (Rom 3:24-26). That is the very heart of the atonement (1Jn 4:10). Apart from that, we would still be dead in our sins and trespasses and under God’s condemnation (Jn 3:18,36; Rom 3:19-20). It was Christ redeeming us from the curse of God’s Law that removed Satan’s legal rights over us as the god of this age and destroyed his power of death (Gal 3:13; Col 2:13-15; Heb 2:14-15). His redeeming blood obtained for us the forgiveness of sins and transgressions before God, thereby obtaining our eternal redemption (Heb 9:12,15; Eph 1:7). It is for that reason alone that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).
The denial or diminishing of Christ’s penal substitutionary death is the central issue with all recent atonement theories, such as Christus Victor and the Scapegoat theory. Just as in Paul’s day, the cross continues to be an offense and a stumbling block to many (Gal 5:11; 1Cor 1:23).
Ignoring the objective focus of Christ’s sacrificial death in passages such as 1John 4:10 which emphasize that God sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins, Gregory Boyd, a proponent of Christus Victor who denies penal substitution, says: “The necessity of the cross, in my view, does not reside in God, but in the nature of our bondage to Satan and the powers.” [xiii] He said: “According to the New Testament, the central thing Jesus did was drive out the ‘prince of this world’”. (emphasis mine)[xiv] Driving out Satan is only the central thing if one believes that he could have been defeated without any need for our sins first having been forgiven through Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice as our substitute.
Many, unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodoxy, are unaware of the fact that the objective judicial and substitutionary aspect of the atonement was always held to within the Eastern Orthodox Church until their learning institutions came under the influence of Modernist Liberalism around a century ago, just as we saw happen in the West. For space, I will simply recommend an excellent Orthodox website called ORTHODOX SERVANT that cites leading figures within the Eastern Orthodox Church, both past and present, which substantiate that the judicial substitutionary nature of the atonement has always been central to Eastern Orthodoxy. In his article, Atonement in the Early Church, he cites extensively from the Early Greek Fathers. Then in another article he quotes many prominent Contemporary Fathers within the Orthodox Church to show how prevalent the objective view of the atonement continues to be to this day within Eastern Orthodoxy in spite of the contemporary shift towards more subjective views of the atonement.
3) Moral Example (1Peter 2:21; Heb 12:1-2; Phil 2:5-8)
The Moral Example and Moral Influence theories of the atonement see Christ’s death as being an example of sacrificial love that was intended to bring a positive change in mankind. According to this theory, we are restored to God’s image by following Christ’s example. They commonly quote 1Peter 2:21, which says: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.”
While it is true that Christ left us an example of sacrificial love, His example has nothing to do with the atonement itself, properly understood as the expiation or propitiatory sacrifice for our sins against God. By Christ’s own blood He accomplished the remission of our sins, resulting in us being freely justified before God (Matt 26:28; Rom 3:24-26; Heb 9:28; 10:14).
If one continues reading the verses that follow 1Peter 2:21 to verse 24 we can see that His suffering was more than an example – He suffered by bearing our sins on the cross:
“who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed.” (1Peter 2:24)
As we saw in the previous blog on the Sin Bearing Servant of Isaiah 53, the expression “to bear (nasa) one’s sin, iniquity, or guilt” was a legal term, meaning to suffer the penalty and consequences of one’s sin (Lev 24:15; 5:1; 7:18;16:20-22). In His suffering Jesus did much more than show us how to suffer, He bore our own sins upon the cross. As the Lamb of God He took away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29; Heb 9:28).
While Modernist Liberals of the 19th century like Horace Bushnell (1802-76) and Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924) divorced Christ’s penal substitution from the Moral Example theory of the atonement, Peter Abelard (1079–1142), who was the first to formulate the Moral Example theory, saw Christ as suffering as our sin-bearer, taking the punishment due to us upon Himself. In his exposition of the epistle to the Romans, commenting on Romans 4:25, Abelard says:
“He (Paul) attributes the cause of both Christ’s death and resurrection to us: In two ways, it is said, he died because of our sins: on one hand, because we committed the transgression on behalf of which he had to die and because we committed the sin whose punishment he took on himself; on the other hand, to take away our sins through his dying, namely to take away the punishment for the sins (while he was introducing us into Paradise) through the price of his death and through the demonstration of such a big grace (as he himself says, ‘no one has greater love than this’ [John 15;13]) to turn away our hearts from the intent to sin and to ignite them for the supreme love to him.” [xv]
So we see that, just as with the Christus Victor theory, the removal of the penal substitutionary elements of the atonement is a product of modernity. In order to remove the offense of the cross, they repackage the atonement so as to be entirely man-centered, removing any reference to Christ’s death as bearing the just penalty due to us for our sins against God, making propitiation for our sins by His own blood and saving us from the eschatological wrath of God.
The last and most recent atonement theory that I will be considering in this blog is the Scapegoat theory. It was first presented in 2016 by the French philosopher René Girard in his book, Mimesis and Atonement. This theory is rapidly gaining popularity among Postmodern Progressives since it presents God as totally non-retributive towards the evil and injustice of mankind.
He based his theory on what he calls “mimetic desire” – the tendency we have to get caught up in, or mimic, the collective desire of those who surround us. If the collective group perceives someone as being an obstacle to achieving that desire, the whole community rises up in violence against that person to destroy him or her. That is what he called the “scapegoat mechanism.”
According to this theory, Christ became the scapegoat, passively absorbing society’s systemic violence against Him as the ultimate scapegoat. According to them, God vindicated Christ by raising Him, their scapegoat, from the dead, in order to put an end to all scapegoating. However, if this theory were true, it would mean Christ’s death was in vain, since after nearly 2000 years, the societal tendency towards scapegoating does not appear to have diminished. One only needs to look at all the times in which whole people groups have scapegoated the Jews, as they did during the Black Death plague and in Nazi Germany during WWII, just to name a few examples.
Of all the theories formulated by man throughout Church history, this is by far the furthest removed from biblical historic Christianity. Paul said that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1Cor 15:3). In Hebrews we see that Christ fulfilled that which was represented in the Levitical sacrificial system by entering into the heavenly Most Holy Place with His own blood, obtaining eternal redemption and the remission of our sins before God (Heb 9:11-12; 10:12-14,18). Paul says of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice that “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21).
In contrast to this, Brian Zahnd, who also subscribes to the Scapegoat theory, claims that the entire Levitical sacrificial system in which animals were sacrificed for the sins of the people, as well as the belief that Christ’s sacrifice satisfied God’s justice, have their dark origins in the violent heart of humanity. He says:
“The ritual sacrifice of a substitute victim has nothing to do with the justice of God. Ritual sacrifice has its dark origins in the scapegoat mechanism, where the tribe extinguishes the danger of all-against-all violence by killing a single victim. Ritual sacrifice does not originate in the heart of God; it originates in the violent heart of humanity.” [xvi]
Perhaps Jesus was nothing more than a scapegoat in the eyes of Caiaphas the high priest when he said that it was expedient that one should die for the people (Jn 11:49-52), but in reality Christ came for the express purpose of giving His life a ransom for all in order to take away the sins of the world (Matt 20:28 cf. 1Tim 2:6; Jn 1:29).
While each of the various modern theories of the atonement contain a certain element of truth, any theory that denies Christ’s Penal Substitutionary death, through which He redeemed us from our sins and transgressions by His own precious blood, has cut out the very heart of the atonement (Col 1:14; Heb 9:15; 1Pet 1:18-19). I believe that the denial that Christ’s blood redeemed us from our sins and transgressions is the very spirit of antichrist. What we are witnessing in our day is in my opinion that which Peter prophesied would occur. He said:
“But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed.” (2 Peter 2:1-2).
[i] Craig, William Lane. Atonement and the Death of Christ (p. 13). “The biblical doctrine of the atonement may be aptly compared to a multifaceted jewel, each facet contributing to the beauty of the whole gem. The various facets of a gem are transparent to and refracted in one another, thereby increasing the brilliance and beauty of the whole. On this analogy, it would be an obvious mistake to try to reduce the doctrine of the atonement to just one of its many facets, as some theorists have done.”
[ii] The phrase: “gather together in one” is a composite word made up of ana which normally means “again” and kephalaioo, and is best translated as “to reunite or unite again under one head,” since only this rendering retains the meaning or the prefix ana. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon actually comments as to the meaning of the word in this context, saying: “God is said…to bring together again for himself (note the middle) all things and beings (hitherto disunited by sin) into one combined state of fellowship in Christ.” (emphasis mine)
[iii] Irenaeus quotes Justin Martyr in Against Heresies 4.6.2. Here he said of him:
“In his book against Marcion, Justin does well say: "I would not have believed the Lord Himself, if He had announced any other than He who is our framer, maker, and nourisher. But because the only-begotten Son came to us from the one God, who both made this world and formed us, and contains and administers all things, summing up His own handiwork in Himself, my faith towards Him is steadfast, and my love to the Father immoveable, God bestowing both upon us."
[iv] The following article demonstrates that Athanasius was a Universalist: The School of Alexandria and Athanasius
[v] Irenaeus Against Heresies. Book 3.23.6
[vi] Ibid, Book 5.17.1, in the Ante-Nicene Fathers 1 (ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979 ). see also 4.8.2 where in performing the offices of the high priest Christ “propitiates” God for people.
[vii] Ibid, Book 5
[viii] Ibid., 5.17.3
[ix] Athanasius. On the Incarnation of the Word, chapter 8.
[x] Athanasius of Alexandria. Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms. Kindle Edition.
[xi] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, chapter 37
[xii] Ibid. chapter 9
[xv] Peter Abelard, Expositio in Epistolas ad Romanos, 26/2, p. 290.
[xvi] Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (p. 104). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The Inerrency of Scripture
The Love of God
The Fear of the Lord
The Question of Evil
Understanding the Atonement
Homosexuality and the Bible
Answers to Objections:
Has God Rejected Israel:
God's Glorious Plan for the Ages
The Manifest Sons of God
The Trinity and the Deity of Christ
Eternal Preexistence of Christ
Preterism vs. Futurism
The Two-Gospel Doctrine Examined