10 Things You Should Know About the Moral Influence and Example Theories of the Atonement

Abelard argued that there is nothing in God’s nature that necessitates satisfaction or prevents him from indiscriminately forgiving all at any time.

Abelard argued that the love of God in giving up his Son was designed to kindle in our hearts a corresponding love and repentance which together become the ground for the forgiveness of our sins. Thus, the object of Christ’s death is not God but man. His aim was not to satisfy the Father’s wrath but to stimulate our love.

 

Subjective theories of the atonement are those which envision the focus or aim of Christ’s sufferings to be the human soul rather than God himself. This model is referred to either as the moral influence theory or the example theory.

(1) The moral influence theory was given its most explicit portrayal by Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard argued that there is nothing in God’s nature that necessitates satisfaction or prevents him from indiscriminately forgiving all at any time. He argued that the love of God in giving up his Son was designed to kindle in our hearts a corresponding love and repentance which together become the ground for the forgiveness of our sins. Thus, the object of Christ’s death is not God but man. His aim was not to satisfy the Father’s wrath but to stimulate our love.

(2) Abelard’s comments on Romans 3:19-26, perhaps the most important NT statement on the death of Christ, clearly illustrate his view. We are justified and reconciled to God by means of the example Christ set for us in his life and death, “with the result that our hearts should be enkindled by such a gift of divine grace, and true charity should not now shrink from enduring anything for him” (A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, ed. Eugene R. Fairweather, 283). We turn from sin to righteousness and are redeemed through Christ’s suffering in the sense that he awakens in us “that deeper affection . . which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also wins for us the true liberty of sons of God, so that we do all things out of love rather than fear” (284).

In fairness to Abelard, it would be a mistake to conclude that he omitted all reference to the sacrifice of Christ as a payment for our sin. Yet, his emphasis is clearly on the subjective effects of that sacrifice rather than its objective relationship to the wrath of God.

(3) The example theory was defended by the anti-Trinitarian Faustus Socinus (1539-1604). The Anselmic satisfaction theory of the atonement, as well as that of both Luther and Calvin, was grounded in the belief that justice is an immutable and necessary attribute of God’s character. Socinus correctly perceived that to overthrow this foundational principle would undermine the concept of penal substitution. He states,

“If we could but get rid of this justice, even if we had no other proof, that fiction of Christ’s satisfaction would be thoroughly exposed, and would vanish” (De Servatore, III, i).

“There is no such justice in God as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished, and such as God himself cannot repudiate. There is, indeed, a perpetual and constant justice in God; but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works. . . . Hence, they greatly err who, deceived by the popular use of the word justice, suppose that justice in this sense is a perpetual quality in God, and affirm that it is infinite. . . . Hence it might with much greater truth be affirmed that that compassion which stands opposed to justice is the appropriate characteristic of God” (Praelectiones Theologicae, Caput xvi; Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, I, 566).

(4) William G. T. Shedd comments on Socinus’s concept of divine justice:

“It is plain that Socinus conceived of the attributes of justice and mercy as less central than will. By a volition, God may punish sin, or he may let it go unpunished. He has as much right to do the latter as the former. There is no intrinsic right or wrong in either case that necessitates his action. Justice like mercy is the product of his optional will. It is easy to see that by this definition of justice Socinus takes away the foundation of the doctrine of atonement; and that if it be a correct definition, the Socinian theory of forgiveness upon repentance is true. If sin is punishable only because God so determines; and if he decides not to punish it, then it is no longer punishable, — if punitive justice is the product of mere will, and may be made and unmade by a volition, then it is absurd to say that without the shedding of blood, or the satisfaction of law, there is no remission of sin” (Dogmatic Theology, II, 378-79).

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