Most of us would agree, I think, that our view of GOD and the CROSS are absolutely critical to the way we think, are, relate and behave as his creatures. Would you also agree that our view of GOD and the CROSS are equally critical to the Church of Jesus Christ?

Hence my series of blogs on ‘the atonement’ from a biblical, historical, practical and even devotional point of view…

Here’s my motivation in brief:

  • As we re-read the Bible message today, especially from a non-instutional and non-denominational perspective, we recognise some frailties of Bible students (with great respect) in times past who did not have the research and perspectives and information facilities we are privileged to have today. We are very much ‘a product of our times.’
  • Historically there have been three main views on the atonement:  the Classic Theory; the Penal Substitution Theory [most common in Evangelical and Reformed theologies]; the Moral Influence Theory. Let us, in this instance, try and disprove the dictum that ‘History teaches us that history teaches us nothing!’  [cf. the nation of Israel]
  • In recent times there has been a powerful resurgence of interest in the Classic Atonement Theory on the part of serious biblical theologians like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight and others. I include my own interest here (as just a ‘regular guy’):  forty years ago I wrote an L.Th dissertation on ‘The N.T. Teaching on Redemption,’ which opened some windows in my mind and spirit on the subject of the atonement. Then, quite recently I commented on an excellent blog by my friend David Bolton entitled, ‘The Cross – the Unlevel Playing Field of Satan’s Defeat’ (well worth a visit) – at his request I committed to share something of my reading on the subject [I must confess I almost backed out because the subject is so profound! Two brothers, and most of all I believe the Holy Spirit, prompted me to go through with it].

We start with a brief definition of the three main theories, with help from the Swedish scholar Gustav Aulen, who impressed me those many years ago at Seminary and whose Christus Victor I re-read over the Christmas holidays. At the outset my brothers and sisters, please be patient with my treatment of this subject – if you track with me all the way, hopefully your patience will be rewarded!

  • The Moral Influence Theory. This stemmed from the assault of the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, which had little respect for the authority of the Church and the Scriptures. It focusses almost totally on the subjective response of man to the Cross, which is seen as Jesus’ seal on his teaching, a vindication of the moral order of the universe and a symbolic expression of God’s readiness to be reconciled. Proponents include the existentialist theologian Schleiermacher and some of the Pietists. In this view the Cross influences us morally rather than making atonement for sin as such.
  • The Penal Substitution Theory (or Latin Theory). While hinted at much earlier by Tertullian and Cyprian, it was established by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109 AD). According to Anselm, the atonement was necessary to satisfy the majesty and holiness of God. The payment for sin is primarily the work of Christ as man. It strongly emphasises the Law. In summary, the Latin doctrine is in accord with the general nature of mediaeval theology with its typical emphasis on penance and on the Sacrifice of the Mass (G. Aulen). The Penal Substitution Theory was refined by Thomas Aquinas, and has since been bought into by much of Evangelical and Reformed theology [a view I held and preached for many years, but which left me somewhat dissatisfied].
  • The Classic Theory of Atonement. God is pictured as in Christ carrying through a victorious conflict against powers of evil which are hostile to his will. This constitutes ‘atonement,’ because the drama is a cosmic one, and the victory over the hostile powers brings to pass a new relationship, one of reconciliation between God and the world – still more because the hostile powers are regarded as being in the service of the Will of God the Judge of all, and are thus executants of his judgment. I.o.w. the reconciling is regarded as a reconciling springing from God himself – he is reconciled by the very act in which he reconciles the world to himself in Christ. The main difference between the Classic Theory and the Penal Theory lies in the fact that the former sees atonement or reconciliation as from first to last a work of God himself, a continuous divine work. The Latin Theory has its origin in God’s will, but is in its execution a suffering offered to God by Christ as man and on man’s behalf.

The Classic Theory has held a place in history whose importance it would not be easy to exaggerate. ‘It is the dominant view of the Atonement throughout the early church period. It is also in reality as I shall hope to show, the dominant idea in the New Testament; for it did not suddenly spring into being in the early church, or arrive as an importation from an outside source. In the Middle Ages it was gradually ousted from its place in the theological teaching of the church, but it survived in her devotional languages [e.g. Wesley’s hymns – my comment] and in her art. It confronts us again, more vigorously and profoundly expressed than ever before, in Martin Luther… It has therefore every right to claim the title of the classic Christian idea of the Atonement… any account of the history of the doctrine which does not give full consideration to this type of view cannot fail to be seriously misleading’ (Gustav Aulen).

Note, proponents of the Classic View certainly take seriously the other views, but do not see the Penal Theory as the main or only plausible theory of atonement. As Scot McKnight has pointed out as a golfing man, no golfer plays his game with just one club, although there are usually one or two clubs that tend to dominate his game.

In our next blog we shall look at the ‘pro’s and con’s’ of the popular Penal Theory…

I conclude Part 1 by reminding my readers and myself of our total dependence on the Holy Spirit to teach and guide us (cf. Eph. 1:17-23), especially in such profound matters. Crede ut intelligas – ‘Believe that you may understand!’ (Augustine of Hippo)



  1. Erroll, it’s good to see this series begun to be rolled out! I appreciate the overview of these three views in this first post, and I’m looking foward to all that the Lord has been speaking and confirming to you as you’ve dug into this topic afresh. Thanks for doing the hard work for us to reap from.
    Thank you also for the blog mention! Glad I could help be an impetus for this!
    Many blessings,

    • Hey Christo,

      So-called ‘academic skills’ at the end of the day don’t matter that much. Some of Jesus’ /*best */followers were ordinary folk like you and me. In fact sometimes ‘schooling’ becomes a definite disadvantage, imho.

      But it is good to stretch oneself, isn’t it? And the Spirit is a great teacher when we get out of our comfort zone.


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