Title: Theories of the Atonement Part 1
FCF: We often struggle understanding exactly why Jesus was incarnated, died, and was raised to life again.
Prop: Because most of the theories offer elements of truth, we must keep what the bible affirms and discard the rest.
[Slide 1] Turn in your bible to Ephesians 1. As you can see, today is going to be a little different. I don’t have a coat on. I’m not standing behind the barnwood pulpit, but behind a music stand. I am down here among you.
[Slide 2A] Why is that you may wonder? Well a few weeks ago, in our study of Matthew, we witnessed our Lord cry out at His death, My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? And I promised that after we finished Matthew we would do a more in depth look at the nature of the atoning work of Christ.
[Slide 2B] In this study we will endeavor to understand, from a biblical and historical perspective, exactly why Christ had to become a man, live obediently, suffer, die, be buried, raised and ascend to the Father. Why were all these elements necessary or, were they necessary? And what does all that accomplish for all of creation, mankind, and those who are elect of God? It may surprise you to know that there may be as many as 30 different theories on how to answer those questions. That is a lot.
[Slide 2C] One thing we must understand is that all of these are theories. What is a theory? Since they are all theories, they are inherently either flawed or incomplete. In order to understand the nature of the atonement to the fullest and most biblical scope, it is likely that we will need to compile the biblical concepts from each theory into one. Are there some theories that we will take everything from? Yes. Are there some theories that we will take almost nothing from? Sure. And that is ok, because as we said, ultimately, every single one of these are theories of men.
[Slide 2D] And since these are theories of men about God’s revealed Word, I could not possibly preach this information to you. Preaching is communicating what God has said, what God means by what He has said, and how then we shall live. Therefore, If I am to relay this information to you, it must be through teaching.
[Slide 2E] That being said, this study will be by nature more interactive. I will have questions that you can help to answer. If you have questions for me, I’d appreciate you talking to me afterward so that I can address them. If they are questions I feel that everyone should hear, I’ll make sure to address them the following week.
[Slide 2F] That brings up another question – how long is this study going to last? Really – I don’t know. We won’t cover all 30 theories. Mostly because there is significant overlap between some of them. Some of them are more like subpoints to another.
[Slide 2G] You may be wondering – how are we going to look at this? I wrestled back and forth for how to structure this study. Should we look at theories from worst to best? I feared this may box you into my opinion on the matter. Should we look at theories emphasizing Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection in that order? I feared this might be too subjective in labeling which theory goes where. I settled instead on a way that eliminates me from the equation entirely. We will look at these theories of the atonement in the order that they were presented in history. The earliest theory first, and tracing all the way up to the present day.
[Slide 2H] Finally, you may be wondering why? Why are we looking into this? Isn’t all that matters that Jesus died for us? To a certain degree, yes that is all that matters. But what does it mean that He died for us? A growing child of God is not and cannot be content with the basic answers to this question. The writer of Hebrews, after explaining deep theological truths about Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection and how He becomes a New High Priest in the order of Melkezedek, then turns to his audience and reprimands them for not having excelled far enough in their faith that they could teach the information that he is giving them. He commands them that they must progress beyond the elementary concepts about Jesus.
My hope in our study of the theories of the atonement, is that it will spark a desire in you to understand and know the depth and richness by which God has made you His child. And in that understanding, grow to be a more effective ambassador for His Kingdom.
Let’s pray and ask the Lord to help us understand what is being taught this morning. Would someone like to pray?
So without further ado, let’s look at the earliest articulated theory of the atonement.
I.) [Slide 3] #1 Recapitulation Theory – Irenaeus – Circa A.D. 180
i. The word recapitulate means to repeat. It means to summarize or to redo. That is the essence of Irenaeus’ view of the atonement.
ii. Irenaeus, whose name is Greek for peace, was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John.
iii. Although his theory does not dismiss the death or resurrection of Christ, it does place emphasis primarily on Christ’s incarnate life.
iv. His theory suggests that Christ’s incarnation began a divine do over of the life of Adam. All mankind was cursed in Adam. Born of virgin soil, disobeyed by eating of a tree, inheriting death through disobedience, and thus God’s judgment.
v. Christ then, as the second Adam, is incarnated through virgin flesh, obeyed by dying on a tree, inherited death by obedience and thus completed God’s judgment and provided a new humanity in Him.
vi. Christ’s life replaces Adam’s life. He was an infant so infants might be sanctified, he was a boy so children might be renewed, he was a man so men might be new birthed, he was an old man so old people may be justified.
vii. What we have lost in Adam would be restored in Christ
viii. The curse upon man would be lifted in Christ.
b. [Slide 4] Passages that contribute to this view: I’ll read the first passage, but if I could get others to take the rest of the passages that would be wonderful.
i. Ephesians 1:10 -All things in heaven and earth are summarized in Christ
ii. I Corinthians 15:45-49 – The last Adam as a life-giving Spirit
iii. Romans 5:12-21 – Adam, through 1 act of disobedience brought death through sin and Jesus, through 1 act of obedience brought righteousness leading to life.
c. [Slide 5] Strengths: This is where you can participate. What do you see as some strengths of this view?
i. You can clearly see the groundwork here being laid for a substitution being made. Christ for us.
ii. There is definite biblical support for a link between Adam, his failure, mankind’s inheritance of that failure and Christ and His obedience and the elect’s inheritance in that obedience.
iii. Scripture is clear that Christ’s sinlessness is a key concept to His atoning work for us.
d. [Slide 6] Weaknesses: What may be some weaknesses in Irenaeus’ view?
i. Most of the weaknesses I uncovered were “yes, and” kind of weaknesses. What I mean by that is that Irenaeus’ views provide a great starting point, but ultimately do not account for the full depth and breadth of the atoning work of Christ – as is recorded in scripture.
ii. What about these terms? – Ransom, justification, sanctification, glorification, propitiation, expiation, Redemption etc.
iii. What about Christ being our High Priest, our King, Our prophet?
iv. How does this theory fit with the Future and coming Kingdom and eternal state?
v. What part does the resurrection plan in this atoning work?
e. Overall, the Recapitulation theory was a wonderful beginning. And as the early church grew and developed and the work of God carried on, and various attacks on Christian doctrine commenced, it became more and more apparent that detailed study on the atonement was necessary. Irenaeus was the first to provide that to the early church. And no matter how incomplete his work was – it was still extremely valuable.
[Slide 7] About 5 years after Irenaeus presented his theory, a man by the name of Origen was born. Origen is credited for being the primary advocate of the next big theory of the atonement. The Ransom Theory.
II.) [Slide 8] #2 The Ransom, Dramatic or Classic Theory – Origen – Circa A.D. 246
i. Origen’s history is a complicated one. While Irenaeus has a spiritual ancestry connecting to the apostles, Origen has a Christian heritage but much of what he taught was drawn from paganistic concepts. Indeed, his theory of the atonement, as we will see, was primarily an apology toward pagan intellectuals of his day as a way to show that Christianity meshed with what they believed.
ii. Still, we do not dismiss Origen and his writings outright – much of the early church adhered to this theory, and there are elements of truth within it. He was also a staunch refuter of the Gnostics, which had been attacking the gospel and the church since the time of the apostles and writers of the New Testament.
iii. So what does the Ransom, Dramatic, or Classic theory teach?
iv. All of biblical history is seen through the lens of this great cosmic battle between the forces of darkness, led by Satan, the will of God.
v. Through an act of aggression and deception, Satan was able to establish dominance and ownership over God’s creation, chief among it, mankind.
vi. In this ownership, God now has no legal rights to the souls of men. Although Satan stole mankind and the rest of creation from God, God will not use similar tactics to steal it back.
vii. Instead, God will buy back the souls of mankind. Thus, the major problem for mankind is not that they have sinned or that they have offended God, but rather, that their new owner is unfit and damns them with death.
viii. But what would be the price for buying back mankind? Satan determines the price. And God through various means orchestrates the events so that Satan would choose the blood and soul of Christ in exchange for the souls of men.
ix. To the extend that Satan, grasping humanity’s souls in his hands, releases them to catch the soul of Christ as He descended to hell, only to have it ripped from him on the third day at the resurrection, leaving Satan with ownership over no one’s souls.
x. [Slide 9] There are some sub theories in this from this time period.
1. Gregory of Nyssa – in the late 300s – tweaks this slightly to say that God used holy deception to trick Satan into demanding Christ’s soul, veiling His deity from Satan until after He was dead.
2. Augustine of Hippo – also in the late 300s – responds to Gregory of Nyssa and rejects the idea that God deceived Satan, but rather, that Satan was a victim of his own pride thinking he could hold the soul of Christ. But just because he could hold the souls of men, doesn’t mean he could hold the soul of the God-Man
3. Basil of Caesarea – also in the late 300s – responds to both Augustine of Hippo and Gregory of Nyssa and contends that the ransom was not paid to Satan but rather to the impersonal captor of death – the curse God promised upon mankind if they disobeyed. In the 700s AD, John of Damascus held to Basil of Caesarea’s view finding God paying Satan appalling.
4. Cyril of Jerusalem – also in the mid 300s - taught a series of lectures at the time where he said, Jesus died to save us from our sins, of which we inherited from Adam through his original sin. His payment, His ransom then, was not to Satan, but to God. Others before him, Tertullian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasius would agree that the ransom was not paid to Satan but to God.
b. [Slide 10] Passages that contribute to this view: Again, I’ll turn to the first passage and read it – can others turn to the other passages. Do not worry about Romans 5 since we have already read it this morning.
i. I Corinthians 6:20 – We were bought with a price.
ii. Matthew 20:28 – Jesus gave His life a ransom for many
iii. Ephesians 2:1-3 – Seems to suggest a slavery to the power of this world
iv. Genesis 3:15 – The devil will inherit a family – offspring – through the sin of men
v. Romans 5:12ff – that offspring will be corrupted in sin and death
c. [Slide 11] Strengths: What do you see as some strengths of this position of itself and even compared to the Recapitulation theory?
i. Such a view does not wholly neglect Satan and the part that the forces of darkness play full redemption plan of God.
ii. The resurrection of Christ becomes the primary emphasis where other views seem to lack a need for the resurrection at all.
iii. The death of Christ is absolutely necessary.
iv. Most of the early church theologians accepted this view as truth.
d. [Slide 12] Weaknesses: What are some weaknesses in this theory?
i. The teaching that Satan owns our souls is one that is not found in any canonical book of the bible. Its roots are primarily found in pagan doctrine and teachings, usually to the extent that the holders of our souls are the good gods and the one trying to get us is the bad one. Origen flips this on its head and says – no the one trying to get you is the good one.
ii. Satan becomes the sovereign ruler of the world to the extent that God has to bow to his wishes and provide a payment if he wants his creation back. This is also completely fictitious. Nowhere does the bible even hint that Satan took God’s creation from Him. In fact, from Genesis 3:14 – it seems like Satan being here is actually a punishment for him. Which means any power he has was not wrestled from God as a prize won, but rather serves God’s sovereign purpose.
iii. If Christ was the ransom for the souls of men and Satan has to release them to capture Jesus – then all men will eventually be saved. In fact, Origen was a universalist and did believe that all men, and even the devil would be saved eventually. Many of the theologians that tweaked his view were also universalists.
iv. This view completely ignores the holiness of God, the justice and wrath of God, the sin of man, the relationship of sin to death, the relationship of man to God and so on.
v. This view in no way accounts for anything to do with sanctification and glorification which are also clearly linked to the cross work of Christ in the scriptures.
vi. This view does not adequately explain why then the devil still walks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, nor does it adequately explain why man must believe or repent or do anything since our former master has let us go. Man must do nothing for God has paid the price and therefore all mankind are saved – this is a natural and logical step in this theory.
[Slide 13] With the number of weaknesses in the Ransom theory, it is hard to understand why it stuck around for so long. It is helpful to remember what happened almost immediately after it was put forward. In 300 Constantine made Christianity legal, and in 380 Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of Rome. And less than 100 years later, the Catholic church and the papacy began. And until the Reformation, that pollution overtook orthodoxy and became something else entirely. Where it took only 150 years after Christ for Irenaeus to write his theory, and only 70 or so years after that for Origen to follow with his theory, because of the acceptance of the heretical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and the political power given to the Roman Catholic Church, it would be over 800 years before the Ransom theory would be unseated as the most widely held theory of the atonement.
III.) [Slide 14] #2.5 Substitutionary Theories – Various between 250 – 500 AD
i. Although the Ransom theory was widely held, it was not without its dissenters even at the time it was proposed and before.
ii. The reason this is 2.5 and not 3 is because these were not well developed thoughts or theories. Most of these are defined by a line or two in the writings of these folks. So they are not nearly as well articulated as Origen’s Ransom theory. However, I wanted to include them to help us to understand that the early church was by no means united in the Ransom theory.
iii. Tertullian – Probably later in his life in the early 200s – before the ransom theory was espoused, wrote about how the death of Christ was an atonement for sin and produced an escape from hell and a life in heaven.
iv. Athanasius – writing prior to AD 319, just 70-80 years after Origen suggested the Ransom theory – Athanasius suggested that Christ’s sacrifice paid the penalty for sin.
v. Augustine of Hippo – writing in the early 400s - was perhaps the least obvious dissenter of the ransom theory. Depending on what you read from him, he at times supported the view, and at other times supported a substitutionary kind of view where Christ is both the priest who offers the sacrifice and is Himself the sacrifice for sins.
b. [Slide 15] Passages that contribute to this view:
i. II Corinthians 5:21 – Jesus became sin on our behalf
ii. Romans 3:19-26 – Christ’s death brings us to the mercy seat.
iii. Hebrews 4:14-16 – Jesus is our High Priest who is the sacrifice and the one offering the sacrifice to God.
c. [Slide 16] Strengths: What do you see as some strengths of this half-cocked view?
i. This is definitely moving toward a fuller understanding of the atonement.
ii. It relies on clear biblical teaching that goes well beyond logic.
&nnbsp; iii. It considers how mankind and God are impacted by the atonement.
d. [Slide 17] Weaknesses: What are some weaknesses?
i. It does not deal with the atonement with regard to all of creation
ii. It is not well thought out.
iii. It does not address why the incarnation or resurrection were necessary.
iv. It does not address the forces of darkness aspects
v. It does not talk about God’s wrath or justice.
[Slide 24] So for this week, let’s leave this discussion. But before we do, I want to caution you with a couple final points.
1.) Although we are being critical and nit-picky toward these early church fathers, I do not want us to leave here feeling superior to them. In fact, just the opposite. For the first two and a half theories we discussed, Christianity was illegal. Can you imagine trying to formulate theories on the atonement while hiding from those who may want to kill you for believing on the name of Christ? And even Anselm developing his theory while Christianity was legal – he was also in the middle of the dark ages, he himself being a Roman Catholic Archbishop– do you think the cards were stacked in his favor to come up with an air tight biblical theory? One Church historian once said, “You cannot fault the pilgrims for not building skyscrapers” And that is something we must apply here. The early church fathers had a lot going on. And we should humbly and compassionately accept what they teach that is affirmed in scripture and merely discard what they taught that is not.
2.) We may end our study on these theories thinking that we know everything there is to know and that we have arrived. The interesting thing is that what is said of evolution is discarded when it comes to the atonement. Oftentimes I hear people complain how public schools teach evolution as fact, when it is clearly still only theory. We must also be careful that we do not teach theories of the atonement as fact but rather as theory supported by biblical evidence. Ultimately we are always reforming – always searching – always seeking. And in that we can continue to hone our view of the atonement of Jesus Christ to incorporate not only a few select verses or passages, but ultimately, the whole expression of God’s word cover to cover. When we are able to make every verse fit into a theory of the atonement – perhaps then we can rest. 😊
I look forward to continuing with you next week as we get into the reformation and what that did for atonement theory.