by Leon Morris
Throughout the Bible the central question is, "How can sinful man ever be accepted by a holy God?" The Bible takes sin seriously, much more seriously than do the other literatures that have come down to us from antiquity. It sees sin as a barrier separating man from God (Isa. 59:2), a barrier that man was able to erect but is quite unable to demolish. But the truth on which the Bible insists is that God has dealt with the problem. He has made the way whereby sinners may find pardon, God's enemies may find peace. Salvation is never seen as a human achievement. In the OT sacrifice has a large place, but it avails not because of any merit it has of itself (cf. Heb. 10:4), but because God has given it as the way (Lev. 17:11). In the NT the cross plainly occupies the central place, and it is insisted upon in season and out of season that this is God's way of bringing salvation. There are many ways of bringing this out. The NT writers do not repeat a stereotyped story. Each writes from his own perspective. But each shows that it is the death of Christ and not any human achievement that brings salvation.
But none of them sets out a theory of atonement. There are many references to the effectiveness of Christ's atoning work, and we are not lacking in information about its many - sidedness. Thus Paul gives a good deal of emphasis to the atonement as a process of justification, and he uses such concepts as redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. Sometimes we read of the cross as a victory or as an example. It is the sacrifice that makes a new covenant, or simply a sacrifice. There are many ways of viewing it. We are left in no doubt about its efficacy and its complexity. View the human spiritual problem as you will, and the cross meets the need. But the NT does not say how it does so.
Through the centuries there have been continuing efforts to work out how this was accomplished. Theories of the atonement are legion as men in different countries and in different ages have tried to bring together the varied strands of scriptural teaching and to work them into a theory that will help others to understand how God has worked to bring us salvation. The way has been open for this kind of venture, in part at least, because the church has never laid down an official, orthodox view. In the early centuries there were great controversies about the person of Christ and about the nature of the Trinity. Heresies appeared, were thoroughly discussed, and were disowned. In the end the church accepted the formula of Chalcedon as the standard expression of the orthodox faith. But there was no equivalent with the atonement. People simply held to the satisfying truth that Christ saved them by way of the cross and did not argue about how this salvation was effected.
Thus there was no standard formula like the Chalcedonian statement, and this left men to pursue their quest for a satisfying theory in their own way. To this day no one theory of the atonement has ever won universal acceptance. This should not lead us to abandon the task. Every theory helps us understand a little more of what the cross means and, in any case, we are bidden to give a reason of the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15). Theories of the atonement attempt to do just that.
It would be impossible to deal with all the theories of the atonement that have been formulated, but we might well notice that most can be brought under one or the other of three heads: those which see the essence of the matter as the effect of the cross on the believer; those which see it as a victory of some sort; and those which emphasize the Godward aspect. Some prefer a twofold classification, seeing subjective theories as those which emphasize the effect on the believer, in distinction from objective theories which put the stress on what the atonement achieves quite outside the individual.
The thrust in all this is on personal experience. The atonement, seen in this way, has no effect outside the believer. It is real in the person's experience and nowhere else. This view has been defended in recent times by Hastings Rashdall in The Idea of Atonement (1919).
It should be said in the first instance that there is truth in this theory. Taken by itself it is inadequate, but it is not untrue. It is important that we respond to the love of Christ seen on the cross, that we recognize the compelling force of his example.
Probably the best known and best loved hymn on the passion in modern times is "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," a hymn that sets forth nothing but the moral view. Every line of it emphasizes the effect on the observer of surveying the wondrous cross. It strikes home with force. What it says is both true and important. It is when it is claimed that this is all that the atonement means that we must reject it. Taken in this way it is open to serious criticism. If Christ was not actually doing something by his death, then we are confronted with a piece of showmanship, nothing more. Someone once said that if he were in a rushing river and someone jumped in to save him, and in the process lost his life, he could recognize the love and sacrifice involved. But if he was sitting safely on the land and someone jumped into the torrent to show his love, he could see no point in it and only lament the senseless act. Unless the death of Christ really does something, it is not in fact a demonstration of love.
This kind of metaphor delighted some of the fathers, but after Anselm subjected it to criticism it faded from view. It was not until quite recent times that Gustaf Aulen with his Christus Victor showed that behind the grotesque metaphors there is an important truth. In the end Christ's atoning work means victory. The devil and all the hosts of evil are defeated. Sin is conquered. Though this has not always been worked into set theories, it has always been there in our Easter hymns. It forms an important element in Christian devotion and it points to a reality which Christians must not lose.
This view must be treated with some care else we will finish up by saying that God saves simply because he is strong, in other words, in the end might is right. This is an impossible conclusion for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. We are warned that this view, of itself, is not adequate. But combined with other views it must find a place in any finally satisfying theory. It is important that Christ has conquered.
Anselm's treatment of the theme raised the discussion to a much higher plane than it had occupied in previous discussions. Most agree, however, that the demonstration is not conclusive. In the end Anselm makes God too much like a king whose dignity has been affronted. He overlooked the fact that a sovereign may be clement and forgiving without doing harm to his kingdom. A further defect in his view is that Anselm found no necessary connection between Christ's death and the salvation of sinners. Christ merited a great reward because he died when he had no need to (for he had no sin). But he could not receive a reward, for he had everything. To whom then could he more fittingly assign his reward then to those for whom he had died? This makes it more or less a matter of chance that sinners be saved. Not very many these days are prepared to go along with Anselm. But at least he took a very serious view of sin, and it is agreed that without this there will be no satisfactory view.
Such views have been widely criticized. In particular it is pointed out that sin is not an external matter to be transferred easily from one person to another and that, while some forms of penalty are transferable (the payment of a fine), others are not (imprisonment, capital punishment). It is urged that this theory sets Christ in opposition to the Father so that it maximizes the love of Christ and minimizes that of the Father. Such criticisms may be valid against some of the ways in which the theory is stated, but they do not shake its essential basis. They overlook the fact that there is a double identification: Christ is one with sinners (the saved are "in" Christ, Rom. 8:1) and he is one with the Father (he and the Father are one, John 10:30; "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself," 2 Cor. 5:19). They also overlook the fact that there is much in the NT that supports the theory. It is special pleading to deny that Paul, for example, puts forward this view. It may need to be carefully stated, but this view still says something important about the way Christ won our salvation.
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)