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  • Writer's pictureDr. Roger D Duke

Theology Thursday: Theories of Christ's Atonement-What Did Jesus Do On the Cross?!

Theories of Christ’s Atonement

I.                    The Recapitulation Theory: Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to eternal life (including moral perfection). Through man's disobedience the process of the evolution of the human race went wrong, and the course of its wrongness could neither be halted nor reversed by any human means.


II.                 The Ranson Theory: Also called the classic or dramatic view of atonement, the ransom theory contends that Christ's death on the cross was a price paid to satisfy the debt humanity owed due to Adam's Fall. In other words, by his death, Christ paid a ransom in exchange for human souls, which Satan had held captive on account of sin. 


III.              The Satisfaction Theory: The satisfaction theory of atonement is a theory in Catholic theology which holds that Jesus Christ redeemed humanity through making satisfaction for humankind's disobedience through his own supererogatory obedience. The theory draws primarily from the works of Anselm of Canterbury, specifically his Cur Deus Homo ("Why was God a man?"). It has been traditionally taught in the Roman Catholic tradition of Western Christianity. Since one of God's characteristics is justice, affronts to that justice must be atoned for. It is thus connected with the legal concept of balancing out an injustice.


IV.              The Vicarious or Substitutionary Theory: Substitutionary atonement, also called vicarious atonement, is the idea that Jesus died "for us". There is also a less technical use of the term "substitution" in discussion about atonement when it is used in "the sense that [Jesus, through his death,] did for us that which we can never do for ourselves".


V.                The Moral Influence Theory: The moral influence or moral example theory of atonement, developed or most notably propagated by Abelard (1079–1142), is an alternative to Anselm's satisfaction theory of atonement. Abelard focused on changing man's perception of God as not offended, harsh, and judgmental, but as loving. According to Abelard, "Jesus died as the demonstration of God's love," a demonstration which can change the hearts and minds of the sinners, turning them back to God. 


VI.              The Governmental or Rectoral Theory: The governmental theory of the atonement (also known as the rectoral theory, or the moral government theory) is a doctrine in Christian theology concerning the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ. It teaches that Christ suffered for humanity so that God could forgive humans without punishing them while still maintaining divine justice. In the modern era it is more often taught in non-Calvinist protestant circles, yet also bearing in mind that ArminiusJohn Wesley and other Arminians never speak clearly of it. It is drawn primarily from the works of Hugo Grotius and later theologians like John Miley and H. Orton Wiley.

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