Thursday, August 23, 2007

A brief history of Christian atonement thought

Christ is primarily seen as a teacher of virtue and monotheism. By hearing and following Christ's teachings and example, Christian converts are able to turn from their old sinful ways and live righteously before God. Some also add teaching of Recapitulation, or Christus Victor/Ransom-from-Satan (CV/RS). No original sin. Final judgement by works. Free Will.

250-500AD, Original Sin in the West
The doctrine of Original Sin develops in North Africa. Pelagius, Augustine, Cassian, between them result in Western Christianity adopting a significantly more pessimistic view of man than Eastern Christianity. Augustine invents the idea of Predestination, but it is not very influential.

350+, A not-so Eternal Hell in the West
In discussion of whether hell is eternal, or whether God might eventually bring hell to an end, it is suggested that perhaps hell is not eternal for Christians who are sent to hell (for their evil works). Western Christianity adopts the idea that for evil Christians hell is not eternal. This leads to it becoming "Purgatory". Thus, Christians unworthy to go to heaven go to purgatory temporarily, prior to heaven.

313-1000AD Atonement Models
In Eastern Christianity the atonement model of Christ-as-teacher merges with the model of Recapitulation to produce "Theosis", which is about both sanctification and ontological transformation (ie humanity becomes 'divine' by becoming godly and virtuous, and also by spiritually 'participating' in God). CV/RS and Theosis both universally taught in East. The East then goes largely into doctrinal stasis.

In Western Christianity the atonement models in use are Christ as teacher of righteousness, CV/RS, and an emerging new idea that conceived of Christ's work as targeted at God and as a gift to him. CV/RS is universally dominant over this period, with Christ as teacher being taken for granted, and Christ-as-gift cropping up occasionally.

1100+AD New and Old Models in the West
In Western Christianity, Anselm challenged CV/RS and drew up a formal version of the Christ-as-gift theory to replace it, which became known as "Satisfaction". The offense given to God by human disobedience was made up for by Christ's faithful obedience to God. Peter Abelard objected vigorously to Anselm's ideas, but rather than defend CV/RS against Anselm's challenge he attempted to reinvigorate the Christ-as-Teacher model, which became known as "Moral Exemplar". Western Christianity from this point on generally dropped CV/RS and became split between Satisfaction and Moral Exemplar

1400-1700 Satisfaction gets a face lift
Anselm's satisfaction model was based on the idea of God as a Feudal Lord and acting according to social norms in accepting Christ's faithfulness as repayment for our disobedience. As society passed out of feudalism his ideas were recast using a paradigm of a Law-Court: "Penal Substitution" (PS). This added to Satisfaction the idea of Christ suffering our punishment. A modified form of PS that was popular for a while was the "Governmental View" which attempts to drop some of the conceptual difficulties inherent in the original.

1500+ Reformation Theology in the West
The Reformers adopted wholehearted the Penal Substitution theology of their day. Original Sin was strengthened by them back to Augustine's levels. Augustine's predestination ideas were reintroduced. Salvation was by "faith alone" and all works were moved into the category of "sanctification" which was made tangential to the main salvation process. "Justification" was redefined, no longer being about inner moral transformation, and now considered to mean a righteous status declared by God that was contrary to our real state of sinfulness.

1700-2000 To the Present Day
The Eastern Orthodox continued to hold their Theosis and CV/RS views. They still endorsed free will, rejected original sin, and held to final judgment by works.

Conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics continued to endorse and defend their party lines. Liberal Protestants held the Moral Exemplar view and free will and rejected original sin. Within conservative protestantism the Arminians and Calvinists debated their differences on free will, while the Catholics and Protestants debated their differences on the nature of justification and faith/works, and the conservatives and liberals debated over Penal Substitution and Moral Exemplar.


Blogger Juan said...

Great post do you have any thing that lists the views of justification historically?

Thanks for a great post!


Blogger Andrew said...

Hmm well Alister McGrath's A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification presumably would answer your question (though I haven't read it yet).

A big problem with talking about historical views on justification is that in modern Protestant theology the idea of "justification" plays a role that other doctrines played earlier in church history. So if you want to know what sixth century Greek Christians thought about salvation, atonement and eternal life, analysing their usage of the word 'justification' is not going to help you learn that - you would need to look at their doctrine of 'theosis' instead.

Blogger Andrew said...

Thanks to the internet, here's a few quotes from McGrath's book, 2005 edition:

p. 213 "Although Luther regarded justification as an essentially unitary process, he nevertheless introduced a decisive break with the western theological tradition as a whole by insisting that, through their justification, humans are intrinsically sinful yet extrinsically righteous."

p. 215 "The significance of the Protestant distinction between iustificatio and regeneratio is that a fundamental discontinuity has been introduced into the western theological tradition through the recognition of a difference, where none had previously been acknowledged to exist. […] Despite the astonishingly theological diversity of the late medieval period, a consensus relating to the nature of justification was maintained throughout. The Protestant understanding of the nature represents a theological novum, whereas its understanding of its mode does not."

p. 53 "Augustine’s discussion of iustitia, effected only through the justification of humanity, demonstrates how the doctrine of justification encompasses the whole of Christian existence from the first moment of faith, through the increase in righteousness before God and humans, to the final perfection of that righteousness in the eschatological city. Justification is about ‘being made just’"…

p. 216 "However, it will be clear that the medieval period was astonishingly faithful to the teaching of Augustine on the question of the nature of justification, where the reformers departed from it."

p. 217 "The essential feature of the Reformation doctrines of justification is that a deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification and regeneration. Although it must be emphasized that this distinction is purely notional, in that it is impossible to separate the two within the context of the ordo sautis, the essential point is that a notional distinction is made where none had been acknowledged before in the history of Christian doctrine. A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification - as opposed to its mode - must be regarded as a genuine theological novum."

Blogger Lars said...

Andrew, your blog headline says ” Answering the unaskable questions”, so please, take on the question of “the trinity”… :)

Blogger Juan said...


Thanks for the info and thanks for the heads up on justification and for me to focus on 'thesis'



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