Atonement Stew

When I was young, I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t have any idea how the Atonement worked. So far as I could tell, I was the only one who suffered from this malady. Others would say how glad they were that we had the perfect understanding of the Atonement, and I would always wonder what they were talking about, because I just didn’t understand it. I still remember feeling embarrassed about this ignorance of mine and wondering why everyone else seemed to have a handle on this doctrine that I just couldn’t grasp. This state of my (non)understanding continued throughout my mission.

At some point after my mission I read the chapter on the Atonement in Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, and my eyes were finally opened. What had always seemed to me a meaningless jumble of ideas and concepts actually reflected discrete theories (or metaphors) that developed historically over time. People acted as though there were a single Atonement theory that we understood well, and I could never see it. But now I knew the reason I could never see it is that it didn’t exist. People would mix and match concepts and vocabulary from these different concepts as though they were part of a coherent whole, apparently without realizing that they were doing so.

To review, the four key theories are (i) substitution (imagery from the sacrificial cult of the Jewish temple), (ii) ransom (which focuses on the claims of the Devil and a transaction in which God uses Jesus as the purchase price or ransom to free sinful men, but the Devil is tricked when he is not able to keep Jesus’ soul after he dies [see for example The Chronicles of Narnia, which is based on the ransom theory]), (iii) the satisfaction theory (based on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo “Why Did God Become Man?” and grounded in feudal conceptions of honor–the demands of God’s own nature as both absolute justice and absolute mercy, and the affront to God’s honor causeed by man’s sin could only be rectified by a God-man, since the offense was infinite and yet mortal), and (iv) the moral theory (largely based on Abelard, who denied any objective saving efficacy to the death of Christ, but focused instead on the moral influence the death of Jesus had for man, causing him to repent of his sins). There are variations on these ideas, but these are the basic ones. After I learned about this, I still didn’t really understand the Atonement, but at least now the way we talked about it made sense to me, and I could appreciate the historical development of the different ideas people tossed around. I at least understood why I hadn’t understood it before.

While I was in law school, my EQP was Michael Hicks (now a professor of music at BYU), and he had a terrific handout in which he illustrated each theory by snippets from different LDS hymns. The handout was maybe three pages long, and each theory had about 3/4 of a page (single spaced) with illustrations devoted to it. I wish I still had that handout, but I looked and couldn’t find it among my papers. But it scarcely matters; anyone could go through our hymns and create one for oneself.

Next time you’re sitting there singing the sacrament hymn in church, think about this. For example, “Behold the Great Redeemer Die” is immediately followed by the lines “a broken law to satisfy/he dies a sacrifice for sin,” mingling concepts from the satisfaction and substitution theories in adjacent lines.

So I no longer feel so self-conscious about my ignorance concerning the Atonement. But I’m also not overly impressed by occasional expressions of our supposed greater light and knowledge on this subject. Sure, we have some insights on the margins, such as a greater emphasis on Gethsemane. But as far as I can tell, we dip our ladle from the very same pot of Atonement stew of theories that all Christians do. So it really annoys me when I hear people at Church casually and smugly talk about how much better we understand the Atonement than other Christians do. It just ain’t so.

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  1. Kevin,
    Great post. I can really identify with your description of not “understanding” the Atonement while hearing everyone else around you say that they do. I admit that I haven’t ever devoted much time to separating the varying theories of the Atonement from each other, nor have I (probably) given due thought to your post, but from start to finish, the question that rolled through my mind was how a person’s emphasis on a particular theory of the Atonement would affect their personal repentance process and form of worship.

    Had I come across this post 10 years ago, perhaps I would have a wealth of observations in this regard–both my own and from seeing others. As I haven’t such experiences to rely upon for commentary, I’ll ask you–do you see (either in your own life or those you’ve observed) differences in the application of the Atonement in the context of weighted emphases on a particular theory (i.e., repentance under an assumption of a ransoming Atonement vs. under a moral theory)?

  2. THANK you! This post is a great resource and makes an important point. I’ve felt exactly as you did, only I still don’t know enough to know how little I know.

    btw, no mention of the compassion theory? Is that because it wasn’t part of McMurrin’s book, or because you think it fits into one of the four categories?

  3. Eric Russell says:

    Though most members don’t fully incorporate it into their personal conceptions, I think The Book of Mormon sheds considerable light on the nature of the atonement that is otherwise unrecognized by traditional Christianity.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    1. Scott B., good question. I don’t have any personal insight on it, but perhaps commenters will have thoughts.

    2. BrianJ, I think the compassion idea might be one that is pretty much limited to Mormons (although I may be wrong about that; I’m sure someone will correct me if I am). If so, that’s one of those advnaces on the margins that I mentioned. (It wasn’t mentioned by McMurrin.)

    3. Eric Russell, actually McMurrin’s favorite statement on the Atonement in all of Mormon literature comes from the BoM (Alma 42:14-15). But note that that is essentially Anselmian.

  5. Although, Kevin, early LDS had impressively complex views on Atonement, drawing from perfectionism and sacramentalism right alongside more typically Protestant theories. We don’t quite endorse them in exactly the same way anymore, but we do have a rather distinctive view of our salvation relationship with Jesus, despite the accommodationist efforts of Robinson and Millet.

  6. Eric Russell says:

    I think part of the problem is that there’s a big difference between what Mormons believe and what they say they believe. In any given talk on the atonement, you will indeed hear a lot of language that draws on the language and concepts of traditional atonement theories. But if you were to actually sit down and explain those theories and the implications of those theories to members of the church, I think most would reject them out of hand. Just because we use the same language as others and lack a single coherent theory that defines our approach, it doesn’t mean we’re not fundamentally different. In fact, I’d say that our soteriology constitutes the single greatest theological difference between Mormonism and the rest of Christianity – I believe Arminianism is the only thing that comes close.

  7. So, what if we see the Atonement as an eternal round – as a kind of cosmic, communal process? What if we view all of Jesus’ earthly actions as only part of the Atonement? Perhaps Mormonism’s unique contribution is an acceptance that “Atonement” is an eternal principle that can be understood in all ways for all people – that rather than being quantifiable and definable to us in one coherent theory, it simply is.

  8. john willis says:

    A great post. Like Kevin I have had the “benefit” of a legal education. We have to take courses in debtor and creditor law where we learn what you can and cannot do to collect a debt. The discussions by people like Elder Packer using the analogy of a debtor who is unable to pay the debt and Christ as a third party who pays the debt have always left me with sense that at best .this is an incomplete understanding of the atonement.
    I personally am most impressed by the moral theory of the atonement particularly as spelled out by Blake Oster.
    But I am convinced that we can only talk about the atonement by using metaphors which are always incomplete and inadequate.
    The experience that comes closest to how I believe the atonement works was when my children were seriously ill or in great pain and had to get stitches. You stand by their bedside and you really feel that if you could trade places with them and suffer the pain yourself , you would.
    Again this is an incomplete and inadequate analogy but it works for me.
    In the book of Enos when after his prayer Enos feels the effect of the Atonement and asks ” Lord, how is it done?” and he is given the answer, that it is by his faith in Christ gives us some insight but with the atonement we are always looking into a glass darkly

  9. Amen, brother. Reading Ostler (and the New Cool Thang blog as well) pretty much helped me work through some things and arrive at a more sure position of “I really have no idea but I certainly feel like it works.”

  10. The Right Trousers says:

    Sam MB (5): I find that the more I read the Book of Mormon, the more I agree with Robinson and Millet. It preaches more security in Christ and less individual perfectionism than I ever learned growing up, and I never noticed it until recently because I thought I knew what individual passages meant. For example, just tonight I noticed that those who believe in God can “with surety” hope for a place at his right hand. The BoM is full of things like this, but our eyes just skip right over them and fix on the passages addressed to the rebellious.

    At any rate, this is about the effects of the atonement, but the OP was on its mechanics. Personally, I find the two mostly independent. But I will say that I’ve grown to appreciate substitution theory more now that I’ve found hope.

  11. Kevin,

    Great post. It was definitely eye-opening for me to learn about the different atonement theories and understand the stew from which we serve up our lessons on the atonement.

    A couple of points. First, I think it is somewhat problematic to map certain scriptural language to a specific theory because I keep believing in the scriptures even after I have rejected various atonement theories. So just because it refers to Christ as a “ransom” in one of our hymns, I don’t think this necessarily means that the Ransom Theory is found in our hymnal. Rather, scriptural language which has been made the center of a particular theory is in our hymnal, but that is entirely appropriate because we believe in those scriptures. The ransom metaphor need not be entirely rejected just because the Ransom Theory is garbage. This applies, for example, to this line in your post:

    For example, “Behold the Great Redeemer Die” is immediately followed by the lines “a broken law to satisfy/he dies a sacrifice for sin,” mingling concepts from the satisfaction and substitution theories in adjacent lines.

    The ideas of a “broken law to satisfy” and Christ as a “sacrifice for sin” are scriptural statements first. They are references to particular atonement theories second. So while I agree that in the church we mix metaphors and theories like crazy with no awareness that we are doing so, I can still appreciate this hymn since it may just as easily be seen as referencing Lehi (2 Ne 2:7) or other scriptures as referencing Anselm or Abelard or Calvin.

    Second quibble is shorter. You said that Alma 42:14-15 is essentially Anselmian, which I definitely disagree with. Anselm based his theory on Christ restoring honor to God and it was the reformers who changed the emphasis to satisfying justice. But even then, I don’t think a careful reading of Alma leads to a penal substitution theory, as I have argued at length elsewhere.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Kevin, it seems like there are two competing ways of approaching the Atonement – the inquisitive approach such as you manifest here, vs the approach that says that the Atonement is inherently mysterious and paradoxically unapproachable. Those who ascribe to this second approach almost make it a point of pride to not look to closely at the Atonement, like giving away the magician’s secrets or something. I confess I waver between the two approaches; sometimes I want to know exactly how it works, sometimes I just want to bask in it.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Steve, I’m also of both minds simultaneously. On the one hand, of course I would like to understand the mechanics of how the Atonement works. A Jewish peasant was killed 2,000 years ago–how exactly does that have anything to do with me and my salvation? Part of me would like someone to be able to walk me through the mechanical steps of how that all is supposed to work.

    But, despiite the various theories and metaphors, I don’t think we really have a handle on the mechanics of it all. Mormons generally aren’t big on the concept of mystery; like curious boys who subscribe to Popular Mechanics, we want to know how things work. And this is one where we don’t really know. I’m at peace with that.

    Not all Mormons are, however. A few years ago I taught a lesson on the Atonement in EQ, and one of the quotes I used was from Talmage to the effect that in the end the atonement is beyond the capacity of our finite human minds to grasp. And I almost had a riot on my hands; the elders were highly offended that any part of the simple plan of salvation should be beyond our ken.

  14. how much better we understand the Atonement than other Christians do.

    Basically this is due to our conflating the Gethsemane/Golgotha Event with the Plan of Salvation.

    I think what most LDS feel we understand better about the Atonement is the where we came from and where we are going, which theologically, are somewhat unique to our theology.

  15. theology was the wrong word. Religious Cultural Belief more more appropriate.

  16. And I agree with Jacob, of course.

  17. I agree with Steve and might even go a step further – I would say that most Mormons fully understand the atonement in the same way they know the church is true. They have felt the healing and forgiveness and salvation in their own lives, and felt blessed by it.

    This is an interesting post, but doesn’t begin to address what the atonement means. Tracy did a great job with that.

  18. Kevin,

    As always, I appreciate your honesty and penetrating insight into the subjects you write on.

    To understand the atonement one needs to experience it.

    When I called upon the Lord to forgive me of my sins, He extended to me the “gift of prayer”. Once the channels of communication were opened through this dimension of prayer the Lord then forgave me of my sins. Within a week or so while taking the sacrament I experienced fire and the Holy Ghost–a remission of sins.

    I don’t have words that can describe this experience.

    The Savior is just what the name implies.

  19. Great post, Kevin. The four theories of atonement seem to present a ‘blind men and the elephant’ problem with each theory grasping different elements of something too big to be described by the smaller pieces, and in some senses the differences may seem to contradict, yet all part of a bigger whole.

    I’m drawn to the ‘mystery’ approach, if just because I’ve found so much I don’t understand, I’ve grown comfortable in my cluelessness.

  20. Kevin Christensen says:

    At a Sunstone West many years ago, I heard Lorin K. Hansen deliver a version of what he later published in Dialogue vol 27 n1 (Spring 1994) as “The Moral Atonement as a Mormon Interpretation.” After surveying the various interpretations, he noted that he could divide them into “Objective” theories and “Subjective” theories, that is, “The Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories of Christian Orthodoxy were predominantly objective interpretations: man and woman, according to these views were, are redeemed by God’s works, not their own works, for they are morally incapable of contributing to their own redemption. And the Moral-Influence theory (the predominant example of a “moral” theory of the Atonement) was a subjective interpretation; that is, man and woman are morally autonomous and are redeemed through their own initiative, responding to the moral example of Jesus Christ. So the polarization in Christian theology is primarily one of moral-subjective interpretation versus transactional objective interpretations.” (Hansen, 201)

    So he made the case that the Book of Mormon uniquely
    includes both objective and and subjective atonement. (Hansen, 209). It’s a provocative piece that I’ve thought deserves more attention.

    Nibley’s “The Meaning of the Atonement,”Ostler’s “Com-passion Theory,” Eugene England’s “Shakespeare and the At-One-ment of Christ” re-enforced the impact of the new thought that Hansen introduced. I’d also have to add in Margaret Barker’s “Atonement: The Rite of Healing” and Truman Madsen’s “The Olive Press.” And more recently, Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

    As a consequence, I’ve never been able to get excited about “defaulted debt” imagery, or things like the “parable of the bicycle.”

    Kevin Christensen
    Bethel Park, PA

  21. The Right Trousers says:

    A solid theory does a few things:

    1. It simplifies reasoning and discourse by allowing reference to an abstraction using a single term (or a collection of them).

    2. It casts previous theories into the bin. Newtonian physics is actually kind of an outlier because it approximates well at useful scales. Nobody appeals to a geocentric theory or assumes there is “ether” in space anymore.

    3. It allows sound extrapolation.

    Maybe some or all of these are undesirable.

  22. I remember starting to feel uncomfortable with my “complete” understanding of the atonement during one of President Hinckley’s appearances on Larry King or 60 Minutes. He basically took a mystery approach.

    Once I’d heard the living prophet marvel about how the atonement might work, I decided I wouldn’t worry too much about the mechanics.

  23. What work might you suggest to outline the various theories for dumbbells like me who need it explained in English without words like “Anselmian” and “soteriology”?

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Ardis, the Wikipedia article actually is pretty good:

  25. Kevin said: “So I no longer feel so self-conscious about my ignorance concerning the Atonement.”

    I returned from church a while ago with Kevin’s post on my mind. I realized something when I put the key into the ignition of my car: I can realize the benefits from driving my car without understanding all there is to know about a car. In fact, I could be totally ignorant of how a car engine and transmission function and still utilize it for the purpose for which it exist.

  26. Let me second Kevin C. endorsement of England’s essays and especially Girard. I have found that Girard’s ideas open up entirely new ways of understanding the gospel and have been very influential in reshaping my atonement thoughts.

    As to Alma 42, I am going to have to agree with Jacob J. on this. I have found that one of the biggest impasses to understanding Alma 42 is the word “justice.” we look at that word in a modern context and more often than not in a penal retribution sense. If we read Alma 42 in context of the previous chapters we may end up with justice meaning something very different much more akin to the law of harvest or as Alma describes it the law of restitution.

    In this context, justice is not penal but the natural order and God would cease to be God if he used his power to violate our intelligence and agency.

  27. And one more thing. There was an initial question about whether these theories matter. I would argue that they are fundamental to many of our world views. A very credible argument has been made for example that Anselms theories helped create the religious thought that gave way to the crusades. See Bartlett’s Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement which is not only a good theological background to the various theories but puts them in historical context as well.

    I personally believe that the penal-substitution model for example has moral consequences. Bad theology can and does lead to bad morality. Once we create a God who is unwilling to forgive absent the murder of a child, there are theological implications. In this schema, God, his kingdom, and/or ultimately the universe operate on certain principles of violence and retribution. We potentially reduce Christ to an animal/man sacrifice who need only be unblemished and killed.

  28. I think the atonement is fascinating in that regardless of approach (substitution, ransom, satisfaction, moral, mystery), real people feel the _effects_ of Christ’s atonement in their lives, and make changes to follow God accordingly. What I’m saying is that most people don’t need to know how Christ’s atonement works, how it fits into an overarching plan for the salvation of humankind, or how the death of a man-god could in fact have any effect whatsoever on people living before and after him (and possibly on different planets!): they simply know that they feel forgiven for their sins through their faith in Jesus and their sincere repentance. That’s gotta count for something, eh?

  29. J Madson: “Bad theology….” True. Moreover, bad theology can and does lead one to feel over-burdened by one’ s own sins. I’m with you: as much as I enjoy the fruits of the atonement now, I still want to delve deeper.

    Jared, 25: “I could be totally ignorant of how a car engine and transmission function and still utilize it….” But only for a short while. If you are totally ignorant of how your car works, you will put the wrong fuel in the tank, neglect to change the oil, etc. etc., until you have a car that no longer works—and of course, you won’t have any idea why. The more you learn about your car, the longer and better that car will work for you.

    SteveP, 19: There’s probably something to the “blind men and the elephant” here, but I suspect (as do others) that a couple of those men are actually holding onto a rhinoceros, gorilla, or crocodile and not an elephant at all.

  30. Aaron Brown says:

    Fantastic post, Kevin. Your first two paragraphs describe my own history, perfectly. Except since first reading McMurrin’s treatment post-mission, I haven’t spent much additional time reading or even thinking much about how the Atonement works. It seemed like too big a subject to try to master, so I always prioritized other theological issues/topics.

    I was called as Gospel Essentials teacher during my Freshman year at BYU, and I distinctly recall being so uncomfortable with the idea of teaching the chapter on Jesus Christ that I withdrew that week, and asked someone else to teach it. Half of the reason for this was my uncertainty as to what Christ’s atonement really meant, and a fear that it would become obvious to others that I really didn’t know what I was talking about.

    (The other half of the reason was my realization, after 18 years growing up in the Church, that spending an entire lesson talking about Jesus entailed the need to “cry” to express one’s devotion and to give the topic the gravity that it deserved. And that just wasn’t in my skill set.)


  31. I have a better idea.
    Why don’t we just immerse ourselves in the scriptures and look for what they say about the atonement and take them at face value rather than trying to look for one of these 4 key theories in the scriptures, hymns and other places?

  32. Rude Dog says:

    I’ve always liked the justice/mercy balancing act approach that only an infinite atonement from the Father’s only begotten could fullfill. Meeting both justice and mercy in their own spheres each independent of God, and needing both to be perfectly satisfied, else “God would ceace to be God”. We, being incapable of filling the measures of justice, needed suffuring so incomparable as to fill the demands of justice and allowing mercy to fully encapsulate us, the individual.
    The beautiful thing is that the only thing we can provide, the only thing we bring to the table that is attractive to the Christ, is our imperfection, our broken heart and contrite spirit.

  33. Arelius, do you have the belief that the prophets all understood the atonement similarly? I think that most of the theories derive support from the scriptures. I like Blake Ostler’s theory on the atonement the very most myself.

  34. Is there a good reference for Blake Ostler’s atonement theory?

  35. Dang. How did I mess this post?

    Nice work as always Kevin. Your post fleshes out a comment you made over at the Thang a few Easters back. Believe it or not your insight in that comment had a big impact on my views ever since so it is nice to see the concept fleshed out in a full post.

  36. “miss” this post

  37. Steve Evans says:

    Geoff, now you’ve done both!

  38. I join with Kevin Christensen (post 20) in recommending Loren Hansen’s analysis on the Atonement in Dialogue. An excellent piece. I also like Blake’s analysis and empathy theory. I am not sure I fully understand Jacob Morgan’s divine infusion theory, but it is intriguing.

    A set of subcategories of Atonement theories is here

  39. For those who don’t know, Jacob Morgan (aka Jacob J) and Blake Ostler (aka Blake) are both contributors and regular participants at New Cool Thang. See the Atonement and Soteriology series of posts and subsequent discussions here.

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