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The Atoning Work of Christ: Moral Influence Theory

This blog post is part of the Atonement series where I intend to present all the main views of the atonement. While it may seem silly to study other views aside from your own, there are huge implications to believing one view over the other. I am writing this series so that I can further understand these views and their implications. I hope you will share in this journey of discovery with me. The first post on the atonement can be found here.

What is the moral influence theory?

The moral influence theory of the atonement focuses on Christ as the moral example that we should follow. Christ came not as a substitute to pay a debt to God or the devil, Christ came as God incarnate to unite himself to humanity so that in his love for humanity, he would awaken in us an “answering love” (Franks, Robert, A History of the Doctrine of the Work of Christ in its Ecclesiastical Development, 189). It is out of Christ’s love that we desire to repent of our sins and live a moral life like Christ.

In opposition to the penal substitution theory and Christus Victor (which will be explained in an upcoming post), Christ’s death on the cross was not actually necessary. Hastings Rashdall a theologian who supports this theory explains that the death of Christ came simply because death comes for all humans:

“Some sort of death….was a necessary element in any really human life. And the particular mode of death was the outcome and culmination of the mode of life which He had chosen. The death was not His act, but the act of the Jewish priests, the Roman magistrate, and the Roman soldiers…[I]n the eternal counsels of God the death of Christ was allowed because it was foreseen that a life ending in a violent and self-sacrificing death would be a better proof and pledge of the Messiah’s love than any other kind of life; but the death showed no less love because, from the point of view of Him who died, He was dying for His disciples in the same sense in which all His ministry was for them (The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, 441-42).”

Instead of a focus on the death of Christ, moral influence theory focuses on His life. Christ as the God become Man is a revelation of Himself to humanity. And even in Christ’s suffering and death, we can see His character of love revealed to us.  As a result of Christ’s love, we will be persuaded to a life of repentance and regeneration.  This theory then “tends, in short, to represent Christ’s death as only a part, though a necessary part, of that whole incarnation or self-revelation of God, the object of which was to make known God’s nature and His will, to instruct men in the way of salvation, and to excite in them that love which would inspire sorrow for past sin and give the power to avoid sin in the future (Ibid., 443).”

Where did it originate?

Although most proponents of the moral influence theory claim that their ideas are taken directly from some of the Church Fathers, the view as a whole was not established or made popular until 1135 when Abelard wrote his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. While many Fathers such as Origen may have spoken of the moral influence of Christ, it was usually in conjunction with other views of the atonement.

First, Abelard argues against the idea that a ransom was paid to anyone – be it God or Satan.  The price could not have been paid to the devil because the devil had no hold or authority over man. Abelard explains: “Who doubts that if the servant of a certain lord should lead his fellow-servant astray with his persuasions and cause him to turn away from obedience to his own lord, how much more should the one leading astray be accused before his lord than the one led? And how unjust it is that he who led another astray should, from that time on, deserve to have an advantage or authority over the one he led astray… (Commentary on Romans, 165).” In other words, God didn’t need to defeat Satan because Satan didn’t have any power over man.

Abelard also goes against the penal substitution theory which was presented by Anselm less that 40 years prior. His biggest qualm with the theory is that it seems unjust that God would demand the blood of an innocent person in order to forgive our sins (Ibid., 167). It seemed to Abelard that if God wanted to forgive us – he would simply do it. Nothing was hindering Him from this act.  The reason then, for the death of Christ was this:

“[I]t seems to us that in this we are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God, that it was through this matchless grace shown to us that his Son received our nature, and in that nature, teaching us both by word and by example, persevered to the death and bound us to himself even more though love, so that when we have been kindled by so great a benefit of divine grace, true charity might fear to endure nothing for his sake (Ibid., 167-68).”

It is through the love shown in Christ’s death that redeems us, frees us from the slavery of sin, and gives us the power to do all things out of love rather than out of fear (Ibid, 168).

What was the context?

Peter Abelard was a successful philosopher, especially in the realm of logic where he publicly defeated numerous opponents. He taught in the University and was admired by his students. Despite his popularity, in the area of theology, Abelard presented controversial ideas from the start. His logical analysis of the trinity was deemed heretical by a synod and they demanded that Abelard make a public avowal of faith. Later in his life, Abelard’s continuing work in theology, especially that of the atonement was brought to the attention of Bernard of Clairvaux. They attempted to resolve their differences, but were unable. In the end, the council of Soissons condemned his works and the Pope upheld their decision, ordering Abelard to silence.

What did the cross achieve under this view?

The cross gave us the ability to be reconciled to God by the influence of the love of Christ (“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” John 15:13) which would in turn kindle a love and repentance in us.

Which scriptures support this view?

Heb 10:14-17 – For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”

James 2:14 & 17 – What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? …So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Rev 20:12 – And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done.

All scripture has been taken from the RSV

What are some common criticisms?

1. It appears to be a works based salvation

2. There is no real meaning in the death or resurrection of Christ

3. It ignores key scripture passages

4. There seems to be no reason why we couldn’t use other “good” teachers as influences to do good and repent

5. Salvation comes from our own reaction to what Christ did, rather than salvation from Christ alone

Note: Although there are obvious reasons to reject this view of the atonement, let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. There are many good things to be gleaned from this theory which will be touched on in a later post.

The next post in this series which summarizes the Christus Victor Theory can be found here.


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One thought on “The Atoning Work of Christ: Moral Influence Theory

  1. Pingback: Who Do You Say That I AM–Jesus as Model for Way to Live | TRUCC Study Live

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