moral influence theory of the atonement
The view of the atonement that maintains that the purpose of the death of Christ was to show God’s love so that sinners will be moved to repentance; also called exemplarism.
- From Theories of the Atonement by Leon Morris:
Some form of the subjective or moral view is held widely today, especially among scholars of the liberal school. In all its variations this theory emphasizes the importance of the effect of Christ’s cross on the sinner. The view is generally attributed to Abelard, who emphasized the love of God, and is sometimes called the moral influence theory, or exemplarism. When we look at the cross we see the greatness of the divine love. this delivers us from fear and kindles in us an answering love. We respond to love with love and no longer live in selfishness and sin. Other ways of putting it include the view that the sight of the selfless Christ dying for sinners moves us to repentance and faith. If God will do all that for us, we say, then we ought not to continue in sin. So we repent and turn from it and are saved by becoming better people.
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.
- From The Christian Faith by Michael Horton:
Already in the twelfth century, Abelard (1079-1142) challenged the interpretation of his contemporary, Anselm, by offering his own view, which has come to be called the moral influence theory. According to this theory, the purpose of Christ’s death was to provide a moving example of God’s love for sinners that would provoke repentance. The image of Christ’s death on the cross demonstrates God’s love in such a powerful way that only the coldest hearts could resist its lure and remain enemies of God. In fairness it must be observed that Abelard also included other elements (particularly in his Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans). However, the Pelagian tendency of modern theology adopted this model as the proper interpretation of Christ’s death. Already in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the Socinian movement embraced this subjective view—and, not surprisingly, rejected the divinity of Christ’s person. A moral example of influence need hardly be God incarnate. Eventually, this view appealed to the leaders of the Enlightenment. Especially in Kant, Christ’s death can offer only a motive to repentance, but it is our own repentance that finally effects absolution.
- Theopedia: Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement
- Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry: Moral Influence Theory
- William Sasser: Erroneous Theories of the Atonement (pdf)
- Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith: Other Views of the Atonement
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