Over at the gospel coalition blog, Mike Wittmer wrote an excellent post on various atonement theories and their need for one another conceptually (rather than having them work as standalone theories). He helpfully identifies the three main theories of atonement as providing interrelated answers to various questions the atonement poses. Christus Victor gives us the “why” of atonement; penal substitution the “how,” and moral influence the “for what.” I encourage you to go check out the post yourself. Below I have copied in my own reply to his post.
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First off, I greatly appreciate this post and what it does with atonement theory in general. There is a huge need today in theology on this topic to incorporate and adequately relate the different aspects of atonement into a holistic and multi-faceted picture that benefits from all its different parts. I’ve personally been dissatisfied with treatments (e.g. Scot McKnight’s book, good though it is) that attempt to treat each theory as a coherent whole in and of itself without any significant reference to the others, so that how we account for the atonement becomes simply a pragmatic matter of which one will “do the job.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that “theories” is a misnomer—they simply aren’t adequate on their own as entire explanations. We can call them theories if we wish, but what we are actually dealing with are different features of one whole “thing” that is going on at the cross. Wittmer’s proposal in this regard is excellent: (1) Christus Victor gives us the “why” of atonement, (2) Penal Substitution gives us the “how,” and (3) Moral Influence gives us the “for what.”
There are a few additions I would want to make by way of critique. First, I think it should be pointed out that the great insight of Gustaf Aulen’s book, “Christus Victor,” was not mainly that Jesus needed to defeat Satan. (That is where it might be best to distinguish a fourth “Ransom” theory of atonement.) Rather, Aulen’s biggest point is that *sin itself* is the ultimate objective problem that had to be dealt with in the atonement, through Jesus’ victory. Aulen’s critique of Anselm and his theological heirs is that, despite claiming the title of “objective” for their atonement theories, they have in fact evacuated the model of its truly objective content. The real problem—sin—isn’t given its proper objectivity, whereas in CV its status as a power ensures that sin is actually a “thing” that can be dealt with in Jesus’ death. Instead, in Anselm and his successors, the locus of the problem shifts from sin itself to God’s wrath. And that is precisely the root of all the caricatures of Penal Substitution: it seems to make God the “problem,” and not sin. (This objection can be answered in a sense, of course, but I think the real problem lies deeper, in our failure to accord sufficient objectivity to sin. Aulen’s book has the virtue of doing that.)
When we properly recognize sin to be the real problem, God’s wrath makes perfect sense. Sin is not merely a “record” of wrongdoing that we have amassed in the recollection of God, “about which” God is angry. Sin is a whole state of affairs in the created order that *embodies* and *perpetuates* our guilt: it is the complex entirety of our “missed-the-mark” fleshly existence that has stemmed from our initial breach in our relationship to God. This existence then not only embodies the broken relationship and all its effects, but also the wrath of God: we are consigned to this condition of creaturely futility in death, because we have violated our unique status as God’s filial image-bearers carrying his dominion into all creation, preferring to deify ourselves instead. God’s wrath, in this picture, exists precisely toward the end of bringing this perverted state of affairs we have brought about to an end—in death.
When we get that, the meaning of Jesus’ death becomes clearer than ever, in precisely the holistic way that Wittmer wants to advocate. Jesus bears our guilt on the cross and disposes of it as our substitute precisely by bearing our created existence as his own, with all of the perversion that resides in it because of our broken relation to God. He receives our death penalty because he shares fully in our condition in the flesh: a humanity distorted and subject to sin, embodying our guilt, and facing the creator’s judgment. But he shares this condition sinlessly—in a perfect and right relation to God in the midst of our broken condition, faithfully loving and obeying God in the power of the Holy Spirit that conceived and anointed him. This fidelity is precisely the instrument of his victory as our substitute (“simul victor et vicarius,” we might say). He carries our guilty flesh to the cross and offers it to God’s judgment, to be abolished and made new in death and resurrection. What results is a new humanity—the risen humanity of our savior, free from the power of sin in the flesh, restored to perfect life and fellowship with God, and recovered for its task of bearing the creator’s dominion in his creation. All of this is accomplished in Jesus, and then through the gospel Jesus himself is given to us, to be the new seat of our identity—our life, our new man, our death and resurrection that will become manifest in our own mortal members. That’s his victory; that’s his substitution; that’s his influence. That’s atonement.
I suppose I get carried away; the point is, Jesus doesn’t just “happen” to accomplish “each” of these things described in these theories in the course of his atoning work. Rather, the three models are describing parts of the same thing (which I take to be among Wittmer’s great insights). Our human condition, marred as it is by sin, is simultaneously an embodiment of the powers’ sway over creation, and an embodiment of the creator’s wrath against sin. Therefore in the judicial termination of that sinful human condition on the cross, and its creation anew in the resurrection, God is judging and condemning sin in the flesh *precisely* in Jesus’ act of overcoming the powers through his own sinlessness and obedience. (Incidentally, this means that a strong dichotomy, as in John Goldingay’s essay that Wittmer quotes, between “vicariously punished” and “vicariously cleansed” is inappropriate.) Meanwhile, the complete work in its entirety demonstrates the greatness of God’s love for us—a love that takes as its own the burden of our humanity and disposes of its brokenness in God’s very self, for the sake of all. The triune God, adopting our humanity in his Son, cleansing it through the judgment of the cross and resurrection, and giving his Son to us to be our new humanity, righteousness, blessedness, and life—this is the love of God made manifest. How great is our God!
Lastly, the degree to which this constitutes a “moral influence” over us lies not just in our feeling inspired by it and determining to do likewise (e.g. love our enemies, forgive them even the point of death). Rather, the “moral influence” is also rooted in something objective: our incorporation into Christ by the Spirit. We don’t merely “imitate” him: his love, his grace, his dying and living becomes manifest in our own lives through our union with him and our possession, by faith, of his vicarious humanity. The cross doesn’t just “influence” us to act a certain way—it transforms our whole existence by bringing us to new birth, disassociating us from the sinful flesh that has been crucified in Christ, and empowering us to live out of our identity in Christ as God’s adopted sons and daughters, so that his image is displayed in us and our human vocation is realized.
So much more could be said, but anyway—thanks for posting this!