There’s more than one atonement theory?

By Contributor Dr. Karin Heller

Karin,

During your talk in class last night I was very shocked to hear there were four major atonement theories: Ransom Theory, Perfect Satisfaction Theory, atonement as a manifestation of love which covers a multitude of sins, and atonement as a manifestation of God’s wisdom.

As a Christian growing up I was only aware of one, at least in the church I attended, the perfect satisfaction and sacrifice offered to the Father to repair human offense. I always remember hearing Jesus died on the cross to heal our sins because people sinned against God and Jesus died to save us from all of those sins so our relationship with God would be restored. Why is it that certain religions only teach their own theory of the atonement instead of all of the views so the members of the church can decide on their own which theory they believed?

During many sermons I have heard Hebrews 10, “He has offered one single sacrifice for sins, and then taken his place forever at the right hand of God…through the blood of Jesus we have the right to enter the sanctuary.” I also heard the other verses quoted from your lecture but never as a presentation of a different perspective to the atonement theory. As said in class, the true answer could be a mixture of a multitude of theories, it doesn’t just have to be one. I truly feel in society today we have been misguided and taught we have to believe what everyone else believes and we don’t allow, or give, ourselves enough credit to make a decision on our own. We have to look to someone else to make the decision.

Do you think as the religious barriers grow the teaching of the different theories will be more widespread or do you think the churches will continue to only teach their opinion on which atonement theory is correct and not allow the members of the church to make their own decision?

Thank you, 

Amy

Dear Amy,

Dr. Karin Heller

One has to study theology in order to dive into the various atonement theories.

Church leaders very often keep it “simple” for the congregation. They don’t want people to get confused. Leadership can also fear disagreements and disputes that may arise in the congregation. Which one is right, which one is wrong?

Protestants also strongly emphasize the perfect satisfaction theory, because they use it in opposition to what they perceive as a Catholic heresy, i.e. the doctrine of Catholic Mass as a “sacrifice.” This stand led Protestants to falsely believe that at each Catholic Mass Jesus is re-crucified and so to say “sacrificed” every day for our sins. The controversy about the understanding of the Eucharist led Protestants to become kind of prisoners of the perfect satisfaction theory. It was their weapon against Catholic teaching.

Given the polemical context, Protestants narrowed down their understanding of scripture. No other atonement theory was valid, because the perfect satisfaction theory seemed to them evident in the letter to the Hebrews. They neglected other biblical texts, which allow a different approach to atonement. If Protestants open up to Catholic teachings they would probably discover that Catholics read the biblical texts in a way that allows God to express himself through various understandings of his world, not just one understanding.

The Catholic Church allows its members to integrate all of these understandings in their spiritual life. The Catholic Church never condemned any of these theories.

– Karin

Dr. Karin Heller is a professor on the theology faculty at Whitworth University. Her blog, Table Talk with Dr. Karin Heller, features her responses to questions that students have asked her over the years.  Check back each week to see new posts, and if you have a question leave it in the comment section below.

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