Atonement, Theory of
Atonement, Theory of The moral grounds or explanations of Christ's death on behalf of sinful man usually assigned are two-namely, the demands of justice, which could only thus be satisfied, and the claims of authority, which could only thus be adequately maintained. Both of these essentially resolve themselves into one-namely, the requirements of the divine government, which, it is supposed, would be endangered by pardoning the sinner without the infliction. of the prescribed penalty upon a substitute. This position, plausible as it seems, is, however, based entirely upon the human point of view, and regards the atonement as a transaction in which the Almighty is affected by exterior considerations altogether such as apply to earthly rulers and mundane affairs. It may reasonably be doubted whether we have a right to assume that the Divine Being is thus hampered, or whether we present the atonement in its most favorable and impressive aspect by this course of reasoning. Such statements may be profitable by way of illustration of the divine method of procedure;. but they are hardly satisfactory as a logical exposition of the reasons operative in the divine mind in the case. We should, of course, speak cautiously in all such premises; but if we speculate at all upon the subject, we should do so in such a manner as to justify adequately the ways of God.
We apprehend that the final cause of this central feature of the redemptive scheme is to be found not so much in any considerations of vindictive or governmental policy or necessity as in its remedial power. Scripture gives the true key to its economy in the words of Christ himself: "God so loved the world that he gave his Son," etc. It was suggested by divine love in the person of the Father, and it was carried out by the same self-sacrificing, uncalculating love in the person of the Son. That impulse to make other beings happy beyond the godhead, which prompted the original creation of man, likewise induced the yearning to restore man to happiness after he had fallen. This is the only Biblical and tenable view of the subject in its ultimate theodicy.
If now it be further asked, Why was the particular method of substitutional redemption adopted? we reply, in like manner, Because divine love chose to suffer itself rather than see the object of that love suffer. Such is the nature of all true love. It rushes spontaneously to the rescue, and. interposes itself between the danger and the victim. There is no cool balancing of probabilities, risks, or advantages. It was not simply nor properly because there would be a gain in the suffering of one in place of many, nor because the infinite Sufferer was more able to endure than the finite race. Such a quantitative analysis of the transaction belittles it to a mere commercial affair. Nor does disinterested love stop to inquire whether its devotion will be altogether successful. It freely offers itself if there be the least hope or opportunity of thereby averting the doom of the beloved. It begs the privilege, and will only be restrained by insurmountable obstacles. The only real difficulties in this case would be the refusal of the judge or that of the culprit himself. The former is obviated by the fact of the unity between the persons of the Trinity, which makes them necessarily consentaneous in purpose and concurrent in act, SEE MEDIATION; the latter, by the conscious guilt and helplessness of the penitent sinner, who accepts this as his only possible mode of escape. SEE VICARIOUS SUFFERING. The final cause of Christ's atonement thus appears in its moral effect upon the will of the subject of redemption, by awakening any susceptibility of compunction and gratitude left in his nature. The spectacle of the Divine Sufferer on the cross was the last resort for winning back the erring (Joh 12:32). Dying love alone has power to constrain to penitence and fealty.
On the other hand, the strictly governmental view of the atonement falls short as an ultimate vindication of its morale in at least three essential respects. First, as such it is a signal failure in point of fact. Christ's atonement has not, as a rule, restrained mankind at large from sin, either prophylactically or punitively; but, on the contrary, has rather led to the extension of crime, partly by protracting human probation, and partly by inducing a general sense of direct impunity. Secondly, and more conclusively, as a purely governmental device, the atonement violates the most fundamental principle of all jurisprudence by proposing to excuse the guilty and punish the innocent. Thirdly, as a magisterial act it expiates offences twice over-once in the person of the Mediator, and again in that of the finally impenitent. All that we can justly say in behalf of the so-called governmental theory of atonement is, that as a secondary or subordinate design its most important advantages are indirectly subserved by the remedial economy. But we cannot consistently regard God as shut up to its adoption by the exigencies or results of his own sovereignty..
Once more, should it be inquired, If the love of God be of such an all- constraining character, why might it not have been more fully indulged by refraining from all punishment whatever? we answer, This is substantially the fact, when the word punishment is properly defined and understood in the case. Christ was not " punished" at all: he suffered indeed, but his anguish was not penal; it was voluntarily undergone for the sake of its effect upon others. Nor is the final and eternal sentence upon the impenitent sinner so much a positive and direct infliction as a deprivation of privilege and a relinquishment to the natural consequences of his own moral abandonment. He simply lies down in the bed of woe which his own hands have made. The inherent power to -sin carries with it its own penalty. God undoubtedly could, at man's creation, have constituted him incapable of either sin or misery; but he chose to confer upon him this tremendous' capability because (as we reverently conceive) the virtue of resistance is necessarily greater than that of impassivity, and the glory of redemption transcends even Edenic innocence. In a word, confirmed (because voluntary and tested) conformity to the divine will is, in truth, the only perfect happiness in the universe and by reason of God's own nature this must be the case; and this means only that supreme love to God is the sole unalloyed bliss. All who fall short of this, therefore, whether in this world or the next, are proportionately miserable by the very constitution of their being. The atonement sprang from the pure love of God, and is calculated to restore a reciprocity of it in the human breast. Its eventual failure in any individual is final perdition.
God, we repeat, doubtless could have obviated the consequences of man's fall by some less costly means, or he might, we presume, have arbitrarily prevented man's sin altogether; but we see no way by which he could so effectually have exhibited his intense and ceaseless love for the race as by sending his Son to die for its salvation. At all events, this is the method of redemption which he has actually chosen, and we feel compelled to believe that he selected this in order to manifest the full extent of his interest in his fallen creatures. The catastrophe, we suppose, was permitted in order that the remedy might be possible; and both illustrate the magnanimity of the divine nature in the highest conceivable degree.
We are not deterred from this explanation of the atonement by the Socinian abuse of it, which represents Christ as dying, like a mere hero, for the sake of example to his fellows. Nothing short of self-sacrifice on the part of God will satisfy the conditions of our view. The offended and injured parent must himself intervene for the rescue and recovery of the contumacious and ruined child. The undying love of the Creator only can save the lost creature. It is this sublime devotion alone that call conquer the rebel and reform the depraved. The God-man is essential no less as a crowning attraction upon the cross than as a model in the pathways of life. The atonement extends from the manger to the sepulchre; and it is divinity that lends it all its commanding lustre.
Nor in the above view of God's fatherly feelings towards the sinner do we overlook his hatred of sin. But this latter we regard as rather an emotion of grief and regret (humanly speaking) than of resentment or indignation, as directed towards the person of the offender. We can only arrive at a just notion of the divine sentiments by comparing them with those of an earthly parent respecting a disobedient child. The sin is hateful, but the sinner is still loved with pity and benevolence. The temper and bearing of Jesus in his entire earthly career most beautifully illustrated this combination.
Additional Literature.-Bushnell, God in Christ, and other works (proceeds upon the purely spectacular theory); Knapp, Christian Theology (reviews the leading opinions, and concludes that "God chose this extraordinary means from the impulse of his own benevolence"); Van Oosterzee, Christian Dogmatics (treats of its external relations only); Martensen, Christian Dogmatics (clearly contrasts Anselm's and Abelard's views, which respectively represent the severe and the benignant theories of all later discussions); Steinmeyer, Passion of our Lord (from the German, Edinb. 1879, p. 6 sq.; examines the latest positions and inclines to the satisfaction theory); Miley, The Atonement in Christ (adopts the governmental theory). See also the works cited by Danz, Wirterb. s.v. "Versohnungslehre ;" Malcolm, Theolog. Index, s.v.; Darling, Cyclop. Bibliog. Index, s.v.; Low's English Catalogue, Index, s.v.; Poole, Index, s.v.; and other bibliographical works.