Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, August 01, 2009

What is the Moral Influence Theory of Atonement

Recently I got an email asking about my stance on Substitutionary Atonement Theory. While I have an extensive article on the subject entitled: What is wrong with the Substitutionary theory of the Atonement? There still seems to be a lot of confusion when people think about the alternative I have often used called the Moral Influence Theory. Some of this was brought to my attention by some comments I read on and even from the website which in its article on the Moral Influence quotes from one of my previous articles. First here is Anita’s question:

I read your stance on "substitution theory." I have accepted this as biblical for many, many years both in my Catholic upbringing and as a Protestant. I am not rejecting your thoughts, I am just curious what you are saying. I am a bit confused, so a summary of what your meaning is would be so helpful.

Atonement Theory
The Moral Influence Theory is a theological term, it is like many theological terms not proposed and given the name Moral Influence theory that is simply something that got attached to the view by later theologians. It is a very simple theory, but first let me say that atonement theories are not meant to deal with all aspects of Christianity. In theological terms an atonement theory is meant to explain the reason why Christ died. As says: “In Christian theology, atonement is the reconciliation (‘at-one-ment’) of men and women to God through the death of Christ. The word was introduced by W. Tyndale (in 1526) to translate reconciliatio.”

Through history there have been a number of theories to attempt to explain how this reconciliation to God is brought about by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In simple terms…because in fact the moral influence theory is pretty simple the atonement is God’s showing His love and desire for reconciliation with humanity. In fact you could find that idea in most every other atonement theory. It is very clearly established in the Bible probably most memorably by Paul when he asks the rhetorical question:
(Rom 2:4 NIV) Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance? Repentance being the first step in human response to the actions of God leading to reconciliation.

What is the Moral Influence Theory
A couple of quotes from some easily accessible books online are helpful here as most reference works will attribute the teaching of the moral influence theory or at least the popularity of it to Peter Abelard:

“It is only in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (c. 1135?) that Abelard develops the thesis that the redeeming action of Christ does not consist in freeing man from servitude to the devil, but in inspiring in him the true love of God through the example of his life and his death…” Encylopedia of Christian Theology By Jean-Yves Lacoste
“Concerning the doctrine of Christ’s atonement, Abelard set forth in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans a distinctive teaching, often called a “subjective” theory. Abelard argued that the effect of Christ’s death was not an “objective” change in the relation of God and humanity (in light of human sin) as presented in Anselm of Bec’s Cur Deus homo. Rather, Christ’s death reveals self-sacrifice and absolute self-giving love, which evokes in the believer a response of total sacrifice and love and effects not a cosmic transaction involving divine justice but a personal and individual transformation of love and intention.” Medieval France by William W. Kibler, Grover A. Zinn
Subjective versus objective atonement
The idea of subjective versus objective is actually very interesting because most of the other theories have Jesus doing the sacrifice to change God. In the Satisfaction theory God has been infinitely offended by man’s sin and demands satisfaction. Man who is finite cannot provide any infinite satisfaction so Christ the God Man provides it. This theory for all practical purposes morphed into the Substitutionary theory where God demands that someone pay the penalty for man’s sin and Jesus becomes man’s substitute. The Ransom theory from early Christianity is similar as on objective theory as it seeks to have Jesus pay a ransom to Satan to free people from Satan’s grip.

The difference, the effect of the atonement upon man versus the effect of the atonement on God (or the devil) makes a huge difference from my perspective. God is God and He does not need to change, He is the one who offers the love and reconciliation and the ultimate salvation we look for. Of course the Substitutionary atonement proponent will readily agree to the idea that the Substitutionary atonement reveals the love of God because God is sending His own Son as the Substitutionary sacrifice. However to them the love of God is not enough God has to punish someone for the sin so God pours out His wrath upon Jesus Christ. The problem is; does love demand that someone has to be punished in order to forgive someone else? It produces as confused view of God, someone who loves supremely yet can’t manage to simply forgive. That frankly is not the picture of God given in much of the Bible and it is not a very reasonable view of God either.

Quotes from the confused about Moral Influence Theory
Let’s look at some of the quotes from a thread at Heavenly
Let me give my own $0.02 on the Moral Influence Theory. There is nothing wrong with it.... as far as it goes. No one anywhere would deny that Jesus' life and death influenced us morally. That was certainly part of his mission

But if Jesus' only mission was to show us how to live more moral lives, or even to show us how far love would go, there would have been no necessity for his death. It was just a stronger statement that way.
What the MIT leaves out is the whole Great Controversy, the charges against God, the reason that God had to let sin play out and his solution to the dilemma that the results of sin presented. In my opinion it was this larger context that required that Jesus suffer the consequences of sin to demonstrate the truth of God's diagnosis and the full nature of sin. I see no other way in which that could have been addressed that would not have left some crack of doubt about God and his government. Jesus' death was absolutely necessary for the whole problem of evil to be resolved. The MIT does not include that broad a scope.


This person has made the classic mistake of not understanding what an Atonement theory is meant to address. That is how does the death of Christ bring reconciliation? He is partially right in that all Christian doctrine relates to some other part of Christian doctrine. But there is no Atonement theory that includes all the broad scope of everything in Christianity. There is not even agreement on what the broad scope would be and just saying the code words “Great Controversy” does little to establish any understanding. Though the term is used and misused in Adventism a lot. Practically no one really knows what it means because the term seems to try and cover everything that a particular person thinks is important. The same person continues in another post:

That God would choose to do this rather than "start over" is proof of his love. But to me (and I do NOT NOT NOT claim to speak for all Larger View folk in this) the primary reason for the necessity of Jesus' death was that there was no other way to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that sin pays its wages, death rather than sin results in God killing you.

To me this explanation takes our understanding of the atonement out of the realm of the "Moral Influence Theory" because the MIT has no "necessity" for his death. He could have done it without the death but it was simply a stronger statement that way. In this understanding the death of Jesus was necessary. There is no other way in which this "double bind" could have been answered. Jesus had to die to deal with the claims of evil.

This continues the previous misunderstanding of what an Atonement theory is but it also adds a new component which you find in many of those who claim to be students of Dr. Graham Maxwell (people who often say they follow the “Larger View” or the “Great Controversy” view of atonement). That is that for some reason no one would know what death was unless Jesus died. It is an attempt to get back to the objective idea that God had to change something (here it would be humanities view of death). In stead of God having to punish someone for sin they move it to God had to prove that separation from God really is death. That the death we see all around us is not really death at all, only seeing the sin caused the death of Christ as someone who never sinned do we realize the separation from God really kills. I know it sounds silly and it is and it contradicts the New Testament which indicates at least 5 times that people killed Christ, not once saying that God caused the death of Christ. It is a view predicated on Ellen White, for those trying to incorporate her into their theology it takes on major importance, with the idea that Christ suffered the Second death, the death that the wicked will suffer after the second coming.

Another regular member at Heavenlysanctuary, Scott wrote:

If penal substitution (forensic model) is true then Christ could have been killed at two years old at the hand of Herod (acting for God) and accomplished being our substitute for God's wrath.

If the Moral Influence theory is true then God needed not become human at all. He could have come down as God or even sent an angel to accomplish telling men how to live. This would not require his death or resurrection.

Here we see another of the misrepresentation of the moral influence theory; the idea that the reason for the moral influence theory of the atonement was simply to show us humans how to live. First as with Mark, Scott doesn’t understand what an Atonement theory is trying to explain and second the idea that moral influence is meant as telling us how to be moral. So no, his assertion that the moral influence theory would be just as acceptable had an angel come and died is incorrect. At best we would conclude that an angel had self sacrificing love but that does not tell us about God and thus does nothing to create reconciliation.

Kevin writes the following:

A second criticism I have of the Moral Influence Theory is that it is focused too much on works. Jesus died as a demonstration so that you change your life and that life chance is what saves you. It turns the cross into a coach and becomes a very beautiful way of phrasing traditional legalism.

Using the words of detractors to define a belief
This is one of the most popular distortions of the Moral Influence theory. It is like so many distortions is drawn not from what the believers in the Moral Influence theory say but from what the detractors say about the Moral Influence theory. We see an example of this on Religious Tolerance website which says under the description “Some brief descriptions of the Moral Theory are:

Phil Johnson of the conservative Protestant Grace to You ministry disagrees with the Moral Theory. He describes it as follows: "Christ’s death was an example for believers to follow, a radical expression of love that influences sinners morally and gives them a pattern to follow..." 6

People have to really be careful who they get their information from. If you want to know what a certain people believe you go to sources of people who believe that. You don’t go to the Adventists to find out what Roman Catholics believe or to Roman Catholics to find out what Adventists believe. There may be Adventists and Roman Catholics who know what the other believes but they will be able to document the belief from people who actually hold the belief. This is why quotations are so important and it protects us from making wrong assumptions and or judgments based upon faulty information.

Christ as Christian Example
That Christ is an example to follow is nearly universal in Christianity but that is not what the moral influence theory is. You may have noticed nobody said that the book In His Steps was based upon the Moral Influence Theory but that is the premise to the first half of the book and the concept “what would Jesus do”. The moral influence theory is no more works oriented than the works oriented legalism of those who hold to Satisfaction or Penal theory. Atonement theory is not about works or grace of people. Atonement theory is about the grace or work of Christ and how His death leads to reconciliation.

Definitions of Moral often ignored
There are other definitions of “Moral” which convey much better the idea of moral used in the term Moral Influence theory. Three of them found in the definition of moral at are:
-- Founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom: moral obligations.
-- of, pertaining to, or acting on the mind, feelings, will, or character: moral support.
-- resting upon convincing grounds of probability; virtual: a moral certainty.

Atonement the center of Christianity
A person’s view of the Atonement will serve as the foundation, the center of their interpretation of all other aspects of Christianity. It defines the character of God and that understanding of God defines the rest of our beliefs. This makes it very hard for someone who believes in the ultimately self sacrificing love of God designed to bring us back to a relationship with God to live a legalistic life. In other words to think that because God loved us so much that He came in the person of Jesus Christ to show us His love and even when rejected and tortured by people He still loved and forgave the ones killing Him. Yet He requires the same self sacrificing love and forgiveness from you or He will not be reconciled with you makes no sense it would not even be atonement. That God asks us to love and forgive is very true and a part of most all Christian thought. But that our love and forgiveness is what saves us is the difference between legalism and grace oriented salvation. It explains why those who believe God is defined by His love and forgiveness cannot hope to live lives of sufficient love and forgiveness to merit salvation. We know that there is no works we can do to make up for our lack of love and forgiveness.

That God acts rightly, that love is the conduct of God is the type of “moral” nature revealed in the atonement. That the character of God reaches to our mind, our feeling and character is equally moral. The fact that this love is convincingly given by the record of the life and death of Christ confirms still another definition of moral. We could even add more morals in that Christ conformed to then current laws or that Christ was obedient. But those moral elements don’t bring reconciliation they are evidence of who Christ was. But we can’t ignore the elements of moral which influence us to follow God. Which is what many of the detractors of Moral Influence theory do because they really do like the moral influence theory it just does not go far enough for them. It does not fulfill their view of a God that demands someone has to die because a law was broken…that satisfaction has to be made. If I speculated about their reason other than tradition for their insistence I would have to say it is founded upon a misunderstanding of God and love. And that is why the theory of Atonement is so very important today.


Elaine Nelson said...

Ron, your essay on the MIT was excellent.
My question relates to the first NT scripture that seeks to explain Jesus' death. Paul had his own explanation, but how do the later gospels explain it by quoting Jesus' own statements; statements that were not taped, but only were in the memory of those who first heard and passed it on to the gospel writers.
What and how can the different explanations of the reason for Christ's death be presented as one with no opposing or dissenting opinion. There is so many different narratives, how can they be all correct.

Ron Corson said...

It seems to me the Gospel writers are in agreement with Paul. John 3:16 God so loved the world that He sent His son that whoever believes will have eternal life.

Other than love they don't seem to be searching for any other reason for the atonement. Then when you look at the Apostolic writers they are the ones who try to draw more out of the meaning but they are still very straight forward to the Gospels and Paul.


Clement, (? - circa 99 CE) referring to Yeshua's life, wrote: "Through Him God has called us from darkness to light from ignorance to knowledge of the glory of His name." He also wrote that Yeshua's sufferings should bring us to repentance.

Hemas, writing circa 150 CE, suggested that Yeshua reveals to us the true God.

Barnabas (circa 1 to 60? CE) wrote that Yeshua came to abolish death and to demonstrate resurrection after death. 1

I realized that they used my article a week or so ago but I just noticed that they changed Jesus to Yeshua, I wonder if they are a Jewish leaning group. Anyway you see that they are trying harder to understand just how atonement works. Most of the other Church Fathers just mention atonement as a foregone conclusion it is done. God has accomplished the atonement. They don't really delve into the why very much. Much later people began to read into texts the meanings such as the penal aspects but that is mainly over a thousand years later, with the notable exception of Origen who seemed to stretch to accept every known theory and created many of his own fanciful though many of them were.

Anonymous said...

I concur with your thought that how we view the atonement and the reason for Christ death does expose how we view God.

I think it is in our nature to try to put the pieces together that creates a picture we can believe in. So as Elaine noted there are many different narratives, I think we each should take the time to put our own together as the Spirit directs us. Hopefully we can learn from each other and rearrange our pieces and filling in the blank spots so we have a better picture of our Loving God.

When I hear that Jesus died because He loved us then the question I ask is what is love?

To me Love is who God is and love show up in God’s dealings with us. I further define Love as the principles (laws) which God ordained to govern His universe – which are but a reflection of His character – who He is. With that we can start putting a face on Love – it allows a degree of freedom in thought and creativity, it is thoughtful, generous, giving, helpful, it is responsible and accountable, it is honest, truthful and has integrity, et cetera. When we live in harmony with the principles of Love we find happiness and joy that is unmatched.

Unfortunately using the freedom allotted us an alternative set of principles (laws) have been advanced with the promise of happiness and power not achievable else where. These principles are a variation or even repudiation of the Law of Love which we have come to know as Sin. When we live by the principles of Sin our actions as seen as sinful.

The only way to know if the Laws of Sin are truthful or not is to let them play out. Because Sin allows for deceit and confusion it is difficult to figure out what is what. God put on skin and came to this earth to help us see the contrast between the Law of Love and the Law of Sin. Jesus, being God, was born with the Law of Love governing His Being – because that’s who He is. Those governed by the Law of Sin tried to destroy Him from the very outset – the contrast was stark and continued all though His life here on earth – hunger vs. plenty; storm vs. calm; turmoil vs. peace; sickness vs. health; death vs. life; the truth about God vs. the falsehoods about God.

Jesus had compassion for people burden by Sin and its consequences. He offered them forgiveness for their misdeeds and an offer of reestablishing the Law of Love as the governing force in their lives.

If Sin had it way it would destroy God – only one problem, God cannot be destroyed. The death and resurrection of Jesus made this point abundantly clear and stands as the sharpest distinction between Love and Sin.

If Sin is allowed to dominate the world the world will become a living hell and will self-destruct. This is where we are today – this is why time goes on – to let Sin play out it hand completely – to let it prove itself a liar.

In the mean time we continue the work of Jesus by being a demonstration of what it is like to live by the principles of God. We are the living proof that God can write His laws on our hearts and it will show up in our actions. We do this because we have found favor with God not to gain favor from God.


Theodore A. Jones said...

The word 'reconciled' when concluded to be positive is not the correct conclusion.

As to Corson.
" For God so loved the world that the he sent his only begotten son so that (at the hands of wicked men his life was taken by bloodshed according to the set purpose of God for each man too) so that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

"And from each man too I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man."

But if you do not give God the accounting he has demanded by an addition to his law, you perish.

"It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13

All who do not obey God this Way are reconciled to God by law for destruction.

"And for your, Jesus', lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man too I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man."

Ron Corson said...

Jones wrote:

All who do not obey God this Way are reconciled to God by law for destruction.
What a bizarre statement. First it does not use the word reconciled in it's proper meaning of the Biblical context. He uses it quite apart from the Bible in the way that is similar to this dictionary definition:
"to cause (a person) to accept or be resigned to something not desired: He was reconciled to his fate."

Instead of it's Biblical meaning which is: "To reestablish a close relationship between."

In fact you never find the Bible using reconcile in connection with a punishment.

(Col 1:20 NIV) and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

(Col 1:21 NIV) Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.

(Col 1:22 NIV) But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation--

However it is very instructive to hear the other sides view. It makes us more sure of our view.

Theodore A. Jones said...

The passages you cite, sir, even tho plural personal pronouns are used, those pronouns are not universally inclusive. Since Paul is writing to a group who have beleived and obeyed what he taught that group is like-minded with the writer. However God's oath in Gen. 9:5NIVc
is unalterably inclusive since you are not outside of the grouping, man. And I am certain that up to this point in time you have never given God the accounting he does by law demand from each man too by Jesus' life having been taken by bloodshed.
Therefore you are not in that group to whom Paul wrote by not being like-minded, as you admit, with what Paul's view is as stated in Rom. 2:13
And since you are of the false assumption that it is 'view points' that are equal to or over riding what God by law demands from you.
I think He is pretty well highly reconciled by the existance of Lord's law given through the apostles to not referain from your utter destruction for not obeing his son exactly as the Lord thy God has commanded! Don't believe me. Be wise and put the Living God to a test.
Have a good day, and like me, it is one of your last.

Ron Corson said...

An amazing misuse of the Bible.

(Gen 9:3 NIV) Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

(Gen 9:4 NIV) "But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.

(Gen 9:5 NIV) And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.

(Gen 9:6 NIV) "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

Theodore A. Jones said...

Corson.Test God. Have fun.........................while you can.
Now take a hike.

Ron Corson said...

This being my blog I don't think I will take a hike. I will see I doubt God is too pleased with your picture of Him. You actually in my opinion are confirming peoples reasons to reject Christianity. So I feel somewhat honored to be considered someone opposed to your view.