The doctrine of salvation and the study of exactly how Christ’s death secures the salvation of those who believe remains a highly debated topic amongst theologians. Ultimately, one’s view of Christology and biblical understanding of Soteriology sets Christianity apart from any other religion, in that Christianity is the only religion that bases one’s salvation on faith alone, by grace alone, and through Christ alone. Millard Erickson emphasizes, “In the history of the church, the most heated debate in Christology has been over the understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ” (Erickson 2013, 603). In the early history of the church, the person and work of Christ were viewed as one and the same, but during the medieval period, there arose a shift in scholastic theology, which began to separate the doctrine of the person of Christ: (His divinity, humanity, and the unity of the two) from the offices and work of Christ (Erickson 2013, 617). This quickly led to disputes over the deity of Jesus and ultimately estranged the average Christian from having an impactful or experiential relationship with Christ, because the theological questions caused Christology to no longer be relevant to the average follower of Christ. An opposing view and the second shift in the view of the person and work of Christ would occur during the nineteenth and twentieth century, defined by Philipp Melanchthon’s statement: “To know Christ is to know His benefits” (Pauck 1969, 21-22). Luther further emphasized Christ’s saving activity for the believer, while Friedrich Schleiermacher stressed the importance of the experience of what Christ does in the believer. Paul Tillich would synthesize these views and assert, “Christology is a function of Soteriology. The problem of Soteriology creates the Christological question and gives direction to the Christological answer” (Tillich 1957, 2:150). Erickson illustrates how in this theory, “The theological answer is correlated with the existential question. Accordingly, we should concentrate upon the symbolism of the biblical materials, since it stresses the universal significance of the Christ event” (Erickson 2013, 617). By approaching the person of Christ through the work of Christ, it creates a greater unity between Christology and Soteriology and demonstrates the significance of the doctrine of Christ. Regardless of which view is taken, it is virtually impossible to separate the work and person of Christ and any effort to do so has the potential to lead to heresy. Erickson does demonstrate there is an acceptable way of beginning Christology with Christ’s work. However, he cautions, “While it must not be allowed to set the agenda, it can be used as a point of contact for more elaborate discussions of His nature” (Erickson 2013, 618).
Through a proper understanding of Christ’s work, it aids the believer in understanding exactly how Christ fulfilled the offices of: prophet, priest, and king, which leads to the three major functions of Christ being: revealing, ruling, and reconciling. The life and ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ then provide the framework for the doctrine of atonement, which Erickson explains, “Is the transition point from the objective doctrines of God, humanity, sin, and the person of Christ to the subjective doctrines. This transition point is the key element in balancing Christian theology to make it relevant to the believer” (Erickson 2013, 713). Just as there are multiple views pertaining to the person and work of Christ, the doctrine of atonement is no different and over the years, many inadequate theories have been presented. Ultimately, as Erickson emphasizes, “The example of Christ, the demonstration of the extent of God’s love, the severity of God’s righteousness and the seriousness of sin, the victory over sin and death, and the satisfaction for our sins are all truths, and should all be included in the explanation of the atonement” (Erickson 2013, 713). Thus, when looking at the atonement, there is an immediate shift from Christ’s nature to His work on the behalf of all sinners.
The Socinian Theory and the Moral-Influence Theory both emphasize the primary effect of Christ’s death is on humans. Both theories fail to recognize retributive justice and minimize God’s justice, holiness, and righteousness. The Governmental Theory or atonement as a demonstration of divine justice views that God does not inflict punishment as a matter of strict retribution. Sin is not punished simply because it deserves to be, but because of the demands of moral government. This view theorizes the sufferings of Christ are an atonement for sin. In stark contrast, the Satisfaction Theory, popularized by Anselm, reasoned the death of Christ was an actual penalty inflicted on Him as a substitute for the penalty that should have attached to the breaking of the law by sinners (Erickson 2013, 721). Anselm argued that it was necessary the atonement took place, in order to satisfy the justice of God. This view recognized the atonement was not primarily directed at humans, nor did it involve any sort of payment to Satan (Erickson 2013, 727). The only other theory that maintained a large following was the Ransom Theory, which viewed the atonement as victory over the forces of sin and evil. Origin and Gregory of Nyssa popularized this view, but the main problem arises as Origen viewed Satan, rather than God, being the one who demanded Christ’s blood as atonement. Another major problem with this view is that the direct effects of Christ’s atoning death were neither on God nor on humans; instead, it was directed towards Satan, making Christ’s work in relationship to God secondary (Erickson 2013, 727).
Christ, being both God and sinless human did not deserve death and it seems clear Anselm’s view of atonement, being the compensation to the Father, best encapsulates that Christ’s death: “(1) gave us a perfect example of the type of dedication God desires of us, (2) demonstrated the great extent of God’s love, (3) underscored the seriousness of sin and the severity of God’s righteousness, (4) triumphed over the forces of sin and death, liberating us from their power, and (5) rendered satisfaction to the Father for our sins” (Erickson 2013, 729). Anselm’s view of atonement also grew out of his understanding of the doctrine of sin, which is failing to render God His due. By failing to give God his due, “We take from God what is rightfully His and we dishonor Him. As sinners, we must restore to God what we have taken, but it is not sufficient merely to restore to God what we have taken away. For in taking away from God what is His, we have injured Him; and even after what we have taken has been returned, there must be some additional compensation or reparation for the injury that has been done” (Anselm 1098, 1.7). Only Christ could satisfy these requirements, and only through His atoning sacrifice could reparation be made between God and His children. Paul goes as far as to describe Christ’s work of atonement as propitiation or the appeasement of God’s wrath for the sins of humanity, so as Erickson suggests, “We must understand how the atonement involves sacrifice, propitiation, substitution, and reconciliation in the relationship of God to humanity and why it is the penal substitution theory that best describes this relationship of atonement” (Erickson 2013, 732). To fully understand atonement, one must also understand the nature of God, the status of God’s moral and spiritual law, the fallen nature of humanity, and the Old Testament sacrificial system, which demanded the blood from a sin offering for the remission of sins. The animals to be sacrificed had to spotless, without any imperfection, to atone or to cover one’s sin. Jesus’s humanity and sinless life made His vicarious atoning sacrifice applicable to all people, and as Erickson explains, “The iniquity of sinners is transferred to the suffering servant, just as in the Old Testament rites the sins were transferred to the sacrificial animal. The laying on of hands was an anticipation of the believer’s active acceptance of Christ’s atoning work” (Erickson 2013, 736). Christ’s atoning death was substitutionary, as He took our place, and took the weight of world’s sin and curses on His shoulders.
Anselm of Canterbury. Cur Deus homo, “Why God Became a Man?” 1098.
Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2001.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013.
Pauck, Wilhelm ed. Melanchthon and Bucer. Library of Christian Classics 19. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1969.
Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957.