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Atonement in the views of Anselm and Abelard

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    Atonement in the views of Anselm and Abelard


                With respect to Christian theology, atonement, a multifaceted complex term refers to the reparation of sin, along with God’s propitiation by the sufferings, incarnation, life and death of Christ Jesus; the Lord’s obedience and death on sinners’ behalf as grounds for redemption. On a much smaller scale, it addresses Christ’s sacrificial work for sinners. In the eyes of a great majority of Unitarians and Universalists, atonement indicates the process of brining individuals closer to God, a fact in contradistinction to notions of reconciling creation to its offended author, God. In addition to the word itself having numerous interpretations, several theories have been forwarded by theologians in a bid to elucidate the subject of atonement. The first is the sacrificial or Anselmian theory, which focuses on Christ’s sacrifices for the sake of humanity. Origen’s remedial theory, the second one under the subject, posits that via the incarnation, God came amongst humanity in a bid to eradicate sin; Christ’s life, as well as his death have the effect of unifying him with humanity. The Socinian theory is another, proposing that the life of Jesus, in addition to his work go a long way in influencing the faithful in leading better lives (Believe Religious Information Resource, n.d.). The other commonly discussed theories are Augustine’s sacrificial atonement theory, the accident theory and the modern martyr theory (Murray, 2008).  This paper specifically analyses atonement in the views of Anselm and Abelard, that is, the satisfaction theory and the moral influence theory.

    The Anselmian Satisfaction Theory of Atonement

    According to Anselm, the human race has amassed a massive debt in God’s eyes by not according him the honor he deserves. Apart from demanding that the honor be repaid, God’s justice requires satisfaction of the debt so that the essential telos of humanity (the participation of divine blessedness in union with the Father, God).  He further posits that humans cannot offset the debt. This theory unites God’s justice and mercy in Christ’s work and person. He says that only God has the capacity to repay the infinitely large debt that mankind has accumulated thus far, the assumption being that there is a man comparable to God. Human beings lack qualities of infinite worth, yet from this pool must come payment for the said debt. The logical solution to the dilemma presented is therefore the work and person of Jesus Christ. Having the dual nature of being fully divine and fully human, He is in best placed to address the human debt occasioned by repeat acts of injustice. God is the only being with the holiness and the possession of infinitely valuable qualities to address the reparation of sin. In addition to that, the hypostatic union Christ’s two natures exempts him from the yoke of sin (original sin) and allows him to lead a life in perfect obedience of his Father’s will (Draft, 2007).

                That said and done, Christ’s life did not suffice with respect to the payment under discourse; his passion and death did. Anselm writes that there is not a single member of the human race save for Christ who by dying, gave to the Father anything that that person himself or herself was not going to forego or lose without being compelled to. Moreover, nobody ever repaid debts to God that they themselves never owed. However, out of his own volition, Jesus gave God, his father, something he was not compelled to and which he would not lose. Simply stated, he paid sinners’ debt on their behalf. Herein lies Anselm’s presentation of the life of Jesus Christ as something infinitely valuable. The question this poses is whether mercy and justice unite or are in opposition (Draft, 2007). Anselm presents God as a monarch whose distinction has been slighted. He fails to notice that rulers may display a degree of clemency and forgiveness without having to destroy his kingdom. Furthermore, this view of atonement fails to bring indicate the relationship between the death of Jesus Christ and humanity’s salvation. Christ deserved great rewards for his death as he accepted a death he did not deserve. Then again, he could not get the said reward as he lacked nothing. Who was the fitting benefactor if not the people Christ died for? This angle presents the salvation of sinners as some sort of lottery. Nevertheless, he assesses sin with the seriousness it deserves (Believe Religious Information Resource, n.d.).

    Abelard’s Moral Theory

                The moral theory is also known as the exemplarist theory. Peter Abelard suggests that the life and death of Jesus Christ serve as moral examples to the rest of humanity, lifting people from the shackles of sin and bringing them closer to God. Atonement as per this theory is neither achieved via payment to the Devil as the ransom theory proposes nor via payments made in a bid to restore God’s honour (Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory).God’s justice may demand certain compensation, although God never explicitly asks for it. His divine providence takes precedence over his justice needs. In addition to this, God forgave sins well before Jesus assumed his human nature and the latter personally took up the ‘cross’ of human suffering. God, as explained by F.W. Robertson was not cross with his son Jesus, but Christ grappled with the transgressions of humanity in his clash with forces of evil, dying in the process. Evidently it was a difficult, undeserved death. By staying true to the word of God, Christ was able to prevail over evil. Through deep love for mankind, he was also able to effectively influence the thoughts, words and actions of people via establishing Christianity. The focus here is the desire of the individual to seek wholeness and not God or Satan like the other theories stated (Murray, 2008).

                In one of his literary pieces, Abelard writes that human redemption via Christ’s suffering teaches that deeper love not only sets humanity free the shackles of sin, but it also vouchsafes true liberty as God’s children so that love, as opposed to fear, may drive all actions. Humanity thus responds to love in like, no longer living in sin and selfishness (BBC, 2009). This argument focuses on personal belief and experience; atonement is rendered ineffective outside believers’ hearts. Christ made the supreme sacrifice, rendering other sacrifices nothing more than figures and types. Essentially love is the greatest grace. Even thought there is truth in Abelard’s theory, it remains inadequate.

                The criticisms touching on Abelard’s exemplarist theory are varied. One plainly states that God’s numerous attributes, for instance justice, holiness and love are in complete balance; qualifying love as God’s greatest characteristic distorts His image, implying a warped and unbalanced nature. Clairvaux’s Bernard, one of Abelard’s contemporaries stated that if Jesus death was just and example to be followed, Christians could attain salvation via their personal efforts. Following Christ out of one’s own volition, anybody would learn to carry out good deeds and avoid evil. Among the Protestants, a major belief is that faith alone, not works, brings salvation; it is God’s gift to humankind. This is incongruous with Abelard’s theory as it is dependent on one’s own effort (Robinson, 2006).


                The views of these great theologians differ diametrically from the prevailing notions at the time that Satan had a certain right or hold over fallen humanity and the only means of deliverance was payment of ransom by the humanity’s captor. Abelard and Anselm rightly urge that Satan was culpable of injustice with respect to the matter and thus had no rights to anything except punishment. The difference that comes from their views is Abelard’s refusal to accept that satisfaction for sins committed, equivalent to the degree of injustice caused was required and that only the Divine Redeemer’s death could settle the debt. According to St. Bernard, Abelard’s denial of the Devil’s rights was tantamount to the denial of redemption as a sacrament, making Christ’s example and teaching the only gain of Jesus’ incarnation.

                From the discussion this paper presents, atonement, in the views of Anselm and Abelard is indeed a vast, deep issue. Humankind’s plight, on the backdrop of its sinful nature is disastrous; sinners seem lost, destined for final damnation. The atonement necessary for the correction of the negative effects of sin must be somewhat complex. This brings in the need for vivid concepts like justification, propitiation and redemption among others. The theories presented draw attention to specific elements of human salvation, all of which must require attention. The clear limitations of the human nature pale in the magnitude of atonement necessary for salvation.

    John Calvin, Martin Luther and a host of other reformers have all along developed Anselm’s theory in line with penal substitution. On the other hand, liberal theologians seem to have favour Abelard’s view of atonement. It is clear to see why the two are considered Scholasticism’s fathers and how thy routed the course of medieval theology. Modern day theologians seem to opt for a balance in the views of atonement presented by the two (Believe Religious Information Resource, n.d.). On a higher level, the fact that Abelard’s and Anselm’s views remain theories signifies the reality that view can fully explain atonement. The dual nature of Jesus Christ, his union with God and the Godhead’s view of the world make things that much more difficult for the human mind to comprehend. Putting the theories together only serves to indicate the magnitude of God’s salvific deeds, even if only to a small extent (Believe Religious Information Resource, n.d.).

    Works Cited

    BBC, “Theories of Atonement”, Religion & Ethics, 2009, Accessed on 25th Feb.             2009 from           3.shtml

    Believe Religious Information Resource, “Atonement”, n.d., Accessed on 25th   Feb. 2009 from

    Draft, M. S., “Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Atonement” 2007, Accessed on                25th Feb. 2009 from      theory-of-atonement/

    Murray, N. R., “A Brief Article on Atonement Theory”, 2008, Accessed on 25th     Feb. 2009 from    atonement-theory.html

    Robinson, B. A. “The Moral Theory”, 2006, Accessed on 25th Feb. 2009 from   


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