Up to now we have looked at two theories of atonement – Ransom and Rescue and Substitution and Satisfaction. Both of these theories placed an emphasis on saving humans from a dilemma. In either option, someone had to solve the issue. In both cases Jesus’ life on the cross was used to satisfy God need for payment.
Today we meet Abelard. Abelard was born about fifty years after Anselm. Abelard started his career as a philosopher, teacher, theologian and monk. Abelard did not agree with Anselm’s theory of Substitution and Satisfaction for atonement nor did he agree with the ransom and rescue approach. In fact, Abelard did not understand why anyone had to die to pay for anything. Abelard wondered how one sin could fix another.
Abelard believed that earlier theories missed two very important things; (1) God’s love ability to shape humans into being worthy of God’s love and (2) that Jesus’s life was more than his death upon the cross. Their theories left out his examples of living and teachings.
Abelard taught that God sent Jesus as an example and for encouragement. We learned from Jesus how much God loved us (John 3:16) and how we are to love each other (The Prodigal Son). Jesus in showing how he loved us went so far as to die for us. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep John10:17 and there is no greater gift than to lay down our lives for each other (John 15:13). We are even to love the ones we do not love or feel uncomfortable with. Good Samaritian (Lk. 10.25-37)
One might wonder if there is a need for forgiveness. Abelard might say that is all about forgiveness, but we don’t have to wait until the cross. God is more than eager to forgive, and the cross is a perfect example of perfect love. Atonement for Abelard is demonstrated in all of God’s life, not just the cross. We are transformed by his example and encouragement.
The weakness with Abelard’s argument is where are the examples of how it works. Show me a person or community where this perfect love is lived out. WWJD bracelets just don’t seem to get us there. There have been some great Christians in the past who have been good examples but not enough that we transform the world.
In the nineteenth century this theory became very popular. Proponents simply placed their trust in Jesus’s example and believed the Holy Spirit could help us make it the rest of the way.
Some people think this theory is too optimistic about humanity. There is no need for the resurrection. The resurrection is simply an example of ultimate love and triumph of God’s love.
So there you are. Three theories to think about. Where do you find yourself?