Atonement part 4: Moral Influence Theory

[[With apologies to the Rev. Shannon P. Mullins. I wish I had been able to finish this series in enough time to help you out]]

St. Paul writes in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, “Do not be deceived: ‘bad company ruins good morals.’” Almost all of us understand that those we hang around influence the way we live our lives. Our morality is shaped by the people we live with and the people that we hang around with. Anyone can see this. Think back to a time when you joined a new group. It may have been subtle, but I’d wager if you examine yourself really closely, you began to change your behavior to match or more closely align with that of the group. I know it happened to me when I started playing football in middle school. Interestingly enough, many Christian theologians have based their understandings of atonement on a similar idea. For these men, chief among them Peter Abelard, the life and death of Jesus Christ served not as a mechanism to satisfy or placate the wrath of God, but as an example of how human beings should live. God, Abelard argued, is more concerned with the moral status of humanity than with ownership or satisfied honor.

Some historians of the Church claim that moral influence theory is the oldest of the atonement theories. Some of the deutero-canonical literature of the New Testament period (even some of the canonical literature) seems to point toward a theory of atonement that revolves around the example of Christ. For examples of this, see the Shepherd of Hermas, Fifth Similitude, Chapter VI; Sixth Similitude, Chapter I; Tenth Similitude, Chapter II; and the Epistle of Diogenetus, chp. IX, all of which urge the both repentance and the following of Christ’s commandments and example as a path to salvation Moral Influence theory can also be found mixed with ransom theory in the works of Origen, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Augustine and others.

But despite the ancient voices who bear witness to Moral Influence, the classical expression of the theory is to be found in the writings of Peter Abelard, a French scholastic monk who has been described as the sharpest and boldest mind of the 12th century. Unfortunately, Abelard’s affair with his love Heloise has long since overshadowed his career as a theologian, though it was indeed a brilliant one.

Abelard’s theory is laid out in his book Expositio in Epistolam ad Romanos, and if you don’t trust my summary, feel free to read his original argument for yourself. Essentially, Abelard’s argument removes the focus from transactions between God and God or God and the Devil. The moral influence theory places the impetus on the believer, on the transformation in the life of the individual. Instead of a God who appears overly concerned with past moral transgressions, the moral influence theory paints a picture of a God who primarily cares about the moral transformation of the individual.

In a nutshell, Abelard argues that, while humans are indeed sinful beings, God is more concerned with their present moral transformation rather than the punishment of past sins. Thus, he doesn’t offer Jesus as a sacrifice to appease anything, nor does he need to broker a deal with the Devil. Instead, the entirety of scripture bears witness to His attempt to correct the wrong behavior of mankind and bring them back into fellowship with Himself. This was the purpose of the Law and the Prophets, and eventually of Jesus.

In the Moral Influence theory, Jesus is not a sacrificial lamb or a ransom payment. He is the primary example of a Godly life and death. Indeed, the example of his earthly existence is an inspiration that brings about moral transformation in the believer. The teachings of Christ show us how to live, his prophetic and apocalyptic tendencies demonstrate God’s desire for justice, and his death shows us how far God is willing to go to reform us. His subsequent resurrection demonstrates the power of God and again acts as a catalyst to garner our imitation. If this man could rise from the dead, why on earth should we not follow his example?

Many opponents of moral influence theory argue that the doctrine is not scriptural, but proponents find support in various places. The bulk of the New Testament, for example, is concerned with the moral conduct of the various Christian congregations. When Jesus describes the Last Judgement, it appears that the judgment will be based on moral actions, not simply knowledge of Christ. New Perspective thought has also shed light on this topic, emphasizing that Paul’s disregard for the Law is to be understood only in terms of ritualistic action like food laws or ritual purity or circumcision. He does not deny the efficacy of good works themselves. Indeed, the Christian is called daily to pick up his cross and follow after Jesus, a passage that seems to speak volumes about imitating the example of Christ. Elsewhere, the Apostles ask us to work our own salvation. How can this be done in any other system where the emphasis is placed on divine transactions?

Abelard’s system is an effective one in many ways. In the first place, it allows for the participation of the believer in the action of atonement. Redemption becomes about more than an abstract divine dealing and instead involves the actual focus of atonement: human beings. Second, Abelard corrects what many consider to be absent from others views in discussing an actual moral transformation. Instead of allowing for a heavenly exchange of ownership documents, Abelard insists that God requires and aids in the transformation of his people. Finally, Abelard removes any blame for the death of Christ from God the Father. Christ’s death is not a necessary blood-letting, but is instead a powerful demonstration of (1) the extent of the love of God and (2) the real consequences of living a lifestyle opposed to the empire and the world. Living a transformed life in the example of Christ carries with it the real possibility of death.

But Abelard is not without his sticky points, either. Many claim that the moral influence theory has an unacceptably low view of the seriousness of sin and its effect on the human condition. Those in the Reformed camp especially deny that humans have any ability to choose the good (though Augustine, who is credited with another classical development of moral influence theory, agreed and simply stated that in accepting the example of Christ, the Holy Spirit radically alters human psychology and allows them to follow the example set by Christ. Still others would argue that in observing the life and death of Jesus our ability to reciprocate the love of God is awakened by his powerful divine example). Others opponents point out that if all humanity needs is an inspiration, why must it be Christ? Could not the Buddha or Muhammad been the inspiration that caused moral transformation in humanity?

Again, we find in the moral influence theory a model of atonement that answers some questions and appears to miss some others. Two more popular theories remain, and our next post will examine the theory that stands almost diametrically opposed to moral influence: penal substitution.

  1. Hey Aaron a couple of quick questions,

    Isn’t the Shepherd of Hermas the oldest *extrabibilical* writing? Would not this make Paul’s writings on atonement (and several other NT writings) older? And considering Paul’s wide use of atonement metaphors, couldn’t we say that Paul was more creative in employing cosmic *and* moral atonement metaphors than Hermas? After all, Hermas’ scant use of other atonement metaphors is largely beholden to its “Spirit Christology” which is clearly a non-trinitarian way of articulating God’s being, and more to the point it is also non-Nicene in its Christology as well. My point being, Moral examplarism makes a high christology and finally trinitarian doctrine superfluous. Just look at the interplay between the three in modern systematic theology, particularly individuals like Harnack and Ritschl. Either way, I am curious. Who are the historians you are drawing from and how do they get around Paul’s predating Hermas — if, in fact, these historians are arguing that moral atonement preferable because of its early date or predates high atonement theories.

    Also, correct me if I am wrong, but the NPP does not suggest that “justification” or “being righteoused” for Paul is first a human act, but one entirely dependent on the past work of God or the faithfulness of God Jesus including — climaxing even — in the death of Christ. This is particularly the case in Romans and Galatians (both older than Hermas). So, as I understand some of the many versions of the NPP reading, while Paul does want churches to uphold law and work toward blamelessness in Christ, he isn’t suggesting that Jesus is simply the moral exemplar or revelatory channel of that law. Something did definitively happen on the cross that set this in motion. Something cosmic even. Without this crucial aspect, we get a truncated view of the NPP clans.

    Because of this, it would seem to me that Paul’s already-not yet dynamics of eschatology, his emphasis on bearing the cross, and so on actually *are* part of a larger more “transactional” (though this is not a fair word. It simply is too incomplete a description, putting forth one side of the Janus head of high atonement theories) scheme. This scheme it would seem has a cosmically-centered perspective,dependent on the unique work and yes even somehow atoning sacrifice of Christ in his death.

    Sorry to whine. Ever since reading Fiddes and seeing him throw the baby out the with bath water, I always feel the need to emphasize that NPP doesn’t scrap cosmically dependent (and even forms of substitutionary) models of the atonement in Paul altogether, and if some of them do, it is not as if all Pauline scholarship has come to a head in them. New headway is being made for a reading of Paul from a “center” somewhere between between traditionalist and NPP polarizing tendencies. Sorry to go on like this, Moral influence is just the bane of my (largely Barthian and Juengelian) theological existence.

      • aaroncarr72
      • April 14th, 2011

      Nathan, this is why we’re friends. You ask great questions.

      First, to answer your question about Hermas. When I intitmated that atonement theory was oldest, I meant in terms of doctrine. Yes, Paul predates Hermas, but according to Rusk, Rashdall, Franks, H.E.W. Turner, and others, the prevailing attitudes of the Fathers was to view the Cross as the supreme example. You are correct in your critique of Hermas’ Christology, but here I think perhaps you’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water. I believe it is entirely possible to have a high Christology and believe in a moral influence theory.

      Second, I’m not as up to date on NPP as I should be. It’s entirely possible that I misspoke or inappropriately abrogated a piece of evidence to support my points. I do think Paul is very creative in his discussion of atonement, but you’re unaware that you’re asking me to tip my hand before I’m ready. In these post I’m not necessarily arguing for or against any one position. I’m trying to demonstrate strengths and weaknesses and locate these theories in their historical contexts. If I’ve failed, I apologize. And obviously some of my own personal biases will be present in these analyses. But if you refer back to post 1, I promise to reveal my own personal understanding of atonement in the 7th part, so don’t report me to the Karl Barth society just yet.

      I understand your frustration with me and with Fiddes, and I can see how someone with your theological tendencies would feel this way. This is where we will have to disagree. I love Fiddes on atonement, and though in some places he does go too far, I think he’s generally spot on. But wait until I publish my own personal understanding of atonement and we can hash these things out then. For now, I’ll try and be a bit more objective in my analysis of my remaining models.

      Thanks for the input and feel free to vent. Wes does it all the time.

  2. Hi there Aaron,

    I just came across your blog, and it’s great to find another person who takes an interest in different atonement theories. You write well, and I think your posts deserve to get far more comments. I’ve studied atonement theories for many years, and have authored a book called ‘Moral Transformation: the Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation’, which centers around the moral influence view of atonement. So, allow me to add some of my comments to your excellent post on on this view.

    I have noticed that there are different versions of the moral influence view. The most common is what I call the ‘weak’ version, which can be summarised as ‘Christ died to show us how much God loves us and inspire us to follow him.’ This weak version focuses on the events around Christ’s death, just as atonement theories like Penal Substitution, Ransom, and Satisfaction. Personally, I think this weak version gives the moral influence view a bad reputation. The full, ‘strong’ version of the moral influence view is much less common, but I think it’s the one you’ve described in your post. The strong version includes the whole story of the life, death and ressurrection of Jesus. It holds that atonement consists in Jesus coming to teach and lead people away from wrong ways of living, changing their character and conduct so that they live rightly. The problem facing humanity was not guilt of past wrongs, as in Penal Substitution, but ongoing sinful conduct in the present. People were continuing to live wrongly, and they either didn’t know how to live right, or couldn’t find the strength to do so. Jesus came to free them from sinful attitudes and conduct and lead them into a righteous way of life. In the moral influence view, God forgives those who repent and faithfully follow his way of life and teachings, without any need to do cosmic hand-waving to ‘pay their debts’ or ‘ensure that full punishment was given’. God doesn’t need Jesus to die in order to forgive past sins, he can just forgive whomever he choses to (as you pointed out in the main post). Those who faithfully follow Jesus’ way of life and teachings have ‘faith’ in him – a term that I and many scholars believe is probably better translated in many places in the NT as ‘faithfulness’. Hence, the moral influence view of salvation could be summarised as something like this: salvation (from wrong ways of living) came by God’s grace (to send Jesus), through faith (to follow his teachings and way of life). Jesus’ resurrection proved that his message was right, and that God truly wanted people to follow Jesus. Hence, the early Christians who repented and faithfully followed Jesus also had confidence that they would recieve a positive final judgment and resurrection. That whole story of moral transformation, in essence, is atonement according to the moral influence view as I understand it.

    To label the moral influence view ‘Abelard’s’ is perhaps a little misleading. Abelard was not proposing a new theory. Rather, he was criticising Anselm’s newly proposed Satisfaction theory, and seeking to defend the traditional view against it. I agree that many historians have concluded that the moral influence view is the oldest atonement theory. In the writings of the Church Fathers, the moral influence view appears to be universally expressed in their writings. For many of the Church Father’s prior to the 4th century, it was the only view of atonement they voiced. Their tradition apparently understood the New Testament in such a way that when they read it, they saw the moral influence view. So, the fact that many people today see the moral influence view as unscriptural is perhaps a consequence of our time rather than a consequence of what the New Testament actually says.

    People today are very far removed from the culture of the early centuries, so it takes a book, quite literally, to explain why the moral influence view has a surprisingly large amount of support in the New Testament (not simply support in ‘various places’, as you put it). That is why I wrote Moral Transformation – so I don’t need to write it all out each time I try to convey just how much evidence there is, and can instead simply direct people to search for it on Amazon. In general, though, support for the moral influence theory is growing as scholars gain more and more insight into the 1st century socio-cultural context in which the New Testament authors wrote. This kind of insight includes the New Perspective on Paul, as you mentioned. It also includes studies of martyrdom, and how people of that time wrote about martyrdom. These studies on martyrdom are important, since one must explain in the moral influence view why the Gospels and Paul say so much about Christ’s death (a pointed Nathan alluded to in his comment). There are also many studies about the Israelite sacrificial system that are shedding light on Paul’s use of sacrificial language, which helps to understand why Paul might have used such language without necessarily holding to atonement theories that center around the death of Jesus. Language studies are also shedding more light on key terms used by Paul, such as ‘faith’. Christians of the 21st century often read English translations of the New Testament without having much of all this important background understanding. So, they tend to fill in the gaps from their own culture or modern tradition, find support for the views they already believe, and dismiss alternative interpretations of the New Testament. Therefore, I applaud this series of blog posts in which you try to give a balanced glimpse at a variety of different atonement theories!

    RE Nathan’s comment about the NPP: I think a diverse group of people hold NPP-type ideas, and they therefore hold a range of views of the subject of whose act ‘justification’ is – primarily God’s, primarily people’s, or a combination. In the moral influence view as I understand it, justification comes about through the combined actions of God/Jesus and people. The idea is that people needed saving from wrong conduct. They couldn’t ‘save themselves’, nor did their unrighteousness merit any kind of favour from God. God graciously intervened by sending Jesus (and then the Holy Spirit) to save people from these wrong ways of living by teaching them how to live rightly. Yet the early Church Fathers explicitly advocated that people have free will, and must choose to faithfully follow Jesus and live by his teachings. So in that sense, salvation also requires action on the part of people to respond to Jesus’ teachings.

  3. Mr. Rusk,

    If I may respectfully ask, what exactly is keeping you from being a Pelagian? This is a sincere question.

  4. Hi again Nathan.

    Well, I think in the moral influence view held by the early Christians, unrighteous people cannot live rightly purely by choosing to do so. I think Paul makes that point quite clear several times. They are trapped in sinful ways, much like the image Paul gives in Romans 7, and they do not know the way of living Jesus taught. So in a very real sense, living rightly is not an option they can chose. They still have free will, yes, but their ignorance and the trappings of sinfulness limit their freedom. I like to explain it with a metaphor of being lost in a forest. One can freely chose which way to walk, but one has no idea which way to go, and so one remains lost. The idea in the moral influence view is that Jesus reveals to these people the true way to live, empowering them through his teachings, example and spirit so that they can live rightly if they chose to follow him. In the analogy, I liken this to Jesus coming and finding the people lost in the forest and saying, ‘I know where you should walk, come follow me.’ The people can chose to walk with him and thus get out of the forest.

    In contrast, I think the modern idea of Pelagianism is that people can just get themselves out of the forest, since they are free to chose which way to walk. I certainly do not hold that position, and think people are very much in need of God’s help to live rightly. Yet I also very much believe that people have a very real choice about whether to follow Jesus’ teachings and way of life or to follow sinful ways, and I see no contradition between need for people to chose to faithfully follow Jesus and the need for God’s help. Of course, I don’t believe Christians can live perfectly moral lives – they make mistakes and sin. So, I think God’s forgiveness and his grace to continue to help us mature in Christ remain important. Does all that answer your question?

    • Kit
    • October 25th, 2011

    Thanks for some really helpful views. It’s only recently that I realised there were others than penal substitution. I noticed the link to the oncology room and wondered whether you’ve heard the view, which doesn’t negate the others, but looks at the death and resurrection as being similar to the ultimate attack on sin in a similar vein to the way we use potentially lethal drugs to control cancer. The difference being that the dose was lethal and therefore completely successful in eradicating sin in sinless Jesus so that we might (in Jesus) be free from it’s power?

    • aaroncarr72
    • October 25th, 2011


    I haven’t heard of that, but it sounds very similar to some expressions of the Christus Victor theory, which will eventually be the next post in this series. Could you recommend a good book that articulates this medical-based theory?

      • Kit
      • October 25th, 2011

      Hi AAron, I heard something like it first from Wayne Jacobsen of ‘The Shack’ fame – (I think transition 4 is the relevant audio). Having been through the chemo journey with my late wife it seemd to make a lot of sense to me. Not the whole story I’m sure (as if I could understand the whole story!) but it seemed a useful modern day picture.

    • Mark
    • February 28th, 2012

    Fantastic reading here! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • Martin Australia
    • September 26th, 2012

    Hi Aaron
    Very interesting, however you said “Abelard’s theory is laid out in his book Expositio in Epistolam ad Romanos, and if you don’t trust my summary, feel free to read his original argument for yourself.”
    Yet for all my searching I can’t find his book anywere, could you give me some clues as to where I could get a copy, in English would be useful too.

      • aaroncarr72
      • September 26th, 2012

      Here’s a link to it on Amazon. It’s a little pricey because it’s relatively under-read.

        • Martin Australia
        • September 26th, 2012

        Fantastic, no wonder it is under-read the title is not exactly easy to find- typical scholars they translate into English something that has never been done before then give it an unmemorable name that can’t be searched!!!
        I will get back to you with my comments.
        Any other books about Abelard that you can recommend?

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