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.