Lesson 11: Salvation: Theories of Atonement

The doctrine of the atonement expresses the truth that man's reconciliation with God has occurred through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This reconciliation encompasses both the forgiveness of our sins (Lk 24:47) and adoption as children of God (Jn 1:12). After the Fall, our relationship with God was destroyed in such a way that no man could restore it. What no man could do, God has done in Jesus Christ. The central message of the New Testament: by Jesus' crucifixion we have been saved and made sons of God.

This fundamental truth is the atonement. The atonement explains what happened; theories of the atonement explain how it happened. So although there is only one truth of the atonement, there are a plurality of theories explaining the manner in which Christ accomplished our atonement. In this lesson, we will examine three classical theories of the atonement. In the next lesson, we will examine another theory of atonement that includes more specifically the atonement in the context of Christ's fulfillment of the covenants with Israel.

Christus Victor (Christ the Victor)

Held by almost all of patristic authors from St. Augustine to St. Athanasius. Focused on Christ's victory over the devil and death. The devil had been given dominion over man once man had rebelled against God. But Christ came into the world as a sinless, innocent man and therefore was not subject to the just penalty of death. When the devil coordinating with Pontius Pilate, the Romans, Judas Iscariot, and the Jewish authorities, put Jesus to death, the devil thought that he had triumphed over the messiah. Yet, when the devil put Jesus unjustly to death, the devil lost all his authority over the rest of human beings which he had until then held justly under the power of death. The devil's plan collapses with the resurrection of Jesus -- God definitively shows that the devil has lost his power to hold human beings under death. Christ's victory over the devil and death allows all of us to be victorious over the devil and death. Hebrews 2:14-15, Since there the children share in the flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.

St. Augustine used the example of the mousetrap. Jesus on the cross was the bait. A sinless man. The devil took the bait by killing Christ, but then the trap fell and the devil was mortally wounded.


St. Anselm in the 11th century A.D. proposed the famous satisfaction theory of the atonement in his work Why Did God Become Man? (Cur Deus Homo?). This theory drew upon the juridical, political, and cultural ethos of the early middle ages. The theory worked as follows. If a man struck another man, the greatness of the offense depended upon the status of the man struck. For a peasant to strike another peasant was bad, but it was much more serious if a peasant struck his lord or his king. It would take more to make up for -- to satisfy -- for the offense. Even today in the United States, it is a legal offense to hit another man in a crowd, but if that man is the President of the United States, it is much more serious and carries great legal penalties. What would happen if someone struck someone of infinite dignity? What would it take to satisfy for such an offense? When man offended God by disobeying his commandments, he offended against the infinite dignity of God. Thus it would take an infinite amount to satisfy for this infinite offense. After sin, man owes God an infinite amount of satisfaction, but man being finite cannot pay such an amount. And because man has already disobeyed God, he cannot even give to God everything that he could have given to God; he can no longer give sinless life. Only an infinite God could provide the infinite satisfaction. Only a man can satisfy since he caused the offense. The only solution therefore is a God-man who as God can provide infinite satisfaction and as man can satisfy for man's offense. Such theories can be called objective theories of the atonement.

Later St. Thomas clarifies two elements of Anselm's satisfaction theory. First, God could have forgiven man without due satisfaction, but God forgave man in the most fitting fashion. Second, it was not only the infinite dignity of the God-man, but the love of Christ, that was the direct principle of satisfaction.

Christ Wounded for Us

This theory focuses on the image of Christ Crucified for us. Because of original sin, man no longer has the capacity to love God. No exhortations can awaken the movement of love in us. Yet, when we contemplate that God became a man and died for us on the Cross, when we see God's incredible love incarnate in the willingness to suffer for us, we are moved to love back the God who has loved us so much. This theory was first fully proposed in the twelfth century by Peter Abelard. In general, these are subjective theories of atonement. Limitation: leaving aside the debt owed to God, God's justice, etc. Abelard went so far as to reject the idea of sacrifice. The demand for sacrifice and satisfaction, for Abelard, was not fitting for God's goodness.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux reacted strongly against Abelard's theory and maintained the orthodox position that Christ's cross had a sacrificial character before God the Father. Nonetheless, Bernard took from Abelard the emphasis on Christ's love and the awakening of love in the believer -- an emphasis that Anselm had largely ignored. Bernard brings together Anselm's overly objective theory and Abelard's overly subjective theory and shows that Christ's charity is at the heart of the sacrifice. St. Thomas Aquinas continues this balance in his expression of the atonement.

Reading Assignment

Roch Kereszty, O. Cist., Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, 211-224 (Part II Historical Christology, Ch. 3)

Writing Assignment

Write a two-page essay in which you answer the question why did Jesus die on the cross. Include the significant patristic and medieval answers to this question.

Suggested Reading

Matthew Levering, Christ's Fulfillment of Torah and Temple: Salvation According to St. Thomas Aquinas. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.


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