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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Disagreements Among Christians on the Atonement of Christ

In 1875, R. W. Dale, in a series of lectures on the Atonement, pointed out the disagreements that have existed among Christians throughout Church History. He said:

From this brief review of the history of the doctrine, it appears that for nearly a thousand years many of the most eminent teachers of the Church were accustomed to represent the Death of Christ as a ransom by which we are delivered from captivity to the devil; that for nearly five centuries the most eminent teachers of the Church were accustomed to represent the Death of Christ as an act of homage to the personal greatness and majesty of God; that during the last three centuries the great Protestant Churches have represented the Death of Christ as having a relation neither to the devil nor to the personal claims of God, but to the moral order of the universe.

While the fundamental conception of the Atonement has been passing through these remarkable changes, the doctrine has been involved in other controversies of hardly inferior magnitude. There have been controversies as to whether Christ died for all men, or whether He died for the elect only; or whether, as was suggested as early as the third century by Origen, the effects of His Death extend to the whole universe. There have been controversies as to whether the Death of Christ was in itself an adequate Atonement for human sin, or whether its adequacy depends upon God's acceptance of it as adequate. When the Death of Christ was regarded as a kind of concession to the devil, there were controversies as to whether the concession was necessary in the nature of things, in order to effect our redemption; the same controversy was renewed under other forms when the Death of Christ was regarded as an act of homage to the Divine Majesty; and it has reappeared among Protestants, to whom the Atonement is neither a concession to the claims of Satan, nor even an acknowledgment of the personal claims of God. Whether, if men were to be saved, the Atonement of Christ was necessary or not; whether its effects extend to all mankind or only to the elect; whether it consisted in His righteousness, which was tested by His sufferings, or whether the sufferings themselves constituted its very essence; whether it was intended to redeem us from the power of Satan, or to propitiate the injured majesty of God, or to assert the eternal principles of the Divine government — all these questions have divided the Church.

The Fathers attempted to explain why it is that through the Death of Christ we escape from the penalties of sin, and their explanations were rejected by the schoolmen. The schoolmen attempted to explain it, and their explanations were rejected or modified by the reformers. The reformers attempted to explain it, and within a century after the Reformation, Grotius and his successors were attempting to explain it again
(The Atonement (pp. 296-98).

I could add that since Dale's time (1875) the disagreements among Christians on the nature, extent, and reason for the death of Christ have only multiplied. It is amazing that the central doctrine of Christianity, the atonement, is so unclear that Christians have never been able to come to some sort of consensus on it.


  1. "is so unclear" This is an interesting point ... how you get from an empirical observation to constructing a narrative about its interpretation. If different people find themselves saved under different interpretive schemes then that points to the fact that it's not the event itself but rather the narrative (likely in conjunction with the narrating community) that is actually doing the saving. People get saved by the story that saves them ... people get saved by what they need to get saved by, by what they can believe will save them. That's a very different situation isn't it.

  2. I always appreciated Dale because he denied the doctrine of endless torments.