The Atonement

Joseph Smith famously said,

The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it (here)

A faith crisis aside

I started this blog as an attempt to sort out what I do and what I don’t believe. As an intellectual exercise, I’ve focused mainly on the ‘appendages’ Joseph is talking about. Doubting the historical reality of the flood or even the historicity of the Book of Mormon puts me in pretty good company (at least as far as faithful doubters are concerned).

Raising serious concerns about the atonement seems like a different thing altogether.

There is a certain risk in confronting one’s doubts that, I think, is magnified somewhat by speaking up and writing about them. For me it is helpful to think of my relationship with the church as if it were a relationship with a real person. I (try to) make it a point not to speak poorly of other people when they are not around. Apart from basic human decency, I think this is a good policy because humans seem to have a natural inclination to want to validate one another. One of the reasons gossip is so pernicious is that it can lead us to double down on our perhaps misinformed opinions of other people.

Let me make this a little more concrete. I am especially careful to not speak poorly of my spouse. I’ve noticed that if I’m talking with someone else about some minor imperfection in my (otherwise nearly perfect) wife the person with whom I am talking will sometimes want to agree with me and validate my feelings because they want to support me. This can lead to a kind of feedback loop where we end up exaggerating the original (surely minuscule) issue into something it may have not otherwise become.

During the course of my faith crisis-journey-transition, I’ve come to identify more and more with this vibrant and wonderful community of thoughtful-and-similarly-struggling Mormons. In so many ways, my participation in this community has eased the pain of a difficult transition. However, there is a risk that the simple act of identifying with this new community ‘otherizes’ the community of mainstream believers (if you’ve never encountered Henri Tajfel’s work on group identity, you should read something about it).

The main issue here is that we cannot escape our psychology. We tend to delude ourselves into thinking that our perspective on the world is completely free from bias and error. see things as they really are! Our judgments about the world around us are always influenced — to greater and lesser degrees — by our identities (to name just one source of error). So it is with some humility that I move on to the body of this post.

Back to the main event

Christians have what Cass Sunstein might call an ‘incompletely theorized agreement‘ about the atonement. There is general agreement that the atonement saves humankind from sin and death. The ‘how’ question is where things get thorny.

For Sunstein, the idea of incompletely theorized agreement is a way to move forward pragmatically through thorny political issues. For example, there is general consensus in the United States that it would be good if we could decrease the number of abortions. People on both sides of the political spectrum can agree on this even if they can’t bring themselves to agree on the reasons why this should happen. President Obama gave an excellent speech at Notre Dame a few years back where he made this point.

Through the centuries Christians have attempted to formulate comprehensive theories about the mechanics of the atonement. These theories are ambitious in scope. They necessarily address all of the ‘big questions.’ What is the purpose of earth life? What is the nature of sin? How does satan fit into the picture?

From what I understand there are five main schools of thought (in what follows, I draw extensively from Lorin Hansen’s Dialogue essay on the ‘Moral Atonement’ — available at the Mormon Matters website. The article is really good and you would probably do better to just read it in full, as I will most likely not do it justice in summary).

Ransom Theory

From what I understand, this came out of medieval theologizing. The basic idea is that through the Fall, human kind was somehow sold over into the devil’s power. Salvation comes by God’s intercession with Satan. God essentially trades Jesus for humanity. But in the end, the Deceiver is deceived. Death and hell can’t hold Jesus, and the devil is left with nothing.

Satisfaction Theory

Satisfaction theories came about in reaction to the way that the ransom theory seems to give a great deal of power to Satan. In the satisfaction theory, God’s sense of justice must be satisfied by an infinite sacrifice. Human sin so offended God that he demanded a sacrifice sufficient to set things right. Christ’s infinite sacrifice satisfies the demands of wronged god.

Penal Substitution Theory

The way Hansen presents it (and I have no reason to disagree), the penal substitution model was introduced and quickly gained popularity during the reformation period. In this theory, God does not require satisfaction, but there must be some recompense made for the sins of man that run counter to an abstract sense of justice. Christ’s sacrifice covers man’s sin in much the way that the debt is covered in Boyd Packer’s ‘Mediator’ parable. This is very interesting to me, as it is an example of the way that changing societal norms work their way in to theology (during the Reformation era, European societies were moving away from the idea of power being rightfully located in the hands of a feudal lord who could make arbitrary pronouncements, and more toward the idea of the ‘law’ as existing apart from the whims of individual leaders).

Governmental Theory

I am least clear on the details of this one. From Hansen’s presentation, the governmental theory viewed Christ’s sacrifice as an ‘object lesson.’ Christ suffered not to pay for sin, but to demonstrate what would be the penalty for sin. (I might not be doing this one justice at all).

The Moral Influence Theory

Under this theory, Christ’s sacrifice was exemplary. Christ’s self-sacrifice, to quote Hansen, ‘softened hearts and inspired men and women with God’s love. Men and women were then inspired to reciprocate that love, to repent, and to turn to moral living’ (pg. 198). This view became popular with Unitarians and other liberal Christians (and, you might have guessed, this is my favorite of the lot). Hansen paraphrases one critic of the Ransom and Satisfaction theories, ‘the Ransom theory made the devil a god, but the Satisfaction theory made God a devil.’ This beautiful idea of moral influence escapes both problems. Christ came to show us the path.

Mormon (non-) theories

Mormons have preferred to leave the atonement undertheorized. Hansen draws several quotes from the Mormon corpus that suggest that we don’t know much about the atonement and it is somehow beyond our comprehension. Elsewhere on this blog, I have defended the idea of mystery, but in this case, we don’t seem to be doing it right.

One of the risks of mystery and ‘incompletely theorized agreements’ is that they don’t remain mysterious or incompletely theorized. Humans (as others have said) are ‘meaning-making machines’ — we notice patterns where there are none (shapes and animals in clouds, any number of superstitions, etc.), and theories have a way of creeping in.

This is especially clear in theories of the atonement. Just read the chapter in the manual on Atonement, and you will see an mash-up of almost every theory listed above. Some of these are imports from the middle ages. We ought to stop and think about how we talk about the atonement.

I’ve said elsewhere that I don’t find the question of a historical Jesus really interesting. The idea of Jesus is what we have to deal with. Our ideas about what he did and why he did it are equally important.


About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

4 responses to “The Atonement”

  1. Andrew S. says :

    1) Thanks for pointing out Henri Tajfel…that will lead to some more reading for me.

    2) While I think I can buy the idea of incompletely theorized agreement, I feel that if abortion is used as a case (e.g., “most people agree it would be better to decrease the number of abortions…”) then that really shows how inadequate this idea is. I mean, I’m not opposed to the differences in the “how” being very different, and even perhaps mutually exclusive to one another — so on an academic discussion, the differences in atonement theories doesn’t bother me.

    But if you have such differences that the people on differing sides of a debate can’t even recognize that the other side is functionally for the same end goal — as is the case with the abortion debate — then I don’t see how incompletely theorized agreement has much practical meaning.

    3) I’ll probably end up just writing a post about it, but I don’t get your last paragraph. I know that it’s a sentiment that many folks have, but I just haven’t gotten it.

    Now, I don’t pretend to really care all that much about history and objectivity and all that jazz…but to me, it does matter whether I subjectively perceive something to be actual vs. merely metaphorical, ideological, etc.,

    In other words…the idea of Jesus might be nice (I don’t know — I’m not really moved, so this discussion is academic for me)…but to me, there’s a world of difference if the actions and ideas and teachings that are associated with him actually happened, or if they are fictional.

    • Brad says :

      1) I have never actually read Tajfel, but I feel like I’ve read enough stuff that cites him to understand his ideas pretty well, but I should read the original one of these days.

      2) I like the idea of ‘incompletely theorized agreement,’ but you are right it breaks down quickly in areas like religion and contentious political issues like abortion. In theology the whole game is the theory, so it might not have been the right way to frame what I was trying to say.

      3) I saw your post, so I’ll probably have more to say over at your blog. Have you heard people make the analogy to Hamlet? Clearly a fictional character, but we can learn something about the human condition in Shakespeare’s writings. I’m not going to eve try to put it any better than Dostoevsky (who I quoted in my other post).

      • Andrew S. says :

        I have heard people make the analogy to definitively fictional characters, and I haven’t really agreed with it.

        I think that, to the extent that a fictional work starts from a place of a reliable grasp of human psychology (and this doesn’t ahve to be in an objective sense…but in the sense of how we ourselves perceive human nature), then perhaps fictional events portrayed can teach about the human condition.

        …but this is pretty much dependent on me (or any other reader) being able to read a work and think, “I think that this accurately portrays human psychology.” For me though, there’s usually a disconnect in some sense, somewhere or another.

      • Brad says :

        Re: ‘this is pretty much dependent on me (or any other reader) being able to read a work and think, “I think that this accurately portrays human psychology.”’:

        This is exactly where I think religious institutions can be valuable. I am a social scientist by training, and I’ve been really interested in my research in this really fascinating branch of cultural psychology that explores the relationship between culture and biology. The basic argument is that our biology (hard-wired human nature) places some hard constraints on what kinds of cultural developments will take root and prosper in human populations. This is surely true of religious bodies. To paraphrase the godfather of this line of work (E.O. Wilson), biology keeps human cultural developments on a leash. Over time (and critically, cultural developments can happen much faster than biological changes), a selection process operates on the elements of culture in similar ways as it operates on biological systems to home in on the ‘best’ (in some sense) cultural developments.

        Back to the ‘idea of Jesus’ — from the above perspective, as the stories get handed down through time they actually improve. Religious stories and institutions become repositories of a certain kind of wisdom that is also found in literature and other elements of culture. Religious bodies seem to be structured to specifically track this wisdom in ways that our other institutions don’t. Of course it isn’t an unambiguous story of progress — there are plenty of countervailing forces, but I think it bends toward Truth in the long-run. The source of that Truth might be some anthropomorphic god, or it might just be that kernel of goodness that I believe exists in each of us.

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