Number Fifty-One

Tealiberasophoterianistic Perspectives

Atonement, Peter Abelard, and the Moral Influence Theory

with one comment


By Jake Phillips


We are taking a diversion from politics into theology in this post, and, although I possess no qualifications to do so, I am addressing an issue of some importance to today’s Christian, especially those attending college, or those who engage in any circle wider than a Reformed church.  With that run-on sentence finally over, let’s address that issue, which involves the Moral Influence theory of the atonement.


Reductionistically speaking, the Moral Influence theory was invented (or taught, depending on your perspective) by Peter Abelard in the 11th century.  Abelard was responding to the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement (which St. Anselm had articulated.)  Abelard postulated that the main point of Jesus’s atonement was to bring positive, moral change to the world.  He believed that the fact that Jesus died because of our sins would cause people to re-evaluate their own lives and seek to live like Christ.  (Trust me, I know that my explanation is woefully short, and does not do Abelard justice.  There have been books written on the subject.  But that’s the basic idea.)  Some historians have argued that this was actually the view of the early church fathers, but this is not strictly accurate.  The early church father’s certainly had elements of the theory in their writings (because elements of the theory are found in the Bible), and thus some revisionists historians have tried to legitimize the theory by pretending that the church father’s did not also teach some form of Ransom theory, Christus Victor, and Penal Substitution. 


Many modern, Emergent theologians claim to ascribe to the Moral Influence theory of the atonement.  My contention is that they do not actually believe this theory, or hold to it.  Claiming to ascribe to it is a clever thing for them to do, because it allows them to argue their position, while you, or your Reformed friend, are busy arguing against the Moral Influence theory, instead of what their argument actually is.  The problem that they should have to face, and what we should force them to face, is that Abelard, and a true believer in this theory, believed that we really do sin.  And Jesus really did die and rose again, and he had to die because of sin (if we continue down this road, we disprove the theory itself.  But that’s for another post.  And it’s probably Joey’s job, anyways.)  Abelard would not have claimed that Jesus did not actually die.  He just didn’t think Jesus had to die because of something owed either God or the Devil.  (I’ve not had a run-on sentence, invented a word, and written a double negative.  I’m on fire.)  Modern liberal theologians, for the most part, don’t believe Jesus actually died and rose again.  This is a problem, because it means that they don’t actual believe in the atonement, and thus cannot intellectually honestly say that they believe any theory about the atonement, unless it is a theory that the atonement doesn’t exist, and never happened.


Instead of arguing against the Moral Influence theory as we normally would, my contention is that we need to include a fifth popular view of the atonement, call it the Non-Atonement Theory, and decide that if we are arguing against a liberal Christian (theologically liberal, not politically liberal) they probably believe in the Non-Atonement Theory.  Don’t let them pretend to be fans of Abelard.  Don’t let them bring up the Moral Influence Theory, and, if they do, tell them how happy you are to know that they believe Jesus literally died and rose again.


Written by Jake Phillips

June 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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One Response

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  1. We are allowed to talk about theology? Oh baby.

    Good thinking btw, and I agree.


    June 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm

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