Atonement Theories: A Way Through The Maze

Pugh, Ben
Cascade Books (2016)
Buy this book from

Apart from some intellectual problems with atonement theories which will soon become obvious, my main problem is that it puts my rather mediocre sinfulness into a Wagnerian context; for good or ill, I simply do not have such a personal sense of sin which drove Martin Luther (1483-1546) to what looks like a desperate conclusion: that we are so sinful that only the death of Christ, offering himself as a restitution to God for our sins, has saved us. Luther’s reaction was, too, a natural reaction to the Medieval salvation money-making mill of Chantry Masses and indulgences.

But that is a perhaps unfair emotional reaction to one proponent of a theory which was pioneered by Saint Anselm (c1033-c1109) who, enquiring within the context of faith, conducted what looks like a classical piece of internally consistent logic, anticipating Luther in a work as cool as Luther’s is febrile. On the other hand, Abelard (1079-1142) concluded that the significance of the atonement was moral rather than transactional, that it represented an inspiration to us all to behave better in that the Incarnation was the ultimate expression of God's solidarity with us. For technicians, the Anselmian version is "Objective" because it describes a Trinitarian transaction whereas the Abelard version is "subjective" because it refers to what the atonement means for us; but, in the way that we use these two words, the distinction is misleading as it is inappropriate to label a highly speculative theory objective. Recently Rene Girard has posited a third theory of atonement which is anthropological, based on what he claims to be universal behaviour patterns based on scapegoating.

Now let me start again at the beginning: Luther's claim is based on his reading of Romans not Anselm which is why an understanding of Paul is essential to any discussion of the topic but most scholars would now agree that his reading was as extreme in its way as was that of his corrupt Roman Catholic targets; and this set up a false distinction between "faith" and "works" which led, among other things, to Luther's rejection of the Letter of James. But Pugh, narrowing his enquiry to proponents of theories has nothing to say either on his own view of Romans or the readings of his subjects, promising further thoughts in a subsequent book.

There are, however, two deeper problems which any proponent or analyst of an atonement theory needs to confront: first, there is a very great difference between my propensity to sin - what Saint Augustine called my "Original Sin" - and my actual commissions of sins; and, secondly, most of our sins are not serious, personal infractions but are collective acts of selfishness, violence or, most of all, indifference. And because this is so, it seems to me that any theory of atonement is primarily concerned with correcting our initial fault, our "original sin" which condemned us to death, so that we may enjoy eternal life with God. However, most people, it seems to me - not least hymn writers - take atonement to mean that their personal slate of sins has somehow been wiped clean in advance. This reflects Luther's deeply egotistical view of theology but it isn't much use in understanding what any "objective" atonement theory says about our collective hostility or indifference to thousands of refugee unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in our country.

Granted, this is a somewhat congested book but to dismiss the writings of the two most influential theologians in Western Christendom, Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (1225-1274), on the grounds that what they had to say was hardly original, is an omission that could have been put right in fewer than a thousand words and given a firmer framework to the discussion on Platonism.

Pugh does not pretend that this book is anything other than what it is: a contemporary survey for students which reads like a Doctoral Thesis with its mass of footnotes and an unbeatable bibliography slanted towards the contemporary but the very nature of the enterprise means that disproportionate space is given to recent literature and not enough to the classical.

Pugh's conclusion, however, is commendably succinct, referring to his own subtitle: "Jesus Christ ... is the way through the maze, and it is only to the extent that we take our gaze off him and try to focus instead either on what we think the Cross ought to be fixing, or what we think it implies about God the Father, that we miss its central message. ... That God has come near."

For myself, I am deeply suspicious of any theology which mistakes axioms for facts; theology is a discipline which grapples with a divine mystery using human language and tools, and no less wonderful for that, but it gets above itself when these axioms are transformed into belief tests. I simply cannot bring myself to sing Stuart Townend’s "In Christ Alone" but I don't object to others singing it. And every time I stand, close mouthed during a rendition, I thank The Holy Spirit that the Council of Nicea (325) refused to elaborate on the death of Jesus as a credal matter. Whatever our standpoint, however, we agree that the death of Jesus conquered the human death of created imperfection; that is the good news and we would be better off proclaiming it than worrying too much about mechanics we will never understand.