On “exemplarist” theories of the Atonement

In a post at “Jesus Creed,” John Frye criticizes–in the form of, er, a poem–”Abelard’s Moral-Influence theory [of the Atonement] (via Schleiermacher),” which he claims is making a resurgence (I’m not sure among whom). The gist of the poem is that this theory reduces Jesus to a “poster boy,” an example to follow and that this falls short of the transformation we need. “We need an Invader, not an example.”

The problem here is that Jesus as “an example to follow” doesn’t accurately describe the Atonement theories of Abelard or Schleiermacher–or “exemplarist” theories generally.

In Abelard’s most frequently quoted passage on the Atonement (which comes from his commentary on Romans), he writes:

It, however, seems to us that we have been justified in Christ’s blood and reconciled with God in this: God has bound us more to God through love by this unique grace held out to us – that God’s own Son has taken on our nature and in that nature persisted unto death in instructing us through word as well as example – so that the true love of anyone kindled by so great a gift of divine grace would no longer shrink from enduring anything for the sake of God.

Abelard’s point here seems to be that the Son has taken our nature and shared our lot in life, teaching and instructing us, even unto death, and this gift kindles in our hearts a love for God. In other words, we love God because he first loved us. Jesus here is far more than an example to follow, but is the incarnation of God’s love in our world, which calls forth a loving response from us.

Some scholars, like Thomas Williams, have argued that this only represents one pole of Abelard’s thought, and that he also affirmed something like penal substitution. Whether or not that’s the case, though, it’s clear that Abelard thinks of Jesus as much more than an example of virtue for us to copy. As the baptist theologian Paul Fiddes puts it in his defense of a broadly “Abelardian” Atonement theory, for Abelard, “the love of God is. . . poured out from the event of Christ” (Past Event and Present Salvation, p. 155) and the Christ event results in “an infusing of love into the human heart” (p. 198).

Schleiermacher might more plausibly be read as holding to the “Jesus as example” theory. But even he sees our relation to Christ in much more intimate terms than that. Salvation, for Schleiermacher, consists in entering into a “living fellowship” with Christ so that we might share his perfect “God-consciousness.” This is much more akin to a mystical union than a relationship of imitation.

More recent examples of “exemplarist” theories also emphasize that it is the love of God manifested in Christ that saves us–not our following of Christ’s example. For instance, the British theologian-philosopher Brian Hebbllethwaite defends a broadly exemplarist view of the Atonement in his essay “Does the doctrine of the atonement make moral sense?” He characterizes this view as

exemplarist, not just in the sense that the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ sets us an example to follow, but much more in the sense that the nature of God’s costly forgiving love is exemplified in the life, passion and death of God incarnate. (in Ethics and Religion in a Pluralistic Age, p. 80)

The death of Jesus, for Hebblethwaite (as for Schleiermacher and perhaps for Abelard), is not a condition that has to be met for God to extend forgiveness to us; rather, God’s forgiving love is “manifested and enacted in Christ’s passion and death.” The passion shows that God’s forgiveness is costly, but God did not require the death of his Son as a kind of payment in order to be able to forgive.

Hebblethwaite goes on to argue that the Atonement has two aspects, relating to what have traditionally been called “justification” and “sanctification.” These two elements–relating to the forgiveness of our sin and our transformation into the likeness of Christ–are what constitute our reconciliation, or at-one-ment, with God:

In other words, justification and sanctification–the two elements of atonement–are best understood in terms of God’s free forgiveness and the effective transformation of sinners, the moral seriousness of the former being shown in the whole story of the Incarnation, including the passion and way of the cross, and the moral seriousness of the latter consisting in the fact that conformation to Christ is no easy, automatic transformation but a winning of our penitence and commitment by that incarnate love and an inspiration from within by the Spirit of that same Christ enabling us to become more Christlike in the Christian fellowship and eventually in the communion of saints. This may be regarded as objective a theory of atonement as we can hope for. (pp. 82-3)

My point here isn’t that this is necessarily the correct account of the Atonement (though I have a lot of sympathy for it). It’s that many criticisms of “subjective” or “exemplarist” Atonement theories rest on a strawman version of what their proponents are saying. For Abelard, Schleiermacher, and Hebblethwaite, there’s much more to the Atonement than a good example for us to follow.

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