Yesterday in my sermon I brought up the topic of atonement theology (i.e. how Jesus's death saves us) because I think it's something very important for practicing Christians to have a grasp of. In today's pluralistic society, it's more and more common that a friend might ask about what we believe, or have a mis-understanding of Christianity based on TV evangelists. Or maybe we ourselves have questions about how God could possibly need Jesus to die. I only just touched on the topic in my sermon, giving the highlights of three of the dozens of ways theologians explain atonement.
So here is some unpacking, and to keep you reading I've put my own favorite theory at the very end....
Anselm and friends
In my sermon I lumped a bunch of different ideas together under the heading of "sacrificial theory". Basically I was referring to the theology of Anselm of Canterbury (died around 1109), who was the one who first put forward the idea that we owe God, who suffered a loss of dignity and honor through our human sins, which could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of Jesus, the perfect God-man. Anselm's version is called "satisfaction". It was taken up during the Reformation and slightly changed into penal substitution theory, the idea that we broke the law and Jesus was punished on our behalf. To me this group of theories sounds like debt slavery or divine child abuse. However, unlike some of the other theories, it does take seriously the idea of sacrifice. It was important for early Christians to explain how Jesus's sacrifice fit into the Jewish custom of temple sacrifice.
I find some earlier theories more compelling. Irenaeus (died around 202) was the first to write about the theory I called "defeat of the powers" and which more commonly is called "Christus Victor" or "Christ Victorious." This theory is that Jesus defeated Satan and freed us from bondage. Another offshoot or sub-set is the ransom theory, that Jesus paid the ransom to free us from being kidnapped by Satan, metaphorically speaking. The main modern interpreter of Christus Victor is Walter Wink, whose book The Powers that Be is excellent (and readable), and shows how the "powers" today are embodied in such spiritual evils as racism and sexism.
Abelard and friends
Christus Victor was the main way of explaining atonement until Anselm and Pierre Abelard (died 1142) came along. Abelard took a much different, more liberal, view than Anselm. Abelard's idea, which he drew from early church theologians like Augustine, was that Jesus sets us a moral example to follow, a way through death to new life. I called this idea "the way" in my sermon. It's more commonly called moral influence theory but also has many sub-theories. It's been promoted by many modern theologians like Kant and Tillich. The spiritual transformation that we must undergo to take part in this salvation-- dying to our old lives and being born again -- is well described in the second half of Marcus Borg's book The Heart of Christianity.
My favorite theory
In some ways, we can see the whole atonement theology argument summed up as Anselm vs. Abelard. Anselm's view of a punishing God is hard to swallow (although it was the dominant way of thinking about it for several hundred years, from the Reformation through the 18th century), but Abelard's view can gloss over the cross and human sin altogether.
To me, there is one sub-set of the moral influence idea that doesn't just focus on Easter and forget all about Good Friday. This is memetic desire, or Girardian theory, based on the work of the anthropologist Rene Girard. The first time I read about it I felt like someone had taken my brain out for a good scrubbing. Basically, Girard posits that salvation is about God saving humanity from our own violence. In order to contain violence, we've created man-made sacrificial rituals, from scapegoating to the death penalty to holy wars. Jesus came to show us the falseness of these sacrifices, and to explode the sacrificial system from within by himself being the scapegoat. It's hard to explain in a few words, but it is very well described on one of my favorite preaching blogs, Girardian Reflections. If you'd like to give your brain a good scrubbing, check it out, or read Cross Purposes by Anthony Bartlett (warning: dry academic writing alert, but still good stuff). To me it helped a lot in answering my own personal question of why a nice guy like God would make Jesus die such a horrible death.
OK, enough dry academic writing from me!