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Incarnation and Atonement Theories


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Hello All,

I'm going to lay out some thoughts I've recently had on the Atonement, and would be interested in anyone else's input.

In "traditional" Christian theology (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), God's justice requires a sacrifice for sin, and God himself becomes incarnate to provide it, thus reconciling humanity to himself. In the Trinitarian view everything is worked out between the three divine persons, who are conceived of as one God.

I see a similar view in the Book of Mormon, where "God himself" comes to make himself an offering for sin, satisfying his own justice (though without the transaction between multiple divine persons).

This seems in both cases to make for a rather tidy view of how the Atonement works.

A more complicated picture emerges when Jesus is viewed as a separate being from the Father: the "transaction" of atonement, if you will, is not simply internal to God. Rather, in order to satisfy his justice, God has someone else pay the price for sin.

Ironically, this way of satisfying divine justice seems to carry an injustice of its own--Jesus suffers because of our sin and God's justice, and not for any reason that has to do with him.

It also makes God unable to forgive without the assistance of a third party, which seems problematic for God's power and perfect goodness. On the "traditional" Christian view, God satisfies his own justice, thus enabling him to both uphold the sanctity of moral law and forgive those who violate it. But on an "Arian" view (in which Jesus is a separate entity from God), God is entirely dependent on one of his creatures. In a sense, God needs Jesus' sacrifice as much as we do. Without it his work of bringing about immortality and eternal life would be impossible.

Thoughts? Is this a (relative) problem for LDS theology? Is the "traditional" doctrine more coherent? What compensating features does LDS atonement theology have? And what are the possible views Latter-day Saints might take?

Don Bradley

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BTW, I'm not trying to argue for that "modalist" reading of Book of Mormon christology which I mentioned. Rather, I'm observing that the Book of Mormon language of "God himself" coming down to work the Atonement seems to avoid the problem of God relying on someone else to reconcile us to him. I thus see the Book of Mormon as having a very tight theology of atonement, with relatively few problems or loose ends.


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God's justice requires a sacrifice for sin


I would put it another way.

In order for us to fully encounter and internalize God's "justice," we must

sacrifice -- not just a little, but a lot.

In order to encounter God's infinite love and forgiveness, we must experience

an INFINITE sacrifice. However, human beings are incapable of works of infinite

perfection. Our best results are but as "filthy rags" on God's scale of "justice."

There is, however, a way around this seeming total roadblock -- and that is,

God performs the sacrifice for us.

Which but moves us from the frying-pan into the fire --- for now we must

accept that INFINITE sacrifice on our behalf.

Once again, even our best efforts at acceptance/belief/faith are but as

"filthy rags" on God's scale of Justice.

So -- God works a concomitant miracle on our behalf -- in the Gift of the

Holy Ghost. Not by own, unaided efforts, but by God's grace we surrender,

we repent -- we accept forgiveness -- we internalize the Gospel of Jesus.

So -- is sacrifice required?

You bet it is!


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Penal-substitution and Anslemic (satisfaction) theories of atonement can be found in various scriptures and in some examples from modern LDS leaders. As I view it, these theories have some problems and I view them in a more utilitarian than scientific way. They are used as a basic explanation of what the atonement is in order to inspire gratitude, or help along repentance, but aren't necessarily the best or most accurate descriptions.

The best discussion on atonement theory in LDS thought I have seen is in Ostler's Exploring Mormon Thought vol. 2. Not necessarily problem free, but very profitable.

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Hey UD and LOP,

Thanks for chiming in!

It seems to me that something like satisfaction theory or penal substitution theory is implicit, if not explicit, in passages of the Pauline epistles, Hebrews, and the Book of Mormon. In any case, it is stated that without the Atonement we are subject to God's justice or "wrath," and that Jesus took this wrath upon himself. He was a sacrifice that (at least potentially) gets us off the hook for this unbearable penalty.

So far as I can see, the issues I've sketched would still be real issues even without a precise doctrine of satisfaction or penal substitution. In an Arian christology it is not God who suffers to reconcile us to him, but someone else. So if God needed a sacrifice--as is maintained in many scriptural passages--in order to save us, he didn't take it upon himself but placed it upon another who (albeit voluntarily) stood in for him.


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Hi Don,

I suppose this might just muddy the scenario, but would it be pertinent to point out that Catholics do not teach that the Incarnation and Atonement is the only way God could have forgiven mankind? From The Summa of St Thomas, Pt. III, Q. 46, art. 2, the question "Whether there was any other possible way of human deliverance besides the Passion of Christ?":

Augustine says (De Trin. xiii): "We assert that the way whereby God deigned to deliver us by the man Jesus Christ, who is mediator between God and man, is both good and befitting the Divine dignity; but let us also show that other possible means were not lacking on God's part, to whose power all things are equally subordinate."

I answer that, A thing may be said to be possible or impossible in two ways: first of all, simply and absolutely; or secondly, from supposition. Therefore, speaking simply and absolutely, it was possible for God to deliver mankind otherwise than by the Passion of Christ, because "no word shall be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37).

Perhaps this is insignificant to your question. But it seems that both Augustine and Aquinas might oppose the theory that "makes God unable to forgive without the assistance of a third party." I think we Catholics must take the position that the Incarnation and Passion of Christ were the most suitable, but not exclusive means at God's disposal for the forgiveness of sins. St. Thomas gives five reasons to the affirmative in article 3, answering the question, "Whether there was any more suitable way of delivering the human race than by Christ's Passion?":

Among means to an end that one is the more suitable whereby the various concurring means employed are themselves helpful to such end. But in this that man was delivered by Christ's Passion, many other things besides deliverance from sin concurred for man's salvation.

In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation; hence the Apostle says: "God commendeth His charity towards us; for when as yet we were sinners . . . Christ died for us."

Secondly, because thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man's salvation. Hence it is written (1 Peter 2:21): "Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps."

Thirdly, because Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss, as shall be shown later (48, 1; 49, 1, 5).

Fourthly, because by this (the Passion) man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, according to 1 Corinthians 6:20: "You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body."

Fifthly, because it redounded to man's greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil; and as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:57): "Thanks be to God who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."

It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ's Passion than simply by God's good-will.


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Interesting, Rory!

I did not know that about the Catholic view of Atonement, though it makes sense given a doctrine of absolute omnipotence (that God can do anything that is logically possible). On such a view, then, the Atonement could have been wrought by God through someone else outside of the divine life, had he so ordained it--a savior distinct from God himself (or in any other way).

Had God so ordained it this way, in order to satisfy "justice" (per the Latter-day Saint understanding), the resulting solution would have raised the issues I mention in the OP.

A question for aspiring LDS theologians: Did God have any freedom, from a Latter-day Saint scriptural and doctrinal vantage point, in choosing among possible methods of Atonement? The popular understanding is that a savior had to suffer, otherwise God's justice could not be satisfied, and we could not be saved. This understanding is expressed in Boyd K. Packer's atonement "parable" and also--so far as I can see--in passages of the Book of Mormon, which would seem to constrain Latter-day Saints from taking a view similar to the Catholic one. But I may be missing something (or several somethings).


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Hello Don,

Most orthodox Christians I know would eschew the phrase "God himself" in favor of "God the Son" to distance themselves from Modalist christology, but, yes, I agree with you that God taking upon Himself the punishment for our sins makes for a more cohesive, not to mention appealing, theory of substitutionary atonement. However, it does not reconcile, to my mind, why God needed a sacrifice. Why could he not forgive without the shedding of blood?

Also, though I know this is meandering a bit from your topic, I find it incongruous that God universally cursed the entire human race because of Adam's sin, yet He did not universally save by one man, Jesus Christ. It seems a bit heavy-handed.


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... we are subject to God's justice or "wrath,"


It can look like "wrath" to us -- and we can describe ourselves as "God-fearing."

But I think it also true, that God's love is more in accord with our souls than

is God's wrath.

We perceive justice as wrath, in some (many?) cases. But that is due to our own

imperfections and human limitations.

My own view of the matter is that God's love has no opposite -- that God's love

encompasses justice, mercy, wrath, or whatever other perceptions we may have.

Human beings think in terms of a "sacrifice" to satisfy the demands of justice -- so

we naturally respond to that sort of terminology. From God's own point of view, the

scope of our situation and our destiny, may be something far, far greater.


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I think your clarification is right, and I would wonder the same thing about the (non)universality of salvation.


I would also tend to agree that the idea that God is enraged at us and will eternally burn us is not appealing and would not speak well of God. I employed the notion of "wrath" because it is repeatedly used by Paul.

However unfortunate the language employed, I think the underlying idea is coherent. If God is thought of as the embodiment and source of moral law--if morality is rooted in his nature, then it's quite conceivable that he could not reconcile himself to immoral beings without some special salvific work.

But my point is not to offer my own theological speculation, but to ask how comfortably LDS theology of the Godhead coheres with LDS theology of atonement--as this theology is represented in popular belief and the scriptural texts. Is this an area where more "orthodox" views have an advantage? Or can an LDS theology of atonement, built out of the materials of LDS tradition and scripture, be just as coherent as the traditional incarnational view?


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Hi Don.

My own simplistic view of the Atonement is that it is the way God the Son could bridge the gap between God and humans--by experiencing the depths of human misery and suffering (as well as, hopefully, some joy and happiness along the way).

Joan Osbourne sang, "What if God was one of us?" I would change that to "What if God was one with us?". By experiencing what we experience, God the Son is, very much, one with us. And by turning to God, we can become one with God as well.

At this point in my faith journey, I do not subscribe to the penal substitution or the satisfaction theory. I realize that its language may be found in the Standard Works but, for some of the reasons you allude to, it does not make sense to me. That does not mean it is wrong, but the penal substitution and satisfaction theories are not, so to speak, "satisfactory" to me.

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Ironically, this way of satisfying divine justice seems to carry an injustice of its own--Jesus suffers because of our sin and God's justice, and not for any reason that has to do with him.

What if justice is independent of God?

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What if justice is independent of God?

I think this is actually a fairly common view (among LDS). If justice is seen as independent of God, preventing forgiveness without an atonement, then why can we forgive someone who has not accepted the Atonement? And if we can, why would God lack the ability to do the same? (It could be argued that the Atonement even makes it possible for us to forgive one another, but I think this would be a very strained interpretation. We have free will quite apart from the Atonement--isn't that how we got ourselves into a mess where we need one?!) So, the problem of God lacking a moral ability we possess would still appear to be there.

However, viewing justice as external to God (whatever problems that might entail) would avoid the problem of God having someone else satisfy his justice. I'm still not sure, though, that it would satisfy an abstract principle of justice to have Jesus suffer for other people's sins. Justice would then have to be satisfied with what appears to be an injustice.

Maybe that's how it works, but I would doubt it!


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