THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF ATONEMENT
The acceptance theory
This theory is not widely believed in contemporary Christianity.
faith groups generally teach either the Ransom,
Satisfaction, or Moral Theory.
The Acceptance Theory teaches that atonement comes from the arbitrary
choice of God.
Theologians John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham of the via
moderna theological system promoted this
theory of the atonement.
John Duns Scotus (circa 1270 - 1308 CE) was
a professor at Oxford University, in England. He was a prolific author, having
written many commentaries on famous philosophers and theologians such as
Aristotle and Peter Lombard. 1
He founded and led the famous Scotist School of philosophy.
2 He taught at Oxford, Paris and
Cologne. 3 The English word "dunce" is derived from
his name. 3 This is perhaps a good indication of what his
critics felt of his teachings.
William of Occam (a.k.a. Ockham; circa 1285 - circa 1349)
was born in Surrey, England. He "was the most influential
philosopher of the 14th century and a controversial theologian."
4 He severely
criticized the power of the pope. He often used the principle of parsimony,
which later became known as Occam's Razor (a.k.a. Ockham's Razor)
5 -- the belief that "plurality
should not be assumed without necessity." In simpler terms, this means that the
simplest solution is often the correct one. This has evolved into the KISS principle: "keep it
This essay continues below.
The via moderna school of theology emphasizes the traditional belief that God is omnipotent. He
could have created the world and the rest of the universe in any form. He
the one that he did create for some reason known only to himself. "There is no law extrinsic to God to which he
must conform. Hence, God is free but reliable, for he binds Himself by His
eternal decree." 6
Scotus and Ockham rejected Anselm's satisfaction theory of the atonement
which was then -- in the early 13th century CE -- the principal belief of Christian theologians:
with a number of Anselm's beliefs, that:
|The atonement was dependent on the incarnation -- the concept that God
appeared in human form in Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ).|
|The redemption of humanity was a necessary act.|
|Humanity could not be redeemed without satisfaction.|
|Satisfaction could only be made by the God-man Yeshua .|
|The best way to obtain satisfaction was by Yeshua's death by torture on the
They argued that:
|God could have decided of his own free will to save humanity through the
work, and perhaps the death, of an angel, of Adam, of any other human being,
or even an animal. But he decided, for his own reasons, to achieve atonement through the
torture-death of Yeshua.|
"...all satisfaction comes from the arbitrary choice of
Human sin is not infinite in magnitude.
The satisfaction created by the execution death of Yeshua was also
As a man, Yeshua only experienced a finite degree of
suffering on the cross -- roughly the same as was experienced by the two
thieves who were executed with him, and the other approximately 10,000 who
were crucified by the Romans during Yeshua's lifetime.
Scotus "...would not say, with Anselm,
that if God wished to forgive men’s sins He was bound to become incarnate
and die on the cross, nor did he hold, with Aquinas, that the incarnation
and the crucifixion were the wisest way to achieve man’s salvation. Instead,
he said that they were the way chosen by God."
Thus, God freely chose to accept Yeshua's finite suffering as
for the sins of humanity. 6
Criticisms of this theory:
This theory does not provide the rationale why God chose the
incarnation, torture-death, and resurrection route for Yeshua to provide a
method of reaching atonement. Being omnipotent, it would seem that there
were many other methods of achieving the same end.
If, as the theory states, God could have chosen the death of
any creature -- an animal, a convicted criminal, a bird, etc. -- it seems
morally repugnant that God would have chosen the torture-death of his only
If God accepts Yeshua's voluntary sacrifice of himself, then
there is no obvious reason why persons of all religions, and persons of no
religious affiliation, are not automatically saved. If the sacrifice were sufficient to
God, then atonement and salvation would not have to depend on a person
trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior, or upon church sacraments. They could have been granted to all
Michael Martin describes some objections to other violent
theories of the atonement. Some might also apply to the Acceptance Theory:
|"Justice surely demands that at the very least the guilty party --
[i.e. humanity] -- provide as much of the satisfaction as he or she can."
7 But in this theory, humans contribute nothing and Yeshua
everything. The contrast of the death penalty for Yeshua and the zero contribution of humanity seems unjust
|The belief that God's pride is so wounded that he would demand as
satisfaction the death of an innocent person "assumes a view of God's
moral nature that many modern readers would reject."
7 Being omnipotent, God could simply forgive people, or find
some other way for humanity to attain atonement.|
|Presumably, the satisfaction theory would require that any new human sins committed after Yeshua's execution would
also damage the honor of God. They would necessitate the execution of a second God-Man.
Thus, multiple incarnations and executions would be required over the
indefinite number of human sacrifices might eventually be required.|
|It seems logical that if the death of Yeshua satisfied God's damaged
honor, and if humans made no contribution to the process, then salvation and
atonement should be granted to everyone -- to Christian believers and
unbelievers alike. It is unclear why only persons who trust Jesus as Lord
and Savior would be rewarded.|
Martin concludes: "In sum, instead of providing us with an explanation of
the incarnation, the Resurrection and salvation, this theory makes them seem
arbitrary and morally problematic."
Finally, the some additional criticisms listed for the
Theory also apply here. They attribute to God the
same sort of punishing behavior seen in the lives of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot,
Saddam Hussein, etc. We repeat them below for convenience:
|The Acceptance theory, as well as other violence-based atonement
explanations, suffer from an inconsistency in Christian teaching:|
|The church has traditionally taught that a person is responsible for
their own sin, and that a person cannot morally be punished for the sins
of others. Of course, they deviated from this teaching, as when they
taught as late as the mid-20th century that
modern-day Jews were responsible for the execution of Yahweh. But in
general, people were not held responsible for the sins of others.|
|The church also teaches that the default destination for Adam, Eve,
their children, their grandchildren and their descendents to the present
time, after death, will be Hell because of the first parents'
transgression in the Garden of Eden when they ate the forbidden fruit.
All will be tortured in Hell, unless they are saved through sacraments
and/or good works and/or faith. The sin of Eve and Adam were imputed to
the entire human race.|
|Most liberal and many mainline Christians believe that Adam and Eve were
mythical humans. That is, they didn't exist as actual people. Without that
belief, this atonement theory collapses.|
|Some Christians note that Eve and Adam were created as proto-humans
without a sense of sin. After all, they ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree
of Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to develop a knowledge of good and
evil. Being without a moral sense, they cannot be responsible for eating the
fruit any more than an animal might. Again, if the first parents are not
responsible for eating the fruit, the atonement theory collapses.|
trusting Yeshua were the only path to atonement and salvation, then those who have followed
a non-Christian religion would not achieve salvation and atonement. They
would be sent to Hell after death for what is
basically the commission of a thought crime -- believing in the wrong God or
in no God. Current moral belief systems -- both religious and secular --
consider punishment for thought crimes to be immoral, unjust, and
|The ransom theory would also route many of the non-Christians to Hell after
their death for the simple reason that
they have not had the opportunity to learn of Yeshua, Christianity, or the
gospel message. Being ignorant of Yeshua, they could not trust him as Lord and Savior and be
saved. The Acceptance Theory punishes non-Christians for not
having made a decision in favor of someone of whom they are unaware. This appears to many people to be irrational,
unjust, and immoral.|
|There is no obvious mechanism whereby a person can achieve salvation and
atonement with God by simply expressing faith and/or trust in Yeshua. |
- "Bl. John Duns Scotus," New Advent, at:
- "Scotism and Scotists," New Advent, at:
- Dave Beckett, "Biography," at:
- The most popular search engine,
www.google.com found about 53,200 references on the Internet to "Occam's
razor" and 46,900 references to "Ockham's Razor." Both spellings
appear to be similar in popularity.
- Kenneth Latourette, "Christianity through the Ages," Chapter 6,
- Michael Czapkay, "Calvin's doctrine of the atonement, considered in
the light of its medieval influences," (1993), at:
- Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple
University Press, (1991), Page 252 & 263.
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Copyright © 2004 and 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2004-APR-12
Latest update: 2005-APR-13.
Author: B.A. Robinson