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THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF ATONEMENT

The acceptance theory

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Acceptance theory:

This theory is not widely believed in contemporary Christianity. Modern faith groups generally teach either the Ransom, Satisfaction, or Moral Theory. The Acceptance Theory teaches that atonement comes from the arbitrary choice of God.

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Its creators:

Theologians John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham of the via moderna theological system promoted this theory of the atonement.

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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.

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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 simple, stupid."

This essay continues below.

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Description:

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 obviously chose 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:

They disagreed with a number of Anselm's beliefs, that:

bulletThe atonement was dependent on the incarnation -- the concept that God appeared in human form in Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ).
bulletThe redemption of humanity was a necessary act.
bulletHumanity could not be redeemed without satisfaction.
bulletSatisfaction could only be made by the God-man Yeshua .
bulletThe best way to obtain satisfaction was by Yeshua's death by torture on the cross.

They argued that:

bulletGod 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.
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"...all satisfaction comes from the arbitrary choice of God." 7

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Human sin is not infinite in magnitude.

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The satisfaction created by the execution death of Yeshua was also not infinite.

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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.

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Scotus "...would not say, with Anselm, that if God wished to forgive menís 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 manís salvation. Instead, he said that they were the way chosen by God." 5

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Thus, God freely chose to accept Yeshua's finite suffering as adequate satisfaction for the sins of humanity. 6

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Criticisms of this theory:

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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.

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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 begotten son.

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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 humans.

Michael Martin describes some objections to other violent theories of the atonement. Some might also apply to the Acceptance Theory:

bullet"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 and unfair.
bulletThe 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.
bulletPresumably, 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 millennia. An indefinite number of human sacrifices might eventually be required.
bulletIt 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 Ransom 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:

bulletThe Acceptance theory, as well as other violence-based atonement explanations, suffer from an inconsistency in Christian teaching:
bulletThe 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.
bulletThe 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.
bulletMost 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.
bulletSome 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.
bulletIf 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 uncivilized
bulletThe 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.
bulletThere is no obvious mechanism whereby a person can achieve salvation and atonement with God by simply expressing faith and/or trust in Yeshua.

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References:

  1. "Bl. John Duns Scotus," New Advent, at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  2. "Scotism and Scotists," New Advent, at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13610b.htm
  3. Dave Beckett, "Biography," at: http://wotug.ukc.ac.uk/
  4. 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.
  5. Kenneth Latourette, "Christianity through the Ages," Chapter 6, at: http://www.religion-online.org/
  6. Michael Czapkay, "Calvin's doctrine of the atonement, considered in the light of its medieval influences," (1993), at: http://www.homestead.com/
  7. Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1991), Page 252 & 263. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Home > Christianity > History, Beliefs, Trends, etc > Beliefs > Atonement > Theories > here

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Copyright © 2004 and 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-12
Latest update: 2005-APR-13.
Author: B.A. Robinson

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