The Necessary-Satisfaction Theory of Atonement

This entry is part 7 of 13 in the series Pastoral Soteriology

Continuing our examination of numerous atonement theories which have circulated the church throughout history, it must be observed that thus far in this series there has not been revealed a tremendous amount of success in the packaging of such systems into understandable, yet valid theological thought.

The Recapitulation Theory misses the vicarious nature of Jesus’ death altogether.  The Ransom Theory essentially glorifies Satan as the one who was to be appeased for the wages of sin.  The Moral Example Theory is little more than a warmed over “good ol’ boys get in” mentality and the Mystical Theory relegates God to one of the plethora of pagan gods of yore; being reached via essential practices rather than his own initiative which is accomplished by grace through faith.  Furthermore, most of these theories place robust emphasis on man’s role in salvation; asserting that Christ’s work on the cross provided a means for man to complete the work of redemption rather than Christ completing the work himself.

Next to be examined, the Necessary-Satisfaction Theory proposed by the Benedictine Monk, Anselm (1033-1109), was the first penned and widely circulated theory of atonement which put the major tenets of biblical atonement doctrines into their proper places.  While this theory was insufficient and incomplete, it at least identified the atonement as something which brought satisfaction to God for man’s offense of sin.  And, unlike the Ransom theory, Anselm properly asserted that it was God who was to be satisfied (rather than Satan) for man’s sin, and God who was himself alone able to provide such atonement.

The Biblical Basis

In all fairness, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), which presented the basis of his satisfaction theory, was written more as a philosophical argument than a theological treatise.  It is therefore lacking in biblical exegesis and/or scriptural reference, yet arguably making biblical claims.  To that end, it is difficult to attribute biblical texts to Anselm’s own thoughts.  However, Hebrews 9-10 do portray the element of satisfaction for which Anselm argued.  In chapter nine, Hebrews notes,

Hebrews 9:22 (NIV)
22 In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

Clearly noting that blood must be shed for the remission of sins, this text supports Anselm’s understanding that an action of satisfaction is necessary for atonement.  In this case, it is God’s law which issues the requirement, rendering God himself as the one to be satisfied through the rendering of a blood offering.  More clearly, chapter ten notes the contributor as that of Christ himself.

Hebrews 10:10 (NIV)
10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And Paul further relates the provision of sacrifice to God’s own demands as he notes,

Romans 3:25 (NIV)
25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–

Thus, Anselm was on the right track as he understood Christ’s death as a satisfying work which was accomplished in order to meet God’s own requirements.  Sort of….

The Essence of the Theory

A short order presentation of Anselm’s theory (Cur Deus Homo can be read online here), is essentially this:

God’s honor was offended by man’s sin.  In Anselm’s culture, this would be akin to a serf who may have insulted and dishonored his lord.  In such cases the lord would have demanded satisfaction, or payment for the dishonoring of his position and status.

Since God was so dishonored by man’s sin, it was likewise necessary for God to be satisfied -by payment- for such an egregious action.

Christ provided satisfaction to God vicariously by merit of his sinless life and death, which applied a sort of restoration of God’s honor to man’s account.  Jesus then became the reparation which was required for sin.  Through receiving Christ, man’s sin was paid.

This presentation, though with issues, makes right certain tenets of Origen’s Ransom Theory which were badly out of sync with scripture. 

A debt was owed to release a captive (sinners).

The debt was paid by Christ (the ransom).

Yet in Anselm’s understanding the ransom was paid properly to God, rather than to Satan, who has no actual interest what-so-ever in atonement.

The Merits of the Theory

At least it can be said that we’re getting closer!  Anselm did not hit a home run with his theory, but he definitely made right the misconceptions which dominated the Ransom theory.  Several key elements of his argument do find proper bases in scripture.  Sin was an offense to God.  God did require a just and proper reparation for sin.  Christ did satisfy God’s requirements.  And, man is (or can be) redeemed vicariously through Christ’s provision.

For that which he got right however, there are issues with this theory and it is still not the best explanation of how the atonement “works.”  While Anselm accurately presented the nature of the atonement, in that Christ satisfied God’s righteous requirements of the law, he failed to precisely identify the nature of the transgression or the true means by which payment was credited to man. 

To Anselm, it is God’s honor which has been transgressed.  Yet, scripture demands notice that it was God’s justice which has been offended. 

Romans 3:25 (NIV)
25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–

The problem with sin is not that it makes God look bad.  The problem with sin is that it offends God’s law; invoking his wrath.   God’s impeccable justice demands punishment for that which has offended him.  As such, it is not God’s honor which is restored by Christ’s death, but man’s transgression which is paid.

More will be examined concerning God’s justice and the penal nature of Christ’s death in next week’s post.  But, suffice it to say that a biblical atonement theory is necessarily one which explains the demonstration of God’s justice concerning sin.  Anselm’s theory, while hitting closer to the mark that others examined in this series, omits entirely the penal aspects of atonement which are taught in scripture.

Isaiah 53:9-10 (NIV)
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

Series Navigation<< The Mystical Theory of AtonementThe Penal Substitution Theory: On the Mark >>

4 Comment(s)

  1. I have heard some of these theories, but until now, I didn’t know the origin of any of them. Thank you for passing on the information. I really enjoy reading your posts! Keep up the good work.

    Rachel Miller | Aug 6, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thanks, Rachel. I enjoy your blog, too! I appreciate the encouragment.

    Jeff Kluttz | Aug 6, 2009 | Reply

  3. Hi Jeff,
    I’ve been studying Anselm and “Cur Deus Homo.” At first I approached it the same way you do, that Anselm believed our sin made God look bad. But the more I dug, I realized that when Anselm talks about God’s honor, it includes justice.

    I think Anselm would wholeheartedly agree with your statement, “The problem with sin is that it offends God’s law; invoking his wrath. God’s impeccable justice demands punishment for that which has offended him.” Then Anselm would say Christ’s death made satisfaction for man’s injustice against God so that God’s honor is restored.

    What do you think?
    Tks, Nathan

    Nathan J. Anderson | Aug 7, 2012 | Reply

  4. That may well be, Nathan. Admitedly, I haven’t attempted at any length to get under Anselm’s skin & figure him out, but have limited my interest in his claims regarding atonement. Like most, I studied “about” Anselm before I ever read Anselm. Thus, I’m sure my understanding may be preconditioned. There is little question that justice was at issue in Anselm’s mind. He uses the term often enough, but seems to lean back from it in favor of the whole ‘honor of a king’ sort of expression. It may be that in his day and mind the idea of ‘honor’ painted a more sufficient understanding than it does to us. In that case, he may actually be doctrinally accurate in his heart but lack the ability to package & deliver it in a manner which later history can best grasp. That being said, I think he’s got the second best explanation out there. I guess the answer I could safely hang my hat on (without having to read Anselm again [brutal!]) would be that at best, he explained his position poorly while at worst he misses the legal aspects of atonement entirely. He may very well agree with that statement entirely.

    Over all, I think the single most important expression of an atonement theory is the punitive nature of Christ’s death in light of the Law of Moses. He was the sacrifice to replace all sacrifices; thus he must properly accomplish that which “a sacrifice” was to accomplish. It seems that every historic theory has missed that all-important point of it all. Anselm may have understood it, but failed (in my estimation) to bring it to the table as Calvin did.

    Good conversation starter!

    Jeff Kluttz | Aug 7, 2012 | Reply

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