The Debate over the Atonement in 19th-Century America Part 3: The Collision of Views on the Atonement -- By: David F. Wells

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 144:576 (Oct 1987)
Article: The Debate over the Atonement in 19th-Century America Part 3: The Collision of Views on the Atonement
Author: David F. Wells


The Debate over the Atonement in 19th-Century America
Part 3:
The Collision of Views on the Atonement

David F. Wells

Andrew Mutch Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts

[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of four articles delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, April 7–10, 1987.]

It is perhaps strange that in the context of growing ecclesiastical fragmentation and festering theological debate, there was great reticence to allow any controversy to spill over into the doctrine of the Atonement itself. In 1840 Leonard Bacon claimed that all the parties to these other debates agreed on the Atonement, at least in its essentials. All, he said, could affirm “that Christ, by his humiliation, sufferings, and death, made a sufficient expiation for the sins of the world, so that all the ends of justice are answered, and the interests of God’s moral government are maintained” and therefore with “perfect sincerity” God can offer a “free and eternal justification to all.”1 This seeming unity,

however, was an illusion. George Boardman observed of those books and essays written on the Atonement between the time of Jonathan Edwards the Younger and Horace Bushnell, that they lacked the originality and verve that characterized writings on related themes in this time because, he said, they “aimed rather at avoiding difficulties and meeting objections, than at the development of a central idea.”2 The central idea, however, could not be avoided when everything else related to it was engulfed in contention.

According to Charles Hodge, who was ready to debate his opponents over the Atonement as well, “human ingenuity has been unable to devise more than three general theories concerning the work of Christ” apart from what he calls “the obsolete doctrine of some of the Fathers.”3 Presumably he was referring to the so-called “classic motif,” which Gustav Aulén has brought into the center of theological focus in the 20th century. Hodge would no doubt be amazed to note how prevalent this “obsolete doctrine” has become! The three views Hodge did believe were debatable were the representative view, of which he was an advocate; the governmental view, for which Taylor argued; and the subjective view, of which Bushnell was a proponent.4

The collision of these views may be as confusing today a...

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