History Of The Doctrine Of The Atonement -- By: Gregg R. Allison
SBJT 11:2 (Summer 2007) p. 4
History Of The Doctrine Of The Atonement
Gregg Allison is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Allison has contributed articles to the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions (Baker,2000) and serves as the book review editor for theological, historical, and philosophical studies for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is the author of two books for high school students, Getting Deep: Understand What You Believe About God and Why (Broadman & Holman, 2002)and Jesusology: Understand What You Believe About Jesus and Why (Broadman& Holman, 2005).
The church has historically explained the atonement—“the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation”—in various ways.1 At times, it has viewed the death of Christ as a payment to Satan; at other times, Christ’s death has been considered a tribute offered to God to restore his honor lost through humanity’s sin. Some in the church have focused on the great example of Christ’s life as his chief accomplishment; others have underscored how much the death of Christ demonstrates the love of God and prompts humanity to love in return. The number of different views is quite extensive.
Unlike many important doctrines, the atonement has never been the subject of an ecumenical, or general, church council. Thus, whereas the Trinity, the deity of the Son of God, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ have definitive statements that have stood the test of time and are embraced by all Christians, no similar doctrinal formula on the death of Christ exists. The prevalent view among Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular is called the penal substitutionary view: “Christ’s death was ‘penal’ in that he bore a penalty when he died. His death was also a ‘substitution’ in that he was a substitute for us when he died.”2 It will be the purpose of this article to outline briefly the development of the doctrine of the atonement with particular attention given to the various theories or models of the atonement formulated by the church throughout its history.
The Atonement In The Early Church
The early church offered various descriptions of Christ’s sacrificial work. At first, these were quite simple explanations. For example, Clement of Rome described Christ’s work of substitution: “Because of the love he had for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, in accordance with God’s will, gave his blood for us, and his flesh for our flesh, and his life for our lives.”3 This suffering on behalf of others become...
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