From Feast upon the Word ( Copyright, Feast upon the Word.
Jump to: navigation, search

My current view is that there is no philosophically/theologically satisfying theory of atonement and that it is, and possibly should remain, somewhat mystical (i.e. a mystery).


  • Recent LDS theories
  • See this response I posted to Blake in support of D. P.'s view. I think this question—understanding the sense in which God suffers with us and the sense in which God suffers instead of us—is a question I'd like to consider further. I think this question may be unbreachable from an analytic perspective in many respects b/c analytic inquiry seems to require rigid definitions that are not conducive to understanding this question. I'm thinking instead of trying to understand the "instead of" sense that God suffers for us in the terms of the ontological difference between God and us.....
  • Morgan's divine infusion theory (Jacob Morgan in Dialogue Spring 2006 article, pp. 57-81). I really like this article (I only skimmed his criticism of other theories, but I think he gave good criticisms), but he doesn't try to explain why or how the transferance of pain and guilt works.
  • Ostler's compassion theory (Blake Ostler, in Exploring Mormon Thought v. 2, chapter 7). I like chapters 4-6 in Ostler's book, but I don't understand his explanation and analogies in chapter 7 regarding how we transfer our pain-energy to Christ. Despite my efforts, this part of his book seems pretty mystical to me. In this comment he tries to briefly describe his view (for easy reference and quoting).

  • Substitution theories
Wikipedia lists these as Substitionary atonement, Atonement (satisfaction view), and Atonement (governmental view)—I'm not clear on the direct mapping, but I'll use Ostler's terms below. Also, I'm not clear whether Packer's theory is more like ransom or more like penal-substitution; the main difference in my mind is whether the devil is being appeased or some abstract notion of justice is being appeased—I think the latter is Packer's view, hence the penal-substitution theory.
The main problems with these theories, as I see it (based mostly on others' writings), can be expressed via the following simple analogy from Ostler's book (a more complicated but more careful and convincing argument can be constructed based on the notion that transference of punishment is unjust according to Alma 34:11-12, as Morgan does): Although it makes sense to think of someone else paying my parking ticket, it doesn't make sense for someone else to be sent to jail for murder or rape.
  • Ransom theory: Christ is effectively ransom paid to the devil to release us from hell.
  • Penal-substitution theory: Christ pays the price of our sins to satisfy justice.


I like this analogy, but I'd add some subplots. In particular, I'd talk about how the son was foolish at times and needed to be bailed out of some sticky situations. For example, like my brother who liked to go four-diggin' (that's Idaho slang for what I think is usually termed off-roading), but got a stuck a few times so my dad had to go out and help him get unstuck. Getting bailed out of jail might work as an example here too, but it's too similar to penal-substitution. Perhaps a good example would be when the father is a doctor and the son, say, crashes his motorcycle and the father has to perform hours and hours of surgery to fix his face. The idea that I think other analogies (and theories) miss is the notion that God bears some sort of burden when we sin. The problem is that D&C 19 says we will suffer if we don't repent, like God suffered. I'm not sure how this fits in with this analogy (I have to perform surgery on myself if I don't allow God to do it?).
  • Parable of the Pianist by Geoff J. (similar to Oaks' analogy I think; emphasizes the need for us to learn how to play the piano, with God playing the role of mentor and benefactor who provides the piano)
  • Parable of the Bicycle (see Robinson's Believing Christ; Geoff J. has a discussion of this at his New Cool Thang blog)
If I remember, it's about a kid who saves as hard as he can for many years to buy a bike, but is far, far short of having enough money, so the dad pays the difference.
  • Relationship analogy
Ostler uses the analogy of a relationship, but I don't think he ever really describes it very clearly. My idea would be to think more carefully about the way that we hurt those that we are closest to. Ostler at some point in his book (Ch. 6 maybe?) talks about how being unfaithful in a marriage relationship is painful. I think this is a good example, but I still need it unpacked for me b/c I don't really intellectually grasp why this is painful, and therefore I'm not sure it works as an analogy for the Atonement (though there's plenty of OT imagery to support this analogy).

Alma 34[edit]

I've discussing Alma 34:8-16 at this New Cool Thang thread recently. I want to summarize some of what I'm taking from that discussion here, as well as record some thoughts I've had from that discussion, and eventually move toward writing what's appropriate on the commentary pages....

The danger of a theory-based reading. I think this is a good case study for the pros and cons of doing systematic theology. I am interested in understanding the atonement better, but I'm nervous about trying to develop a theory of atonement. Part of the problem is I think a theory makes it harder to have the right relationship with the scriptures—if a "good theory" is developed, then what incentive is there to keep searching the scriptures on this topic? In contrast, I think the more post-modern, context-focused approach (that Joe Spencer's diatribed for a few times) keeps one open, searching, and humble.

Amulek's view. In looking carefully at Amulek's words in this chapter, I was a bit surprised at the approach he takes in contrast to the approach Alma takes elsewhere. I think Alma discusses justice very differently, for example in chapters 41-42, than Amulek does. And whereas Alma uses the "stain of sin" and "be cleansed through the blood of Christ" metaphor repeatedly, it is conspicuously absent in this chapter.

On justice and atonement. Most of the blog discussion has to do with evidence against a penal-substitution view of justice. First, I don't think there's much evidence for any real theory of atonement, rather Amulek here (and other prophets elsewhere) are giving a description of certain aspects of atonement. However, Amulek raises the issue of "just law" in Alma 34:11—also in this verse he seems to use the word atone in the conventional pay for sense. The blog discussion I think is mainly divided about how to read verse 12: is Amulek saying the atonement has to work on a different principle than substitionary payment of justice, or is Amulek simply saying that Christ's infinite sacrifice allows for a kind of substitionary payment that is not possible with man's just laws? Ultimatley, I think this may be trying to make a distinction beyond what Amulek intended (or what his words will bear; however, Jacob and Blake in particular put forth several careful arguments as to why they think Amulek is undermining a penal-substitionary view of atonement...).

Exposed to the whole law? I'm not sure if others view this as a minor issue or just haven't gotten around to addressing it or don't have a response, but I'd like to consider the phrase in verse 16 more carefully "exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice." This seems (to me at least) to make more sense on a penal-susbtitutionary reading than the reading Blake or Jacob is proposing. But apart from a theoretical reading, I think it's a very interesting phrase. Amulek seems to be saying more just that Christ provides the "means" (v. 15) of repenting of our sins—after all, if we repent of our sins and become clean (to mix Alma's metaphor into the reading), then won't we be ready to be "exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice"? It seems Amulek is getting at something more. A penal-substition reading is one way to take this but, though I think Amulek is starting with a retributive view of justice (esp. v. 11), he clearly seems to be pointing out that Christ's atonement is much more than just a paying-off of justice (after all, this isn't possible in a finite sense—so what's he getting at with his discussion of an infinite atonement? he's clearly pointing out that Christ fulfills the law of Moses, but then why is repentance required to satisfy justice if Christ simply paid off justice?).

Covenant approach? I don't know that Amulek particularly has a covenant view in mind, but Ben's comment (#58) and Mogget's (#60) response raise issues I'd like to look at more carefully—both about a covenant view (esp. in Paul) and the tension between Biblical theologians vs. systematic theologians.

Related links[edit]

  • Process theology
  • New Cool Thang. See the atonement and soteriology category for many posts on this subject (I've discussed Blake Ostler and Jacob Morgan's views quite a bit with them there...).