He tried to recast the theory of atonement

May 2012    

Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

THE FIRST HALF OF THE 12TH CENTURY produced many outstanding theologians and writers, whose works continue to influence Christian theology in one way or another: Anselm, Peter Lombard and Bernard of Clairvaux (to name just a few). e most colourful figure in this period is surely Peter Abelard. Born in Brittany in 1079, he was not only one of the most brilliant theologians of the period but also the most original.

Some may remember Abelard for his scandalous love affair with the lovely Héloïse which he recounted in his autobiography entitled, The Story of My Misfortunes. But many will remember him for his creative, but

largely unsuccessful attempt to recast the theory of atonement. He died in 1142 at the Cluny monastery in France while travelling to Rome to defend himself against charges of heresy.

Abelard devoted most of his energies to the doctrine of salvation (soteriology). In e Exposition of Romans, he argues that justification is not attained by mere observation of the law. e law was given so that both Jews and Gentiles may be made aware of the demands of the righteous God. Under the law, everyone is exposed as a sinner.

“Through the law,” he said, “every mouth is stopped” and “sins have become more recognisable than less”. Justification, according to him, is attained only when the sinner puts his or her faith in Christ. It is by believing in Christ that the sinner is reckoned to be righteous by God.

For Abelard, to be justified by God simply means to receive divine approval. e justification of the sinner is not dependent on any meritorious act that he or she has performed. Rather it is premised solely on what Christ has done on the cross. us, Abelard could insist that justification comes about “not by any previous merits … but by the grace of God who hath first loved us”.

Abelard was profoundly dissatisfied with the traditional teaching concerning redemption through the death of Christ. He rejected the idea that God had redeemed humanity from Satan because he objected to the assumption that Satan had rights over sinners. Abelard also rejected the idea of redemption as a legal transaction that Anselm’s satisfaction theory seemed to require. More importantly, Abelard questioned the standard of divine justice that the traditional teaching on redemption appeared to uphold.

Why should God send His Son to suffer and die for the sins of humanity? How could God allow, not to mention foreordain, an innocent person to die on behalf of the guilty? What sort of justice would require the innocent to receive the punishment due to the guilty? And what sort of God does the traditional doctrine of atonement portray? (Incidentally, these questions are raised again by a number of modern writers who accuse the God of Christianity of gross injustice, cruelty and violence. Some have even likened God as a “cosmic child abuser”!)

Abelard rejected Anselm’s idea that on the cross Christ died on behalf of sinful humanity to appease the wrathful God. For Abelard such a view of the atonement focused too much attention on the honour and justice of God. It did not emphasise enough on God’s love for human beings despite their rebellion against Him. e traditional view also leaves very little room for the role of human beings in the process of reconciliation. Abelard therefore provocatively proposed that God does not need to be reconciled to sinful human beings, for He has never ceased to love them. Rather, it is sinful human beings who needed to be reconciled with God because their rebellion had alienated them from their Creator.

THUS, JESUS did not die on the cross to appease an angry God or to meet the requirements of a cosmic Judge. Jesus did not die on the cross to move God towards reconciliation with sinners, but to move sinful human beings to return to God. Abelard believed that by dying on the cross Christ demonstrates the extent of God’s love for sinners. is demonstration of love is so compelling that sinners will be moved to repent of their sins and return to God.

Abelard’s account of the atonement has been described as the “moral influence theory” because it emphasises the impact of God’s love – demonstrated in Jesus’ death on the cross – on sinners. It has also been described as a “subjective theory” because Christ’s death on the cross has not achieved any objective change between God and humanity. e only change occurs when sinners return to God because they are touched by His love. is theory of atonement has rightly come under much criticism.

Abelard rejected the view that Christ died on the cross as a sacrifice for sinners, a doctrine clearly taught in Scripture (Hebrews 10:1-18). By rejecting the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death, Abelard had not only failed to take human sin seriously. He had also distorted the fundamental way in which the New Testament depicts the cross.

Abelard, as we have seen, also rejected the objective aspect of the atonement.

In doing so, he introduced yet another distortion to the teaching of the New Testament. By rejecting the objective nature of the death of Christ, he was in fact saying that atonement took place in the heart of the sinner, not on the cross. It is therefore not surprising that the great medieval Christian mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, preached against Abelard’s theory and called on the pope to sanction him. But despite the serious weaknesses of Abelard’s approach, it has nonetheless drawn attention to the importance of the subjective aspect of the atonement which the traditional accounts have sometimes neglected.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield  Preaching Point in Woodlands.


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