Atonement theology has long been considered a standard teaching of the Church. There are five basic versions of it: 1) Ransom/Christus victor theory; 2) Moral influence theory; 3) Satisfaction theory; 4) Recapitulation theory, and 5) Scapegoat theory. Penal substitution theory is a refinement of St Anselm’s Satisfaction theory that was developed by Protestant reformers such as Calvin and others.
They all revolve around the doctrine of Original Sin, which is the teaching that the sin of Adam & Eve (eating the fruit of knowledge) is passed down through all mankind. The various theories teach that Jesus’ crucifixion was necessary to save us and all mankind from all their sins, and to save us from eternal damnation; also to save us by pardoning us from original sin.
All but one: the Moral Influence Theory of Atonement. The West has largely rejected this theory of atonement, replacing it with the teachings of St Anselm and others. The Eastern churches still teach this earlier doctrine, though often in combination with Ransom and Christus victor models.
So what is the moral influence theory? In a nutshell, it is the teaching that Jesus came to save us from ourselves, not from sin. It is a doctrine that focuses on positive moral change as the heart of the Christian faith. It teaches that God’s concern is with our inner character, and whether our free will inclines that inner character to good or evil. A good inner character is one that is inclined to unselfish love to others. Moral Influence Theory teaches that God works through the hearts and minds of people to transform us into more loving societies. Central to the Moral Influence doctrine is the concept of Free Will, wherein all human beings are responsible for their own actions, and that we are all capable of change. Moral Influence doctrine generally rejects the doctrine of Original Sin.
So what then, does Jesus’ death mean, if he didn’t “die for our sins and for the sins of the whole world”? To answer that, we must look at what Moral Influence doctrine contains, upon what it is built. The doctrine looks at Jesus as a teacher, since most of the Gospel accounts place great emphasis on Jesus’ teachings. Second, the New Testament is filled with passages admonishing us to follow not only Jesus’ teaching, but his example. As a result of Jesus’ teachings and example, the Church has as a significant purpose that of the ability to transform people and society.
This brings us to the fourth item, that of Jesus’ crucifixion, which under Moral Influence is regarded as martyrdom – martyrdom as a consequence of his efforts to bring about moral transformation through the message and teaching of God’s love and acceptance.
You may then ask, “What, then, is the significance of the Resurrection?” The answer is that the Resurrection provides the evidence that an atonement occurred. The Resurrection extends the impact of his death, and thereby extends the impact of his life and teachings.
Jesus’ teachings and example were for us the way to “at-one-ment” with God. We are the bread of the world, the image & likeness of God scattered the world over. This is the bread of the Last Supper. In like manner, the wine is the blood we all may be called upon to shed as we follow Jesus’ teachings and example of grace, of love, of acceptance, of forgiveness.
As Progressive Christians, we continue this teaching of the early church, largely to the exclusion of all later teachings. We are taught to love as God loves us, as demonstrated through Jesus of Nazareth. The teachings are to bring us to the realisation that we are God’s image; God is in us, and we are in Him. When we come to this knowledge and understanding, and accept it and strive to live our lives accordingly – loving as we are loved, forgiving as we are forgiven -- then we will discover our own atonement.