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I am currently studying Church Dogmatics over the summer and answering questions put by my teacher on different subjects important to theology. This is the fourteenth of a series of post I will publish from these studies and writings.

Theories on Atonement

Henriksen expounds on the three theories of atonement: objective, subjective and classical, and then presents an amalgamation, based on biblical accounts, that gives a little justice to them all. Others, like McGrath for example, have in my opinion given a better description of these, but I am asked to summarise them from what Henriksen writes. I myself am inclined to put most store to the subjective theory but must admit that Henriksen’s bible-based one has some merit.

The Objective Theory of Atonement


This theory is based on that the sin of humanity offends God’s holiness and though He loves mankind, He cannot, because of His nature of majesty and holiness, ignore sin. Thus He demands justice from man. Not because He is authoritarian but because of His love. Loving mankind He doesn’t permit us to do wrong. But mankind’s sin is so large that it cannot pay for it by itself and therefore suffers death. But loving humanity, He comes Himself as Jesus and lets His own anger out on Him so that mankind will be spared. He thus does not reduce the evil of sin or its consequences but at the same time establishes anew the relationship between Him and mankind. The theory is called objective since atonement happens outside of humanity, man cannot do anything to improve his own situation, while at the same time it is a tangible fact that atonement happens, it is objective truth, not a subjective feeling.

The Subjective Theory of Atonement


This theory places atonement on the side of man. God is love and love only and does not demand much from humanity. But we have got it into our heads that He does, that we are useless, dirty outcasts and our sins need punishing, and therefore He comes and shows His love for us by offering Himself as Jesus Christ. Justification then takes place when man turns away from his former life because he believes in God’s love. Hence nothing actually happens (at least according to this is a sign that it is wrong): God and Jesus remains the same and only we, as subjects of the atonement, realise (i.e. subjectively) what They are. Henriksen also thinks this fits with demeaning Jesus’ divinity and saying that He is a mere human sent to demonstrate God’s love. I disagree with him on both points, if I may. Must something concrete necessarily happen to God? If man finds out how great God’s love is, something great has really happened. And how does this fit with Jesus not being God? I would say that a mere human offering himself for humanity has nothing to do with how far and deep God is willing to go to get us, He has to do it Himself.

The Classical Theory of Atonement


This theory comes out of a motif of battle. Jesus life and death is God’s victory over evil. Evil has ensnared mankind in sin by inciting her to turn away from God. Sin is consequently like a barrier between man and God, which Jesus tore down. This goes for the law too, which is considered contrary to God in that it highlights sin thus brings death to the world. The classical theory mends some flaws Henriksen sees in the other two by establishing a power of evil which is overcome by God, thus making something actually happen in the subjective theory; and by giving hope to the objective theory’s man who is under the power of death till God is pleased.

The Bible’s Theory of Atonement


However, Henriksen is not satisfied with any of the above as long as they stand on their own. He points out, with good reason, that these are theories arisen from the minds of theologians that sometimes overlook parts of the Bible that doesn’t fit in the theory’s framework. Taking into account both law and gospel as well as the powers of death (classical), the need for justice (objective) and God’s love for us (subjective) Henriksen puts them together to a Bible-based theory. The gospel (i.e. good news) is that God loves mankind and shows it by His mercy. He does this by overcoming the powers of death and evil in this world through offering Himself as a ransom for sinful humanity. Thus we become aware of His love and our sin and at the same time our incompetence to fulfil God’ law is wiped out and we get justified without any other endeavour on our part but to receive faith. Thus both God and we remain active, mankind’s action being done primarily by Christ as a man, and while the spear of sin has lost its point sin still remains unacceptable. Man’s faith in this makes man’s and God’s relationship atoned, from both sides.

Henriksen, Jan-Olav: Guds virkelighet – Kristen dogmatikk (God’s Reality: Christian Dogmatics), Oslo: Luther Forlag 1994, pages 173-180.

Please stay tuned for subsequent parts!