Atonement: Moral Influence Theory

Posted · Add Comment

Moral Influence Banner


Understanding the cross of Jesus Christ as a demonstration of God’s love for mankind is a central theme of both the New Testament and the early fathers (McGrath, 2012).  What we commonly refer to as the moral influence theory of atonement has come to mean different things to different people over the course of church history. Before looking at how the doctrine developed in the middle ages, it is important to get a sense of how it fit in to the thoughts of the Biblical authors and the earlier church fathers.

(John 15:13)  Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

(2 Corinthians 5:14)  For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died;

(2 Thessalonians 3:5)  May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

(1 Timothy 1:12-14)  I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

As the above verses show, there is a theme of motivational love in the New Testament. 2 Corinthians 5:14 is the clearest presentation of this idea. Our behavior is “controlled” by our love of Christ which He proved by His voluntary death of the cross.  Jesus willingness to suffer on the cross for our benefit should, according to the Bible, inspire us to greater service and obedience.  This idea is developed further by the patristic theologians.  Clement of Alexandria says it well:

For [Christ] came down, for this he assumed human nature, for this he willingly endured the sufferings of humanity, that by being reduced to the measure of our weakness, he might raise us to the measure of his power. And just before he poured out his offering, when he gave himself as a ransom, he left us a new testament: “I give you my love” (John 13: 34). What is the nature and extent of this love? For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other (as cited in McGrath, 2012, p. 332).

We also see this theme in the ever influential St. Augustine:

But if any man love God, the same is known of Him; and that, Because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us; and many other passages; because he who loves God must both needs do what God has commanded, and loves Him just in such proportion as he does so. . .

And what is there in eternal things more excellent than God, of whom alone the nature is unchangeable? And what is the worship of Him except the love of Him, by which we now desire to see Him, and we believe and hope that we shall see Him (Augustine of Hippo, 2008)

Space does not permit a fuller sampling of the early fathers, but suffice it to say that there was a lot of discussion of the power of love in the life of believers.  The moral influence theory of atonement embraces these themes.  Ángel Manuel Rodríguez of the Biblical Research Institute sums it up this way:

First, the cross is understood to be the supreme revelation of God’s love. There, God identified Himself with us to the point of going through what we all experience, namely, death. Second, the manifestation of God’s love was so full that as a result we are transformed by it. That is called “the moral influence of the cross.” The voluntary death of Christ on the cross awakens in us love toward God; it changes our attitude toward Him and moves us to exemplify His love in our lives (Rodríguez, 2007).

There is nothing in that summery that most evangelicals would find offensive. In fact, that seems to be an accurate commentary on what the Apostle Paul was saying in 2 Corinthians 5:14. Evangelicals would be comfortable saying that the ideas expressed in the quote above must be part of a Biblical understanding of the atonement.   The love expressed by Christ on the cross must drive us to greater love and service in return. However, the moral influence view has come to be seen as an alternative to theories of the atonement that see the cross as having an objective effect.

Object vs. Subjective Atonement

Most evangelicals believe that atonement accomplishes something objectively. Those that embrace Christ through faith are made righteous before God and their sin is expiated (Wiley, 2011). The atonement is not just an inner inspiration or motivation, but it actually changes the relationship between the believer and God. Belief in the objective nature of atonement means that no legalistic salvation is possible. Man is not capable of pleasing God unless atonement is made by Christ for their sin. There is also a subjective side of atonement.  Basically, the subjective side of atonement is that:

the death of Christ was to serve as supreme example of divine love eliciting and enabling a loving human response, so as to draw humanity toward the love of the Father . . . The moral responsibility of man is encouraged by the example of Jesus’ death as a martyr. By his death he confirmed the sincerity of his teaching (Oden, 2009, p. 429).

As already stated, the problem is that some theologians have emphasized the subjective side of atonement at the expense of the objective side. Evangelicals tend to stress the objective accomplishments of the cross for believers, while acknowledging that there is also a subjective response.  Peter Abelard, and those that follow his teachings on atonement, emphasize the subject side of atonement (Oden, 2009, p. 429).

Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142)Abelard

Peter Abelard is commonly credited with developing the moral influence theory of atonement. He is sometimes unfairly treated by later theologians who reduce his entire doctrine of the cross to a subjective understanding (McGrath, 2012). In truth he did not deny that there was also an objective side to the atonement, but he did emphasize the subjective impact of the cross. Abelard believed that, “the purpose and cause of the incarnation was that Christ might illuminate the world by his wisdom, and excite it to love of himself (as cited inMcGrath, 2012, p. 332).” Abelard never really gave a strong explanation of why a subjective view of the cross should be given such priority, but he definitely emphasized it.  Other medieval theologians, like Anselm, had virtually ignored this aspect of the cross altogether.  Abelard states that:

Love is increased by the faith which we have concerning Christ because, on account of the belief that God in Christ has united our human nature to himself, and by suffering in that same nature has demonstrated to us that supreme love of which Christ himself speaks: “Greater love has no one than this” (John 15: 13). We are thus joined through his grace to him and our neighbor by an unbreakable bond of love. […] Therefore, our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear – love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found (as cited in McGrath, 2012, p. 332).

The teachings of Abelard, on atonement as well as the nature of the Trinity, were immediately engulfed by controversy.  Bernard of Clairvaux became an avid opponent of Abelard and worked to have the ideas of Abelard condemned (Abelard, 2013). Bernard and Hugh of St. Victor accepted Anselm’s view of the atonement, while Peter Lombard came closer to Abelard’s view (Wiley, 2011). Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas won the arguments in favor of an Anselmic view of atonement and Abelard’s ideas were locked away in the vault of history. Abelard’s ideas, however, were not going stay locked away.

The Enlightenment Era

The period known as “The Enlightenment” began in the late 17th century and continued through the 18th century. The enlightenment period is characterized by the empiricism brought on by the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries (Bristow, 2011). The elevation of science and a very high view of human ability led to a very harsh critique of the traditional satisfaction and penal substitutionary views of atonement (McGrath, 2012).  The theologians of the enlightenment, such as  G. S. Steinbart, I. G. Töllner, G. F. Seiler, and I. G. Bretschneider, dug Abelard out of the basement and developed a much more liberal version of his moral influence theory.  These theologians reject any objective element of atonement and teach that the cross’s only value is found in its subjective impact upon people. Christ Himself, they say, was only human and His death affects only humans. They rejected any divinity in Christ or any supposed effect His death may have on God (McGrath, 2012). Many modern discussions of the moral influence theory, even though they may cite Abelard as their source, are really describing the ideas of the Enlightenment theologies. For example, The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry describe the moral influence theory as follows:

The moral influence theory of the atonement maintains that the death of Christ was not necessary as a means of removing sin. Instead, the loving sacrifice of Christ, as such a wonderful and selfless act, influences the hearts and minds of those who hear about it and moves them to repentance and trust in Christ.  It was first proposed by Peter Abelard (1079-1142 (Moral Influence Theory).

Even though Abelard is credited, it is obviously the more liberal version of the theory that they are describing.

Modern Era

Friedrich Schleiermacher became influential at the end of the Enlightenment era and ushered in the Modern era of theology (“Modern Theology: Schleiermacher on Christian Faith”). Reading Schleiermacher is an exercise in patience. He often makes statements that seem contradictory. However, it is clear that he places great value on human feeling. He denies that religion has any higher purpose at all. He would reject the notion of Christ death reconciling believers to God.  He does believe that religion results in moral action, but denies that moral action is it purpose (Friedrich Schleiermacher: Religion as Feeling). For Schleiermacher Christ is a type of charismatic personality that is able to both clearly teach a new philosophy and inspire His followers to totally adopt His teachings (McGrath, 2012). Schleiermacher says:

Let us now suppose that some person for the first time combines a naturally cohesive group into a civil community (legend tells of such cases in plenty); what happens is that the idea of the state first comes to consciousness in him, and takes possession of his personality as its immediate dwelling-place. Then he assumes the rest into the living fellowship of the idea. He does so by making them clearly conscious of the unsatisfactoriness of their present condition by effective speech. The power remains with the founder of forming in them the idea which is the innermost principle of his own life, and of assuming them into the fellowship of that life (as cited in McGrath, 2012, p. 334).

At the end of the day most Evangelicals have trouble seeing any difference between Schleiermacher and the earlier Enlightenment theologians.  Schleiermacher may be more nuanced, but he still denies that the atonement changes the relationship of God to man in any objective sense.

In the early 19th century Horace Bushnell continued to propagate the moral influence theory. Bushnell was writing in opposition to the revivalists gaining popularity at the time, and their emphasis on conversion (Encyclopedia Britanica “Horace Bushnell”). He argues that the death of Christ’s only value is found in the influence it exerts on humans and through humans on society (Oden, 2009, p. 430).  Thus, human conversion is simply a matter of being brought to repentance by the emotional impact of the cross and is not a supernatural event (Oden, 2009, p. 429).

A contemporary of Bushnell, Hastings Rashdall, came to very similar conclusions. Rashdall writes:

The church’s early creed, “There is none other name given among men by which we may be saved,” may be translated so as to be something of this kind: “There is none other ideal given among men by which we may be saved, except the moral ideal which Christ taught us by his words, and illustrated by his life and death of love” (as cisted in McGrath, 2012, p. 335).

Modern liberal theologies tend to repackage the ideas of Schleiermacher, Bushnell, and Rashdall. It’s important to understand that much these ideas spring from a view of sin that is very different than the way evangelicals view sin. For the proponents of the moral influence theory,  sin is only a superstitious leftover from a less enlightened age. Sin, to them, was really just human ignorance and as humanity has grown in understanding sin is less and less of a problem. Jesus “saved” man by enlightening man. The idea of human depravity is scorned by the enlightenment era theologies. By the time of the Second World War this sort of weak view of sin became difficult to defend.  Events like the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Jews caused people to question the idea that people were fundamentally good (McGrath, 2012).


angel-devil1There are, from an Evangelical perspective, many problems with the moral influence theory propagated in the Enlightenment and Modern eras. Luther pointed out that the example of Christ is simply too far above our ability to follow. He admits that Christ is our example and that we should be emulating Him, but he also argues that the example of Christ is beyond our ability to reach. In his exposition of St. John 14:6 he writes:

It is as if I were to come to some river bank where roads and highways end. I see nothing but water before me and am unable to get across…. There it would not help me if someone were to point out to me the goal which I must attain (as cited in Oden, 2009).

As Luther points out the need of humanity goes far deeper than a need for simple example. An example of holiness can no more cure sin than showing a cancer patient a picture of a healthy person can cure the cancer. The moral influence theory has a fundamentally inadequate view of sin and human brokenness.

Exemplary theory has too optimistically assumed that the will is not radically bound by sin and that no punishment for sin is required. The theory is based upon a weakened, diluted conception of the nature of sin. The exemplary view of atonement is likely to go hand in glove with optimistic Pelagian anthropology (Oden, 2009, p. 430).

The moral influence theory also fails to see Jesus in His full divinity. Although Jesus does give us an example and His death does inspire love that is a secondary element of His life and death. Primarily, Jesus came to reconcile people to God. He came to atone for sin and remove guilt. Any view of atonement that lacks these objective elements is insufficient for evangelicals.

Works Cited

“Modern Theology: Schleiermacher on Christian Faith”. (n.d.). Retrieved from Thealogians and Theology::

Abelard, P. (2013). The Story of My Misfortunes (Historica CAlamitatum). Fig. Kindle Edition.

Augustine of Hippo. (2008). On the Trinity [Annotated]. Fig. Kindle Edition E-Book.

Bristow, W. (2011, Summer). “Enlightenment”. Retrieved from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Encyclopedia Britanica “Horace Bushnell”. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Friedrich Schleiermacher: Religion as Feeling. (n.d.). Retrieved from Thealogians and Theology:

McGrath, A. E. (2012). Christian Theology: An Introduction. John Wiley and Sons.

Moral Influence Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry:

Oden, T. (2009). Classic Christanity. Harper One.

Rodríguez, Á. M. (2007, December). The Moral Influence View. Retrieved from Biblical Research Institute:

Wiley, O. H. (2011). Christian Theology, Volume 2. Beacon Hill PRess. Kindle Edition.

Williams, T. (2004). The Cambridge Companion to Abelard. (J. B. Guilfoy, Ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from