Atonement (Part 2): Abelard and a Moral Exemplar Theory(?)

Today we continue this quick series on the Doctrine of Atonement. The theory we are looking at today has often been called the Moral Exemplar theory. Many liberal theologians (especially feminist, womanist, and mujerista theolgians) have gravitated towards this view because it doesn’t seem to have the metaphysical and ethical implications that Satisfaction theories (Anselm’s theory and Penal Substitutionary Atonement) seem to have.

Reading through Abelard’s theory it is not longer clear to me that “moral exemplar” is the mechanism for atonement in his view… its seems to be located elsewhere. The “moral exemplar” piece seems to me to be an add on to the mechanism of atonement.

Anyway… here is a quick overview of Abelard’s atonement theory.


Like Anselm, Abelard recognizes that sin is a problem for humanity. He believes that all have sinned by failing to keep their obligation, namely “to glorify the Lord”. In his Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans, he addresses how the problem of sin is solved. He believes that in order to address the problem of sin, God must justify humans. However, contrary to what the Jews believe, Abelard says that “by works of the law, no flesh shall be justified” in God’s sight. As he goes through Roman 3, he notes that now something apart from the law has been revealed that justifies humanity in God’s sight, namely love. By suffering, Christ demonstrates his love for humanity. In demonstrating his love God demonstrates his justice. Through this demonstration of love, which is God’s grace and justice, humans acquire the remission of sin.

Having noted that this act of love, namely Christ’s death on the cross, results in the remission of humanity’s sins, he ponders how Christ’s death can justify sinners. He examines two different views and proposes a third. The first view that he examines is the view that it was necessary for God to become incarnate and die in the flesh, so that he might redeem humanity from the dominion of Satan. However Abelard points out that it seems wrong to say that God would hand humans over to the devil simply because the devil had seduced them. Also it seems to Abelard that God could have simply remitted the sins that humans have committed against him.

The other view that Abelard addresses for its misguidance’s is the view that the death of God’s innocent Son pleased God the father, resulting in reconciliation between God and humanity. Abelard believes that this view distorts God’s character, making him seem cruel and wicked for being pleased by the death of an innocent man.

Having explained why he believes these two views are wrong, he explains how Christ’s death on the cross reconciles humanity to God. He says that Christ’s death on the cross teaches us what it means to love. The result of this act of love is that “our hearts should be enkindled by such a gift of divine grace, and true charity should not now shrink from enduring anything for him.” In other words as a result of Christ’s loving death, humans are now capable of loving. Abelard explains that by suffering for us, we are given more than just the remission of sin, we are given the liberty to “do all things out of love rather than fear.” Since humans who have put their faith in Christ can now love, they can be justified, for God does not justify by works but by faith which is just ‘the love which comes from faith” in salvation through Christ.

How does Abelard believe that he has improved upon prior explanations of Christ’s work? He believes that he has given a more accurate picture of the nature of God’s character. According to Abelard the other views distort God’s character as being weak, because he cannot remit sins, or being cruel, because he demands the death on an innocent man. He believes that by focusing on God’s love, he provides a better picture of who God is. He also believes that by emphasizing that love justifies, he avoids the trap of believing that works can justify.

There are several problems that Abelard faces in his account. First, he never explains why Christ’s death is such a great act of love. It seems as though it would be a great act of love if Christ were somehow addressing a threat that humanity faces. But under his picture, no such threat is identified. Secondly, it seems as though Abelard ignores the fact that this view makes God seem unjust for simply remitting sins that have been committed against both God and other human beings. These two problems are major issues in this account of Christ’s work.



Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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