The Atheological Atonement

crucifixionI presented a paper on vicarious atonement at the recent SMPT Conference. To prepare the paper, I reviewed the various theories of the atonement offered by Christian theology as well as the LDS view(s) of the atonement. I came to two mildly surprising conclusions.

  1. The LDS Church affirms a doctrine of the atonement, but not any particular theory of the atonement.

By this I mean that the Church affirms the atonement, but does so (and describes its effects) using general terms and metaphors. If you start with a particular theory of the atonement lodged firmly in mind, such general discussions might sound like they are describing the ransom theory, the satisfaction theory, the penal substitution theory, or the moral influence theory. But it is much harder to start with the general discussions and an open mind, and end up with a particular theory.

To show how general the LDS view of the atonement seems to be, consider a couple of statements pulled from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry “Atonement of Jesus Christ,” authored by Jeffrey R. Holland (in 1992, prior to his becoming an apostle):

The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the foreordained but voluntary act of the Only Begotten Son of God. He offered his life, including his innocent body, blood, and spiritual anguish as a redeeming ransom (1) for the effect of the Fall of Adam upon all mankind and (2) for the personal sins of all who repent, from Adam to the end of the world.
Christ’s Atonement satisfied the demands of justice and thereby ransomed and redeemed the souls of all men, women, and children “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).

gethsemaneReaching for the classics, consider three statements from the atonement chapter in James A. Talmage’s The Articles of Faith (first published in 1899; I’m quoting from the 42d edition of 1975):

The doctrine of the atonement comprises proof of the divinity of Christ’s earthly ministry, and the vicarious nature of His death as a foreordained and voluntary sacrifice, intended for and efficacious as a propitiation for the sins of mankind, thus becoming the means whereby salvation may be secured.
[T]he promised sacrifice of Jesus Christ [was] ordained as a propitiation for broken law, whereby Justice could be fully satisfied, and Mercy be left free to exercise her beneficient influence over the souls of mankind.
Simple as is the plan of redemption in its general features, it is confessedly a mystery in detail to the finite mind.

The conclusion that the LDS Church has no theory of the atonement is mildly surprising for two reasons. First, the topic is frequently addressed in General Conference talks, in LDS books by LDS leaders, and in LDS scriptures. Only when looking for the details in light of the various Christian theories of atonement does it become clear how general the LDS discussions of the atonement are. Second, some LDS seem to think the Church affirms the penal substitution theory. This Calvinist model is quite popular with conservative Evangelicals, so it is understandable that Mormons might be drawn to it. But careful reading of LDS discussions in the sources noted above shows no particular endorsement of penal substitution over other substitutionary theories.

  1. Maybe it is just as well that the Church avoids formulating a more detailed theory of the atonement.

Recognizing that the Church does not have a theory of the atonement, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I believe it’s a good thing. The Church’s prior forays into theology have produced questionable results. Silence on the subject gives LDS thinkers leeway to publish their own helpful speculative discussions. In any case, it’s the atonement that will save you, not a theory of the atonement or even the one true theory of the atonement.

So this seems to be a good example of the LDS preference for avoiding theology, even on doctrines as central as the atonement. Jim Faulconer has a nice discussion of LDS atheology in “A Mormon View of Theology: Revelation and Reason,” in his book Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (NAMI, 2010). He gives five reasons we have, in the past, avoided theology: the Church is still young; fideism has become popular among LDS leaders; continuing revelation makes rational theology more challenging; the view that scripture contains a catalogue of implicit propositional truths; and our view that religion is primarily a matter of practice rather than propositional belief. I find encouraging Faulconer’s view that newer and broader approaches to theology (hermeneutic theology, narrative theology, theology in the style of Wittgenstein or Badiou) offer more promise for deepening LDS thought than rational or systematic theology.

24 comments for “The Atheological Atonement

  1. ” In any case, it’s the atonement that will save you, not a theory of the atonement or even the one true theory of the atonement.”

    Let’s leave it this way. Any theological or philosophical theory of the atonement will only be the product of a man’s thinking. But God’s ways are not man’s ways, and God’s understandings are not man’s. Let’s have faith in the Man and in the Lord Jesus Christ — we don’t need an academic understanding of the atonement.

  2. While no theory of the atonement is better than a bad theory, having no theory is a significant problem. It is difficult to exercise faith in the atonement of Christ if you have no idea what that entails. It is not enough to say “Jesus suffered, died and was resurrected. Because of that, you can be forgiven of your sins and ultimately inherit eternal life”. That is a huge leap of logic for many. Why is the atonement even necessary? How do I connect the dots between the fact of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection and my own salvation? What exactly happened that makes it possible for me to be forgiven and have eternal life? Without some reasonable answers to these questions, it is difficult for many to have faith in the atonement since they don’t even know what it means.

  3. ji,

    A testimony is also a product of an individual’s thinking.


    Fideism as I know it (most of my references are Catholic, often critical of fideism as a heresy) is far from the LDS tradition. For an LDS individual to be saved and exalted, requires considerable “knowing” and “learning.” Restoration teachings imply that there is a rationality to believing.

  4. gary (#2), that is certainly a valid point. However, I would invite anyone feeling that way to go read about theories of the atonement (likely in Christian theology sources) and adopt a theory that helps them make sense of the atonement in light of the questions you pose. Different people respond differently to those issues, so endorsing one theory as the “official” theory would perhaps alienate some members.

    Old Man (#3), I certainly encourage knowing and learning. The Church’s endorsement of education and its continuing funding of the BYU campuses (which runs above a hundred million a year, I hear) makes it clear where the Church stands. But as to doctrine, there is a tendency to trot out pious ignorance whenever the going gets tough rather than do the hard work of thinking through the origin, development, and resolution of a particular doctrinal or historical problem. Note Talmage’s statement in the post: Simple as is the plan of redemption in its general features, it is confessedly a mystery in detail to the finite mind.

  5. I certainly don’t want us to adopt a single man-made theory for the atonement. I prefer to let every man and woman have his or her own ideas. At different circumstances in my life, I have thought about the atonement a little differently — maybe none of those were wrong and all of them were right? Yes, that’s possible.

    Yes, endorsing one theory as the “right” theory would be the wrong approach. Let each man and woman seek the scriptures and personal inspiration and study of the thoughts of others, and come to his or her own understanding, which may suffice for a short or long period of time.

  6. gary #2 “Why is the atonement even necessary? ”

    Adam fell that men might be. I think that’s why we often see the prophets returning to Adam time and time again.

  7. To me the atonement is a koan. We are commanded, almost, to know God. The atonement is the center of that knowledge. So, when you comprehend it, you know that you are there. Otherwise….

    No one can explain a koan, it is only understandable by further light and knowledge, by enlightenment.

  8. First, let me ask: What is it about the couplet that makes it theological as opposed to “doctrinal”?

    Second, whatever the merits of theology (and it seems that the commenters so far don’t seem to think it’s especially useful), I disagree with Faulconer’s point that continuing revelation somehow makes the enterprise of systemic or rational theology invalid. In the same way that empirical sciences (especially the social sciences) can be invalidated by new facts and new data, new revelation can make our previous understanding invalid. But that does not mean that we should not attempt to understand the world by building models of it. By the same token, a systematic theology will be vulnerable to continuing revelation, but I fail to see why that means we shouldn’t attempt it.

  9. theories are the imagination of mankind.
    Do you know that the atonement of Jesus Christ is true?
    Have you asked in prayer to know the mysteries about the atonement?
    No number of theories will give you an answer that you know in your heart that it is true. For me I do know that Jesus Christ lives that his work for me and my salvation in real. I know him, not by knowledge or theory but by the confirmation of the Holy Ghost. His atonement was the plan of Heavenly Father and was willfully carried out by Jesus Christ.
    I would suggest that you look for yourself to know in your heart not your head that his atonement was to provide for you a means of your salvation.
    this I declare is true, not of theory, but of true knowledge.
    Rich Madden

  10. “My reason for wanting to learn all I can about the Atonement is partly selfish: Our salvation depends on believing in and accepting the Atonement. Such acceptance requires a continual effort to understand it more fully.” James E. Faust, October 2001 General Conference

    I think this is what I struggle with. I do not think the string of metaphors we have today as atonement theories are perfect, but I do think the Church needs a model with which a lay member can apply the atonement in their lives.

  11. For me, how the Atonement works depends on what (criminal) justice system exists in heaven. Most current theories on the Atonement (at least in the U.S.) are based on the assumption that heaven is based on an adversarial system of justice (probably because the U.S. operates on an adversarial system of justice). There are other systems of justice, however, such as the feudal justice system or the restorative justice system.

    Personally, I like to think that heaven’s justice system is based on a restorative justice system. Which means that the Atonement, at least for me, is more about restoring the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, and less about paying back some sort of debt to some rule or law. But that’s just my opinion.

  12. I agree with Snyderman’s comment. Certainly the etymology of the term atonement to me more naturally suggests something more like a concept of restorative justice than a concept of penal justice. It also begins to explain why forgiveness of others is often described, especially in the New Testament, as a prerequisite, or at least a condition, of forgiveness from God. But that’s just my opinion, as well, and I’m glad that the Church simply has a doctrine of the atonement, rather than a theology of the atonement, as Dave puts it, because it leaves me free to engage in this kind of speculation.

    I will say, though, I’m not sure I completely agree with the statement that the church doesn’t have a “theology” of the atonement, but I think my disagreement is more semantic than substantive. Simply put, I don’t take the term theology to be restricted to a systematic set of propositions; rather, I take it to be broader than that. One view is that doctrine is the bedrock, and then theology (systematic, rational theology) is built out of or on top of the doctrine. But I would suggest that our “theology” is deeper than the doctrine itself, and is can be made up of the stories from which we derive the doctrine. To oversimplify, the religion of the Old Testament, including all the doctrines and all the theology, are derived from and built on the stories of the creation, the flood, and the exodus. The religion of the new testament, including all the doctrines and all the theology, is based on the stories of the incarnation and the resurrection (as well as the Old Testament stuff). The religion of the restoration, including all the doctrines and all the theology, is built on the story of the visit of Moroni (as well as the first vision and other heavenly visitors) (and, least for us Brighamites, the story of the trek west). I haven’t read Jim’s book to know if this is what he’s talking about with “narrative theology,” but if it is, I agree with him. Like I said, I don’t think I disagree in substance with what Dave says, maybe just in terminology.

  13. Dave, I agree its mildly surprising that there is no Mormon theology of Atonement. But its borderline scandalous that the various speculations or affirmations have been heavily influenced by Christian philosophy that occurred during the dreaded apostasy. Not to mention that many of the historical and contemp. pronouncements have been given by the latter-day apostles of Jesus – His special witnesses on earth. And that’s all before we even get into the traces of apostasy-era theology found in the BoM and D&C.

    Of course Mormonism was never really about primitive Christianity – as much as sponging all that is lovely and of good report in the world. It just would be nice if we were more aware of where our ideas come from.

  14. I might add to Faulconer’s list of why the LDS church has tended to avoid theology, and it sort of relates to the issue of the Church being young: there is no consensus over who might originate a theology and how it might be officialized. The degree of power that the president of the LDS church enjoys has lessened since Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. He doesn’t usually act to expound on doctrine, claim revelations, or originate new doctrines without the approval of his counselors and the quorum of the 12. Activist apostles are typically frowned on. A case in point is Bruce R. McConkie. His Mormon Doctrine was not greatly welcomed by many church authorities, who are now in the process of quietly forcing the book into oblivion.

    Since the church is still small and young, leaders don’t want to make any bold moves as to more carefully crafting a theology lest they upset the unity that appears to be only delicately in place among church leaders. The prevailing trend among the leaders is to keep the status quo and only make bold moves when it serves to stem more predominant threats to the LDS church. While the lack of a set theology of atonement may lead some to question the validity of the LDS church in favor of religions that have a more elaborate theology, I can’t imagine that they number very many. Hence the risk of crafting a theology outweighs whatever purpose it may serve in terms of retention, reactivation, and conversion.

  15. Hi Dave (#5):

    But even the most piously ignorant among the Saints would probalby find fideism rather relativistic and well, lackadaisical.

  16. In the book of Mormon we read, “Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment.”

    Who is that wo directed to? Those whose actions deny the power of the Atonement. It would certainly seem the BoM at least in part has a penal approach to the Atonement.

    I think that’s the point.. “In part”. These approaches, be they sermon or scripture don’t encompass the whole but give a glimpse of the part. I don’t know why we have to choose between penal and restorative, and even “exaltative” for that matter. It’s all of the above.

  17. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Abu (#8), Faulconer in his essay distinguishes between two meanings of the term “theology” as it is used in LDS discourse. One is the standard idea of rational or systematic theology, “a theology in which the doctrines are assumed to be interrelated and capable of structured exposition.” He also notes the common Mormon view that revelation is propositional, leading to his suggestion that Latter-day Saints thus feel that “reflection on revelation is a matter of making the propositions of revelation rationally coherent.” The second LDS meaning Faulconer sees is a more general: “a synonym for belief or teaching.” Couplet theology certainly fits the second use; as it seems to be serious and systematic reflection on divinity and preexistence, I think it fits the first definition as well (even if I don’t particularly agree with it).

    Matt (#10), you said, “I do think the Church needs a model with which a lay member can apply the atonement in their lives.” I think Robinson’s speech “Believing Christ: A Practical Approach to the Atonement” offers something like what I think you are looking for. Robinson’s books Believing Christ and Following Christ give more of the same: careful thinking about the atonement and attempts to make it meaningful and useful for the average Latter-day Saint. And while I’m plugging Robinson, don’t forget How Wide the Divide?

  18. Steve (#14), I agree that group leadership presents a problem for promulgation of an official theology. But I don’t think the senior leaders feel any need to produce official theology. They seem content to run the affairs of the Church, give moral exhortation in General Conference, and issue the occasional proclamation or press release.

    I think the experience with LDS history is instructive. Under Leonard Arrington, the Church History Department started to produce serious LDS history and sponsored a multi-volume study of LDS history produced by LDS historians. But within a few years that approach was abandoned in favor of letting LDS historians produce their own articles and books without formal sponsorship by the Church. The department is now focused on issuing critical editions of LDS documents, as illustrated by the Joseph Smith Papers Project. This seems like a very good outcome in the end. Perhaps LDS theology is better served by letting LDS scholars do their own theologizing rather than having the Church do or sponsor “official” theology.

  19. Dave,

    Have your read Blake Ostler’s approach to the atonement? I believe his best explanation is in the second volume of “Exploring Mormon Thought.”

  20. OM, I have read the first volume of Blake’s theological trilogy, but not the second. Or the third. And I heard there is a fourth volume planned.

  21. I adhere more towords the Cleon Skousen explanation- which actually was given to him from John Widtsoe

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