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  • Writer's pictureRev. Morgan Byars

Jesus as Our Example (Lenten Series Part 4)

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 that has shown us such grace that no greater can be found. – Peter Abelard, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans

We’re back at it again with yet another quote from a complicated medieval theologian. This time, however, we have the privilege of unpacking the theology of Peter Abelard. Abelard was a contemporary of Anselm, living from 1079-1142. Like Anselm, Abelard gave many different theological contributions to the life of the Church, but today we will focus on his atonement theology. Specifically, we’ll take a look at what is known as the moral influence theory.

Peter Abelard is hardly the first person to talk about the ideas discussed in this theory, but he is known for giving one of the most concise and forceful defenses of it. His emphasis on this theory was motivated by his understanding of God as primarily defined by love (1 John 4:16). Looking to this defining characteristic of God, Abelard formulates his atonement theory in this way: because of our sin we are caught in ignorance and darkness. The problem, simply put, is that we do not know how to love. Sin has blinded us to what we were created to be. We act out of fear and ignorance rather than love and relationship. Therefore, God sent Jesus to be our example. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are instructional in nature, teaching us the way to live and to love. Abelard particularly focuses on the crucifixion of Jesus, and that is where the quotation at the beginning of this post comes in. For Abelard, Jesus’ crucifixion is the ultimate demonstration of love because it shows us just how far God is willing to go in redeeming us. When we encounter that kind of love, Abelard argues, we are transformed and enabled to see how we ought to be. We become reconciled to God and live into the love that God demonstrated through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The love of God sparks a response of love in our hearts. Jesus himself points to the response that his love invokes in us: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:13-15).

I mentioned last week that this atonement theory has seen something of a comeback in recent decades. Abelard’s atonement theory was fiercely debated by his contemporaries and did not gain much traction in his own day. Anselm’s satisfaction theory won the day, and penal substitutionary atonement remains profoundly influential even in our own context. Yet the problems with Anselm’s theology, as we discussed last week, have become more apparent. In particular, theologians have pointed out how the Church has often been all too willing to use a judgmental picture of God against those people it deems sinful as a means of control. Or, by understanding salvation as something solely concerning God’s relationship with humanity, the Church has remained slow to respond to pressing issues in the world today – in other words, our relationships with each other and the rest of creation. In the face of the Church’s apathy or outright hostility to social movements against sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc., theologians have found that Anselm’s atonement model has very little to say about human relations with one another. Therefore, Abelard’s theology has seen increased popularity precisely because it emphasizes the bearing that salvation has on who we are to be in relation to one another. To act out of love, to be freed from slavery to sin, to be enabled to live in liberty – these themes have real impact here and now. Emphasizing this element of salvation can spur the Church onwards to be more involved in embodying the gospel here and now, to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

As we’ve discussed, however, every atonement theology emphasizes one thing to the detriment of others. In this case, moral influence theory does not have much to say regarding to the reality of sinful inclination. The problem is not always our ignorance. Sometimes the problem is that, even when we know what is right, we do the wrong thing anyway. The problem of humanity’s willing participation in sin is more directly dealt with in other atonement models. Therefore, Abelard’s atonement theology best serves us when we are able to view it in conversation with other atonement models. Over the last three weeks, however, we’ve seen lots of different models, and there are even more that we haven’t discussed. How are we supposed to put all of these images of salvation together? We’ll spend some time next week going over how we might get started on that kind of work and why it is important for our spiritual well-being.


*Cover photo: Jesus Dies on the Cross, part of a series of paintings in Lodwar Cathedral, Kenya, 1995.

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