Those of you who got your little class member study guide in Sunday School last week may have been interested to see that the lessons are arranged thematically this year. We will be studying principles and themes and using the D&C to develop these themes. I am interested to see how this method will work in our ward. I am hoping that we will be able to explore the doctrines of the gospel thoroughly while still maintaining an emphasis on Church history.
Lesson #2 may be a little bit difficult for most teachers to present without being extremely general. The topic of Jesus Christ as Savior is so broad and important that it will be hard to cover. The teacher’s manual focuses on the Atonement, which is still huge and deep and broad! The first place my mind went when I read the lesson was to Atonement Theory. The Christian movements have been trying to explain the atonement for centuries, and at this point in time there are many basic theories explaining how the atonement works. I want to quickly summarize the dominant ones here just so we can see how the D&C can clarify and make sense of the whole debate. Because I want to be brief, what follows is a MAJOR simplification of the theories:
Satisfaction Theory — Human sin dishonors God. A price must be paid to satisfy God and restore his honor. The only penalty suitable to God was a divine sacrifice–Christ’s obedience when he willingly suffered torture and death at his crucifixion. By allowing himself to be ritually sacrificed, Jesus’ death replicated in many ways the ritual sacrifice of animals were slaughtered in the Temple. (fits with Roman Catholic beliefs)
Christus Victor Theory–Jesus voluntarily allowed himself to be executed. This defeated the power of evil and released humanity from its sin. The atonement is seen as a victory which makes possible a rescue or liberation of humanity from the slavery of sin.
Ransom Theory – Because of Adam and Eve’s sin and its effect on all mankind, Satan acquired dominion over the human race. In order to free people from the grip of Satan, God agreed to arrange the death of Jesus, his son, as a ransom price to be paid to the devil. This would compensate for sin and release humanity from Satan’s grasp. People can then be reconciled with God if they trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior. (Eastern Orthodox churches subscribe to this theory)
Acceptance Theory–God could have decided of his own free will to save humanity through the work, and perhaps the death, of an angel, of Adam, of any other human being, or even an animal. But he decided, for his own reasons, to achieve atonement through the torture-death of his son, Yeshua. (not generally taught by Christian groups)
Moral Theory–Jesus Christ’s life and death is primarily a moral example to humanity. It can inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God. (commonly accepted by Liberal Christians & post Christians)
Penal-Substitution Theory–Sin incurs a debt to God which requires repayment. The punishment for sin must involve the shedding of blood. Jesus Christ’s obedience to God by living a sinless life, and by voluntarily dying on the cross made it possible for him to vicariously pay the debt in behalf of those who accept him as their Savior. (Conservative & some Mainline Protestants)
We can boil this down even further and view atonement theories this way: (the theories may have one or more elements of the following)
* Atonement as sacrifice
* Atonement as victory
* Atonement as forgiveness
* Atonement as moral example
* Atonement as payment
I think that many members in the Church today have a penal-substitution, or payment view of the atonement, which is heavily influenced by Boyd K. Packer’s parable and our desire for acceptance from mainstream Christianity. A few LDS theologians have done some work on developing a uniquely Mormon atonement theory which addresses the problems we have in entertaining any of the prevailing schools of thought. One of these is Blake Ostler’s “Compassion theory.” Another is Jacob Morgan’s “Divine Infusion Theory.” Morgan’s paper is a good read if you want to know why the theories I have listed above all have problems! Another interesting place to read about a the uniquely Mormon take of the Atonement is the MormonWiki entry. It is instructive to read the suggested verses in the SS lesson which emphasize the position of Christ as “advocate.” These are found in 29:1-5, 45:3-5, and 110:4-5. Also important is 18:10-11 which tells us that the purpose of Christ’s suffering was so all men would repent and come to him.
How has your reading in the D&C or Book of Mormon this week helped you come to a better understanding of how the atonement works? Let’s include in our discussion a consideration of Section 19.