Subjective theories of the atonement are those which envision the focus or aim of Christ’s sufferings to be the human soul rather than God himself. This model is referred to either as the moral influence theory or the example theory.
(1) The moral influence theory was given its most explicit portrayal by Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard argued that there is nothing in God’s nature that necessitates satisfaction or prevents him from indiscriminately forgiving all at any time. He argued that the love of God in giving up his Son was designed to kindle in our hearts a corresponding love and repentance which together become the ground for the forgiveness of our sins. Thus, the object of Christ’s death is not God but man. His aim was not to satisfy the Father’s wrath but to stimulate our love.
(2) Abelard’s comments on Romans 3:19-26, perhaps the most important NT statement on the death of Christ, clearly illustrate his view. We are justified and reconciled to God by means of the example Christ set for us in his life and death, “with the result 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” (A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, ed. Eugene R. Fairweather, 283). We turn from sin to righteousness and are redeemed through Christ’s suffering in the sense that he awakens in us “that deeper affection . . which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also wins for us the true liberty of sons of God, so that we do all things out of love rather than fear” (284).
In fairness to Abelard, it would be a mistake to conclude that he omitted all reference to the sacrifice of Christ as a payment for our sin. Yet, his emphasis is clearly on the subjective effects of that sacrifice rather than its objective relationship to the wrath of God.
(3) The example theory was defended by the anti-Trinitarian Faustus Socinus (1539-1604). The Anselmic satisfaction theory of the atonement, as well as that of both Luther and Calvin, was grounded in the belief that justice is an immutable and necessary attribute of God’s character. Socinus correctly perceived that to overthrow this foundational principle would undermine the concept of penal substitution. He states,
“If we could but get rid of this justice, even if we had no other proof, that fiction of Christ’s satisfaction would be thoroughly exposed, and would vanish” (De Servatore, III, i).
“There is no such justice in God as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished, and such as God himself cannot repudiate. There is, indeed, a perpetual and constant justice in God; but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works. . . . Hence, they greatly err who, deceived by the popular use of the word justice, suppose that justice in this sense is a perpetual quality in God, and affirm that it is infinite. . . . Hence it might with much greater truth be affirmed that that compassion which stands opposed to justice is the appropriate characteristic of God” (Praelectiones Theologicae, Caput xvi; Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, I, 566).
(4) William G. T. Shedd comments on Socinus’s concept of divine justice:
“It is plain that Socinus conceived of the attributes of justice and mercy as less central than will. By a volition, God may punish sin, or he may let it go unpunished. He has as much right to do the latter as the former. There is no intrinsic right or wrong in either case that necessitates his action. Justice like mercy is the product of his optional will. It is easy to see that by this definition of justice Socinus takes away the foundation of the doctrine of atonement; and that if it be a correct definition, the Socinian theory of forgiveness upon repentance is true. If sin is punishable only because God so determines; and if he decides not to punish it, then it is no longer punishable, -- if punitive justice is the product of mere will, and may be made and unmade by a volition, then it is absurd to say that without the shedding of blood, or the satisfaction of law, there is no remission of sin” (Dogmatic Theology, II, 378-79).
(5) The Socinian concept of divine justice is directly related to their emphasis on the utterly free and arbitrary divine will. According to Socinus, we can never say that God must act in a particular way. We cannot even say that he must act in accord with moral principle. The Racovian Catechism put it this way:
“It belongs to the nature of God that He has the right and supreme power to decree whatsoever He wills concerning all things and concerning us, even in those matters with which no other power has to do; for example, He can give laws, and appoint rewards and penalties according to His own judgment, to our thoughts, hidden as these may be in the innermost recesses of our hearts.”
(6) Thus God could have conceivably freed mankind from the guilt of their sin without the work of Christ, indeed, apart from the work of any sort of mediation or sacrifice or anything other than the arbitrary decree of his own will.
(7) One section of the Racovian Catechism bore the heading, “Refutation of the Vulgar Doctrine about the Satisfaction of Christ for Our Sins.” How, then, does Jesus Christ accomplish our salvation? Socinus answers:
“The common and, as you would say, orthodox view is, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, because He made full satisfaction for our sins to the divine justice through which we sinners deserved to be condemned, and this satisfaction is through faith imputed by the gift of God to us who believe. But I hold, and think it to be the orthodox view, that Jesus Christ is our Savior because he announced to us the way of eternal salvation, confirmed, and in his own person, both by the example of his life and by rising from the dead, clearly showed it [i.e., eternal life], and will give that eternal life to us who have faith in him. And I affirm that he did not make satisfaction for our sins to the divine justice, . . . nor was there any need that he should make satisfaction” (De Servatore, chp. 1).
“Christ takes away sins because by heavenly and most ample promises He attracts and is strong to move all men to penitence, whereby sins are destroyed. . . . He takes away sins because by the example of His most innocent life, He very readily draws all, who have not lost hope, to leave their sins and zealously to embrace righteousness and holiness” (Prael. Theol., 591).
(8) Thus, Christ bore our sins in the sense “that he took them away from us by inciting us to abandon them” (G. B. Stevens, The Christian Doctrine of Salvation, 159). In all that he did, Christ inspires us to repent and forsake our sin in order that we might walk in obedience; and it is by this repentance and obedience that God receives us into his favor. The Racovian Catechism states:
“But what reason was there that Christ should suffer the same afflictions, and the same kind of death, as those to which believers are exposed? There are two reasons for this, as there are two methods whereby Christ saves us: for, first, he inspires us with a certain hope of salvation, and also incites us both to enter upon the way of salvation and to persevere in it. In the next place, he is with us in every struggle of temptation, suffering, or danger, affords us assistance, and at length delivers us from eternal death. It was exceedingly conducive to both these methods of saving us, that Christ our captain should not enter upon his eternal life and glory, otherwise than through sufferings, and through a death of this kind” (ch. 8).
(9) The subjective understanding of atonement was also defended in a slightly different form by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889). Schleiermacher denied the objective focus of Christ’s death and insisted that no barrier to reconciliation with man (such as the demands of divine justice) exists in the heart of God. Christ’s death terminates entirely upon humanity. He emphasized not what Christ does for us but what he does in us, namely, bringing us into a deeper consciousness of complete dependence on God and thus participation in his life.
(10) We also find advocates of this theory in Horace Bushnell (1802-76) and Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924). Bushnell openly denies any form of substitution in Christ’s death and articulates an updated version of Abelard’s moral influence theory:
“On the other hand, we are not to hold the Scripture terms of vicarious sacrifice, as importing a literal substitution of places, by which Christ becomes a sinner for sinners, or penally subject to our deserved penalties. That is a kind of substitution that offends every strongest sentiment of our nature. He cannot become guilty for us. Neither, as God is a just being, can He be anyhow punishable in our place – all God’s moral sentiments would be revolted by that” (Forgiveness and Law, 79).
“By the previous exposition Christ is shown to be a Savior, not as being a ground of justification, but as being the Moral Power of God upon us, so a power of salvation. His work terminates, not in the release of penalties by due compensation, but in the transformation of character, and the rescue, in that manner, of guilty men from the retributive causations provoked by their sin” (449).
Rashdall (The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, 1919) advocates a similar view. Note his comments on Acts 4:12,
“There is none other ideal given among men by which we may be saved except the moral ideal which Christ taught by His words, and illustrated by His life and death of love; and there is none other help so great in the attainment of that ideal as the belief in God as He has been revealed in Him who so taught and lived and died” (463).