The term “soteriology” comes from two Greek terms, namely, so„ter meaning “savior” or “deliverer” and logos meaning “word,” “matter,” or “thing.” In Christian systematic theology it is used to refer to the study of the biblical doctrine of salvation. It often includes such topics as the nature and extent of the atonement as well as the entire process of salvation, conceived as an eternal, divine plan designed to rescue lost and erring sinners and bring them back into eternal fellowship with God. Many regard it as the primary theme in Scripture with the glory of God as its goal.
Throughout the history of the church a number of different views regarding the nature of the atonement (i.e., the theological significance of Christ’s death) have been advanced. The Recapitulation view was advanced by Irenaeus (ca. 120-ca. 200). In this view Christ sums up all humanity in himself in that he went through all the stages of human life, without succumbing to temptation in any way, died, and then rose from the dead. The benefits of his life, death, and resurrection are then available to all who participate in Him through faith.
The Example or Moral Influence (or “subjective”) view has been advanced by theologians such as Pelagius (ca. 400), Faustus and Laelius Socinus (sixteenth century), and Abelard (1079-114233). Though there are certainly different moral example views,34 their essential agreement consists in arguing that the cross demonstrates how much God loves us and this, then, awakens a response of love in our hearts; we then live as Jesus himself lived. While there is biblical support for this idea (e.g., Phil 2: 6-11; 1 Pet 2:21), it is incomplete as it stands and fails to recognize the more crucial aspects of scriptural teaching on the issue.
Another theory of the atonement advanced in the early church—and really maintained as the standard view in the early church until Anselm—is the Ransom to Satan view. Origen (185-254) was one of the chief proponents of this understanding which asserts that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan to secure the release of his hostages, i.e., sinful men and women. While ransom language is used in Scripture to refer to the atonement (e.g., Mark 10:45), it is probably incorrect to include in this the idea that a “price” was paid to Satan, for nowhere in Scripture is such an idea suggested.
In his work Christus Victor, the Swedish theologian Gustav Aulén (1879-1977) argued for a Divine Triumph or Dramatic view of the atonement, similar to the ransom theories of Origen and the early church. In the dramatic view God overcame all the powers of hell and death through the cross and in doing so made visible his reconciling love to men. This too has some biblical support, but it is unlikely that it adequately summarizes all of scriptural revelation on this issue.
The Satisfaction or Commercial view of Anselm (1033-1109) argues that man has dishonored God by his sin and that through the death of the perfect, sinless God-man, Jesus Christ, that honor and more—including Satan’s defeat—has been restored to God. This theory also finds support in scripture, but more than God’s honor was restored through the death of his son.
The Governmental view of the atonement, advanced by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), places a high value on the justice of God and the demand of his holy law. In this view, the death of Christ upholds God’s moral government in that it demonstrates His utter commitment to His holy law. He could have forgiven men, however, without the death of Christ, but this would have left men without the true knowledge of His commitment to His Law. The death of Christ, then, is not as a substitute for us, but rather God’s statement about what he thinks about his moral government of the universe. This view has much to commend it, but as a global theory it simply cannot account for the tight connection between three important facts in Scripture: (1) the reconciliation of the believing sinner; (2) the forgiveness of sin; and (3) the death of Christ. Peter says that “Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18; cf. Rom 5:8).
The Penal Substitution view of the atonement35—the view most often associated with the Reformers, in particular, Calvin—argues that Christ died in the sinner’s place and appeased the wrath of God toward sin. Thus there are a cluster of ideas in this view including redemption (ransom), sacrifice, substitution, propitiation, and reconciliation, Though there are tensions in this view, and though the other views each contribute important insights to the idea of Christ’s atonement in the NT, this one perhaps rests on the best scriptural support, and brings together the holiness and love of God, the nature and sacrifice of Christ, and the sinfulness of man in a way that all are properly maintained. It is important, however, that the valid insights from the other views not be lost or eclipsed by this model.