2. The Moral Influence Theory

By James M. Rochford

Who taught it?

French theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was the first to develop the moral influence theory of the atonement (1079-1142), but this view “exerted its greatest impact in nineteenth-century Protestant liberal theology.”[1] In the United States, Horace Bushnell (1802–76) pushed this view the most, and in Great Britain, Hastings Rashdall was a leading advocate of this position.

What does it teach?

This view teaches that the purpose of the Cross was to demonstrate how much God loves us. Unlike the example theory, this view emphasizes Christ’s divinity. While the example theory teaches us obedience, the moral theory teaches us God’s love. Erickson writes, “Jesus demonstrated to humanity the full extent of God’s love for them. It was humans’ fear and ignorance of God that needed to be rectified. This was accomplished by Christ’s death. So the major effect of Christ’s death was on humans rather than on God.”[2] Under this view, the Cross accomplishes a subjective purpose—not an objective one. It changes our view about God—not God’s view about us. Jesus’ self-giving love, expressed in his death on the cross, leads us to love God and love others fully, giving our lives back to God.

Advocates of this view tend to emphasize the love of God above all other attributes and minimize the justice or holiness of God, as a consequence. They emphasize that the central problem with humanity is our view of God—not our sin. Nothing in God’s nature needs a payment for our sins; he loves us unconditionally. And the Cross demonstrates this love to us, so we can trust him.

Which passages support it?

Peter writes, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). Likewise, John writes, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 Jn. 2:6).

Criticism of this view?

We have no argument that the Cross was the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. But we feel that the content of that love was penal substitution. Christ’s death wasn’t merely a gratuitous act of senseless violence; it had a purpose behind it that exceeds a moral influence. As theologian Michael Horton writes, “In much of evangelicalism today, the emphasis falls on the question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ rather than ‘What Has Jesus Done?’” We feel that we should focus on the substitution of the Cross in order to get any sort of moral influence from it.

[1] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 89.

[2] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. 803.