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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K003-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

As a theological concept, atonement articulates the acts by which relations between God and creatures, disrupted by human offence, can be restored. Although other cultures show an awareness of the need for atonement, the Christian tradition understands it as provided by God’s particular historical action in Jesus Christ. At its centre is the notion of reconciliation between God and his alienated creatures, which is achieved particularly by the death of Jesus. The distinctive philosophical and other problems of atonement theology derive from two features in particular: its claiming of universal significance for the historical life and death of Jesus of Nazareth (the problem of universality); and the moral difficulties, especially in the realm of human freedom and responsibility, which arise from the claim that he is the vehicle of atonement with God (the problem of human autonomy).

Although there were many theologies of atonement before Anselm of Canterbury’s, his systematic treatment is the fountainhead of much modern discussion, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Centring on the concept of satisfaction, it understands Christ as the God-man, satisfying both divine justice and human need by a free gift of his life. Criticisms of the formulation have centred on its understanding of sin and its tendency to understand atonement in external, transactional terms. Subsequent discussion of the concept has also raised questions about Christ’s substitutionary and representative roles and about the relation between the justice and the love of God. A significant proportion of modern thinkers have rejected the need for any concept of atonement at all. They have preferred instead to understand Jesus as an example to be followed (‘exemplarism’) or to concentrate upon the effect his behaviour and example have on the believer (‘subjectivism’) – or to adopt a combination of both.

Citing this article:
Gunton, Colin. Atonement, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K003-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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