Question: How do Mormons view the historical position of the Christian church with regard to the atonement of Jesus Christ?

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Question: How do Mormons view the historical position of the Christian church with regard to the atonement of Jesus Christ?

The development of the Church's ideas about the saving effects of the incarnation was a slow, long drawn-out process

They never state it explicitly, but critics seem to assume that the LDS position is a "ransom" theory of atonement, and that the mainstream Christian interpretation is one of sacrificial death on the cross. They quote some statements from Latter-day Saint leaders emphasizing the Garden of Gethsemane as being the place of the atonement. The authors of Mormonism 101 write, "Christians have long maintained that this glorious act of sacrifice took place on Golgotha Hill… It was here that God Himself was subject to the humiliating death of a common criminal."161 They conclude by writing that "Christians realize that salvation is a result of what Jesus did for them on the cross… To even insinuate that this took place in the Garden of Gethsemane is a foreign concept to the Christian."[1]

Perhaps the indecisiveness of both the New Testament specifically and Christian history in general will provide a better backdrop for the discussion of the atonement as taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It will certainly be a more correct version of what that church teaches, than the image critics have provided. Certainly the suggestions made by Knox would seem to coincide more closely with the position taken in this paper: that the Latter-day Saints are more closely aligned with the early Church, than with the modern West.

The Church of Jesus Christ has often been maligned for rejecting "historical Christianity" and therefore it is important that we determine exactly what the historical position of the Christian church has been regarding the atonement of Jesus Christ. This would not be an easy task for critics, for until the twelfth century there was no explicit study of the theory of the atonement; there was no single predominating theory of redemption. Michael Winter has recently written that "there is a consensus among [modern writers], which is something of a paradox in the context of this study, as they all agree that the New Testament does not tell us how the atonement was effected."[2] Leon Morris, so frequently quoted by critics, writes that "the New Testament does not put forward a theory of atonement." Morris goes on to write that "there are several indications of the principle on which atonement is effected" and refers to sacrifice, redemption, new covenant, victory, propitiation, reconciliation. "But however [salvation] is viewed, Christ has taken our place, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Our part is simply to respond in repentance, faith, and selfless living."[3] J.N.D. Kelly wrote:

The development of the Church's ideas about the saving effects of the incarnation was a slow, long drawn-out process. Indeed, while the conviction of redemption through Christ has always been the motive force of Christian faith, no final and universally accepted definition of the manner of its achievement has been formulated to this day.[4]

Lutheran scholar Robert Jenson recently wrote, "it is one of the more remarkable and remarked-upon aspects of theological history that no theory of atonement has ever been universally accepted."[5] Later, Kelly writes that

The student who seeks to understand the soteriology of the fourth and early fifth centuries will be sharply disappointed if he expects to find anything…elaborately worked out…[because] the redemption did not become a battle-ground for rival schools until the twelfth century.[6]

This should not be too much of a surprise to our friends McKeever and Johnson. Leon Morris has written that there is a "problem confronting anyone who would write a theology of the New Testament…namely, a widespread recognition that there are considerable differences among the writers of the various New Testament books." Although such recognition does not mean that there are "irreconcilable contradictions" between the various authors, it should help to understand why no strict theory regarding the atonement developed during the first twelve hundred years of Christian history.[3]:15-16

Things don't get better after the closing of the canon, either. In his study of the Atonement Morris writes that "through more than nineteen centuries the church has been working at that problem and it still has not come up with an agreed solution."[3]:13 [7] The point of all this of course is to indicate that, rather than a single theory acceptable to all Christians, there were presented over the centuries several theories regarding the atonement. Reformed scholar Shirlie Guthrie indicates there were four basic images used by the New Testament writers, all of which contain weaknesses; therefore they must be used in conjunction with each other to provide a consistent theory. "The biblical doctrine of the atonement teaches that it is God who initiates and fulfills the reconciliation between sinful humanity and God."[8] Beyond that statement we cannot be dogmatic. Further, we are told that William Tyndale "does not appear to have had a clear doctrine of the atonement."[9] The same is true for John Wesley. W.R. Cannon has written that "there is in all of Wesley's writings no single work on the atonement, and there is no reason whatever for us to believe that he had any clear, well-thought-out theory of the meaning of Christ's death."[10] Crawford Knox has recently contrasted the early Christian view with that of the modern West, on various theological themes. With reference to the atonement, he points out that it was Anselm, who died in 1109, "who is seen as the theologian who first crystallised the main Western view of the Atonement, the sacrifice of Jesus as a man on the cross had to be made on behalf of all morally sinful and guilty men to God." By contrast, "in the earlier tradition, Christ is seen as overcoming sin and death in a series of sequential steps which lead through his life on earth, his death and resurrection to his ascension. His death is one crucial step in this process but it is not all-important."[11]


  1. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 148. ( Index of claims )
  2. Michael Winter, The Atonement (Collegeville, Minnesota: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, 1995), 30.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Leon Morris, "Atonement," Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, second edition, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Books, 2001), 114. The passage is also quoted in Terry L. Miethe, "The Universal Power of the Atonement," The Grace of God and the Will of Man, edited by Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), 71–72. Notice the emphasis Morris places on the need for our acceptance of the atonement for it to be efficacious in our lives. This is exactly the position taken by the Latter-day Saints.
  4. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Second Edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 163. One wonders how the LDS position could be considered in error if no particular theory has received unanimous consent.
  5. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1: The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 186.
  6. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 375. McKeever and Johnson cite this volume several times, so should have been aware of this statement. In 1914 Melville Scott referred to "the fact that, up to the time of Anselm, there was no specifically Latin theory of the Atonement," [Melville Scott, Athanasius on the Atonement (Stafford, England: Mort, 1914), xi]. Lutheran scholar Robert Jenson writes, "the closest approach to a historically successful theory of atonement is that of Anselm… But Anselm's theory has never enjoyed favor in the East, and also in the West has been under continuous devastating attack, maintaining its hegemony mostly, one suspects, for want of a better alternative," (Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Vol 1, 186). Burnell Eckardt wrote, "it was St. Anselm of Canterbury who had first given celebrated status to the question of the necessity for the atonement, in his Cur Deus Homo," [Brunell Eckardt, Anselm and Luther on the Atonement. Was it 'Necessary'? (San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992), xvii]. Eckardt also quotes Gustaf Aulen to the effect that Anselm has given the first "real beginnings of a thought-out doctrine of the atonement," [Eckardt, 173, quoting Aulen, Christus Victor: an Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, translated by A.G. Hebert (New York: MacMillan, 1969), 1]. Aulen's book is a classic in the field. Eckardt also quotes Lutheran scholar Gerhard Forde: "Anselm was the first to pose the question about the necessity for the actual event of the cross," [Eckardt, 173, quoting Forde, The Law-Gospel Debate: An Interpretation of Its Historical Development (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg, 1984), 21 ff]. Abelard was the first to respond to Anselm; he also asked why it was necessary for God to become man, but concluded only that God could have chosen to simply remit the debt man owed God (Eckardt, 173, note 2).
  7. Apparently we cannot expect an agreed upon definition anytime soon: Morris writes on page 12, "with few exceptions people are not writing about the atonement." McKeever and Johnson refer frequently to this book.
  8. Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 252–259 (quotation from page 259).
  9. David Broughton Knox, The Doctrine of Faith in the reign of Henry VIII (London: J. Clarke, 1961), 6.
  10. William Ragsdale Cannon, The Theology of John Wesley, with Special Reference to the Doctrine of Justification (New York: Publisher Unknown, 1946), 208.
  11. Crawford Knox, Changing Christian Paradigms and their Implications for Modern Thought (Leiden, Netherlands,: E.J. Brill, 1993), 62–3.