A good while back, Richard Sherlock wrote,
“Finally, Ostler develops a richly nuanced view of the atonement, somewhat different from the standard in Mormon thinking. He rejects most of the classical theories of the atonement that have deeply influenced common Mormon thought and writing. He is especially critical of the line of thinking that starts with Anselm of Canterbury (1033—1109) and reaches its apex in Calvin. Known technically as the penal substitution theory, it will sound familiar to many Latter-day Saint readers.16
The theory is this: Humans have sinned and need to be punished, but the punishment that we deserve is too heavy for us to bear. So our elder brother volunteers to accept the punishment we merit. In so doing he clears our debt with God so that God can give us his love abundantly. Given common expression in stories such as that of the brother who repays the father the money stolen by the sibling, the theory has a certain cachet. But for Ostler it is deeply flawed. Several reasons are given on this point, but for our purposes here we may focus on the two that are crucial in Ostler’s view. First, the theory is unjust, and as created moral beings with a conscience, we know it. What moral sense does it make to punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty? Would we accept such a view in any other context? Would a guilty person be thought righteous because someone else served his prison sentence or was executed in his stead? Of course not, says Ostler. Listening to our internal moral voice will reveal that this makes no sense. Nor does the position of some Mormon authors that Christ actually became guilty in our stead fare any better.17 In an attempt to save the principle of punishing only the guilty, some have argued that Christ actually became a sinner. For Ostler, such a view is simply nonsense. It entails that Christ was guilty even though he did nothing wrong. This view is wrong in the same way as the notion of original sin—that is, it involves imputing the guilt of one to another. If we reject the idea that we can be held guilty of the sin of another, Adam, then why would we accept the same flawed principle of imputed sinfulness in the case of Christ?
Ostler’s view has something in common with Abelard’s theory of Christ’s moral influence in turning our hearts to God.18 But Ostler’s compassion theory goes much farther. “The purpose of the Atonement,” he writes, “is to overcome our alienation by creating compassion, a life shared in union where we are moved by our love for each other” (2:235). Christ comes to be with us and suffer like us, to break through the alienation that we have created by our own sin. Christ suffers for us by being mortal, and in so doing he offers us his love freely to bridge the gap between him and us that we have created by our own self-deceptive turning away from him.
By being with us, Christ enables us to freely choose to walk back into God’s loving embrace. “He will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh,” writes Alma, “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). This is a teaching that is at the core of Ostler’s theory of the atonement. To be reconciled to us, Christ must understand our plight. Thus he must come and suffer with us to be moved by our condition. For us, the atonement softens our hearts and enables us to choose a loving relationship with Christ.
The grace of Christ’s love, manifested in his life and way of being with us, works in us to persuade us to soften the hardened exterior that we create to protect our tender hearts. When we truly realize that God himself has become what we are and that he loves us so much that he is willing to be in relationship with us even though it causes him extensive and intense suffering, we can be persuaded by his compassion for us to soften our hearts and open up to receive him. (2:240)
That is the essence of the compassion theory that Ostler sees as a unique teaching of Mormonism.”
Hmmm . . .
Friends, you are all invited to the second IDAHO4HISGLORY mini-conference at Bethel Baptist Church in Rigby, Idaho this Sunday, August 24, 2008.
Here is the schedule:
- Session 1, 4 PM – The topic is Imputation by Pastor Jason Ehmann
- Session 2, 5 PM – The topic is Penal Substitution by Pastor Todd Wood
- Session 3, 6 PM – The topic is Justification from a Historical Perspective by Pastor Chris Leavell