The GOSPEL TRUTH
ATONEMENT IN CHRIST
JOHN MILEY, D.D.
THEORY OF MORAL INFLUENCE.I. FACTS OF THE THEORY.1. The Redemptive Law.
3. Its Dialectics.
4. Truth of Moral Influence.
II. ITS REFUTATION.1. By the Fact of an Atonement.
2. By its Necessity.
3. By the Peculiar Saving Work of Christ.
4. Not a Theory of Atonement.
THEORY OF MORAL INFLUENCE.
THIS theory has already come into view, and more than once. It is one of the three which we propose to treat more fully than those previously noticed. We do not concede to it a scientific position. Strictly, it is not a theory of atonement; yet it is such in popular enumeration and usage, and one of no little prominence. It will, however, require no great elaboration, as we already have its principles; and especially as the theory is one of great simplicity and clearness. With all its phases, its fundamental principle is ever one, and easily apprehended.
I. FACTS OF THE THEORY.
1. The Redemptive Law.
The mediation of Christ fulfills its redemptive office in the economy of human salvation through the influence of its own lessons and motives, as practically operative upon the soul and life of men. Such is the office of his incarnation, if admitted; of his example, teachings, miracles, sufferings, death, resurrection, ascension. By the lessons of truth so given and enforced it is sought to enlighten men; to address to them higher motives to a good life; to awaken love in grateful response to the consecration of so worthy a life to their good; to lead them to repentance and piety through the moral force of such a manifestation of the love of God; to furnish them a perfect example in the life of Christ, and through his personal influence to transform them into his likeness.
Advocates may vary the summary of facts, as they may differ respecting the Christ, but the result is simply to lessen or increase the possible moral force without any change of principle. The law of redemptive help is ever one, whether Christ be essentially divine or only human. With his divinity and incarnation the synthesis of facts may embody the larger force of religious motive; but this is all the advantage from the higher Christology. Such is the moral theory of redemption. Dr. Bushnell calls it "the moral power view;" but such a formula neither alters the redemptive law nor adds to its saving efficiency. The only advantage is in a little more force of expression.
Historically, the theory synchronizes with Socinus, deceased 1604, and, in the stricter sense, originated with him. Hence it may properly be called Socinian. Abelard, following soon after Anselm, propounded similar views, which were favored somewhat by Peter Lombard and others, but gave no exact construction to a new theory in opposition to the more prevalent Church doctrine. He exerted but a transient disturbing influence upon this great question, and left the Anselmic doctrine in its chief position.
With Socinus the Moral theory sprung naturally from his system of theology, especially from his Christology. In the assertion of Christ's simple humanity, doctrinal consistency required him to reject all schemes of a real objective atonement, and to interpret the mediation of Christ in accord with his own Christology. The Moral theory is the proper result. It is the scheme which his system of theology required, and the only one which it will consistently admit. Affiliated forms of Christianity--such as Unitarianism and Universalism naturally and consistently adopt the same theory. It has a natural affinity with all forms of Rationalistic Christianity.
3. Its Dialectics.
The Moral scheme, arising in a system of theology so diverse from the Orthodox faith, and so antagonistic itself to the Orthodox atonement, was inevitably polemic, and both defensively and offensively, in its methods. This naturally arose, in the first part, from the fact that the Scriptures, in what seems their obvious sense, positively affirm an objective atonement in Christ; and in the second part, from the fact that the doctrine of atonement then most prevalent was open to serious valid objections, and especially to very plausible ones.
But little attempt was made to build up the new doctrine on direct Scripture proofs. The main attempt was to set-aside the Scripture proofs alleged in support of the Church doctrine. In this endeavor the new exegesis had little regard for well-established laws of hermeneutics. It dealt freely in captious criticism, and in the most gratuitous and forced interpretation. The exigency of the case required such a method. Scripture facts and utterances are so clear and emphatic in the affirmation of an objective atonement in the mediation of Christ as the only and necessary ground of forgiveness, that the new scheme found in such a method its only possible defense against their crushing force. We have no occasion to follow the scheme in all this exegesis. The truth of an atonement has no such exigency; and the round of following would be a long and weary one: for the whole issue concerns other great questions of doctrine, especially of anthropology and Christology, as well as the direct question of atonement. These great truths are vitally related to each other.
Within the sphere of reason the new scheme was boldly offensive in its method. Here it had more apparent strength, and could be plausible even when not really potent. But any real strength bore rather against a particular form of redemptive doctrine than against the truth itself. The array of objections, wrought in all the vigor of rhetoric and passion, is nugatory against the true doctrine--as will appear in our treatment of objections. Nor are we answerable in the case of such as are valid against a doctrine which we do not accept, although brought from a theological stand-point which we utterly reject. The scheme of Satisfaction, as constructed in the Reformed theology, and now held as the more common Calvinistic view, is open to such objection. And an objection is none the less valid because made in the interest of a scheme much further from the truth than the one against which it is alleged.
Beyond the ground of valid objection to the doctrine of Satisfaction, Socinianism finds a sphere of plausible objection to the atonement itself. A fluency of words, even with little wealth or potency of thought, will easily declaim against its unreason, its injustice, its aspersion of the divine goodness, its implication of vindictiveness in God, its subversion of moral distinctions and obligations. Very gifted minds have given to such declamation all possible force. It has the force of plausibility on false assumptions and issues, but is impotent in the light of truth. This will appear in our treatment of objections to the atonement.
4. Truth of Moral Influence.
The real issue with the Socinian scheme does not concern the truth of a helpful moral influence in the economy of redemption, This any true doctrine of atonement must fully hold. The issue is against making such influence the only form and the sum of redemptive help; indeed, against making it a constituent fact of the atonement as such.
The moral influence of the mediation of Christ is from its own nature and facts, and not a part or fact of the atonement itself. If, in the case of a rebellion, a son of the sovereign should, at a great sacrifice, interpose in such provisional measures as would render forgiveness on proper submission consistent with the interest of the sovereignty; if the sovereign should be concurring with the son in such provision; and if such grace on the part of both the sovereign and the son should be successfully pleaded with those in rebellion as a reason for submission and loyalty, it would surely be unreason to maintain that such moral influence was the whole atonement in the case. It would be unreason to maintain that it was any part of it. It would be equally so with the submission so induced as a necessary condition of forgiveness. The moral influence in the case presupposes the atonement, and arises out of the grace of its provisions. Without such grace there can be no appeals of moral potency. The very pleas which give persuasive force to the pleading are facts of grace in an atonement previously made. Hence the practical force or moral influence of a provision of forgiveness cannot be that provision itself, nor any part of it.
Such are the facts respecting the atonement in Christ. Its power of moral influence lies in the infinite truth and grace revealed in its provisions. The Son of God, as the gift of the Father, died in atonement for our sins, that we might be forgiven and saved. Here is the plea of moral potency. But there can be no such plea, and, therefore, no such moral influence, without the previous fact of such an atonement. Hence the unreason of accounting the practical lesson, or moral influence of an atonement, the atonement itself, or any constituent part of it.
Thus the question of a helpful practical lesson in the economy of redemption is not one respecting its reality, but one respecting its place. The doctrine of a real atonement for sin gives the fullest recognition to such a moral influence, and represents its greatest possible force. Indeed, such an influence is the very life and power of all evangelistic work. And the real moral power of the cross is with the Churches to which it is a real atonement for sin. Through all the Christian centuries such an atonement has been the persuasive power of the Gospel. It is the living impulsion of all the great evangelistic enterprises of to-day. And, as the history of the past throws its light upon the future, the persuasive power of the Gospel in winning the coming generations to Christ must be in the moral pathos of a real atonement in his blood.
Such a doctrine of atonement embodies a power of persuasion infinitely greater than is possible to any scheme of redemptive help grounded in a Socinian Christology. In the one case, we have a divine Mediator; in the other, a human mediator: in the one, a real atonement for sin; in the other, no atonement for sin. In the former, the divinity of Christ, his divine Sonship, his incarnation, the profoundness of his humiliation, the depth of his suffering and shame of his cross--all go into the atonement, and combine in a revelation of the divine holiness and love which embodies the highest potency of moral influence. And we are pleased to quote and adopt a very forceful expression of the marvelous moral power of the cross from one who himself denied an objective atonement for sin in the death of Christ, but was able to give such expression, because he accepted all the divine verities respecting Christ upon which a true doctrine is constructed:--
"This is the unscrutable mystery of incarnate love! the hidden spring of that moral power over the human heart, which, in myriads of instances, has proved irresistible. On the one hand, God in Christ--in Christ in his life, in Christ on the cross--is reconciling men to himself, and employing his mightiest instrument for recovering, gaining back, redeeming the world. On the other hand, Christ--Christ in his life, Christ on the cross--is God impersonated, so far as a human medium and method of impersonation could reach. Christ is the nature of God, brought near and unveiled to human eyes. Christ is the heart of God laid open, that men might almost hear the beat of its unutterable throbbings, might almost feel the rush of its mighty pulsations. The Incarnate in his life and in his death, in his words and in his deeds, in his whole character, and spirit, and work on earth, was ever unveiling the Father, and making a path for the Father into the human soul. But on the cross Christ presses into the very center of the world's heart, takes possession of it, and there, in that center, preaches, as nowhere else was possible, the gospel of God's love!"
II. ITS REFUTATION.
No elaborate polemics is required here. We already have the facts for the refutation of this theory. These facts are of two classes: one respecting the reality of an atonement in Christ, as the objective ground of forgiveness and salvation; the other, respecting the necessity for such an atonement. The former we have verified by the Scriptures; the latter, by both the Scriptures and the reason of the case. The theory of Moral influence, denying, as it does, the divine relation and office of atonement as the ground of forgiveness, and limiting the saving work of Christ to the office of a practical lesson of piety, has a most thorough refutation in these facts. We refer to them as previously given.
This reference might here suffice; yet it is proper to bring this theory face to face with the facts and truths whereby it has its refutation. But we do not need a formal array of all as previously maintained. Nor need they be presented just in the order then observed. The theory is disproved--
1. By the Fact of an Atonement.
The fact of an objective atonement in Christ is dependent upon the Scriptures for its revelation and proof. Even the conception of a scheme so stupendous in its character never could originate in any finite mind. The idea includes not only the fact of a vicarious sacrifice of Christ in our redemption, but also the vitally related truths of his divinity and incarnation. It includes, also, by necessary implication, the very truth of the divine trinity, and of the unity of personality in Christ as the God-man. Such truths are from above, as the redeeming Lord is, and spoken only from heaven. And as the Redeemer himself can be known only by revelation, so the full purpose of his mission in the incarnation, and the nature of his redeeming work, can be known only by revelation. But the great truths so given, and taking their place in vital relation to the saving work of Christ--truths of his divinity, incarnation, personality, as the God-man--clearly reveal an infinitely profounder purpose in his suffering and death than is fulfilled in the office of a moral lesson. And Socinianism, in all its phases, consistently rejects these divine truths in a system of theology which maintains the Moral theory of atonement. But their rejection is not their disproof. And their truth, as given in all the clearness and authority of revelation, is conclusive against this theory.
Then we have the fact of an atonement, not only as the logical implication of great truths so vitally connected with it, but also in such facts and terms of Scripture as clearly contain and directly assert it.
We have the Gospel as a message of forgiveness and salvation. Such blessings are proclaimed in Christ, and in him only. They are specially offered through his sufferings and death. Here is the fact of an atonement.
In the more specific terms, Christ, in his sufferings and death, in his very blood, is our reconciliation, our propitiation, our redemption. He is such for us as sinners, and as the ground of our forgiveness. These are vital facts in the economy of redemption, and the very source of its practical lesson. And how one-sided! indeed, how no-sided!--the scheme which accounts the lesson all, and rejects the atonement out of which it arises! The theory of Moral influence renders no satisfactory account of these terms. It is powerless for their consistent interpretation. It is, therefore, a false theory. No doctrine of atonement can be true which will not fairly interpret the terms of Scripture in which it is expressed.
In other terms, Christ is set forth in his death as a sacrifice for sin, and one to be interpreted in the light of the typical sacrifices appertaining to earlier economies of religion; in his high-priestly office offering up himself as a sacrifice for sin; in his high-priestly office in heaven, into which he enters with his own blood, making intercession for us. These are facts of a real atonement in Christ, and conclusive against the Moral theory.
2. By its Necessity.
The necessity of an atonement in the blood of Christ as the ground of forgiveness is a truth of the Scriptures. Thus it behooved Christ to suffer and die, that repentance and remission of sins might be preached in his name. There is salvation in no other. If righteousness, or forgiveness, were by the law, Christ is dead in vain. If righteousness, or forgiveness, were possible by any law given, then life would be by the law. The same necessity for an atonement in Christ is affirmed by the requirement and necessity of faith in him as the condition of salvation. What will the Moral scheme do with such facts? How will it interpret such texts? It has no power fairly to dispose of them, or to interpret them consistently with its own principles. It has, therefore, no claim to recognition as a true theory of atonement.
And how will the Moral scheme answer for the necessity of an atonement as manifest in the very reason of the case? This necessity concerns the profoundest interests of moral government. They require the conservation of law. Such law requires the enforcing sanction of penalty. Hence its remission imperatively requires some provisional substitute which shall fulfill its rectoral function. The Moral scheme offers no such substitute. It must ignore the most patent facts of the case. It must deny the leading truths of anthropology, as clearly given in both sacred and secular history. It must attribute to forgiveness a facility and indifference consistent, somewhat, with mere personal relations, but utterly inconsistent with the interests of government; most of all, with the requirements of the divine moral government. The Moral scheme, therefore, gives no answer to the real necessity for an atonement. Yet such an answer is an imperative requirement. The scheme must be rejected. The necessity for an atonement is its refutation.
3. By the Peculiar Saving Work of Christ.
The theory of Moral influence, by its deepest principles, and by its very content and limitation, implies and maintains that Christ is a Saviour in no other mode than any good man is, or may be. The good man who, by his example, religious instruction, and personal influence, leads a sinner to repentance and a good life, saves him as really and fully as Christ saves any sinner, and in the very same mode. The law of salvation is identical in the two cases. The mode of redemptive help is one; the saving force one. And the sole difference between Christ and any good man in saving sinners is, in the measure of religious influence which they respectively exert. Many special facts respecting Christ may be freely admitted. To him may be conceded a special divine commission, a superior character, higher spiritual endowment, greater gifts of religious instruction, a life of matchless graces, deeds, and sacrifices; and that all combine in a potency of unequaled practical force. Still, he is a Saviour in no peculiar mode but only through a higher moral influence. This is the sum of his distinction. All his saving work is through a helpful religious lesson. So any good man may save sinners. And so many a good man does save many sinners.
But is this all? Is there no other distinction in favor of Christ than that of a higher moral influence practically operative upon men? Is this all that the typical services mean? all that the promises and prophecies of a coming Messiah signify? all the meaning of the angels in the joyful announcement of the blessed Advent? all that Christ meant in the deeper utterances of his saving work? all that the apostles have written in the gospels and epistles? all that they accepted in faith and heralded in preaching? all that the faith of the living Church rightfully embraces? all the hope of a consciously sinful and helpless humanity leaning upon Christ for help? all the meaning and joy of the saints in the presence of the Lamb slain, as there in grateful love and gladsome song they ascribe their salvation to his blood? No, no; this is not all. There is infinitely more in the saving work of Christ. He saves us in a unique mode--one in which no other does or can; saves us through an atonement in his blood. By this fact is the Moral scheme refuted.
4. Not a Theory of Atonement.
There is here no issue. The facts which we have in the refutation of this theory deny to it all rightful position as a theory of atonement. It will neither interpret the Scriptures which reveal the atonement, nor answer to the real necessity for one. It will not admit any proper definition of an atonement. It is in fact set forth and maintained in the denial of one. So, by the decision of all vitally related facts, and by the position of its advocates, the Moral scheme is not a theory of atonement.
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