The Atonement in exemplarist vs subjectivist views


I’m reading the Actuality of the Atonement (making way slowly at the moment because of lack of time). I came across this interesting point about one of the unexpected consequences of Enlightenment thought with its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual:

The allusion to the Pelagian tendencies or the Enlightenment has been repeated here because it shows why ‘subjective’ or ‘exemplarist’ forms of the theology of the atonement have become increasingly popular in recent times. The terms subjective and exemplarist refer to different aspects of a single approach to the topic. The former calls attention to the contention that the central feature of a doctrine of the atonement is the effect the life and/or death of Christ should have upon the believer. What matters, it is argued, is that there should be repentance, a new moral seriousness, Christian love and the like. Exemplarism, on the other hand, stresses the objective basis of the doctrine, holding the love of God and the life of Jesus to be examples the believer must follow rather than a substitutionary transaction—as the opposing view is often parodied—changing the human status before God. (Clearly, there is no need for substitution in the light of the ‘Scotist’ belief that God can do exactly what he likes.)

Gunton, C. E. (2003). The actuality of atonement : A study of metaphor, rationality, and the Christian tradition (156–157). London; New York: T&T Clark.

Fascinating. It’s a point I’ve never seen made before, and one, in the context of Gunton’s larger argument that I find compelling. Have any of you come across this sort of reasoning before?

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. No. But my understanding of the issues (slim as it is) comes from a different approach. Interesting blog. I’ll be coming back and trying to learn some.

  2. I’ve never understood why the Atonement shouldn’t be classified with, say, the extra-dimensions view of the universe proposed by some cosmological models: Often posited, but never demonstrated with, you know, evidence.
    I might even classify the Atonement with the ether of pre-Michelson-Morley physics: An intriguing idea, but convincingly refuted by observed evidence, in this case by the post-Crucifixion history of humanity.

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