Atonement, Anabaptist Theology of

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Literally, atonement means at-one-ment. It can refer to all the ways in which God and humans have been reconciled through Jesus Christ. Often, however, discussions of atonement focus on the meaning of Jesus' death. Historically, three theories of atonement have been especially influential. Each has some biblical basis and can he found among the writing of the early church fathers.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) first gave the substitutionary theory a systematic formulation. This view was emphasized by the Protestant Reformers, and more so by post-Reformation Protestant orthodoxy and Fundamentalism. According to this theory, the main evil from which Christ saves us is the penalty of sin: eternal death. Humans were created to merit eternal life through perfect obedience to God. But since everyone has disobeyed, no one has attained this reward. Moreover, since sin violates God's law, it carries the penalty of eternal death. Jesus' saving work, then, consisted in a life of perfect obedience, which merited eternal life for us; and in bearing God's judgment on the cross, which paid the penalty of eternal death in our place. According to the substitutionary theory, the high point of Jesus' atoning work is his death.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) first gave detailed expression to the moral influence theory. It has been emphasized by Protestant liberalism. According to this theory, the main evil from which we need salvation is the power of sin in our lives. Jesus' life, therefore, was primarily devoted to showing us how to live. Jesus' death reveals a God who is loving. Through the moral influence of Jesus' life and death, we are inwardly transformed and thereby brought into fellowship with God. According to this theory, the high point of Jesus' atoning work is his earthly teaching and example.

The Christus Victor motif was especially popular among the early church fathers. It has been prominent in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but has had comparatively little influence in the West. According to this theory, the main evil from which we need salvation is bondage to hostile forces. These include spiritual powers such as the devil, sin, and death. In the pre-Constantinian era (before A.D. 300), pagan religions and governments were often thought to be their agents. Jesus' obedient life was, on one hand, a struggle against these powers; on the other, it established communion between God and humans in his person. Jesus' death was the powers' apparent victory over him. Jesus' resurrection, however, forms the high point of his atoning work: it is the triumph of the divine life over the powers, in which all who are united with him can participate.

Because the Anabaptists emphasized Jesus' teachings and example, some feel that they understood atonement along the lines of the moral influence theory. Unlike most other Protestant reformers, Anabaptists insisted that following in Jesus' earthly footsteps is essential to salvation. Accordingly, the life through which he provided this pattern was not secondary, but central to, his atoning work. Moreover, many Anabaptists stressed that Jesus' entire life, culminating in his death, was an outpouring and demonstration of love.

However, numerous themes expressed in the substitutionary and Christus Victor theories also appear in Anabaptist writers. Anabaptists often emphasized Jesus' example and its continuing significance not along moral influence lines, but in ways which supplement or give concrete focus to these other themes.

Substitutionary language occurs particularly among Dutch Anabaptists. They rejected the idea that Jesus' flesh could have come from Mary, and therefore ultimately from Adam, insisting that if it had, this corrupt flesh could not have "paid" the price for sin. When Anabaptists maintained that Christ's atoning work is imputed to infants, to the previous sins of believers, or to the continuing sinfulness of their flesh, substitutionary notions of payment and acquittal were at least implicitly present.

Nevertheless, Anabaptists did not regard Christ's merits and sufferings as entirely past accomplishments. They denied that atonement would be obtained merely by believing in Christ's previous work, without transformation of life. They insisted that Jesus' active righteousness, and especially his sufferings, also continue in his members, sanctifying them and delivering them from present sin as they walk in the way which he walked.

Through their sharp sense of conflict with the world, the flesh, the devil, and with the religious and political powers through which these assailed them, many Anabaptists remind one of the Christus Victor motif. Melchior Hoffman and Bernhard Rothmann regarded humanity as the devil's property, and Christ's atonement as bringing liberation from this bondage. Peter Riedemann spoke of sins as chains by which the devil binds people, and of governments as executors of the curse under which sin places people.

Moreover, most Anabaptists emphasized another central Christus Victor theme: that Christ brought humanity into communion with the divine life. Salvation involved "divinization": transformation through participation in the divine nature. Nonetheless, this did not raise one above earthly reality. Instead, as Menno Simons wrote, we participate in the divine life when we "understand, grasp and follow and emulate [Christ], not according to his divine nature . . . but according to his life and conversation here on earth, shown forth among men in his words and deeds as an example set before us to follow. . . ." (Writings, 55)

In conclusion, Jesus' teaching and example and our present participation in his earthly task of obedience and suffering play a greater role in Anabaptist understandings of atonement than in most others. Yet, while some of these emphases parallel the moral influence theory, others are more compatible with substitutionary or Christus Victor perspectives. In the final analysis, Anabaptist understandings overflow any and all of the three traditional theories, and suggest a variety of angles from which to consider atonement.

For Mennonite theologies of atonement, particularly in the 19th century and 20th century, see J. Denny Weaver, "The Quickening of Soteriology: Atonement from Christian Burkholder to Daniel Kauffman," Mennonite Quarterly Review 61 (1987): 5-45.

See also Christology


Aulen, Gustav. Christus Victor. New York: MacMillan, 1960.

Anselm. Why God Became Man and the Virgin Conception and Original Sin, trans. J. M. Colleran. Albany, 1969.

Bushnell, Horace. The Vicarious Sacrifice, vol. 1. New York: Scribner 's 1903.

Driver, John. Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1986.

Finger, Thomas. Christian Theology: an Eschatological Approach, 2 vols. Nashville: Nelson, 1985: v. I, 303-367.

Keeney, William. "The Incarnation," in A Legacy of Faith, ed. C. J. Dyck. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1962: 55-68.

Klaassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 3. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981: 23-100.

Menno Simons. "The Incarnation of our Lord," in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956: 785-834.

Menno Simons. "Brief and Clear Confession," ibid., esp. 422-440.

Menno Simons. "The Cross of the Saints," ibid., esp. 614-622.

Menno Simons. "The Spiritual Resurrection," ibid., 53-62.

Marpeck, Pilgram. "Concerning the Lowliness of Christ" in Klassen, William and Walter Klaassen, eds. and trans. The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 2. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978:428-63.

Marpeck, Pilgram. "Judgment and Decision," ibid., esp. 314-323.

Riedemann, Peter. Account of Our Religion, Doctrine, and Faith, trans. Kathleen E. Hasenberg. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938; Rifton, N.Y.: Plough Publishing House, 1970: esp. 28-68, 102-111, 205-223.

Sattler, Michael. "On the Satisfaction of Christ," in Yoder, John H., ed. and trans. The Legacy of Michael Sattler, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 1. Scottdale, PA : Herald Press, 1973:108-120.

Yoder, John H. Preface to Theology. Elkhart, IN: Goshen Biblical Seminary, n.d., ca. 1982): 206-243.

Author(s) Thomas N Finger
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Finger, Thomas N. "Atonement, Anabaptist Theology of." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 23 Oct 2021.,_Anabaptist_Theology_of&oldid=162873.

APA style

Finger, Thomas N. (1987). Atonement, Anabaptist Theology of. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 October 2021, from,_Anabaptist_Theology_of&oldid=162873.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 43-44. All rights reserved.

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