I presented a paper on vicarious atonement at the recent SMPT Conference. To prepare the paper, I reviewed the various theories of the atonement offered by Christian theology as well as the LDS view(s) of the atonement. I came to two mildly surprising conclusions.
- The LDS Church affirms a doctrine of the atonement, but not any particular theory of the atonement.
By this I mean that the Church affirms the atonement, but does so (and describes its effects) using general terms and metaphors. If you start with a particular theory of the atonement lodged firmly in mind, such general discussions might sound like they are describing the ransom theory, the satisfaction theory, the penal substitution theory, or the moral influence theory. But it is much harder to start with the general discussions and an open mind, and end up with a particular theory.
To show how general the LDS view of the atonement seems to be, consider a couple of statements pulled from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry “Atonement of Jesus Christ,” authored by Jeffrey R. Holland (in 1992, prior to his becoming an apostle):
The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the foreordained but voluntary act of the Only Begotten Son of God. He offered his life, including his innocent body, blood, and spiritual anguish as a redeeming ransom (1) for the effect of the Fall of Adam upon all mankind and (2) for the personal sins of all who repent, from Adam to the end of the world.
Christ’s Atonement satisfied the demands of justice and thereby ransomed and redeemed the souls of all men, women, and children “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).
The doctrine of the atonement comprises proof of the divinity of Christ’s earthly ministry, and the vicarious nature of His death as a foreordained and voluntary sacrifice, intended for and efficacious as a propitiation for the sins of mankind, thus becoming the means whereby salvation may be secured.
[T]he promised sacrifice of Jesus Christ [was] ordained as a propitiation for broken law, whereby Justice could be fully satisfied, and Mercy be left free to exercise her beneficient influence over the souls of mankind.
Simple as is the plan of redemption in its general features, it is confessedly a mystery in detail to the finite mind.
The conclusion that the LDS Church has no theory of the atonement is mildly surprising for two reasons. First, the topic is frequently addressed in General Conference talks, in LDS books by LDS leaders, and in LDS scriptures. Only when looking for the details in light of the various Christian theories of atonement does it become clear how general the LDS discussions of the atonement are. Second, some LDS seem to think the Church affirms the penal substitution theory. This Calvinist model is quite popular with conservative Evangelicals, so it is understandable that Mormons might be drawn to it. But careful reading of LDS discussions in the sources noted above shows no particular endorsement of penal substitution over other substitutionary theories.
- Maybe it is just as well that the Church avoids formulating a more detailed theory of the atonement.
Recognizing that the Church does not have a theory of the atonement, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I believe it’s a good thing. The Church’s prior forays into theology have produced questionable results. Silence on the subject gives LDS thinkers leeway to publish their own helpful speculative discussions. In any case, it’s the atonement that will save you, not a theory of the atonement or even the one true theory of the atonement.
So this seems to be a good example of the LDS preference for avoiding theology, even on doctrines as central as the atonement. Jim Faulconer has a nice discussion of LDS atheology in “A Mormon View of Theology: Revelation and Reason,” in his book Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (NAMI, 2010). He gives five reasons we have, in the past, avoided theology: the Church is still young; fideism has become popular among LDS leaders; continuing revelation makes rational theology more challenging; the view that scripture contains a catalogue of implicit propositional truths; and our view that religion is primarily a matter of practice rather than propositional belief. I find encouraging Faulconer’s view that newer and broader approaches to theology (hermeneutic theology, narrative theology, theology in the style of Wittgenstein or Badiou) offer more promise for deepening LDS thought than rational or systematic theology.