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§ 4. The Governmental Theory.

This theory was introduced into the Church by Grotius, in the seventeenth century. He wrote in opposition to the Socinians, and therefore his book is entitled: “Defensio fidei catholicæ de satisfactione Christi.” It is in point of learning and ability all that could be expected from one of the greatest men of his generation. The design with which the book was written, and the universally received formulas of expression at that time prevailing, to the use of which Grotius adheres, give his work an aspect of orthodoxy. He speaks of satisfaction to justice, of propitiation, of the penal character of our Lord’s sufferings, of his death as a vicarious sacrifice, and of his bearing the guilt of our sins. In short, so far as the use of terms is concerned, there is hardly any departure from the doctrine of the Reformed Church, of which he was then a member. Different principles, however, underlaid his whole theory, and, therefore, a different sense was to be attached to the terms he used. There was, after all, no real satisfaction of justice, no real substitution, and no real enduring of the penalty of the law. His Socinian opponents, when they came to answer his book, said that he had given up all the main principles in dispute. Grotius was a jurist as well as a theologian, and looked at the whole subject from a juridical standpoint. The main elements of his theory are, —

1. That in the forgiveness of sin God is to be regarded neither as an offended party, nor as a creditor, nor as a master, but as a moral governor. A creditor can remit the debt due to him at pleasure; a master may punish or not punish as he sees fit; but a ruler must act, not according to his feelings or caprice, but with a view to the best interests of those under his authority. Grotius says that the overlooking the distinctions above indicated is the fundamental error of the Socinians.448448De Satisfactione, II. [§ 3]; Works, edit. London, 1679, vol. iii. p. 307, a, 25-34. “Vult (Socinus) partem omnem offensam esse pœnæ creditorem: atque in ea tale habere jus, quale alii creditores in rebus sibi debitis, quod jus sæpe etiam dominii voce appellat: ideoque sæpissime repitit Deum hic spectandum, ut partem offensam, ut creditorem, ut dominum tria hæc ponens tanquam tantundem valentia. Hic error Socini . . . . per totam ipsius tractationem diffusus . . . . ipsius τὸ πρῶτον ψεῦδος [est].” In opposition to this view, he 574says: “Omnino hic Deum considerandum, ut rectorem. Nam pœnas infligere, aut a pœnis aliquem liberare, quam punire possis, quod justificare vocat Scriptura, non est nisi rectoris qua talis primo et per se: ut, puta, in familia patris; in republica regis, in universo Dei.449449Ibid. II. [§ 1]; p. 305, b, 20-24.

2. The end of punishment is the prevention of crime, or the preservation of order and the promotion of the best interests of the community. “Justitiæ rectoris pars est servare leges etiam positivas et a se latas, quod verum esse tam in universitate libera quam in rege summo probant jurisconsulti: cui illud est consequens, ut rectori relaxare legem non liceat, nisi causa aliqua accedat, si non necessaria, certe sufficiens: quæ itidem recepta est a jurisconsultis sententia. Ratio utriusque est, quod actus ferendi aut relaxandi legem non sit actus absoluti dominii, sed actus imperii, qui tendere debeat ad boni ordinis conversationem.450450Ibid. V. [§ 11]; p. 317, b, 31-41. On a previous page, he had said, in more general terms: “Pœna omnis propositum habet bonum commune, ordinis nimirum conservationem et exemplum.

3. As a good governor cannot allow sin to be committed with immunity, God cannot pardon the sins of men without some adequate exhibition of his displeasure, and of his determination to punish it. This was the design of the sufferings and death of Christ. God punished sin in Him as an example. This example was the more impressive on account of the dignity of Christ’s person, and therefore in view of his death, God can consistently with the best interests of his government remit the penalty of the law in the case of penitent believers.

4. Punishment, Grotius defined as suffering inflicted on account of sin. It need not be imposed on account of the personal demerit of the sufferer; nor with the design of satisfying justice, in the ordinary and proper sense of that word. It was enough that it should be on account of sin. As the sufferings of Christ were caused by our sins, insomuch as they were designed to render their remission consistent with the interest of God’s moral government, they fall within this comprehensive definition of the word punishment. Grotius, therefore, could say that Christ suffered the punishment of our sins, as his sufferings were an example of what sin deserved.

5. The essence of the atonement, therefore, according to Grotius 575consisted in this, that the sufferings and death of Christ were designed as an exhibition of God’s displeasure against sin. They were intended to teach that in the estimation of God sin deserves to be punished, and, therefore, that the impenitent cannot escape the penalty due to their offences. “Nihil iniquitatis in eo est quod Deus, cujus est summa potestas ad omnia per se non injusta, nulli ipse legi obnoxius, cruciatibus et morte Christi uti voluit, ad statuendum exemplum grave adversus culpas immensas nostrum omnium, quibus Christus erat conjunctissimus, natura, regno vadimonio.451451Grotius, De Satisfactione, IV [§ 18]; vol. iii. p. 315, b. 9-14. Again: “Hoc ipso Deus non tantum suum adversus peccata odium testatum fecit, ac proinde nos hoc facto a peccatis deterruit (facilis enim est collectio, si Deus ne resipiscentibus quidem peccata remittere voluit, nisi Christo in pœnas succedente, multo minus inultos sinet contumaces) verum insigni modo insuper patefecit summum erga nos amorem ac benevolentiam: quod ille scilicet nobis pepercit, cui non erat ἀδίαφορον, indifferens, punire peccata, sed qui tanti id faciebat, ut potius quam impunita omnino dimitteret, Filium suum unigenitum ob illa peccata, pœnis tradiderit.452452Ibid. V. [§ 8]; p. 317, a, 12-24. It thus appears that, according to this theory, the work of Christ was purely didactic. It was designed to teach, by way of an example, God’s hatred of sin. The cross was but a symbol.


The Synod of Dort met two years after the publication of the work in which this theory was propounded. Grotius joined those who remonstrated against the decisions of that Synod, and who on that account were called Remonstrants. The Remonstrant theologians, however, did not as a class adhere to Grotius’s peculiar doctrine. They did not regard the work of Christ as a governmental transaction, but adhered to the Scriptural mode of representation. They spoke of his death as a sacrifice and ransom. They rejected indeed the Church doctrine. They denied that what Christ did was a satisfaction of justice; that He bore the penalty of the law; that He acted as our substitute, fulfilling in our place all the demands of the law. As these ideas have no part, according to their view, in the doctrine of sacrifices for sin, so they have no place in the true doctrine concerning the work of Christ. Under the Old Testament a sacrifice was not an equivalent for the penalty incurred; it was not a satisfaction to justice; the victim did not do what the offerer ought to have done. It was simply a 576divine ordinance. God saw fit to ordain that the offering a sacrifice should be the condition of the pardon of the violations of the ceremonial law. So also He has seen fit to ordain that the sacrificial death of Christ should be the condition of the pardon of sin under the gospel. Even a ransom is no proper equivalent. The holder of a captive may take what he pleases as the condition of deliverance. On this point Limborch says: “In eo errant quam maxime, quod velint redemtionis pretium per omnia æquivalens esse debere miseriæ illi, e qua redemtio fit, redemtionis pretium enim constitui solet pro libera æstimatione illius, qui captivum detinet, non autem pro captivi merito. Ita pretium, quod Christus persolvit, juxta Dei patris æstimationem persolutum est.453453Limborch, Theologia Christiana, III. xxi. 8, edit. Amsterdam, 1715, p. 262, a. This is the old Scholastic doctrine of “acceptatio;” a thing avails, irrespective of its inherent value, for what God sees fit to take it. The death of Christ was no more a satisfaction for sin, than that of bulls and of goats under the old dispensation. God saw fit to make the latter the condition of the pardon of violations of the ceremonial law; and He has seen fit to make the former the condition of the pardon of sins against the moral law.

The Supernaturalists.

Although the Remonstrants as a body did not accept of the governmental theory as proposed by Grotius, his main idea was frequently reproduced by subsequent writers. This was done especially by the Supernaturalists in Germany in their endeavour to save something from the destructive principles of the Rationalists. They conceded that the work of Christ was not strictly a satisfaction to justice. They taught that it was necessary as an example and a symbol.454454The word “symbol,” however, is used in two senses. Sometimes it is synonymous with sign. Thus it is common to say that the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are the symbols of Christ’s body and blood. At other times, a symbol is that which expresses the analogy between the outward and the inward. Thus, in one view, the atoning death of Christ is symbolical of God’s feelings towards sinners. In another view, the struggles and triumph of our Lord in conflict with physical evil are symbolical of the believer’s struggles and triumph in the conflict with sin. The former was an illustration of the latter, and intended to encourage the people of God with the assurance of success. It was designed as a manifestation of God’s displeasure against sin; and, therefore, necessary to render its forgiveness consistent with the interests of God’s moral government. This is true of Stäudlin, Flatt, and even of Storr. Speaking of the first of these writers, Baur says, “It was admitted that in the New Testament doctrine concerning the death of Jesus the Old Testament idea of a sin offering as a substitute and satisfaction 577was actually contained, and therefore that the Church doctrine of satisfaction agreed with the literal sense of the Scriptures; yet it was insisted upon that this literal doctrine of the Bible involved difficulties affecting our moral nature, and was evil in its practical effects, and inconsistent with what the Scriptures themselves elsewhere taught of guilt, merit, imputation, and of God’s justice.” Hence, he goes on to say, that to escape from this dilemma it was taught that when in the New Testament it is said “that Jesus suffered punishment in the place of men, and procured for them the forgiveness of sin, this can only mean that God, through the death of Christ and the sufferings therewith connected, declared himself to be the righteous judge of all evil.”455455Lehre von der Versöhnung, Tübingen, 1838, pp. 597, 598.

C. Ch. Flatt endeavoured to find “a middle way between the course of those who introduced into the Scriptures their own philosophical opinions, or the philosophy of the age in which they lived, and the strict grammatical, historical interpretation of those who insisted on taking the words of Scripture either in their etymological sense, or in that sense in which it can he historically proved that at least a part of the contemporaries of the sacred writers understood them, or which stupid Rabbinical literalists attached to certain phrases without regard to the fact how often the meaning of words, without a change of form, through higher culture and refinement of moral feeling, is spiritualized and ennobled.”456456Von der Versöhnung, Zweiter Theil, Suttgart, 1798, Vorrede, p. xxxii. This middle way, according to Flatt, leads to the conclusion that the main design of Christ’s death as viewed by Himself was effectually to correct the false ideas of the Jews concerning the Messiah’s kingdom as one of earthly splendor, and to open the way for the entrance of his doctrine which taught that blessedness is to be secured by moral excellence. This doctrine of Flatt agrees with the governmental theory so far as it denies the Church doctrine of a satisfaction to justice, and makes the design of Christ’s death purely didactic.

Storr, in all his works, and especially in his “Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews,” and his dissertation on the design of Christ’s death, makes the Scriptures his authoritative guide, and therefore approaches much nearer to the Church doctrine than perhaps any German theologian of his generation. He assumes that Christ as man was bound to render the same obedience to the divine law as is due from all other men. But in virtue of the union of his human with the divine nature He as man was entitled 578to all the exaltation and blessedness of which humanity is capable. Any reward, therefore, for his perfect obedience, are especially for his death on the cross, must be some benefit granted to others for his sake. The salvation of his people, therefore, is the Redeemer’s reward. Such benefit, however, could not consistently be bestowed on sinners unless the death of Christ had been a vindication of the righteousness of God by being intended as an “example of punishment;” a manifestation of God’s hatred of sin and of his determination to punish it.457457G. Ch. Storr, Pauli Brief an die Hebräer. Zweiter Theil, über den eigentlichen Zweck des Todes Jesu. Tübingen, 1789.

American Theologians.

The governmental theory of the atonement seems to have had an entirely independent origin in this country. It was the necessary consequence of the principle that all virtue consists in benevolence. If that principle be correct, all the moral attributes of God are modifications of benevolence. There is no such perfection in God as justice other than the purpose and disposition to promote happiness. The death of Christ, therefore, could have no other design than to render the forgiveness of sin consistent with the best interests of the moral government of God. This theory was elaborated by the younger President Edwards, presented in full in Dr. Beman’s work on the Atonement, and adopted by that numerous and highly influential class of American theologians who embraced the principle on which the theory, as held in this country, is founded. In the work of Dr. E. A. Park, of Andover, on the Atonement, there is a collection of discourses from the pens of the most distinguished teachers of this doctrine. In the introduction to that volume Professor Park gives an interesting history of the development of this view of the atonement as held in this country.

Objections to the Theory.

1. The first and most obvious objection to this theory is that it is founded on an erroneous idea of the nature of punishment. It assumes that the special design of punishment is the good of society. If the best interests of a community, either human or divine, a commonwealth of men or the moral government of God, can be secured without the punishment of crime, then no such punishment ought to be inflicted. But suffering inflicted for the good of others is not punishment any more than suffering inflicted for the good of the sufferer. The amputation of a crushed limb is not of the nature 579of punishment, neither are the sufferings of martyrs, although intended to redound to the good of the Church and of the world. The sufferings of Paul, which were so abundant and so constant, although so fruitful of good, were not penal. And the sufferings of Christ, if incurred in the discharge of his mission of mercy, and not judicially inflicted in execution of the penalty of the law, had no more tendency to show God’s abhorrence of sin than the suffering of the martyrs.

No evil is of the nature of punishment unless it be inflicted in satisfaction of justice and in execution of the penalty of law. A writer in the “British Quarterly Review” for October, 1866, says: “There is a story of an English judge who once said to a criminal, ‘You are transported not because you have stolen these goods, but that goods may not be stolen.’” The reviewer then adds, “No principle more false in itself or more ruinous to public morality was ever announced from the English bench. The whole moral effect of punishment lies in its being just. The man who suffers for the benefit of others is a martyr and not a convict.” It is on this false principle that the whole governmental theory of the atonement is founded. It admits of no ground of punishment but the benefit of others. And if that benefit can be otherwise secured all necessity for punishment ceases, and all objection to the dispensing of pardon is removed. If the fundamental principle of a theory be false, the theory itself must be unsound.

2. The theory contradicts the intuitive moral judgments of men. The testimony of every man’s conscience in view of his own sins is that he deserves to be punished, not for the good of others, but for his own demerit. If not guilty he cannot justly be punished; and if guilty he cannot justly be pardoned without satisfaction to justice. As this is the testimony of conscience with regard to our own sins, it is the testimony of the consciousness of all men with regard to the sins of others. When a great crime is committed, the instinctive judgment of men is that the perpetrators ought to be punished. No analysis of human consciousness can resolve this sentiment of justice into a conviction of the understanding that the interests of society demand the punishment of crime. That indeed is true. It is one of the incidental benefits, but not the special design or end of punishment. Indeed, the whole moral effect of punishment depends upon the assumption that it is inflicted on the ground of ill desert, and not for the public good. If the latter object be made prominent, punishment loses its nature and of course its appropriate moral effect. A theory which ignores these intuitive 580convictions of the mind is not suited to our state, and never can satisfy the conscience. We know that we deserve to be punished. We know that we ought to be punished, and therefore that punishment is inevitable under the government of a just God. If it is not borne by a substitute in our stead, it must be borne by ourselves. Where there is no expiation for sin there is inevitably a fearful looking for of judgment.

3. All the arguments heretofore urged in proof that the justice of God cannot be resolved into benevolence are valid arguments against the governmental theory of the atonement. The doctrine that happiness is the highest good, and that all virtue consists in the desire and purpose to promote the greatest possible amount of happiness, is almost discarded from the schools, and should be discarded from theology where it has wrought so much evil. It is so inconsistent with our moral nature, to assert that there is no difference between right and wrong except that between the expedient and the inexpedient, that the doctrine could never have been adopted except as a means of solving difficulties for the understanding, at the expense of the conscience. This point has been already considered when treating of the attributes of God and of the design of creation; and therefore it need not be further discussed in this place.

4. A fourth argument against the governmental theory is that it is unscriptural. The Bible constantly represents Christ as a priest, as a sacrifice, as a propitiation, as an expiation, as the substitute and representative of sinners; as assuming their place and sustaining the curse or penalty of the law in their stead. All these representations are either ignored or explained away by the advocates of this theory. Governments, civil commonwealths, from which the principles and illustrations of this theory are derived, know nothing of priests, sacrifices, and vicarious punishments. And, therefore, these ideas do not enter, and cannot be admitted into the governmental theory. But these ideas are the vital elements of the Scriptural doctrine of the atonement; so that if we renounce them we renounce the doctrine itself, or at least seriously impair its integrity and power. Whole volumes on the atonement have been written in which the words priest, sacrifice, and propitiation hardly occur.

5. This theory, as well as the moral view of the atonement is false, because defective. As it is true that the work of Christ is designed and adapted to exert the most powerful moral influence on sinners to induce them to return to God, so it is true that 581his work was designed and adapted to produce the strongest possible impression on the minds of all intelligent creatures of the evil of sin, and thus restrain them from the commission of it, but neither the one nor the other was its primary design. It has this moral impression on the sinner and upon the intelligent universe, because it was a satisfaction to the justice of God, and the strongest of all proofs that sin cannot be pardoned without an expiation, or adequate atonement.

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