Incarnation and atonement are the fundamental doctrines of Christian theology and the pillars of the Christian faith. The relationships between incarnation and atonement have been explained through various theological prisms. Several theories have been suggested throughout history, including Anselm’s theory of satisfaction, ransom theory, moral influence theory, and recapitulation theory. Though the concept of atonement appears to be especially challenging for theological theorists, both doctrines are rather complicated as they involve such complex ideas as sin, salvation, redemption, sacrifice, etc.

Any contemplation about the relationships between atonement and incarnation would be called to define if there could be any atonement without incarnation or, alternatively, if atonement a part of the whole that is incarnation. Different theologists appropriate outlooks from various theories to explain their understanding of the value of Jesus’ and God’s actions. The goal of this paper is to analyze how the concepts of incarnation and atonement are related to each other, particularly, from the perspective of Anselm’s theory of satisfaction.

The concept of incarnation in Christianity

The etymology of the word “incarnation” provides some perspective on its definition. It literally means “taking on flesh”, as God “became Incarnate and dwelt among us”. Hence, according to the doctrine of incarnation, approximately two thousand years ago, God took on a human nature and became a man, although he continued to be God. The idea was well described by Robert T. Walker: “He is very God and very man; the eternal God who is Jesus Christ is now also a fully individual human person”.

Of course, due to the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity, which regards God as three consubstantial persons or hypostases – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the full oneness of Jesus Christ with the Father and the Holy Spirit is the cornerstone of the Christian religion. It has its ground in Jesus’ divinity as confirmed by his divine vindication through his resurrection.

In addition, when it comes to Jesus Christ’ crucifixion and resurrection, incarnation represents God’s promise not to abandon his own creation, his Son, as well as suggests the idea that human salvation also depends on union with God. It also confirms the idea that Jesus Christ represents God and humanity simultaneously and in one person embodied in flesh, which reinforces the etymology of the concept of incarnation.

The concept of atonement in Christianity

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church by Frank Leslie Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone defines atonement as a man’s reconciliation with God through the sacrificial death of Christ. Clearly, its etymology is quite self-explanatory, as the term means “at-one-ment”, which describes the state of being “at one”, in unity and in harmony with somebody. So, even its very etymology is connected with the idea of reconciliation in a theological perspective.

According to the Christian doctrine of atonement, humans’ reconciliation with God became possible due to so-called “the work of Jesus”, which usually refers to his painful and voluntary suffering on the cross and his faithful and sinless life. “The work of Jesus is to bring people together and in unity and to lead them to the Father,” as it is stated in Jean Vanier’s paraphrase of the Gospel of John.

This work has been accomplished by Jesus Christ on behalf of humanity and, of course, in the name of humanity. However, it is still not fully evident whether Jesus’ salvation required God’s forgiveness of humans’ sins exclusively or, in addition to that, any kind of repairing of human nature, altering it. The New Testament provides more phrases that reveal the nature of this salvation. Deliverance, reconciliation, rebirth and justification are some of them. However, the essence of this miraculous act does not appear to be even nearly understandable for human beings. No matter how thorough is the analysis of the New Testament, it is impossible to fully apprehend how exactly he took sin and guilt on himself and undid them in the passion and resurrection of Jesus.

There are some theories that describe what exactly Jesus did in order to accomplish the salvation of the mankind. All of them appear to be based on different interpretations of the New Testament. Those well-known theories are not just different ways to contemplate on the idea of atonement, but they also aim to reveal connections between the very act of atonement, on the one hand, and the reality of God being embodied in human’s flesh, on the other. Therefore, the relationship between incarnation and atonement can be analyzed within several well-known theories.

The Ransom Theory, also known as “Devil-ransom Theory,” suggests that the ransom price was paid by God to Satan because of human’s inherent bondage to sin and, hence, to Satan. According to this idea, a ransom in a form of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was given to Satan as the captor of human souls, as explained by Dilling. Therefore, it can be inferred from this theory, God and Satan are engaged in a constant struggle for human souls, and Jesus’ ransom indicates both a triumph of God and freedom for human souls.

The Moral Influence theory, which was introduced by Peter Ahelard, on the other hand, was greatly inspired by the ideas of humanism. It absolutely denies Jesus’ suffering being any kind of ransom or even sacrifice. Instead, the theory suggests that Jesus’ sacrifice was exclusively aimed at bringing about moral and spiritual reform in the sinner – a kind of reform that is not fully possible apart Christ’s work. Consequently, it holds that incarnation was only necessary for direct transformation of God’s love, kindness and forgiveness into humans’ hearts.

The Anselm’s Theory of Satisfaction gives a more detailed analysis of the relationships between incarnation and atonement, which will be further explained.

Anselm’s theory of satisfaction

The most influential outlook on atonement is developed within Anselm of Canterbury’s (1033-1109) “Cur Deus Homo”, which was called “a master text of divine violence”. It was the first serious attempt to define the nature of atonement.

The necessity of developing this theory was especially evident due to dissatisfaction with the Ransom theory. St. Anselm highly disapproved of the idea that Devil had certain rights over human beings and over their souls, no matter how sinful they are. He believed that humans must live exclusively in the honor of God and not to offend Him by their sins, rather than satisfy the claims of Satan. It explains why this idea is also known as the Theory of Satisfaction.

Additionally, St Anselm explained the necessity of God’s honor to be restored by the fact that unquestionable obedience was violated by sin, which God is allegedly entitled to. Moreover, not only God’s holy wrath entitles Him to punish humans, but to some extent it also obliges Him to do so; and this obligation is derived solely from the fact that He is God and Creator.

Consequently, restoration of balance must be perceived as a natural consequence of any sin that is done by a human being. As it is emphasized by St Anselm in his “Cur Deus Homo”, it can only be done by so-called God-man. For God will not do it, because he ought not; and the man will not, because he cannot. Therefore, that the God-man may do it, it is necessary that the self-same Person who is to make this satisfaction be perfect God and perfect man, since he cannot make it unless he be really God, and he ought not to make it unless he be really man. This quotation not only gives an insight into Anselm’s theory of satisfaction, but it also explains why the act of holy incarnation was needed to provide the reconciliation of God and humankind through the actions of Jesus Christ, namely atonement.

According to Anselm’s idea, the concept of God-man stands for the union of God and mankind in the person of Jesus. The feature that makes Jesus Christ an outstanding figure among the whole mankind is, of course, his sinless life. If sinners were left unpunished by God, it would place them in the same position with the sinless before God. But Jesus Christ was the only person since the very creation of the world who gave God exactly what He was entitled to.

Jesus’ voluntary suffering and death have been performed by him for the sake of obeying God. He will be under no necessity of dying, since He will not be a sinner. In other words, Anselm regards death, first of all, exclusively as a feature of sinners and, secondly, as a necessary outcome of sinning. Therefore, Jesus Christ was not supposed to die at all. Instead, he should have become the first and only human (and God in the same time) who would live forever. However, God deprives Jesus of this privilege, which also appears to be fully approved by Jesus.

It is interesting that Anselm’s theory does not regard human beings as inherently sinful. Even though Jesus appears to be the only sinless man on the planet, and despite the fact that sin has already become a common feature of humankind, still, Anselm argues that “corruptibility does not, therefore, belong to the reality of human nature, nor does incorruptibility, since neither one nor the other makes or destroys the man, but one has power to make him miserable, and the other to make him happy.

Fully accepting God’s request, Jesus Christ was able to give God more than He owned, which made God owe him something. Being God’s incarnate, Jesus seems to have everything He could desire, and the only reward that could be fitting for God to give Him is the cancellation of the collective debt of Jesus’ friends. To give life is to accept death, as the giving of his life excels all the sins of men, so also does the accepting death.

To conclude, the heroic and absolutely voluntary suffering and death of Jesus obviously enabled the whole mankind to reconcile with God through His forgiveness of all sins and also due to partly divine nature of Jesus Christ. Thus, God grants forgiveness for all humans as a pay for Jesus Christs’s sacrifice. This way God would not suffer dishonor because of unsuccessful attempt to take what is due him from people.

Reconciliation has been explained within various concepts of Christian theology. According to Anselm’s theory of satisfaction, only God-man is one who is able to repair the breach that has been introduced by humans’ sinning. Therefore, one can draw a conclusion that Jesus’ life was a ransom paid for God as a form of satisfaction for all human sins. As soon as God incarnated as a human in order to reconcile with humanity, the relationships between atonement and incarnation must be considered as those of the purpose and its means. According to Anselm’s theory, the necessity to forgive people for all their sins has lead God to being embodied in a flesh of a human being, who was partly God, partly man. Apart from Anselm’s theory, ransom theory and moral influence theory have a somewhat resembling approach, suggesting the relations between incarnation and atonement as means and purpose. However, one feature that distinguishes Anselm’s theory of satisfaction from the other two is that it gives the broadest and deepest meaning to the work of Jesus, regarding it as the work of God. God seems to be present in every act and every aspect of atonement, which was accomplished by God, inspired by God and was beneficial to God, as He, without any doubts, desired to reconcile with all his children. All in all, both incarnation and atonement were reasonably designed and performed by God, being present in each of three hypostases of Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Read more blogs on