A Beginning: Atonement Theology and the Feminist Critique by Katie M. Deaver

Since many of the comments on my last post expressed interest in my dissertation topic I will use my next couple of posts to talk a little bit more about my work and research in that area.  When we talk about theories of the atonement we are trying to describe a narrative structure of what took place within the Christian cross event.  Generally speaking, Christians believe that atonement serves at the reconciliation between God and humanity and that this reconciliation is realized through the person of Jesus Christ.  The three primary theories that try to explain this event are Substitutionary/Satisfaction, Moral Influence, and Christus Victor.

The Substitutionary/Satisfaction theory of atonement suggests that Christ takes on the guilt and punishment that humanity deserves because of our sinfulness and so becomes our substitute, paying the debt we owe for our sins.  Because of humanity’s sinfulness we deserve death, but instead of giving us what we deserve God instead offers God’s son as a sacrifice to pay our debt, to atone for our sinfulness, and to save us from the eternal punishment of death.

The Moral Influence theory of the atonement focuses primarily on the life and ministry of Christ rather than on his suffering and death.  This theory is centered on the belief that God loves God’s creation so much that God would hold back nothing from us, God would even give God’s own Son in order to save us and remain in relationship with us.  As a result this theory encourages Christians to live as Christ lived and focuses on imitating his life and ministry in order to bring about justice in our own world.

Finally, the Christus Victor theory of the atonement is deeply rooted in the triumph of good over evil.  Within this theory resurrection is the promise that evil does not have the last word.  Atonement then is God’s great triumph over sin, death, and the devil.  God offering God’s self on the cross is a Divine gift which sets creation free from bondage, allows love to prevail over wrath, and blessing to overcome curse thereby reconciling God’s self to all of creation.

All three of these theories of the atonement have both positive and negative results for people of faith.  Since my work is primarily concerned with violence against women the feminist critiques of these theories of the atonement will focus strongly on the topic of domestic violence against women.  My primary interest in the topic grew out of the assertion that the above described theories of the atonement can glorify the suffering of women, and therefore can justify, or even encourage, violence against women.

I believe that the Substitutionary theory of the atonement is the most dangerous for women today.  One reason for this is because this theory is very focused on the individual.  There is very little, if any, acknowledgement of the systemic evils (misogyny, sexism, racism, classism, etc.) that are at work within our world.  However, the primary reason that this theory is dangerous for women is because it emphasizes suffering and obedience as salvific acts.  Even though the theory is based on Christ’s action and atonement it encourages women to be obedient and to endure their own suffering in the hope of one day being “saved” through that suffering.  I have spoken to many women who have been encouraged to stay in abusive relationships because they believe it is “their cross to bear.”

While many feminist theologians affirm and identify with the Moral Influence theory of the atonement I am still somewhat uncomfortable with what this theory offers women.  The Moral Influence theory can be positive for women because it is concerned with Christ’s life and ministry rather than his suffering or death.  In addition, it offers a model for how we as people of faith can live in the world and work to bring about justice.  However, it can also encourage women to love and suffer, as Christ did, even to the point of death.  Similar to the Substitutionary theory the Moral Influence theory also fails to adequately acknowledge the presence of evil that can be found within our world in social structures like patriarchy, sexism, and racism.

In my opinion the Christus Victor theory of the atonement has the most to offer for survivors of violence as well as for women of faith though it too has serious drawbacks.  This theory not only considers all aspects of Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection it also address the realities of evil and oppression within our world.  However, this theory does still place a large emphasis on individual sinfulness/salvation and the necessity to suffer as people of faith.  The difference then, between this theory and the other two, is that this theory clearly illustrates that the suffering that we as people of faith endure throughout our lives is not, and need not be, salvific.

Feminist scholarship has many other important critiques of these theories of atonement, but the above explored critiques should at least provide a starting point for those of us interested in these issues.  Two books that have greatly shaped the way I approach these issues are Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse: A Feminist Critique Ed. By Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn and Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.


Dr. Katie M. Deaver, earned her Ph.D. in Feminist Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Deaver holds a B.A. in Religion and Music from Luther College in Decorah, IA, as well as MATS and Th.M. degrees from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her dissertation explored the connections between the Christian understanding of atonement theology and the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States. Her other areas of interest include the connection between power and violence, sexual ethics, and working toward the elimination of the oppression and exploitation of women and girls around the world.

Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Academics, Christianity, Christology, Church Doctrine, Domestic Violence, Gender, Gender and Power, Redemptive Suffering, Resurrection, Scholarship, Theology, trauma, Violence, Violence Against Women, Women's Suffering

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. How interesting — such an important topic

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just before I left Christianity I came to the conclusion that I could only have a low Christology in which Jesus was a human being and his suffering was in no way divinely ordained.

    The Christus Victor model in which Jesus suffered in order to conquer death also has its flaws. The biggest one is that it is rooted in the notion that death is the great enemy of life. This view is associated with Platonic dualism that states that life that ends in death just is not good enough. I have argued that this view is inherently matricidal as birth through a woman leads to death, while rebirth through a male savior is alleged to lead to eternal life. I would also note that in Greek Orthodoxy morality is only loosely tied to religion as the focus or alleged focus is on overcoming death, not on overcoming sinfulness.

    Thus I would say that the only view that should be maintained is the moral one, but if that is the case there are plenty of other moral individuals besides Jesus worthy of emulation, and the whole house of cards is in danger of falling.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your comment Carol! I actually used a lot of your work in the Post-Christian feminist part of my dissertation so it quite neat to be able to “connect” with you through this blog!

      Your absolutely right of course there are a lot of pros and cons with all of these attempts at understanding atonement. The biggest reason that I’ve been pulled in the directions I have is because most of the women I work closely with are survivors of violence who have strong connections to Lutheranism and as a result usually a very high Christology that is very connected to the cross. I think my attempt at “reclaiming” Christus Victor in many ways is because this is the closest version to where these women already are in their faith/belief system and so it seems to be helpful in some ways that complete separation from the cross event isn’t always. Of course I recognize that this depends on who you are working with, the trust level you share, the level of open-ness etc.

      I also really appreciate your point about many other moral examples that we could follow aside from Jesus. I think regardless of ones beliefs and faith having multiple moral individuals to consider or look toward can be extremely positive.


      • Katie, are you familiar with Denny Weaver’s “Narrative Christus Victor” atonement theory? It sounds in line with what you’re writing about— nonviolent. Regardless, I’m very interested in your topic and perspective. May I read your dissertation paper?



  3. Wow Carol, you seemed have covered all my points.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is an important insight, thanks Katie, where you say: “The Moral Influence theory can be positive for women because it is concerned with Christ’s life and ministry rather than his suffering or death.”

    While we live on this Earth, we experience the death of many plants and creatures in winter and the joyous rebirth of life in so many forms in spring. And that has to do with the amazing evolution of life forms on our planet, along with nature’s great miracle of rebirth, creating that joyful splendor in spring. I think we need more depth of love of nature and of life, and the need to deepen our responsibility to care for and watch over the environment of this amazingly wonderful and blessed planet of ours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great point Sarah! I love the way that you have connected this. I really appreciate your point on needing to deepen our care for and responsibility to nature and life as something larger than all of us to which we are all connected. Wonderful to imagine and hope for!


  5. What if there is an understanding of Jesus different than any of these three? What if “God” didn’t send Jesus to die for us, but Jesus was a prophetic figure who lived for others, preached a kingdom of God in contrast to a kingdom of Rome (or the USA or any other empire) – a way of living that was aware and responsive to all of creation, including other faith traditions, and advocated a way of living based on what we call “the sermon on the mount” (or “on the plain’ in Luke). I see this in the Gospel accounts underneath the interpretations of the early churches. What if “heaven” is not “up there”, and God doesn’t sit on a throne but is a creating and sustaining Spirit that fills all. What if Jesus the Christ is alive, not at “God’s right hand” but in you, and me…. if we allow it, and no matter what we call it?
    Is it our time to develop the words for a different understanding of the Creator and of Jesus?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for this comment Barbara! I think you’re exactly right… we can talk about academic theology all day and debate which doctrines are helpful and which are not but ultimately it is up to us to use our understandings and beliefs in concrete ways that truly live out the gospel.

      I think all of the theories I explored in this post (and my dissertation too) are really problematic because they distract us from actually living in ways that make our world a better place and work to end the many oppressions around us.

      One of my personal goals and hopes is that I don’t get so caught up in the academic theological circle of arguments that I’m unable to use the good news to help change the world around me. I think especially when these types of discussion are taking place with survivors of violence it really is about meeting people where they are and allowing lots of new understandings of God to emerge.


  6. Thanks for your description of the major atonement theories. I learned quite a bit. I think your most important point is that we need to meet people where they are in order to empower them and be of use. I would be most interested in hearing how you do that with survivors of violence who have a high Chrisology, because then Jesus’ suffering and death are first and foremost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment Nancy! Its true… it is much more difficult when you are dealing with a high Christology. One of the ways that I have worked with this is to focus on the fact that it is because Jesus suffered that we don’t have to… at least in regards to our salvation. Life is certainly filled with suffering but when/if we are able to change our situation to avoid that suffering its positive for us to do so.

      Another way I’ve gone about it especially for individuals who really cling to the living as Jesus lived is to emphasize that we are not called to imitate Jesus in all things. For example we aren’t called to walk on water or turn water into wine so its isn’t necessary that we take on suffering in order to “earn”/”deserve” salvation either.

      As your comment affirms it really does just depend on who you are talking with and what is helpful to them.


  7. Katie these are valid points, but I think that for all there is some value for women who embrace the atonement theories. Some woman do stay in horrific relationships because they feel it is their cross to bear. Other woman are empowered to leave destructive relationships because that Christ bore the cross and they too have victory.


    • Thank you for your comment Gail! That is certainly the case in certain situations, and exactly what I mean about meeting people where they are. Each person is different and the way we process or understand information matters.

      This particular blog post was also trying to specifically unpack the problems and critiques of atonement so it is intentionally biased toward the problems because I hope to unpack the point you bring up along with others in further posts!


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: