There is more than one theory of the atonement. But you knew that. If you didn’t read this, or this, or this. Actually, Doug, Nick, I explain this whole thing much faster in the upcoming Banned Questions book.
One of these various theories of atonement is called the “Moral Exemplar theory”, and it is popularly associated with Peter Abelard because, I don’t know, every atonement theory has to have a mascot or something. Basically, the theory answers the question “how does Jesus save?” by saying, “Jesus is the paradigmatic example of a holy life.” In other words, Jesus saves us from a bad life by showing us how to live a good life. According to my incredibly objective analysis of all the anecdotal data at my disposal from a few theology courses in seminary, the Moral Exemplar theory is the red-headed step-child of atonement theories. Even I dismissed this theory as only my third favorite at one time. (Look how much I’ve grown!)
Often thought of as the “liberal” atonement theory, the reason this one gets dismissed is that it supposedly diminishes the transcendent dimension of Jesus, reducing him to a mere teacher. We need more than a good example. We need a savior, critics argue. Jesus’ teachings aren’t even that remarkable. He was just copying Gamaliel. Radical theologians like Rollins have been known to call the teachings of Jesus “boring”. Besides, moralism can hardly save us from our predicament. It’s just another burden on tired wounded souls, a disguise for works righteousness. If Jesus is just a good example isn’t that another way of saying we’re saved by our own effort?
I understand these objections, and others like them, because I have uttered them myself, but I don’t think they do justice to the Moral Exemplar theory of atonement at all.
The Moral Exemplar theory of atonement doesn’t say we are saved by Jesus’ teachings, but by his example. It isn’t only what Jesus said that is salvific in this understanding it is the entire pattern of his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus’ example doesn’t give us a list of instructions, it provides us a trajectory, a paradigm, a narrative to live into. Jesus as Moral Exemplar becomes the context which reframes our entire existence. Incarnation, Mission, Crucifixion, Resurrection – these become the sea we swim in, the grammar that structures our every waking moment.
What we are talking about here is the power of story to reshape lives. What this atonement theory grasps in a way the others miss is that a saved life must be a transformed one. And the criteria of a transformed life is whether it conforms to the example of Jesus. What is more beautiful, more inspiring, than a cruciform life? I might well suggest, following James, that if Jesus is not your Moral Exemplar then you are not actually saved, because being in Christ means living like him.
Perhaps what has undermined our appreciation of this theory of atonement is our limited grasp of morality. When morality is understood only in terms of rules (deontology) and behaviors then the idea that Jesus saves us by being a Moral Exemplar does fall short. If Jesus’ saving power amounts to a checklist, to a new 10 Commandments, then it would be pretty disappointing. In the first place, we’d be doomed to fail, but even if we succeeded it would be awfully anticlimactic. Fortunately, morality is not reducible to a list of rules. It is less about formation of behavior and more about formation of character. Jesus as your Moral Exemplar is awakening virtue deep within you, literally making you a better person.
One may reasonably ask of the Christus Victor model, what is the evidence in the world around me that God has triumphed over sin or death or decay? Or of the Ransom model, what is the evidence that Satan or the powers of Evil have been defeated or that my eternal fate has been altered? One may reasonably ask why anyone bothers with Penal Substitutionary garbage at all. There is just no way to tell if it’s true that we’re saved from the devil, or death, or God’s wrath, so a saved life and an unsaved life in these theories are indistinguishable.
Into this insubstantial mess Moral Exemplar theory injects refreshing immediacy. Through it we understand that Christ’s example saves us from a meaningless, vicious life, raising us to a beautiful, virtuous one. What we are saved from is tangible. That we are saved (or not) is observable. This alone gives it considerable interpretive power.