Peter Abelard’s Theology of Atonement

Peter Abelard's Theology of Atonement

Interpreting the 12th-century theologian’s writings demands more than a cursory look

Denis Kaiser

Cur Deus homo (“Why God Became Man”), the title of Anselm of Canterbury’s famous book, touches at the core of Christianity’s foundational issues: the significance and purpose of Christ’s incarnation, life on earth, and death on the cross. The French philosopher, theologian, and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142), a contemporary of Anselm, resolved this question in a way that gave rise to theological controversies among his contemporaries and numerous generations of scholars.

There are three main interpretations of Abelard’s work. The first group of scholars concluded that this medieval theologian-philosopher overemphasized the moralistic or subjective aspect of Christ’s death at the expense of its substitutionary nature, and they concluded that Abelard’s atonement theology was heresy. The second group agreed that Abelard overemphasized the subjective aspect of the atonement, yet considered Abelard a genius and orthodox theologian. The third group rejected both assessments, suggesting that Abelard did not deny the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s death at all.

In other words, scholars have come to entirely opposite conclusions about the central question of whether Abelard did or did not reject the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s death. The French abbot Thomas of Morigny, one of Abelard’s contemporary opponents, compared him with the Homeric sea-god Proteus “who slips through our hands and takes another shape before our description of him is complete.”1

Philosopher, Teacher, and Eccentric Controversialist

Before looking at Abelard’s views of atonement, it will be helpful to gain some knowledge of his personality and approach, the documentary situation, and the context of personal and political conflicts. The first two aspects provide insights for understanding his style of argumentation, whereas the other two supply further background to the discussion of Abelard’s views and to the question of misconceptions.

Peter Abelard, born into a noble family, left his home as a teenager to become a follower of Aristotle, studying logic. While other young men were rushing to recapture the holy places in Palestine, he preferred the conflicts of disputation to the trophies of war. It was difficult for him not to get into conflict with his teachers.

About 1100, Abelard attended lectures in the school of William of Champeaux, a renowned teacher at the cathedral school of Notre Dame in Paris, yet within a short period he had begun arguing against his teacher’s realist views. Abelard’s metaphysics may probably be best described as “non-realism,” a belief that there are no universal essences, marked by a current of Platonism. After opening rival schools at Melun and Corbeil, he experienced a mental breakdown, probably caused by overwork. He recovered at home, then returned to Notre Dame and began to attack Champeaux again on the issue of the universals. In 1108 or 1109, he established another rival school in Paris, where he taught for four years.

Abelard soon turned to the study of theology, and it did not take very long until he came into conflict with his new teacher, the famous Anselm of Laon, formerly a student of Anselm of Canterbury. Since Abelard considered the content of Anselm’s lectures as something that could also be acquired from reading books, he cut his teacher’s classes and began giving his own lectures on the Bible, although he was still a novice in theology.

This not only brought him trouble with his teacher, but it also brought the enmity of two influential fellow classmates, Lotulf of Lombardy and Alberic of Rheims. This animosity took its toll when, in 1121, they accused him of teaching tritheism, the belief that the Trinity is composed of three distinct gods, in his work Theologia summi boni. Though Lotulf and Alberic had never read his book, they assumed he was teaching this heresy since he was a non-realist. Even before the publication of the book, Lotulf and Alberic urged prominent persons to forbid Abelard to teach. It was probably because the papal legate felt unfamiliar with the technical language of scholastic argumentation that he refused to evaluate the work personally, leaving the task of evaluation to the initial accusers. Since the book was being published without Rome’s approval, Alberic and Lotulf suggested its condemnation even if it were not found to contain any heretical ideas.

After his famous affair with Heloise and his castration at the behest of her enraged uncle, Abelard fled to the monastery of St. Denis. Although the abbot and the monks were at first favorable to him, he soon came into variance with them for criticizing their lifestyle. Because of these conflicts, he was sent to another priory in the Champagne. Yet he was also able to offend his fellow monks at the new location by questioning the identity of their patron saint. Subsequently, he left the priory and retired to a solitary place near Troyes. In 1125, he was elected abbot by the monastery of St. Gildas de Rhuys, an invitation that he accepted, not realizing the strong differences between himself and the monks. But his attempts to change them and their lifestyle led the monks to attempt his poisoning.

A Dialectic and Didactic Approach 

Abelard’s personality and his penchant for argument exposed him to the enmity of numerous groups and no doubt increased the likelihood that his views on atonement would be misinterpreted and condemned. But his personality was not his only problem; his style of argument also increased his susceptibility to misinterpretation.

Abelard’s most comprehensive discussion of his views on atonement is found in the five books of his Expositio in Epistolas ad Romanos. The glosses that he wrote to single phrases and verses in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans can be divided into two groups: helps for a better understanding of the textual context and explanations on the terminology. Abelard’s exegetical method does not differ much from other exegetical writings of his day and is similar with writings of authors associated with the school of Anselm of Laon. He quoted from Origen, Ambrosiaster, Pelagius, Haimo, and especially from Augustine, as well as some unknown sources.

Though Abelard’s exegetical methods were not particularly original, his presentation style did set him apart and left him vulnerable to misinterpretation. He was fond of presenting his arguments in the format of questions of a fictitious objector and a concluding solution. Use of this technique was not new, but Abelard employed it to an unusual extent.

It was through this format that he dealt with the theological topics of his contemporaries, adopting traditional positions or developing new concepts by the use of logic and dialogue in his reasoning. By raising questions about traditional interpretations of specific Bible passages, Abelard attempted to provoke his students to think more deeply. He tried to help people recognize and apply truths personally. This is why the deliberations and remarks in his commentary on Romans were based on a common center, namely the individual person and the personal responsibility for his or her actions, well-being, salvation, and damnation. Yet, his teaching approach should not be mistaken as a disregard of Scripture and its teachings. It should be described as personal rather than subjective. The dichotomy of objective vs. subjective fails to adequately describe his emphasis on the personal acceptance and application of Christ’s substitutionary death.

Criticism Resulting From Incomplete Editions

A third factor that increased misunderstanding of Abelard’s views is the incompleteness of his works. He revised his works numerous times and even his students redacted his writing for their own purposes; the results were often left incomplete. Thus they contain “numerous addenda, minor deletions, improvements in definition, illogical and ungrammatical insertions, and strident phrasing.”2 For some books, it is impossible to produce a final text. Luscombe, for example, has stated that “the sheer chaos of the varieties of the versions of the Sic et Non constitutes an editorial nightmare.”3

This circumstance may have had various reasons. It may be that Abelard was never really content with his writings, which is why he never ceased refining and improving them. The existence of numerous editions shows his desire to improve his previous writings to keep up with the development of his own ideas. Specific events may have led him to see the need for correction or adaptation of previous deliberations and considerations. He seemed to have an eccentric, confrontational, and unstable personality, all characteristics that could explain a tendency to leave his compositions incomplete.

And yet another aspect gives rise to difficulties. Because of his diverse interests, Abelard focused on numerous topics during his lifetime, but even a rough dating of his writings is difficult, since he himself rarely dated anything he wrote. Thus, the circulation of numerous editions and versions that are incomplete, ambiguous, and not up to date may have been an additional cause for criticism.

Personal and Political Conflicts

The condemnation of Abelard at the council of Sens in 1141 was primarily based on a list of 19 charges devised by Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St-Thierry. The latter was the initial instigator of the controversy, but the more famous and influential Bernard had greater influence and therefore became the main prosecutor in the case. Conflict between Bernard and Abelard was inevitable, given that they employed very different approaches: Bernard insisted on accepting the mysteries of Christian belief on the basis of faith alone; whereas, Abelard believed in using human reason to comprehend questions of faith.

In the charges, Bernard and William accused Abelard of teaching that Christ’s incarnation and death were unnecessary, that His death was not a sacrament of redemption or an example of humility, that His blood was a payment made to the devil, and that His love was exhibited but not infused (and thus did not provide the assistance of grace). Abelard felt misunderstood and wronged by his opposition, stating that the charges were based either on malice or ignorance. Several of these charges were obviously false accusations.

Further, while Abelard’s opponents presented theological accusations against him, political factors may also have played a role in their animosity. The fact that Arnold of Brescia, who had been previously condemned by the Second Council of the Lateran (1139), appeared among Abelard’s students generated some fear that Arnold, bolstered with new strength by his connection to Abelard, could potentially gain a following. Condemning Abelard and his theological views would keep this potential danger at bay.

Something that Abelard failed to mention in his autobiography is that he had been challenging Bernard to meet with him for a scholastic disputation over the latter’s accusations. It seems that later Abelard falsely claimed that Bernard was the one to call for a meeting. At any rate, Abelard, who was looking for a disputation, set out for Sens for the purpose of meeting Bernard, but to his surprise found himself in a juridical procedure when he arrived.

When asked to respond to Bernard’s charges, he simply appealed to Pope Innocent II. Yet Innocent was indebted to Bernard for the latter’s help in restoring him as a pope and was therefore not inclined to take Abelard’s side. Subsequently, Innocent not only condemned Abelard but also presided over the burning of his books. Interestingly, the later Pope Celestine II, a senior cardinal in Rome at the time of the burning of Abelard’s books, seemed to be more positive about Abelard’s contributions, as evidenced by the fact he held on to his copies of Abelard’s Theologia and Sic et Non.

Abelard’s Theology of Atonement

The circulation of incomplete and not up-to-date editions of Abelard’s writings, his non-realist stance, and his unique use of large questions may have provided reasons for misunderstandings. Abelard was a teacher who, through the means of dialogue, tried to help people understand and apply the truths personally. Given Abelard’s eccentric and confrontational debating style, it is not surprising that such influential individuals as Bernard of Clairvaux became offended and enraged, creating personal animosities. The presence of Arnold of Brescia, a condemned heretic, among Abelard’s students made it necessary to find something against Abelard to prevent Arnold from gaining power among Abelard’s followers.

The Individualistic Element. Though Abelard’s atonement theory is often described as “subjective” (a term that is in general linked to the moral-influence theory), identifying it as individualistic or personal is preferable since his concept of atonement was much broader than the moral-influence theory. The passage considered to exhibit the subjective view of atonement most clearly is found in Abelard’s commentary on Romans 3:26.

“Therefore, our redemption is that supreme love in us through the passion of Christ, that not only liberates us from the slavery of sin, but also acquires for us the freedom of the sons of God so that we would complete everything through the love of him rather than fear that he exhibited so much grace for us that no greater may be found.”4

Interestingly, several translations of the first clause insert an additional word in their attempt to clarify the meaning of the statement. Some translators add such words as enkindled, kindled, or instilled to suggest that Abelard promoted the idea that Christ’s passion provokes this greatest love. Others, in their attempt to justify the belief that Christ’s passion revealed His love, tend to add such phrases as “shown to us” or “manifested in our case,”5 though Abelard himself did not use these words. Translators of that second group tend to translate the phrase as “to us” or “in our case,” although it is clearly to be translated as “in us.” As Taylor and Quinn have both noted, the translators of this second group are obviously trying to promote the idea that Christ’s passion showed or exemplified His love “to us.”6

Another attempt to show Abelard’s rejection of the idea of a substitutionary sacrifice is found a few passages prior to the above quotation. At first glance, the statement itself sounds like a vehement disagreement with the substitutionary aspect of atonement.

“How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain, still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world.”7

Those who quote this passage as a positive statement representative of Abelard’s views on atonement ignore the context of this, namely the queries of a fictitious objector. The very next sentence presents a less-positive summary of the preceding questions of this objector: “These and similar considerations seem to me to raise a question of the very first importance, concerning, that is to say, our redemption and justification through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.”8 This example clearly shows the need for attention to the context of specific statements and for being aware of Abelard’s manner of presentation.

The Substitutionary Element. Though it has been recognized by some of Abelard’s modern critics that his writings seem to provide positive statements on Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, Abelard’s positive statements about substitution are usually regarded as a mere cloak to appease his opponents. Stott states, for example, that the apparent subjective comment on Romans 3:26 “is quite explicit, so that I do not see how one can fairly eliminate this element from Abelard’s view.”9 Stott holds that the true thrust of Abelard’s thought is subjective and opposed to a substitutionary theology of atonement.

Clearer and more comprehensive statements on the purpose and significance of Christ’s death are also found in other places of Abelard’s Romans commentary. For example, expounding on the meaning of “who was given” in Romans 4:25, he states, “He attributes the cause of both Christ’s death and resurrection to us: In two ways, it is said, he died because of our sins: on one hand, because we committed the transgression on behalf of which he had to die and because we committed the sin whose punishment he took on himself; on the other hand, to take away our sins through his dying, namely to take away the punishment for the sins (while he was introducing us into Paradise) through the price of his death and through the demonstration of such a big grace (as he himself says, ‘no one has greater love than this’ [John 15;13]) to turn away our hearts from the intent to sin and to ignite them for the supreme love to him.”10

Here Abelard suggests that Christ’s death intended the following goals: (1) to bear the punishment for our transgressions and sins; (2) to take away our sins, or, to be more precise, the punishment for our sins; (3) to pay the price to bring us into Paradise; (4) to draw our minds away from the will to sin; and (5) to enkindle in us the highest love of Christ. This comment clearly describes an exchange or a substitution—Christ, the sinless, died the death that we, the sinners, deserved so that we might have the life He deserved.

All these aspects may also be found in other places in Abelard’s Romans commentary and his other writings. Describing the removal of our sins, Abelard states that Christ’s death provided the sacrifice that is able to remove sin and that Christ bore the penalty of human sin, making possible its forgiveness. Discussing the same concept in other terms, he argued that Christ’s blood was given for us, and it cleansed the stain of our sins. He suggested that Christ died (for us, of course) for/because of our sins. He further stated that Christ’s blood was the ransom paid or completed for us. In addition, Abelard pointed out in other writings that Christ did purchase and redeem us through His own blood. It was the very Creator of the world who became the price for us. He states that Christ bore our sins, took these upon Himself, and endured the punishment of our sins.

Critique of Other Atonement Theories 

Abelard’s critique of other atonement theories served primarily the purpose of pointing out the imbalance and weaknesses of these other theories. Further, it should be noted that he employed the method of dialogue to critique them, which determined the style of argumentation, and thus his remarks should not be mistaken as representative of his overall theology.

Discussing whether God was limited in His means of salvation by external necessities, Abelard suggested that God was not limited in any way but was free to choose a means of redemption most fitting to Him. Since Christ simply forgave sins by speaking a word during His incarnation, Abelard concluded that Christ’s death was not necessarily a prerequisite for forgiveness. Of course, this reasoning may lead to the impression that Abelard denied the redemptive efficacy of Christ’s death. Yet, his point was rather “whether God had no other means by which he could redeem humanity.”11 He argued that God’s essence was love, and it was in harmony with His own essence that He decided to reconcile sinners to Himself. It was this essence of divine love that provided the only motivation for Christ’s incarnation and God’s working in and through Christ.

Abelard also criticized the idea that the devil had the right to hold sinners in bondage and that Christ’s death was a payment to the devil to ransom them from this captivity. This so-called ransom theory was proposed by such ancient and contemporary writers as Origen, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Bernard of Clairveaux. Abelard was not the first to take issue with the ransom view; Anselm of Canterbury had previously raised objections to this theory, too, suggesting his satisfaction theory as an alternative.

Abelard objected to the ransom theory in three ways. First, he stated that Christ only redeemed the elect, who were never in the devil’s power. Second, he argued that the devil had deceived the first humans and never fulfilled his part of the “bargain” or transaction (Gen, 3:4, 5, 7, 19), and thus the devil could not have acquired any rights over humanity. Third, he conceded that God may have permitted the devil to punish humanity for their sins. Yet, since the devil had no right to hold them in bondage, he had to release them as soon as God forgave their sins and removed the punishment.

This is why God did not have to pay a ransom to the devil to redeem humanity. Abelard further emphasized that God could not have acted immorally and thus could not have granted the devil, who seduced humanity into wickedness, any special right, power, or dominion over his victims. Like Anselm of Canterbury, he concluded that the ransom theory—the theory that the devil could hold humanity justly in bondage, and Christ’s death was necessary to redeem humankind from the devil—was not sufficient to explain why God became man.

Eventually, Abelard turned to the question of the recipient of the payment. It should be noted that his remarks made in that context also belong to the dialogue section on Romans 3:26. Abelard reasoned that it is usually not the torturers but the masters and lords that determine the amount of the ransom money. Thus, he indicated that the ransom could not have been paid to the devil, as the ransom theory held. Instead, Abelard suggested that the blood price for our redemption was paid to the one (God) who had power over humanity and who had given them over to the torturer (the devil). It should be noted, however, that in the context of Romans 4:11, addressing believers in Christ who do not accept the law and the prophets, Abelard argued that it was indeed the devil who held us in bondage and demanded the blood of Christ as a ransom or payment for us.

Yet, shortly afterward, Abelard summarized that Christ, the unblemished Lamb, gave Himself as a sacrifice to the Father. He suggested on the other hand that declaring Christ’s death a payment of a debt to God’s injured honor would belittle God’s love. Since the murder of Christ was a more serious transgression than Adam’s sin in tasting the fruit in the Garden of Eden, God should have been even angrier with humanity, and it would have been incomprehensible that Christ’s death was somehow necessary for God to become willing to reconcile. All these statements are susceptible to misunderstanding because Abelard felt free to employ arguments that were not representative of his own view and sometimes even opposite to his own opinion but that showed the inherent problems of extreme and one-sided positions.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Abelard’s theology of atonement was multifaceted and ultimately broader and more comprehensive than many of the other contemporary theories of atonement. Weingart has summarized Abelard’s view of the meaning of the Cross as consisting of three separate elements: The Cross was (a) the place where Christ, the only true and perfect priest and victim, sacrificed Himself for the sins of humankind; (b) the battlefield for Christ’s conquest of the devil and our deliverance from the satanic slavery of sin and death; and (c) the means whereby Christ bore our sins, endured the curse of the law, assumed God’s righteous judgment against sin, and freed us from the wrath of God.12 Suggit has pointed out that Abelard described Christ in terms of a priest who sacrificed himself on the altar of the cross and a king who was able to bind the devil and subdue all things to himself.13

Though Abelard criticized various aspects of the existing objective atonement theories, he was far from rejecting the substitutionary aspect of atonement as such, as his argumentation style could suggest. Rather, he used extreme arguments to attack weak points of these views only to present his own more comprehensive concept of atonement, admittedly in an unsystematic way.

Past Event and Present Experience

It is worth noting that, regardless of the aspect of atonement on which Abelard concentrated, he repeatedly emphasized that the Christ event was not merely an incident in the past but was supposed to have an impact on the believer today, thus becoming a real, present experience. A clear example of the substitutionary element in Abelard’s atonement theology with its effects on the present experience of the believer is found in one of his hymns for Good Friday:

“Alone, O Lord, Thou goest forth to be the sacrifice, and offerest Thyself to that death which Thou comest to take away. What can we wretches say, who know that Thou undergoest the punishment, while we have done the wrongs? The offences are our own, our own indeed. Why dost Thou make their punishments Thine own? O make our hearts to share their pain, that our fellow-suffering may deserve to gain mercy. Let Thy sad night and all these whole three days be the night for which weeping endures, until the Lord rises and the happy morn of joy is granted to us who were in misery. Do Thou, O Lord, make us so to share Thy sufferings that we may be partakers of Thy glory. Cause us to spend these three days in such lamentation that Thou mayest bestow on us the smile of Easter grace.”14

Abelard considered Christ’s sacrifice as discharging the debt of punishment for us (a historical event), yet at the same time, he tried to explain how that sacrifice has an ongoing impact on human lives. His readers were to think of the passion not merely as a past event, but they were to envision the suffering Christ as a person who is present now and who works on people also currently. This thinking was in contrast to the established transactional theories of Abelard’s contemporaries, which tended to depict the sacrifice of Christ purely as a past event. Further, the hymn suggests that this theme flowed from Abelard’s heart and experience rather than just being an academic perspective.

Christ works on the human heart to provoke a change in the believer by displaying Himself through His passion and by focusing His personality on them. Thus grace is not merely a thing or a legal action; it is God acting upon the human spirit so that the heart is changed, Christian life is awakened, and the mind is drawn in love to Christ and away from sin when the believer discovers what Christ has done for him or her. Human beings are unable to bring about this change or make themselves worthy of salvation. Redemption came to the believers and was made effective for them “thanks to God, that is, not the law, not our own powers, not any merits, but a divine benefit of grace conferred on us through Jesus, that is, the savior of the world.15

For Abelard, the principal theme was the power of God’s love as manifested in Christ’s passion and in us in order to transform us by delivering us from slavery to sin. But although he emphasized the personal, individualistic aspects of atonement, the substitutionary aspect of atonement was not denied or ignored in his work, but explicitly affirmed.

Underlying Aspects of Abelard’s Atonement Theology

Both subjective and objective elements are found in Abelard’s reflections about atonement in the context of his commentary on Romans, with most of the so-called subjective elements found in the dialogue section in the voice of the fictitious objector or as objections to various one-sided and erroneous teachings on atonement. Nevertheless, it is still not clear why Abelard focused so much on the individual and atonement’s practical significance for him or her.

Predestination and Free Will. Abelard drew heavily from Augustine, who argued in favor of both predestination and free will, yet the question is how these terms are defined. Abelard viewed God as sovereign and the Supreme Good from whom all others derive, a concept that seems to be contrary to the idea of God predestining some for good and some for evil. He argued that humans may not always understand God’s purposes and actions, yet God would nevertheless offer His grace to every person, good and wicked, elect and non-elect, day by day. Though some neglect the offered grace, others are moved toward good works. Those who neglect or reject Him are without excuse. It is they, rather than God, who are guilty of their condemnation.

Of course, this raises questions about divine predestination, and Abelard solved these by saying that God foresees and foreknows those who will accept His grace, which allows Him to choose and predestine them prior to their existence. As a result, predestination does not interfere with a person’s free will. Further, only if a person were capable of making decisions based on a free will could he or she be held accountable for actions and responsible for sins. Humans make their decisions in their hearts, which are the seat of both their relationship to and alienation from God. It is each individual, and not God, who is responsible for severing this relationship.

The Nature of Sin. The discussion of human free will raises, of course, questions regarding Abelard’s view of the nature of sin, which has in turn ramifications for the theology of atonement. He stressed the personal nature of sin as a free action. Though he affirmed that every person inherits sin, he clarified that what is inherited is not the guilt of sin but the punishment for sin, denying Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. That punishment consists of temporal and eternal death, yet God took the eternal penalty from baptized persons (though the temporal penalty was not taken from them). Sin in the sense of guilt is the result of a free choice of an individual and not something that is transferred from parents to their children.

Abelard attempted to solve the tension between the concept of God as the Supreme Good and the medieval idea that unbaptized infants were eternally lost, being sent into hell, by claiming that God in His foresight allows the death of only those infants that would have become very wicked. He also admitted that there may have been reasons that we cannot really fathom. The death of unbaptized infants is a divinely appointed means for the living to realize and understand the evilness of Adam’s transgression and to motivate them to avoid sinning.

One could surmise that this personal perspective of sin would undermine its universality, but this was not so for Abelard. He still saw the universality of sin’s scope and the seriousness of the personal consequences of a person’s sin. Accordingly, he believed that sin: (a) defaced God’s image in a person, leading to alienation from the Creator; (b) caused a use of the freedom of the will to give preference to evil rather than righteousness; (c) made it impossible for humanity to initiate their own salvation; and (d) made humans devoid of the love and brought them under the control of the desire for the transitory and unrighteousness.

Further, Abelard distinguished between actions and intentions. Actions were neither good nor bad, being morally indifferent, since they could not be viewed apart from the person and the circumstances. The quality of a specific action had to be evaluated on the basis of the intention motivating that action. Intentions, on the other hand, were not things, but they could be good or evil. Only a definitely intended action, even if it had not been carried out, could be regarded sinful. Thus, even the mental “action” of deciding to perform a specific sinful act constituted a sin. It was not enough, in Abelard’s view, merely to have an evil attitude or a wicked disposition. It was the evilness of someone’s intentions that made him or her evil.

Furthermore, Abelard pointed out that sin entails four different factors: (a) There are vices or defects of the mind that are not sin per sebut inner weaknesses and inclinations reducing the power of a person to resist a temptation; (b) there is an evil will that leads to an evil action; (c) to yield intentionally to, consent to, or indulge in these vices is sin, yet in order to be considered sin, there must be not merely the thought of the action but actual readiness to put the action into practice; and (d) the performance of the action is the last factor of sin.

Taking into account the aspect of ignorance, Abelard argued that sinners must understand that their actions are unfitting and contemptible in the eyes of God for the action to constitute a genuine sin. Thus, although killing Jesus was an evil action, it was not a sin because the involved individuals acted in the belief that they were doing God’s will. It seems, however, that Abelard did not see the potential irrationality of evil existing in a world that is estranged from its Creator.

The Reconciliation of God and Humanity. Abelard suggested that reconciliation consists of three actions that must take place between the sinner and God: (a) repentance; (b) confession; and (c) satisfaction. In regard to the first two, he pointed out that repentance may occur in the mind. Sin is forgiven when God pardons, even though no public confession may have been heard. Thus one might ask if confession is truly necessary, yet Abelard suggested that it is nevertheless useful. His internalization of sin and its remission drew, of course, attention to the longstanding problem of the proper role of the subjective and objective elements of penance.

Abelard also addressed the necessity of prayer, true heart contrition, and the remission of sins. From his point of view, true reconciliation could not take place without repentance. Sin could be forgiven only if the sinner became as one who no longer deserved the punishment. He also emphasized, however, that reconciliation was accomplished by God rather than by humanity. He stated that humanity does not become different by following Christ’s example; rather, true reconciliation is something effected by God’s grace. It is only through Christ, who is the Mediator between God and humanity because He is the God-man, that we are reconciled to God.

Employing traditional language, he suggested that it is only through Christ that anything that we do will please the Father, and it is only through Him that we may gain any good thing from the Father. Christ became the reconciler in His blood, namely through His death. Yet, Abelard emphasized that sinners have to have faith for the merits of Christ to become effective for them. Only those who believe with a persevering faith are affected by this reconciliation.

The Restoration of Humankind. Abelard believed that sin was not merely an action, nor was it simply a substance that could be removed using the right remedy. Rather, sin had to do with the inward disposition and defilement of the heart. Reconciliation, therefore, required not just an act of compensation to make up for the dishonor inflicted on God; instead, what was even more necessary was a change in the sinner’s attitude, the realization of a true heart conversion. Thus, Abelard argued that forgiveness of sins did not merely constitute an outward act but also a change of the inward disposition of the sinner.

God was motivated by love in both the creation and the restoration of humanity. Christ revealed divine love during His incarnation. It was the purpose of His ministry to deliver us from the slavery of sin, evil, and death so that He could restore us to fellowship with God. Abelard considered the message of John 15:13—“‘Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends’” (NKJV)—elemental for a proper understanding of the meaning of the Cross. This supreme love for humanity was demonstrated by God in the fact that He took on human nature and suffered and died—actions that should, in turn, lead us to cling to Him. By His death and resurrection, Christ taught us something about eternal life in heaven.

Since, in Abelard’s view, God’s justice was nothing else than His love and charity, Christ’s incarnation, life, and death were to be considered as demonstrations of His justice and love, and as a “redemptive act of grace, begun and finished by God in Christ.”16 Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St-Thierry, however, regarded such statements as illustrations of Abelard’s acceptance of the heresy that redemption came through a human effort. Abelard, however, merely emphasized that God’s loving and gracious redemptive action is efficacious for humanity only if the latter accepts it by faith.

Furthermore, he considered God’s redemptive action not only as a past event but also as something that should bring about a change now. In his opinion, atonement included several aspects and a very important one was that the Holy Spirit, who is love, is shed abroad into our hearts, creating a new principle of life in our hearts so that sin is removed from our heart and that we show forth love, too. This kindling love does not merely occur on a psychological level by reflecting about Christ’s exemplary life and passion (moral influence) and thus as a result of human initiative; rather, the restoration of an attitude of love toward God is a real regenerative effect generated through the Holy Spirit, who wants to restore people to fellowship with God and transform them into sons of God.

This infusion of love is the principal work of God’s regenerative grace. Abelard emphasized that this change is an act of God’s grace, not of human effort. He also stressed that there are two kinds of slaves, one acting out of fear and the other out of love. It is love that unites humankind to God, creating a bond between the two. Thus the two key concepts of Abelard’s view become visible—the freedom of human choice and love.

Yet, various questions remain that Abelard did not answer. He did not explain how love is implanted in the human heart through Christ’s love. Neither did he explain how we are made more righteous after Christ’s passion. He did not elaborate on the process through which the benefit of Christ’s passion operates to inspire love in the believer. By not answering these questions, he left room for other interpreters to draw conclusions about his meaning, some of which misrepresented Abelard’s actual views. To avoid misinterpretations and distortions, it is advisable to consider all of Abelard’s statements on atonement together.

Thus, the connection between Abelard’s concept of atonement and the above four underlying aspects may be summarized as follows: The human ability to make free choices ensures that we are responsible for our own actions and eventually guilty for the sins we committed, and not God, the supreme Good, who allegedly predestined some to eternal damnation and others to eternal glory. Further, limiting sin to outward actions falls short of the true problem because sinful actions are only the outflow of a sinful disposition of the human heart.

Starting from these two presuppositions, Abelard argued that true reconciliation between God and humankind can occur only if the inward disposition of love to God is restored in the human being, a change that cannot be accomplished by human effort but only by God’s regenerative act in the heart of the person. Still the person has to accept God’s efforts because God does not impose the change on the person. That is why Abelard emphasized the utter insufficiency of any atonement theory that would deal merely with our outward behavior or the solving of legal issues. He reasoned that atonement can truly solve the bridge between God and humanity only if it also reaches the root of the problem, namely the disposition of the heart.


Although a number of statements may be collected in favor of a moral influence element in Abelard’s writings, the proof-text method is dubious. Some “individualistic” statements have been distorted by the insertion of additional words to prove the view that Abelard’s interpretation of the death of Christ is nothing more than an example of perfect love. Other statements should be handled with caution because they are found in the dialogue sections that give a voice to a fictitious objector.

Thus, it should be noted that such statements are not necessarily representative of Abelard’s own view of atonement. Rather, he employed dialogue to question imbalanced and weak arguments. His argumentation style and his reasoning about philosophical and theological intricacies brought him more than once into conflict with other scholars. His main prosecutor, Bernard of Clairvaux, mistook Abelard’s debating style and teaching approach for an attempt to question foundational truths and to unsettle the faith of believers.

Given the fact that in his writings Abelard frequently affirmed the substitutionary significance of Christ’s death, it is easy to understand why he felt wronged by Bernard’s challenge and why Abelard charged Bernard with malice or ignorance. Abelard suggested that Christ’s death was not necessary to appease God or to make Him willing to reconcile. Neither had the devil a legal right to hold humanity in bondage, nor did God make a payment to the devil to buy people back. All these theories would, in Abelard’s opinion, diminish God’s benevolent character, supreme love, and highest goodness. He suggested that God Himself wanted to save and reconcile humanity to Himself, which is why all His redemptive actions were motivated by His love.

Further, Abelard critiqued the transactional theories because they did not go to the root of the problem. He emphasized that decisions are made in the human heart. People tend to use their freedom of choice to give preference to evil, and it is impossible for them to initiate their own salvation. The human heart is the seat of a person’s relationship to and alienation from God. This is why God, according to Abelard, works on the human heart to bring about a change of its attitude and intentions.

Thus, although the Cross reveals God’s love, it is not merely a psychological influence that encourages people to change. Rather, God Himself infuses divine love and regenerates the human heart through the Holy Spirit to deliver it from the slavery of sin and re-create a new motivating power in humanity. Accepting God’s actions by faith makes God’s loving and gracious redemptive actions efficacious for humanity. Only these actions would really accomplish a reconciliation between God and a sinner. Abelard’s background of philosophy and teaching motivated him to focus on the present practical aspects of atonement for the individual believer rather than merely on its past theoretical and legal elements.

Since people are more than just their ideas and beliefs, it is often necessary to study their personality, experience, relationships, writings, and connected topics to be capable of doing a realistic evaluation. The misunderstandings and conflicts, arising from Abelard’s confrontational debating style, dialectic teaching approach, and “incomplete” writing that left questions open for discussion, may teach us to pay more attention to how we should phrase our beliefs to avoid misunderstandings. Abelard’s attempt to develop a more balanced and comprehensive theory of atonement encourages modern theologians to reflect on the practical implications and significance of our beliefs, something that is so important to make our faith understandable and meaningful.


Denis Kaiser is completing a Ph.D. in Adventist Studies and Historical Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.



1. David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (New York: Vintage Press, 1963), p. 120.
2. Daniel F. Blackwell, Non-Ontological Constructs: The Effects of Abaelard’s Logical and Ethical Theories on His Theology: A Study in Meaning and Verification (Bern: Peter Lang, 1988), p. 56.
3. D. E. Luscombe, The School of Peter Abelard: The Influence of Abelard’s Thought in the Early Scholastic Period in Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), vol. 14, p. 96.
4. Peter Abelard, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans II, pp. 256–261.All translations from Latin by the author.
5. Hastings Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, Being the Bampton Lectures for 1915 (London: MacMillan, 1919), p. 358.
6. Robert O. P. Taylor, “Was Abelard an Exemplarist?” Theology 31:184 (1935):211–213; Philip L. Quinn, “Abelard on Atonement: ‘Nothing Unintelligible, Arbitrary, Illogical, or Immoral About It,’” in Eleonore Stump, ed., Reasoned Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology in Honor of Norman Kretzmann (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 288, 289.
7. Abelard, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans II, op. cit., pp. 234–238.
8. Ibid., pp. 239–241.
9. John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 218.
10. Peter Abelard, Expositio in Epistolas ad Romanos, 26/2, p. 290.
11. Steven R. Cartwright, “The Romans Commentaries of William of St. Thierry and Peter Abelard: A Theological and Methodological Comparison” (Ph.D. dissertation, Western Michigan University, 2001), p. 197.
12. Richard E. Weingart, “The Atonement in the Writings of Peter Abailard,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1965), p. 410.
13. John Suggit, “Freedom to Be: Peter Abelard’s Doctrine of Atonement,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 8 (1974):35.
14. Taylor, “Was Abelard an Exemplarist?” op. cit., p. 208.
15. Abelard, Expositio in Epistolas ad Romanos, 26/2, op. cit., pp. 540, 542.
16. Ibid., pp. 276, 278, 288, 290.