Much like how Abelard understood and accepted the Trinity but found something in it lacking, he likewise finds a logical lack in the Atonement. Unfortunately, this too earns him the scorn of powerful people. Poor Abelard.
But, before we can get into Abelard’s fancies, we must understand what is the Atonement. Essentially, this just means that the passion and death of Christ effects a reconciliation between God and humanity. They bring “at one-ment”, as the origin of the word goes, between us and God. Today, and as professor Williams states, no single definitive idea of the Atonement has been adopted as the singular idea behind the concept. Medieval thinkers, though, like Beernaert of Clairvo, had different ideas.

 

Ideas about the Atonement can be classified as either objective or subjective.

 

Objective theories describe the passion of Christ itself as accomplishing something, usually a ransom-like accomplishment where Christ’s sacrifice frees us from the Devil, for example. Subjective theories, meanwhile, locate the ethnicity of the passion in humanity. It is our reaction to the passion, as an exemplary approach takes it, that makes the difference, such as the idea that divine passion awakens in the believer an answering love.

It is commonly thought, then, that Abelard accepts purely objective theories in rather than subjective, that we locate the ability to raise ourselves up purely in ourselves instead of God. Professor Williams, though, rejects this view and believes that Abelard rejects objective theories and accepts subjective, exemplary theories.

The main place to look for Abelard’s stance on the Atonement is in the Commentary of Epistle Paul to the Romans. Abelard reads Romans as having two main themes: 1. Paul wishes to exult divine grace at the expense of human merit. Contrary then to charges leveled against Abelard, there is a firm rejection of Pelagianism, or the idea that humans can act rightly even without divine grace: Abelard insists that Grace is necessary for any divine action; 2. We are meant to serve God out of love rather than fear. If Abelard’s ideas were based purely on the exemplary idea of the Atonement, that it is humanity which responds to the Atonement, then there would be no need for an objective idea of Christ’s passion.

Abelard begins his commentary by rejecting a theory which was common in his day, the “ransom theory”. This idea comes from certain language in the new testament which gets translated over time to indicate that when human beings sinned, the devil acquired “rights” over us and we were transferred to his authority. God, then, must literally buy us back from the devil. Christ’s death, then, was a ransom to the devil’s righteous captivity.

Abelard has nothing but scorn for this understanding of the passion and death of Christ.
To Abelard, the ransom theory makes no sense philosophically. To Abelard, it “runs foul” of what we understand as justice in addition to its illogical movements. After all, the Elect is, by definition, not under the jurisdiction of the Devil (though this point is more theological than philosophical). Furthermore, the only rights which the devil had over human beings are the rights which God itself gave the Devil. If anything, Abelard argues, it is us who should be able to tempt the Devil since it is us with originally fell for his false promise of immortality. In sum, Abelard says that the Devil couldn’t possibly acquire any additional rights over human beings just because he succeeded in tempting us to disobey God. The Devil, then, merely acts as a God-sanctioned tormentor whose torments may be withdrawn by God at any given time without the Devil being injured. The idea of a ransom, then, makes no sense as to why would God demand that his Son is killed to pay this “ransom” when God already has control over humanity? If payment, then, is to be demanded anywhere, it would be to God; so, the idea that God would demand payment to himself is absurd.
This rejection of the ransom theory was what so enraged Abelard’s contemporaries. Why, though? St. Anselm had rejected the ransom theory without people getting up in arms. Simply said, it comes down to earthly machinations: Abelard was not as well known or liked as Anselm and Abelard’s opponents delighted in drama, it seems; besides this, though, some thought that rejecting the ransom theory meant rejecting the very idea of Atonement.
But Abelard does have to accept some objective theory. So, he argues that the passion releases us from what he calls “the objective dominion of sin”. Christ’s bearing of pain was what freed us from sin. But, there is a subjective side to sin as well. Our desires are affected by sin so though we may know what is good, we cannot effectively will it. It is through a perfect love of God, given to us by the passion, that fear is cast out and we can serve God without falling into sin or fear of God.
Abelard, then, does not adhere to Pelagianism. He repeatedly makes clear that people with God’s grace cannot sin and that people who sin do so because they lack grace. This, of course, raises a question of God’s alleged favoritism and from that other questions on how moral this favoritism is when we consider sin (for instance, is it hardly a sinner’s fault that he sinned if God didn’t give him grace?). In a sense, we could say that God did offer everybody grace but sinners rejected that grace. Abelard, though, claims that this solution merely pushes it back a step since in his eyes he feels that one must already have the grace to accept grace. If you do not accept this, then we fall back into Pelagianism, where someone can supposedly act godly without grace.
So, how does Abelard resolve this conundrum? He writes of how we cannot be saved unless God does what is necessary to draw us to him. God, however, does this for everyone, not merely for those who will be saved and that everyone has the power to accept or reject God’s wooing. It is merely, then, in the particular form of our making which enables us to accept or reject grace; to this, Abelard makes an analogy of two poor men in a market who are offered money with conditions attached; one accepts the money with the conditions and throws himself into the work while the other rejects the money since he hates the idea of work. Both were offered the same thing but only one accepted. The same idea applied to the philosophy of grace—we have been created in such a nature that we can accept or reject God’s offer.
But, doesn’t this go against the idea espoused in the Romans text, that we are to serve God not out of fear but love? If our reward for accepting grace is happiness then are we not, in a sense, serving God out of fear we won’t be happy or because we are lacking something which drives us to serve God? Finally, what does all of this has to do with the passion?
To Abelard, the passion is the ultimate sense of love, it shows humanity how much God deserves to be loved. It is God’s offering of himself as eternal happiness which drives us; his sacrifice of his son out of love is what inspires us to love him instead of fearing him. Therefore, he is not an adherent of Pelagianism. Of course, this depends on how you define Pelagianism, but that is another philosophical matter.
So, why was Abelard’s philosophy, as well worked as it was, ignored more than it should have been? It partly has to do with the influence of his intellectual adversaries but it also has to do with translations of Aristotle; you see, soon after Abelard, new and previously unseen translations of Aristotle’s works found their way into the Latin West and quickly made Abelard’s work old news.

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