Gustav Aulen says there are basically three ways to think about how Jesus “fixes things” in Christian theology. (“Atonement” is the fancy way of saying, “How Jesus fixes things”. I’ve been thinking a lot about atonement theories recently, so when a friend posted this article I found it helpful.)
One theory of the atonement is the “moral teacher” or moral influence perspective. Jesus, through his ministry, death, and resurrection, reveals to a lost humanity both our brokenness and a way to approach God. This is probably the easiest atonement theory for non-Christians and skeptics to swallow, because almost nobody is going to say that Jesus wasn’t a great teacher or moral leader.
But this approach often gets panned by hard-core North American evangelicals because they don’t want Jesus to be “just” a teacher. I have real problems with the phrase “just” a teacher, because I think it makes false assumptions about education and transformation. I think it misses the mark of what “teaching” actually is.
Have you ever sat, literally or figuratively, at teachers’ or professors’ feet and felt a light go on in your soul? Has a special teacher transformed you from one kind of person into another, or ignited a passion in you for something you would never have predicted? Did you hang on this teacher’s every word? Have some of you ever developed a Platonic crush on your teachers that made you want to spend more time with them? Did you start affecting their mannerisms because you wanted to be like them so intensely? The best teachers shape who we become. They reconcile us with ourselves, our neighbors, our world, and our futures. They heal our broken images of ourselves.
If you can identify with what I’m saying, then you know that “just a teacher” is about the worst way you can misunderstand this kind of atonement. I’ve heard people say, “My teacher saved my life.” I’ve been to developing countries where kids walk miles to go to school because they know an education is the only way that they can individually or collectively escape the slavery of poverty. I think these folks have a pretty good idea that teaching can save, and I think they have a pretty good idea of how to relate to Jesus.
I’ve spent most of my life as a student of one kind or another, and I owe an enormous debt to my best teachers, mentors and coaches, who didn’t just teach math or English or running or knot-tying, but living. These people changed me from the inside-out, and they pointed to something and someone beyond themselves. They embodied passion and compassion, and were concerned with teaching the whole person, not just the brain. I should also point out that I’ve also had teachers who never finished high school or held an academic degree, who have taught me about leadership, humility, stamina, praying, and grace.
There are some shortcomings of this atonement theory, of course. It can trade some of God’s sovereignty and grace for a more “up-by-the-bootstraps” image of applying yourself to your studies. It can leave open the possibility of separating the importance of the teacher (Jesus) from content of what is taught. It privileges Jesus’ life and ministry over his death and resurrection. I do see these as common shortcomings in liberal Christianity, but I don’t think they are unsolvable problems. I think at most it just takes clarification of what “teaching” means.
If presented well, the moral teacher theory can make people passionate about studying the Bible and learning about Jesus. I didn’t really fall in love with Jesus until I realized that the parables can be read as jokes. Once I learned that Jesus used humor, I started seeing his wit all around, and I thought, “Now here’s a character I can follow and believe in.”
Even though it’s not my preferred way to talk about Jesus and atonement, I think lots of Christians should give the moral teacher theory a second look. The disciples were students of The Way, and thinking about atonement this way can connect us with their tradition. It can also connect us both to more Eastern ways of doing theology and to critical academia.
If it helps us respect teachers more, so much the better—because they aren’t “just” teachers, either.