The Governmental Theory of the Atonement

The Edwardseans, the followers of Jonathan Edwards, who developed the New Divinity or the New England Theology were clearly unorthodox with respect to the atonement. What they held in this regard has been generally called the Governmental Theory of the Atonement. This view denied that our salvation is based on the expiatory suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross. It denied that Christ was our penal substitute and died in our place to atone for our sins and satisfy divine justice on behalf of the elect. Rather it severs the direct covenantal link between our salvation and Christ as our substitute. In its place it postulates that God arbitrarily forgives our sins without reference to the work of Christ satisfying divine justice, and that, to preserve his status as Moral Governor of the Universe he made a public demonstration of his displeasure with sin by punishing it in his own Son, Jesus Christ. Hence it is called the Governmental Theory of the Atonement as it is purports to explain the atonement as an effort to vindicate the moral government of God. How it can pretend to uphold God’s moral government by having an innocent person punished without having our sins imputed to him is somewhat inexplicable.

Generally, Edwards is acknowledged as the father of this theory, as developed and held in New England, without having held it personally. That is, it is recognized that this theory constitutes a logical development of his theological speculations, but that Edwards was too orthodox to pursue them to such heretical conclusions, although his disciples, being more consistent, generally did so.

Allen Guelzo, however in his scholarly work, “Edwards On The Will” takes a different approach and asserts that Edwards may have personally endorsed this theory of the atonement. He states…

“This is so far from Westminster or Dordrecht Calvinism, and at first glance from Edwards as well, that numerous commentators have seized on the New Divinity doctrine of unlimited atonement as a prime example of the New Divinity’s “betrayal” of Edwards, and they have hypothesized that Bellamy must have found his way to Hugo Grotius (Note: Dutch theologian credited for first postulating the Governmental Theory of the Atonement.) and dredged up his governmentalism from there. But a little reflection will show that the New Divinity doctrine of the atonement represented hardly more than an elaboration of what Edwards had himself laid the foundations for. First, by abandoning the imputation of Adam’s sin as the ground of natural depravity, Edwards had already undercut any similar imputed connection between Christ and the elect. Second, and far more important, the New Divinity balked at the idea of a limited atonement because it seemed to conflict with Edwards’s notion of the natural ability of all sinners to repent. Limited atonement implied that, for some, repentance was doomed to be a natural inability. As Bellamy saw it, the chief virtue of an unlimited atonement was precisely that, in this way, “it is attributed to sinners themselves that they perish at last—even to their own voluntary conduct.”

“It is true that nothing in Edwards’s published works openly promotes a governmental or unlimited atonement; but he did employ vocabulary concerning the atonement in sermons predating 1733 which clearly points toward the New Divinity doctrine:

“All the sins of those who truly come to God for mercy, let them be what they will, are satisfied for, if God be true who tells us so . . . so that Christ having fully satisfied for all sin, or having wrought out a satisfaction that is sufficient for all, it is now no way inconsistent with the glory of the divine attributes to pardon the greatest sins of those who in a right manner come unto him for it.—God may now pardon the greatest sinners without any prejudice to the honour of his holiness. The holiness of God will not suffer him to give the least countenance to sin, but inclines him to give proper testimonies of his hatred to it. But Christ having satisfied for sin, God can now love the sinner, and give no countenance at all to sin, however great a sinner he may have been …. God may, through Christ, pardon the greatest sinner without any prejudice to the honour of his majesty. The honour of the divine majesty indeed requires satisfaction; but the sufferings of Christ fully repair the injury.”

“It is also true that Edwards’s private notebooks and Miscellanies would have revealed an Edwards whose doctrine of justification had veered over into a denial of the imputation of guilt or righteousness, and it is difficult to believe that Edwards was not teaching his pupils what he was confiding to his theological notebooks.

“Of course, at the close of Freedom of the Will, Edwards was careful to lay out the particular ways in which his construction of the freedom of the will undergirded the “quinquarticular points” of Calvinism, including the limitation of the extent of the atonement to the elect, and if we were to confine our attention solely to that passage, we would indeed be wondering how Bellamy ever came up with the formulas that so distinguish True Religion Delineated. But it has to be remembered that Bellamy’s construction of the atonement in True Religion Delineated also turns out, for all of its un-limitedness, to be as particular and definite as the more classical constructions of the doctrine, since God in the end always has the final say in who shall be forgiven—in fact, Bellamy thought his notion of the atonement superior to the “quinquarticular points” precisely because it gave God more, not less, control over whomever would benefit from the death of Christ. It would not have been difficult at all for Edwards or anyone else to have embraced such an idea of the atonement—indefinite in theoretical scope, limited in actual application—and still insist that he was within the ambit of Westminster Calvinism.

“The really odd fact that must be stacked against the last chapter of Freedom of the Will and its apparent “limited atonement” is that it was Edwards who contributed the preface to Bellamy’s True Religion Delineated in 1750, describing it as “a discourse wherein the proper essence and distinguishing nature of saving religion is deduced from the first principles of the oracles of God.” Even if we disregard all the other evidence pointing to Edwards’s governmentalism, and the direct implications of un-limitedness which governmentalism always carried into discussions of the extent of the atonement, it is plain that Edwards had no hesitation about putting his imprimatur upon the New Divinity doctrine of the atonement; to the contrary, he pledged his own reputation on its appearance.” (Allen C Guelzo, Edwards on the Will, Wesleyan University Press, 1989, pp. 134-135.)

For more documentation see the following…

Bellamy on the Governmental Theory of the Atonement.

Edwards’ Introduction to Bellamy’s systematic theology.