Sunday, April 10, 2011

Peter Abelard: Moral Influence

Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

Abelard was a logician, scholastic philosopher, and theologian from France. He is perhaps best known for his tragic love affair with his student Heloise. Abelard and Heloise carried on a passionate romance, until her uncle discovered them. They were separated but still managed to conceive a child together and secretly marry. Heloise’s uncle was outraged and sent a gang of thugs to Abelard’s home. They beat him severely and even castrated him! Abelard and Heloise spent the rest of their lives devoted to the monastic life. They continued a correspondence through letters that have become very well known.

Abelard, a contemporary of Anselm, rejected the idea that Jesus had to die to satisfy the father’s offended honor.

“How cruel and wicked is 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 world!”

Abelard is representative of the Moral Influence or Exemplary model of the Atonement. He appeals to the effect Jesus’ death has in awakening our compassion and provoking our grief. Through the remorse that we feel in contemplating the cross, we share in the sufferings of Christ. In one of his many letters to Heloise, Abelard writes:

“Have compassion on him who suffered willingly for your redemption, and look with remorse on him who was crucified for you…He himself is the way whereby the faithful pass from exile to their own country. He too has set up the Cross, from which he summons us as a ladder for us to use. On this, for you, the only begotten Son of God was killed; he was made an offering because he wished it. Grieve with compassion over him alone and share his suffering in grief.”

Because of the spectacular and unmerited act of love that Christ has shown to sinners their hearts rightfully belong to him. He has given us himself and in return he deserves our whole selves. The Lord of all the universe desires us! This should melt our hearts and inspire us to amendment of life.

He bought you not with his wealth, but with himself. He bought and redeemed you with his own blood. See what right he has over you, and know how precious you are…You are greater than heaven, greater than the world, for the Creator of the world himself became the price for you. What has he seen in you, I ask you, when he lacks nothing, to make him seek even the agonies of a fearful and inglorious death in order to purchase you?

Abelard believes that the revelation of God’s love in Christ has the power to transform our hearts. The power of God’s love is so great that it dethrones any contrary affection within us. When we understand how much God loves us, we stop clinging to sin and instead cling to Christ. In loving us God has made us his children.

“Redemption is that greatest love kindled in us by Christ’s passion, a love which not only delivers us from the bondage of sin, but also acquires for us the true freedom of children, where love instead of fear becomes the ruling affection.”

Christ justified us by taking our human nature. The passion of Christ transforms our character. Our heart, changed by the love of God, has a new willingness to serve him and endure suffering. It creates boldness in us that we didn’t have before.

“It seems to us that we are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this, that through the singular grace manifested to us in that his son took our nature and that teaching us by both word and example he persevered even unto death, Jesus bound us closer to himself by love, so that, fired by so great a benefit of divine grace, true charity would no longer be afraid to endure anything for his sake.”

Abelard emphasizes the subjective element of the atonement. For Abelard, our crucial need is not that we satisfy God’s wrath against us, but that we come to be repentance and that our hearts be changed. For Abelard, the only thing God ask is that we admit of failure, accept his love, and love him in return.

1. Do you think Abelard’s reaction to Anselm’s satisfaction theory is fair?
2. What effect does the willingness of Jesus to die for you have on you?
3. Some have argued that Abelard’s theory is too subjective. It has been argued that the theory leaves us to strive for salvation by the force of our own convictions and in our own strength. Do you think this is accurate?
4. Some, while agreeing with the subjective effects of Jesus’ death, have claimed that Abelard’s theory gives us no reason for Jesus’ death. They reason that Jesus’ death can only be a moral influence if it is a substitution. Do you think this is a fair criticism of Abelard?


  1. Malcolm Donalson, Professor EmeritusNovember 27, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    The more one learns of abelar's teaching, the more one is drawn to this christian master. For many of us it remains bittersweet that he I'd not a canonized saint. He is not only a christian intellectual hero, but also an exemplar of one who perseveres throughout all the "calamitates" with which life may confront us.

  2. Malcolm Donalson, Professor EmeritusNovember 27, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    Regarding number 4 above. It is an unfair criticism: in effect, relevant to this issue, "Amor omnia vincit."