The Governmental view of the atonement (also known as the moral government theory) is a doctrine concerning the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ and has been traditionally taught in Arminian circles. Drawing primarily from the works of Jacobus Arminius and Hugo Grotius, the Governmental theory teaches that Christ suffered for humankind so that God could forgive humans apart from punishment while still maintaining divine justice.
The governmental theory arose in opposition to Socinianism. Grotius wrote Defensio fidei catholicae de satisfactione Christi, in which he utilized "governmental" semantics drawn from his training in law and his general view of God as moral governor (ruler) of the universe. Grotius demonstrated that the atonement appeased God in the divine role as cosmic king and judge, and especially that God could not have simply overlooked sin as the Socianians claimed.
Despite its origin, Grotius' view is most often contrasted with that of the satisfaction theory formulated initially by St. Anselm, which is held by the Roman Catholic Church, and developed further into the punishment theory held by most Lutherans and Calvinists. The satisfaction and punishment theories argue that Jesus received the full and actual punishment due to men and women.
By contrast, governmental theory holds that Christ's suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve, but it did not consist of Christ receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin by punishing his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Christ's suffering and death served as a subsititute for the punishment humans might have received. On this basis, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus appeasing his wrath.
A second feature of governmental theory is the scope of the atonement. According to governmental theory, Christ's death applies not to individuals directly, but to the church as an entity. Individuals then partake of the atonement by being attached to the church through faith. It is also, therefore, possible to fall out of the scope of atonement through loss of faith. This view contrasts especially with the punishment theory, which holds that Jesus' death served as a substitute for the sins of individuals directly.
This view has prospered in traditional Methodism and among most who follow the teachings of John Wesley, and has been detailed by, among others, 19th century Methodist theologian John Miley in his classic Atonement in Christ and his Systematic Theology (ISBN 0943575095) and 20th century Church of the Nazarene theologian J. Kenneth Grider in his 1994 book A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (ISBN 0834115123).
Variations of this view have also been espoused in the "New Divinity" school of thought (or "New England Theology") by the followers of the 18th century Calvinist Jonathan Edwards, though it is debated if Edwards approved of this view himself, and by 19th century revival leader Charles Grandison Finney.
- Concerning ... the Christian Doctrine of Satisfaction for Sin Edwards' treatise on the atonement, claimed by both Governmental and Punishment theorists.
- The Governmental Theory of the Atonement by John Miley, arguing for the Moral Government theory
- Theory of Satisfaction by John Miley, arguing against the Satisfaction/Punishment view
- The Governmental Theory: An Expansion by J. Kenneth Grider
- Quotations about Jonathan Edwards' view of the atonement
- The Atonement by Albert Barnes, arguing for the Moral Government theory
- Historical Opinions as to the Nature of Christ's Atoning Death by Gordon Olson, arguing for the Moral Government theory