Having discussed Forde’s critique of penal satisfaction, we will now move to describe the status of so-called “Subjective” theories of atonement in his theology. “Subjective” or what are frequently described as “moral influence” theories of atonement, fair somewhat better in Forde’s appraisal than the class of theories described in the previous section.
Forde’s assessment is more favorable on several fronts. First, Forde appreciates many of the critiques of penal satisfaction doctrine offered by Abelard and by the later Socinians, particularly with regard to issues of rational coherence. Secondly, according to Forde, those who advocate subjective theories of atonement understand the gratuity of divine love. The recognition that divine love is a love that does not need to be “bought off,” was, and remains, the main contribution of those who advanced this theory of atonement. This is particular insight is very strongly represented in the nineteenth-century Liberal Protestant theologies of atonement. In his treatment of this class of atonements theologies in the Jenson-Braaten dogmatics, Forde mainly focuses on the figures of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl
Ultimately though, Forde does not find this theory of atonement to be without fault either. To begin with, he observes that both Schleiermacher and Ritschl identified Jesus’ work with the communication of his peculiar consciousness of God to the Church. The vocation of the Church is then in turn to communicate this consciousness to the world. In Schleiermacher, this consciousness is that of divine sovereignty (i.e., “absolute dependence”), whereas in Ritschl, it is primarily that of divine love. For the Liberal theologians, these experiences were not meant to contradict previous or normal human experiences of the divine, but rather to fulfill and complete them.
Herein lays the difficulty with these theories for Forde. For Forde, the eschatological nature of atonement necessitates that the work of Christ be a wholesale reversal of all that has come before. The gospel cannot be identified with an activation or supplementation of the possibilities already present in the old age. This is true, whether these possibilities or potencies are to be identified with an eternal law or a particular description of universal religious experience. The cross is a brutal, harsh, and utterly disruptive reality, smashing to pieces all previous realities. It is the end of all human attempts at controlling God, including the attempt to control God by forcing him into the straightjacket of human conceptual schemes. Such schemes attempt to resist God’s radical judgment and grace, by fitting them into parameters of the old age.
Hence, when Ritschl and Schleiermacher claimed that Christ went to the cross merely to demonstrate his loyalty to his mission of communicating his consciousness of God, the harsh, brutal, and eschatological disruption of the cross was obscured and obfuscated. It is obscured by the need to harness the cross into the service of a particular theory of religious consciousness. This theory therefore ultimately does little better than to serve as a means of sinful humanity of protecting itself from the brutal negation presented before its eyes in the crucified Jesus. Therefore Forde writes, “The bleakness and disaster of the cross are covered by all the theological roses. Jesus is rescued from death by theology, so any further resurrection is largely superfluous.”[7