Lou: Now here’s a challenging question for you. “You know of course, Dr. Maxwell that you are labeled a proponent of the ‘Moral Influence’ theory of the atonement.” I don’t know whether they mean that as a compliment or as a criticism. Would you please distinguish for everyone the difference between the Moral Influence Theory and the Larger Moral View that you are sharing in this book?
Graham: Now that’s very thoughtfully asked, and the answer may not be what is expected. What is the difference between the Moral Influence Theory, as it is called, and the Larger Moral View? Well, a lot depends on what people mean by the “Moral Influence Theory.” As I have asked people through the years, I don’t often get the same answer twice, so I’m not entirely sure what the questioner is asking. But I can still say something about it. The classic view of the Moral Influence Theory goes back to a man by the name of Peter Abelard in the Eleventh Century. He taught the point of view that Christ lived and died, not to make to make it possible for God to forgive us, but to demonstrate His love and so to win us back. The whole emphasis was on love. Now there are some who feel that this great controversy view that we represent is also simply to emphasize God’s love. But it’s actually so much more than that. So I would suggest that to call this larger, great controversy view the Moral Influence Theory is utterly erroneous and inadequate. Because in the larger, great controversy view, we recognize the issues before the universe, the questions about our God: Is it true that sin results in death? Is it torture and execution at the hands of a gracious God? Is it true that the obedience that springs from fear produces the character of a rebel? Theologians like Peter Abelard never, ever dealt with those issues. The great controversy view is far larger than any other. But there are those who sometimes caricature, perhaps, our understanding of the plan of salvation as the Moral Influence Theory.
Critics of the Larger Moral View generally do not acknowledge a great controversy over the character and government of God. And more than that, they do understand that what went wrong in the universe is a legal problem. In their view, we’re in legal trouble with God and He is legally bound to destroy us in His righteous justice. Fortunately for us, in that view, Jesus died to make it legally possible for God to forgive.
I believe that what went wrong in the universe was instead a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness. That meant trust and trustworthiness needed to be restored. Christ had to come to answer all these questions, not with words only, but with painful, costly demonstration. This is a far larger view and should not rightfully be called the Moral Influence Theory.
There is another aspect of this that is very significant. Is sin only a legal problem, or does sin affect you morally? Do you not only need to be forgiven, but also have a new heart and a right spirit? There is a moral aspect in the great controversy view.
Lou: I am hearing you say that the larger view includes aspects of the Moral Influence Theory, but that it takes in so much more.
Graham: It takes in so much more. That’s why I prefer “the larger view.”
Lou: I have heard the expression, “The demonstrative theory,” or “The demonstrative view of the atonement.” How do you feel about that label?
Graham: Well, I’m worried about any single label. Things are too readily and easily classified, so I’m always looking for synonyms. That’s why we have used “the larger view” quite a little in this book. There’s truth in the language of “demonstrative theory.” When a person has been accused of being untrustworthy, denials will not take care of it. Only by demonstration of trustworthiness can trust be restored. The fact that demonstration implies evidence—I like that. But I’d rather not simply call it “the demonstrative view” because some folk who use that term also have a rather narrow understanding of the issues at stake in the great controversy.