The theory that things in the world exist as imperfect copies or approximations of abstract or eternally existing patterns or archetypes; especially the theory that created things are patterned after ideas eternally existing in the mind of God. Compare "exemplar". Chiefly historical.
In Christian theology the theory was most prominent in the 13th century, influencing the work of St Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) and St Bonaventure (1221–74).
2The doctrine that the atonement of Christ is of value to humanity purely as a moral example, especially as a lesson in the positive value of sacrifice and suffering for the benefit of others.
One of the earliest theologians to interpret the death of Christ in this way was Peter Abelard (1079–1142), though exemplarist ideas may date back further still.
Late 19th century. From exemplar + -ism.