We began our continuing conversation on “salvation” by looking at just a few of the ways in which people have understood atonement over the centuries. We started by summarizing very briefly some of the historical ideas, as follows:
Anselm’s Satisfaction Model:
Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) developed the idea that sinful humanity owes God a debt and that the death of Christ satisfies that debt. In Anselm’s medieval world, satisfaction and honor were very important, and the world ran on reciprocal obligations up and down a hierarchical ladder. Any obligation to one higher up the ladder by one lower down required satisfaction of that debt, often seen as an offense against the important person’s honor. In his book, “Cur Deus Homo” (Why did God become human?), Anselm wrote, “What is the debt we owe to God? The whole will of a rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God …. This is the sole and whole honor we owe to God …. Whoever renders not unto God this due honor, takes away from God that which is his, and does God dishonor: and this is sin” (1:11). Anselm recognized the argument that God could decide to forgive a debt without any restoration of his honor at all and in response to this argument he wrote, “If [sin] be not punished, it is unjustly forgiven …. it beseemeth not God to forgive …. illegally” and in Anselm’s view, God must preserve “the honor of his own dignity” (1:12 – 1:19). Anselm saw that it is impossible for any person to fully pay his/her own debt or the debt of another because all people are already indebted to God. Only a sinless person would be debt-free and so able to pay another’s debt. Yet, the person would need to be human to pay a human debt while also more than human to make complete satisfaction for the whole of humanity. Thus, only Christ could accomplish this satisfaction before God. In this model, atonement constitutes Christ paying a debt that he did not owe because humankind owed a debt it could not pay.
Abelard’s Moral Influence Model:
Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) objected to Anslem’s model largely because he saw in the New Testament how Jesus had forgiven people for their sins before going to the cross. Thus, Anselm’s argument about the necessity for the cross in understanding how debts could be satisfied (if this indeed corresponds to sins being forgiven) seemed wrong to Abelard. He instead looked at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as a demonstration of God’s love that is so powerful that it can move a sinner’s heart to the point of repentance and falling in love with God. In Abelard’s “Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans” he wrote, “…. His Son has taken upon himself our nature …. teaching us by word and example even unto death – he has fully bound us to himself by love….”
[Julian’s thoughts: The notion that humankind can be swayed by Christ’s suffering and love to abandon sinful ways seems to me to be based on a complete misunderstanding of the general human condition. While some people may be so swayed, most seem impervious to human suffering (look at us sitting here while millions die of HIV/AIDs in Africa and we chat about the nature of Christ, how’s that for impervious????) and, further, if some are swayed would it have to be Christ’s suffering that swayed them? Why not someone else’s suffering? And so on ….]
Penal Substitution Model:
In an era far removed from that of Anselm, we find ourselves in a world where justice is almost entirely retributive. In other words, judgment as “guilty” in a court of law is followed by punishment (retribution) rather than by restoration. Given the (American) idea that judgment and punishment are linked together, the penal substitution model of atonement becomes the one most commonly heard in churches in the US. This model asserts that God’s holiness and human sinfulness are incompatible and thus human sinfulness must be resolved if humans are to enter into full relationship with God. Further, God’s sense of justice requires that sin be punished but, as all people have sinned, it requires some special way for atonement to come about. God’s solution was to send Jesus to suffer our punishment for us. Because Jesus has been punished on our behalf, we are now free of the sin that would otherwise prevent us from being in the presence of God’s holiness. The influential American theologian Charles Hodge (1798 – 1878) wrote that God’s justice “demands the punishment of sin” and that “every sin of necessity subjects the sinner to the wrath and curse of God”. Further, Hodge saw that God the Father fully orchestrated and put into place the suffering of the Son, writing, “It pleased the Lord to bruise him”. Hodge’s work on this subject is voluminous and we cannot do justice to it here although the most basic ideas are now laid out (this is a bit worrying as Hodge sees a failure to live up to the standards of justice as requiring punishment!).
The penal substitution model is the one commonly heard in many churches in the form of “Jesus died for our sins”. Common criticisms include: (i) The idea that one person can take on the death penalty in the place of another person who has been found guilty and sentenced to execution is not one consistent with most understandings of “justice” (even here in the US where the judgment/punishment link is very strong, this idea sounds odd). (ii) The idea that God the Father orchestrated the suffering and death of Jesus sounds like divine child abuse and doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of God the Father. (iii) The resurrection becomes unnecessary in this understanding of atonement as it is the suffering and death of Jesus that do the trick in the eyes of God the Father.
We noted how this idea can be helpful to a person who has done something that, in their own eyes, is unforgivable and so that person is unable to forgive themselves, let alone see the possibility that God might forgive them. The notion that “Jesus died for their sins” and that the matter is dealt with, once and for all, gives a person in such a predicament a way to move forward with life and with a relationship with God.
The Christus Victor (Christ the Conqueror) Model:
Irenaeus (ca. 130 – 202; the Bishop of Lyons), writing at a time when Gnosticism was all around, sought to deliver a message that God had created humanity in a unique way because God had granted immortality to humans. This gift was lost in the Fall (through Adam and Eve) and so left humanity in a state from which it could not escape through its own efforts. Irenaeus compared Adam (the originator of human disobedience) and Christ (the originator of a new humanity) and thought in terms of “recapitulation” (the idea that just as all humanity was somehow represented by and present in Adam at the Fall, so all humanity was somehow represented by and present in Christ at the atoning events of the crucifixion and resurrection). Because Christ was fully human and fully divine, he could through the atonement infuse all humanity with immortality and restore what was lost in the Fall. Irenaeus took the general idea that Christ could conquer human sin and added to it other ideas (e.g. he mentions propitiation, ransom, and so on).
Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 330 – 395) built upon the ideas of Irenaeus at a time when society was often plagued by bandits capturing and holding for ransom those whose families had the means to pay some significant amount for r
elease of the hostage. Ideas of ransom and release from captivity were ones that connected well with people and were part of the common experience of life in those days. Gregory saw humankind as held for ransom by the devil and that God tricked the devil by paying the ransom through the death of Christ who subsequently was resurrected. In contrast, Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185 – 254) argued that the devil accepted the death of Christ as ransom for a sinful humanity but the devil could not bear being in the presence of Christ and so had to release him.
As the church and state became commingled after Constantine, the appeal of a model that saw Christ as victor over the forces of evil rather lost its appeal. Today, the concept of atonement as involving a resolution of the conflict between good (Christ) and evil (the various forces of evil at work in the world and at work in individual lives) seems to be coming back to the forefront of atonement theology in some quarters.
Honor and shame models:
In the Greco-Roman culture of Christ’s day, the crucifixion was not seen primarily as an event focused on pain and suffering. Of course these aspects were fully present, but the choice of crucifixion as a punishment by the Romans was made because of the shamefulness of the event. In a culture in which honor and shame meant something, the crucifixion was a dishonorable, defiling, shameful and degrading way to die in the full view of the public where ridicule and contempt were evident. Hence, in a modern-day society, such as Japan, where honor and shame motifs are still apparent, the idea of the crucifixion as a way in which Christ identifies with the shame a person feels when publicly humiliated or the guilt a person feels when they have sinned (and perhaps fear public exposure) resonates well. Note that in cultures where honor matters, to say “I forgive you” to someone is to insinuate that they have done something wrong (i.e. they have “sinned”) and hence the culturally acceptable way to deal with such a situation is not to discuss it all but simply to remain silent. In this atonement model, Christ bore the shame of the crucifixion and in so doing allows those who are shamed to recover their place in society without the degrading loss of honor that forgiveness would entail. The shame of sin is thus nullified without any need for ongoing humiliation.
A good book on the various models of atonement mentioned above, upon which these notes are based, is: “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts” by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker.
Our good friend, Rick Gaillardetz, encouraged us to also think about two additional points:
(i) Theosis [meaning divinization or deification (to become god), i.e. the call to humankind to become holy and seek union with God] as it has developed in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. We touch on it briefly in the treatment of Irenaeus, where this line of thought has its beginning in Irenaeus’ understanding of anakephalaiosis [i.e. recapitulatio, recapitulation, pointing to Ephesians I: All things in heaven and earth alike should be gathered up in Christ], but it is developed much more in a theological trajectory running through Athanasius (“the Son of God became human that we might become divine”) and finding its term in Maximus the Confessor.
(ii) A more contemporary Catholic perspective, as with the thought of Karl Rahner, who views the entire Christ event as salvifically efficacious in the manner of a sacrament (a real symbol that does not merely point to or remind us of some other reality, but efficaciously makes that other reality present), Christ does not just “model” divine love,” Christ is the efficacious sacrament of divine love that ontologically transforms the human condition, infusing the humanum with grace.
There is a lot to think about here – personally I find it helpful to think about walking around the cross and looking at it from lots of different points of view. Some views may seem prettier to me than others, but it is very much the case that the cross looks different when we stand in different places. It doesn’t necessarily mean that some views are “right” and some views are “wrong”. For me, the categories are “more helpful” and “less helpful” and of course, you might be standing in a different place…….