Sunday, June 11, 2006

Theories on the Meaning of the Atonement

The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and St. John by Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588 – 1629) Click on image to see larger version.

(Brugghen was a Protestant, but most likely painted this piece for Catholic patrons in Utrecht)

I love this paining by Brugghen, not so much for its image of Christ, but for the simple, homely Dutch peasants who were used for the models, contemplating Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf.

A couple of weeks ago, Paula pointed out that A Minor Friar had written an excellent quick and dirty guide to the atonement. I hope that at some point the Friar will give us the benefit of the more in depth version too. :-)

St. Anslem of Canterbury and Peter Abelard were a couple of the better know Catholic brainiacs of the 11th and 12th centuries. They both held different views of the atonement, not only from each other, but from what had been held in common between both the Eastern and Western halves of the Church in the first millennium of Christendom.

For the first one thousand years of Christianity, the prevailing theory of atonement has been variously described as the “Classical Theory”, “Recapitulation”, “Christus Victor”, and the “Ransom Theory”. In this view, Jesus paid a debt to Satan, or the “grave”, for our sins rather than to God. It emphasizes Christ’s victory over evil and His release of humanity from bondage to Satan. It puts more saving power of the Christ event in the incarnation than on the cross. This theory is still the one that is held by most theologians in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which does not really have a doctrine of Original Sin. They don’t look to St. Augustine for anything. In fact, some of them think he was a heretic. St. Augustine was not proficient in Greek. The Orthodox claim he fatally misread Romans 5: 12 from the Latin Vulgate as "and so death spread to all men, through one man, in whom all men sinned" instead of "Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned." (They say that in Latin the Greek idiom eph ho which means because of was mis-translated as in whom.) They believe that we inherit death and corruption from Adam, but not his sin. Therefore, they don’t look at the atonement the way that we commonly do in the West.

Due to the influence of St. Augustine’s doctrine of Original sin and the development of feudalism in the West, this juridicial ethos led to the development of the Satisfaction Theory by St. Anslem of Canterbury, who published Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became man) in 1098. Anslem was not content with the theory that God had tricked the devil and had essentially pulled a “bait and switch” on him. It wasn’t fitting, nor was it fitting to have a debt owed to the devil, but rather, to God. The Satisfaction model is still the one most prevalently held in the Catholic Church today (although strong Christus Victor elements are retained - see Salvation in Catholicism) In this model, the logic is built from a feudal understanding of society. Adam, an inferior being, had offended God, a superior being. Satisfaction for the offense and restoration of honor was demanded by the superior being. In feudalism, only a person of equal rank within a hierarchy can make amends to the one who has been offended. Justice reigned supreme in value over mercy. Only the freely chosen sacrifice of a God-Man could serve to make amends to God, and this is what Jesus freely chose to do out of love for us, on our behalf.

I don’t really have a problem accepting the Satisfaction Theory itself. The Stations of the Cross is my favorite Lenten devotion. I sense deeply and profoundly that in some fashion, Jesus did make a sacrifice on our behalf. What bothers me about it is that it slides too easily into the theory held later by some of the Protestant reformers of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, in which the freely chosen sacrifice of Jesus is underplayed, and we see instead a wrathful God who is actually punishing Jesus in our place. It is a theory of a bloodthirsty deity who demanded the death of his son to placate his anger at humanity. To me, such a view is unworthy of God and insults him.

Peter Abelard was one of the most brilliant men of the 12th century (and is a fascinating and tragic story in and of himself for another time). He had a theory of atonement very different from Anselm’s. In his Moral Theory, Christ did not die to pay a debt on our behalf to either the devil or to God. Instead, he died to pour charity into our hearts. Christ’s life and death provided us with a moral example to follow. Love and mercy override God’s demand for justice.

Here are some interesting articles on atonement.

Various Christian theories of the Atonement

A Covenantal View of atonement

Atonement – Wikipedia

Violence In Christian Theology – Non-violent atonement

Christ's Death: A Rescue Mission, Not a Payment for Sins (Frederica Mathewes Green)


crystal said...

Nice post, Jeff

I like Abelard's theory best of the ones you presented. When I think of him, though, I don't think of theology, but of his doomed romance with Heloise :-)

I read an article at American Catholic by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J. on this subject a while ago (I think I mentioned once on Liam's blog) - link.

He mentions Duns Scotus ...

... the perspective of creation-for-Incarnation highlights the rich meaning of Jesus. He is not Plan B, sent simply to make up for sin. As Duns Scotus emphasized so well, God’s masterpiece must result from something much greater and more positive (God’s desire to share life and love). Jesus is the culmination of God’s self-gift to the world.

Paula said...

Jeff, thanks for the post. I love most Abelard´ interpretation, as you can imagine.:-).

In Eastern-Orthodoxy the general view is that Jesus has died to "equilibrate" the balance between humanity and God, Earth and Heaven. They do not try to explain very in depth how this works (it is considered ultimately a mystery) and I think this is not a bad way of thinking.

I do not think that the Eastern Church understands the death of Christ as a payment to the devil. I do not think so. They understand it as a victory over the powers of evil, which is different.
There is good and extensive material on this topic on the site:

Anyway I have here a beautiful quote from my favourite Eastern saint (as you can imagine I will bring all my Orthodox backround in the Catholic Church:-). Here is the quote:

"For God so loved the world as to give His Only-begotten Son unto death for it.' Not that He could not have redeemed us by another means, but He wished to manifest to us His boundless love, and to draw us near Him through the death of His Only-begotten Son. Indeed, if He had anything more precious than His Son, He would have given it for our sakes, in order that through it our race would be found nigh to Him. Out of His abundant love, He was not pleased to do violence to our freedom, although it was possible for Him to do so; but He let it be in order that we would draw nigh to Him with the love and volition of our own will."
St. Isaac the Syrian

Don had a nice post on Saint Duns Scotus regarding the topic that we discuss.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Thanks for the link. Those Catholic Update articles by Saint Anthony's are very good. They come in handy. In addition to what Scotus said, I also like what Karl Rahner said:

"Indeed, Rahner gently says that the idea of a sacrifice of blood offered to God may have been current at the time of Jesus, but is of little help today. Rahner offers other interpretations of how Jesus saves us, emphasizing that God’s saving will for all people was fully realized in Jesus through the response of his whole life."

Regarding Abelard:

I don't think of theology, but of his doomed romance with Heloise :-)

Now that is a major motion picture just waiting to be made, isn't it? I guess there was a smutty one called 'Stealing Heaven' years ago that wasn't very good. Thing of the characters to cast... Abelard, Heloise, Bernard of Clairvaux...

Jeff said...

Hi Paula,

That was another great post by Don. Franciscan spirituality is a beautiful incarnational spirituality.

do not think that the Eastern Church understands the death of Christ as a payment to the devil. I do not think so. They understand it as a victory over the powers of evil, which is different.

Thanks for the correction. I think I know what you mean. I went back to the post and put in a link I'd forgotten to put in before - one by a convert to Orthodoxy, Frederica Mathewes Green. It says very much the same as what you are saying.

I really like the Orthodox emphasis on Mystery and Theosis. Bringing your Eastern tradition to bear on Catholicism is most welcome! I like how the Eastern Fathers protect freedom of the will alongside God's sovereignty, describing the mystery as "synergy" - God's grace being given with the cooperation of the human heart.

crystal said...

I hadn't heard of that movie, but yes, it could be interesting ... a kind of skewed Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Let's get Ridley Scott to direct, I'll write the script and you and Paula can be Abelard and Heloise. Do you think Liam could do a good Bernard? :-)

Jeff said...

Whoa!! Hey now... No castration scene for me, please, especially if Ridley Scott is directing. He's too realistic! :-0

Besides, Liam is the medievalist and the scholar. Maybe he should play Abelard. I'm more the monastic type. I can play Bernard. :-D

Paula said...

Jeff, thanks for the answer. I will add some Orthodox links at my site soon.:-).

No Heloise for me, Crystal!Please!I had my share of bad relationships already.:-).I am sure that you will be able to find something else for me.

Paula said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paula said...

Jeff, one more thing: St Francis and pope JP II were the two crucial saints behind my conversion. This is one of the main reasons that I wanted to join. I think that JPII can be considered alredy a saint.He is on fast track to sainthood already.:-).
As for Francis I am deeply attracted by the Franciscan spirituality.

crystal said...

Paula, did you ever see the movie Brother Sun Sister Moon? It's old - from around 1970, I think, but it still has some charm - wiki link .

The saint behind my conversion would be Ignatius :-)

Paula said...

Crystal,thanks, i own the DVD with the movie Brother Sun and Sister Moon, i love it and I saw it "n" times...what i am looking to buy now, but i can´t find it in a nice format is the movie Francesco by Liliana Cavani. Have you ever saw it? I heard and read that it is very interesting.

crystal said...

Paula, is this the movie you mean?- link

Paula said...

yep, Crsytal.

Liam said...

Jeff, I will definitely read all these links when I have a bit more time. Thanks for putting them all together.

I don't think I want to be Bernard or Abelard. My life is stressed out enough without out having to advocate a crusade that ends up a complete failure or pick fights with everyone I run up against.

I would prefer to be Bede, hanging out in a nice monastery with a good library, writing good history.