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)