Monday, April 02, 2007

Essays on Blood Sacrifice, the Mercy Seat, and Atonement

The Crucifixion, by Diego Velasquez (c. 1630)

There have been a few posts circulating around lately about the meaning of the nature of the atonement, with Crystal weighing in here, and Paula and Friar Charles weighing in here.

Shown below are a few articles providing some insight on theories that find meaning in Christ's death, but underplay or eliminate the notion of God's wrath needing to be appeased by the death of a God-Man. I don't consider them heterodox - I think there are longstanding Catholic truths reflected and embedded in each of them - Besides, there have always been multiple theories of atonement regardless...

Atonement... "At-one-ment". One thing I can say in common about the essays. Paradoxically and ironically, I find that the more I learn about Judaism as practiced in the time of Jesus, the more the doctrines of Christianity make sense to me.

James Alison - Some thoughts on the Atonement

Crystal introduced me to theologian James Alison, and I find his writing to be fascinating. This was a lengthy article, so I'll just put a couple of excerpts here...

I want to suggest that the trouble with it (the dominant Substitution Theory) is that it is far too little conservative. I want to put forward a much more conservative account. And the first way I want to be conservative is to suggest that the principle problem with this conventional account is that it is a theory, and atonement, in the first place, was a liturgy...

We tend to have an “Aztec imagination” as regarding the sacrificial system. The hallmark of the sacrificial system is that its priest sacrifices something so as to placate some deity.

The Jewish priestly rite was already an enormous advance beyond that world. They understood perfectly well that it was pagan rites that sacrificed victims in order to keep creation going. And one of the ways in which they had advanced beyond that, even before the fall of the Temple and the Exile to Babylon, was the understanding that it was actually God who was doing the work, it was God who was coming out wanting to restore creation, out of his love for his people. And so it is God who emerges from the Holy of Holies dressed in white in order to forgive the people their sins and, more importantly, in order to allow creation to flow...

The notion is that humans are inclined to muck up creation; and it is God emerging from the place that symbolises that which is before creation began, “the place of the Creator”. The Holy of Holies was the place that symbolised “the first day” – which, of course, meant before time, before creation was brought into being.

The priest emerged from that and then he came to the Temple Veil. The Temple Veil was made of very rich material, representing the material world, that which was created. At this point the high priest would don a robe made of the same material as the Veil, to demonstrate that what he was acting out was God coming forth and entering into the world of creation so as to make atonement, to undo the way humans had snarled up that creation. And at that point, having emerged, he would then sprinkle the rest of the temple with the blood that was the Lord.

Now, here's the interesting point: for the Temple understanding the high priest at this stage was God, and it was God's blood that was being sprinkled. This was a divine movement to set people free. This was not – as in our understanding – a priest satisfying a divinity. The reason why the priest had to engage in a prior expiation was because he was about to become a sign of something quite else: acting outwards. The movement is not inwards towards the Holy of Holies; the movement is outwards from the Holy of Holies.

So the priest would then come through the Veil – meaning the Lord entering into the world, the created world – and sprinkle all the rest of the Temple, hence setting it free. After which, as the person who was bearing the sins that had been accumulated, he places them on the head of what we call “the scapegoat”, Azazel, which would then be driven to the edge of the cliff and cast down, where it would be killed, so that the people's sins would be taken away.

That was, from what we can gather, the atonement rite. But here's the fascinating thing: the Jewish understanding was way ahead of the “Aztec” version we attribute to it. Even at that time it was understood that it was not about humans trying desperately to satisfy God, but God taking the initiative of trying to break through for us. In other words, atonement was something of which we were the beneficiaries. That it is the first point I want to make when we are talking about a liturgy rather than a theory. We are talking about something that we undergo over time as part of a benign divine initiative towards us.

This puts many things in a slightly different perspective from what we are used to. It means, for instance, that the picture of God in the theory that we have that demands that God's anger be satisfied is a pagan notion. In the Jewish understanding it was instead something that God was offering to us. Now here's the crunch with this: the early Christians who wrote the New Testament understood very clearly that Jesus was the authentic high priest, who was restoring the eternal covenant that had been established between God and Noah; who was coming out from the Holy Place so as to offer himself as an expiation for us, as a demonstration of God's love for us; and that Jesus was acting this out quite deliberately...

God is propitiating us. In other words, who is the angry divinity in the story? We are. That is the purpose of the atonement. We are the angry divinity. We are the ones inclined to dwell in wrath and think we need vengeance in order to survive. God was occupying the space of our victim so as to show us that we need never do this again. This turns on its head the Aztec understanding of the atonement. In fact it turns on its head what has passed as our penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which always presupposes that it is us satisfying God, that God needs satisfying, that there is vengeance in God. Whereas it is quite clear from the NT that what was really exciting to Paul was that it was quite clear from Jesus' self-giving, and the “out-pouring of Jesus' blood”, that this was the revelation of who God was: God was entirely without vengeance, entirely without substitutionary tricks; and that he was giving himself entirely without ambivalence and ambiguity for us, towards us, in order to set us “free from our sins” – “our sins” being our way of being bound up with each other in death, vengeance, violence and what is commonly called “wrath”.

Garry Wills - What Jesus Meant.


Beneath all the horrors of a Roman execution, there is a deeper question than the legal one, a theological puzzle: Why did Jesus die? A common answer depends partly on Saint Anselm's influential book Why the Incarnation? (Cur Deus Homo?). Using feudal analogies, Anselm argued that Jesus had to become man in order to pay God a debt that man could not pay on his own. The offense of original and all subsequent sin was of an infinite nature because the offended party is infinite. Only an infinite spokesperson for man could pay the debt with his life.

But why did the payment include Jesus' death, and such a horrible death? Was the creditor so exacting? Behind this conclusion lies the imagery of an angry God, hard to appease but by the most terrible of sacrifices. This is a view that some people call "gruesome." The philosopher-critic Rene Girard says that it affirms the violent rituals of sacrifice, which load a society's guilt onto a scapegoat to be punished. Girard ar­gues that Jesus is incapable of assuming guilt, so he exposes the fundamental absurdity of curing violence by violence.

Others question the idea that there would have been no Incarnation without the fall of man. Some Franciscan theolo­gians argue that the Incarnation is the culmination of God's plan from the outset, whereby he raises man to himself in the person of his incarnate son. Creation without that deeper union between man and God would have been incomplete. They draw on some works by the early church father Ire­naeus, who called Jesus the "recapitulation " (anakephalaio­sis) of all creation in its glorious end. A Pauline letter signaled something like that:

His grace is overflowing to us in every kind of wisdom and knowledge, revealing
the secret of his purpose, the loving care of his prior arrangements in Christ,
that he bring the stages of all things to their fulfillment, sum­ming them
all up [anakephalaiosasthai] in Christ, all that is in the heavens, all that is
on earth. (Eph 1.8-:10)
This passage accords with other writings of Paul, where­as Gordon Fee points out-he does not follow the logic of ap­peasement sacrifices, where the offending party must initiate compensation. In Paul, God is like the father of the prodigal son, who rushes to embrace beforehand, or like the good shepherd, who searches out his lost sheep. This God does not sit on a throne waiting for sinners to bring their sacrificial offerings to him. He is the agent throughout:

All is God's doing, as he rejoined us to himself through Messiah, and made us
cooperators in the rejoining. Just as God was in Messiah rejoining creation to
himself, canceling man's sin, so he made us diplomats of the re­joining. (2 Cor 5.18-19)

Another Pauline letter says:

He is before all things, and all things cohere in him. He is, in parallel, the
head of the body that is the gathering. He is the first-born out of death,
making him in every way primary. For it was God's glad will to invest in him all
the fullness of being, through him to rejoin all things to himself,
accomplishing peace through his blood from the cross, peace for heaven and for
earth through him. (Col 1.17-20)

Jesus himself speaks of his mission as lifting humankind up into his own intimacy with the Father:

"Just as you have shed your splendor on me, so I shed it on
them, so they may be
at one with us, just as we are one, T in them and you
in me, so they may be
fulfilled in that oneness. So all creation may
recognize that you have sent me,
and that you have loved them even as you
have loved me. Father, you have given
them to me, and 1: wish that they
should be where I am, that they may see the
splendor you have given me out
of the love you had for me before laying the
foundations of creation" (Jn 17.22-24).

Dark and mysterious as is the whole matter of the Incar­nation and the Passion, perhaps a simple thing can help us think of them. I turn to my own experience. My young son woke up with a violent nightmare one night. When I asked what was troubling him, he said that the nun in his school had told the children they would end up in hell if they sinned. He asked me, "Am I going to hell?" There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature, but I instantly answered what any father would: "All I can say is that if you're going there, I'm going with you." If I felt that way about my son, God obviously loves him even more than I do. Perhaps the Incarnation is just God's way of saying that, no matter what horrors we face or hells we descend to, he is coming with us. I did not realize at the moment that I was just following a way we should think of God, according to Jesus himself:

"Would any one of you give your son a stone when he asked
for bread, or a snake
when he asked for fish? Well, if you, flawed as you
are, know how to provide
good things for your children, how much more will
your Fa­ther in the
heavens provide for those who ask it of him?„ (Mt. 7.9-11)

Chesterton offers another way into the mystery, in a little two-act play of his called The Surprise. The play opens, in the Middle Ages, with a friar wandering through a woods. He sees a large rolling caravan, a platform stage with its curtain open and handsome life-size puppets lying with their strings loose. The puppet master is up above the stage. The friar asks what town he will be giving his show in-he would like to see it. The man tells him to sit down and he will give him a free performance. A romantic tale is then spun out in which a swashbuckling hero and his friend, drinking to each other's health, swear to rescue a damsel in captivity. They carry it off with great panache, and the play ends. The friar applauds, but the man asks to go to confession. He confesses that he is un-happy because he loves his characters, yet they do not breathe and reciprocate his love. As he turns away, the friar falls to his knees and prays that his wishes might come true. The curtain falls on the first act.

The second act begins with the puppets again lying down amid their loose strings. But then the characters begin to stir on their own. They rise and start reenacting the play. But this time little things begin to go wrong, each aggravating the next, and the pace of mishaps quickens. The friends drink too much and quarrel, they show jealousy over the heroine, they arrive too late to rescue her, so her captor is about to rape her. At this point, the puppet master stands up on the roof of the caravan and shouts, "Stop! I'm coming down." God is going with us. Now that his creatures have free will, the puppet master can no longer manipulate them from above. He must come down to be with them, to fight for them.

What I like about this parable is that there is no question about an "angry God." The maker is coming down to protect his creatures, from themselves and from all the consequences of their errors and sins. He is their champion, not their pun­isher. This shows that there are two ways of talking about what Paul called a rejoining. If we talk of salvation as sacri­fice in the sense of appeasement or propitiation, there is a note of assuaging an angry God. If we talk of it as rescue, the power from which mankind has to be rescued is not God but the forces at work against God-all the accumulated sins that cripple human freedom. In the New Testament, this legacy of evil is personified as Satan. When Jesus, going to his death, says it is the enemy's time, and the dominion of darkness (Lk 22.53), he is certainly not saying that God is the dark power. Satan is.

It is the struggle with the human capacity for evil that Jesus wages in the name of humanity. Human free­dom and perversity have led the sheep astray, have con­demned the prodigal son to his own degradation, and only the Shepherd and Father can send for his rescue. Similarly, when Jesus wept over the Jerusalem that was about to kill him as it killed the prophets (Mt 23.27), he was not suggest­ing that God killed the prophets. It was the enemy of God who did. It was Satan.
If we want to know why Jesus died, the best place to look for an explanation is in John's account of the Last Supper, in the long passage called the Last Discourse. This does not speak of divine anger to be allayed by sacrifice. It talks, over and over, of divine love entering into the human darkness and turning it to light:

"I will no longer speak much with you, since the Prince of This World is upon
us-though he has no power over me. But all creation must see that I love the
Father, and I do whatever the Father has commanded me. Rise and let us be off
from here." (Jn 14.30-31)


If we ask why Paul and others speak of our being rescued by Christ's blood, what does that mean if his blood is not a sacrifice to the Father? The Last Discourse tells us: "No one can show greater love than this, that he lay down his life for those he loves" (Jn 15.13). He sheds his blood with and for us, in our defense, not as a libation to an angry Father. That is how he sacrifices himself for us.

There are other references to Jesus' sacrifice in scripture. Paul talks of him as the hilasterion-which meant the golden covering on the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25.T7), known as the "mercy seat," where blood was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement: "In his blood God has presented him as the mercy seat for those who believe in him, to make clear his faithfulness to the covenant by canceling sin in his lenity" (Rom 3.25). Jesus is a new mercy seat, where his own blood, shed against man's enemy, becomes the bond with the Fa­ther. There is another famous passage where Paul speaks as if Jesus' blood were an expiation to the angry Father: "Though he [Jesus] was not conversant with sin, he [the Father] treated him as sin for our sake, so we might be God's vindication" (2 Cor 5.21). This continues a passage cited earlier where God initiates the rejoining with himself. Old commentators tried to make this mean that Jesus became a sinner, or even sin personified, or "a sin offering." But Jean-Noel Aletti shows rhetorically that it means Jesus was treated as if he were sin, in the sense that he is pitted against sin (Satan) and suffers the consequences by identification with sinful humanity. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus offers a sacrifice to God, but it is a unique kind of sacrifice, putting an end to all earlier kinds, and God initiates it to conquer sin, not to placate himself.

However we understand the mysterious sacrifice of the cross, one thing is certain-it is a proof of God's love, not his anger. "Such was God's love for the creation that he gave his only-begotten Son to keep anyone believing in him from perishing, to have a life eternal" (Jn 3.16). Jesus was sent to express, vindicate, and extend the Father's love. That is why the completion of his rescue raid into history is the descent into hell. This is not mentioned in the New Testament-save for a highly dubious reference in a notoriously obscure verse (1 Pet 3.19). But it is contained in the early creeds and bap­tismal oaths, showing that it is original to the revelation that was preached. For the Greek Orthodox Church, it is at the center of Jesus' mission-indeed, it is the Resurrection (Ana­katastasis). This is part of the whole conception of Jesus as the summation and climax of creation. He reaches back with his redeeming power, to rescue mankind from the very be­ginning. Early poems Iand-plays (especially in medieval treat­ments of it under the title of "the Harrowing of Hell"), along with endless paintings afterward, show Jesus breaking open the prison of the past to free those not previously vindicated in his blood. The normal depiction highlights the emergence, first, of Adam and Eve. Some pictures show him accompanied by the bandit who died with him. The compre­hensiveness of God's salvific plan is emphasized-how

Through black clouds the black sheep
And through black clouds the
Shepherd follows him.

Though most depictions give the starring roles in this event to Adam and Eve, I believe the Shepherd was first seeking out his special lost one, Judas.

Judas...? Well, can we go that far?

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan - The Last Week


We focus on animal blood sacrifice because that form of worship is most outside our general experience and may be the one most likely to lead to a misunderstanding of Jesus's action in Jeru­salem's temple. For those who are vegetarians for moral reasons, the slaughter of animals for food is ethically repugnant. Animal blood sacrifice would be repugnant to them as well. But most people in the ancient world took blood sacrifice for granted as a normal or even supreme form of religious piety. Why?

First, the vast majority of people in antiquity grew up in close contact with animals on land they either owned themselves or farmed for others, and most of them would have killed animals for food or at least seen it happen. In any case, the ancients knew that to eat meat or have a feast, you had first to kill an animal. We know that too of course, and in fact we eat far more meat than they ever did, but few of us have seen our meat killed and butchered be­fore it is offered to us as food. We get our meat plastic-wrapped at the supermarket, and many of us could not watch the bloody pro­cess by which it got from field to store.

Second, and long before animal sacrifice was invented, human beings knew two rather basic ways of creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one another-the gift and the meal. Each represents the external manifestation of an internal disposi­tion. Each has its own delicate protocols of what, when, why, to whom, and by whom. The proffered gift and the shared meal are probably the most ancient forms of human interaction, possibly even more fundamental than sex as a bonding activity.

How, then, did people create, maintain, or restore good relations with a divine being? What visible acts could they do to reach an In­visible Being? Again, they could give a gift or share a meal. In sac­rifice as gift, an offerer took a valuable animal or other foodstuff and gave it to God by having it burned on the altar. In this case, the an­imal was totally destroyed at least as far as the offerer was concerned. No doubt the smoke and smell rising upward symbolized the tran­sition of the gift from earth to heaven, from human being to God. In sacrifice as meal, the animal was transferred to God by having its blood poured over the altar and was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a feast with God. In other words, the offerer did not so much invite God to a meal as God invited the offerer to a meal.

That understanding of sacrifice clarifies the etymology of the term. It derives from the Latin sacrum facere, "to make" ( facere) "sacred" (sacrum). In a sacrifice the animal is made sacred and is given to God as a sacred gift or returned to the offerer as a sacred meal. That sense of sacrifice should never be confused with either suffering or substitution.

First, sacrifice and suffering. Offerers never thought that the point of sacrifice was to make the animal suffer, or that the great­est sacrifice was one in which the animal suffered lengthily and terribly. For a human meal or a divine meal an animal had to be slain, but that was done swiftly and efficiently-ancient priests were also excellent butchers.

Second, sacrifice and substitution. Offerers never thought that the animal was dying in their place, that they deserved to be killed in punishment for their sins, but that God would accept the slain animal as substitutionarv atonement or vicarious satisfaction. Blood sacrifice should never be confused with or collapsed into ei­ther suffering or substitution, let alone substitutionarv suffering. We may or may not like ancient blood sacrifice, but we -should nei­ther caricature nor libel it.

As an aside, think about our ordinary use of that term "sacri­fice" even today. A building is on fire and a child is trapped up­stairs; a firefighter rushes in to get him and manages to drop him safely to the net below before the roof caves in and kills her. The next day the local paper headlines "Firefighter Sacrifices Her Life." We are not ancients, but moderns, and yet that is still an absolutely, acceptable statement. On the one hand, all human life and all human death are sacred. On the other, that firefighter has made her own death peculiarly, especially, emphatically sacred by giving it up to save the life of another. So far, so good. Now imag­ine if somebody confused sacrifice with suffering and denied it was a sacrifice because the firefighter died instantly and without intolerable suffering. Or imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with substitution, saying that God wanted somebody dead that day and accepted the firefighter in lieu of the child. And worst of all, imagine that somebody brought together sacrifice, suffering, and substitution by claiming that the firefighter had to die in agony as atonement for the sins of the child's parents. That theol­ogy would be a crime against divinity.

Back, then, to ancient blood sacrifice as gift or meal, but not as Suffering or substitution. Like the rest of their world, most Jews accepted blood sacrifice as a normal and normative compo­nent of divine worship at the time of Jesus. There is no reason to think that Jesus's action in the temple was caused by any rejec­tion of blood sacrifice or, indeed, had anything to do with sacri­fice as such. There were other powerful forces of ambiguity at play in first-century Israel with regard, first, to the official high­priesthood and, through its members, even to the temple itself.


Talmida said...

What an excellent and helpful post! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, i am very interested on the atonement theology. I will save your post at my collection of materials about the topic. Thanks.:-)


crystal said...

Thanks, Jeff - that was great. I especially liked the one by JD Crossan and Marcus Borg ... I hadn't read that before and it cleared up some misconceptions I had about sacrifice.

Jeff said...

Hi Talmida!

It's about time that we met.
:-) Welcome. I'm glad that you found that material useful. Thanks.

Hi Paula,

Yes, I've noticed that you've shown an interest in the atonement topic several times. As I look these over, it occurs to me that there are themes in them that reflect an understanding that is not far off from how it is commonly seen in the East.

Hi Crystal,

Thanks. Hat tip to you for Alison. :-)

Liam said...

Nice post, Jeff. I think it's important to retain the idea of sacrifice without having to have simplistic ideas about an angry God -- St Anselm was an incredible thinker, but he must be taken in his time and place.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, finally the link that i indicated on Crystal´ blog
2006/03/whos-got-problem-here.html)explains for me best the atonement. The author is lutheran I think, but I do not think that what he says contradicts the Catholic teachings in any way.

Here is the essay on which the post above is based:
Basically it says that not God needed the death of Christ but us.
I know that the essay is long but those who are interested would to themselves a favor if will read it.

Understanding atonement is I think essential in building a strong faith. I was also very disturbed by some atonement theories.

This week I will read the work of
JP II Salvifici Dolori about redemptive suffering which hints at the atonement as well. I may post about it.

Jeff said...

Thanks Paula,

I'm going to have a look at those. There is a scholar at St. Louis University named Eleonore Stump who has written a terrific article on St Thomas Aquinas's understanding of the atonement. I've wanted to condense it down and post on it for quite some time, but I just haven't figured out how to shorten it and still do it justice.

Anonymous said...

thanks Jeff. the article looks great.
more stuff to digest. :-)
with friends like you i won´t "starve"

Steve Bogner said...

Here's an article that might be relevant to the discussion, too:

It's written by one of the priests that presides at my parish (and is a theologian at the university). He stresses the incarnation over atonement; at first I found it all a bit off-putting but I'm warming up to it the more he mentions it in his homilies ;)

Steve Bogner said...

Maybe I can make it a hyperlink....

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for the great readings! I don't know if you noticed or not, but based on your comments I did some further research on Aquinas (sifting through his Summa and trying to parse his use of the word "punishment" and "satisfaction") and posted my findings here I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it as to its "Catholicity".

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

I hpoe you and your family had a nice Easter...

John Duns Scotus! I like that article!

Jeff said...

Hi Derek,

Wow. I admire you for having the temerity to wade through the Summa like you have. That kind of exercise is not for the faint of heart. When I try it, I find that I have to iron out the deep furrows in my brow afterwards. :-)

I think it's pretty good. I think that you and I are coming closer in our understanding. Just a couple of points...

Regarding penance, I do think that Aquinas considered it more as medicine than as punishment (although the punitive aspect is undeniably there underlying, in that penance remits temporal punishments) I don't know if I would look at penance as a matter self-inflicting physical pain. The main forms of penance are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Except for someone who has never practiced any self-denial, none of those forms should really be considered punitive. For example, if through neglect and bad habits I let my teeth decay and my gums to grow soft, the dentist is going to tell me that I need to floss and brush my teeth. In the short run at least, this might be a painful process, but it is therapeutic rather than punitive. After a while, I wouldn't feel right without flossing and brushing. Now, I will grant you, that there have been many instances in popular piety where the distinction is lost, whether it was a pope commading a king to stand outside barefoot in the snow, or pilgrims who climb mountains on their hands and knees, or in the worst example I know of, the guy in the Phillipines who has himself nailed to a cross every year on Good Friday, which is just utterly perverse. The influence of films and presentations like Mel Gibson's are why I worry about this sort of thing at all.

Regarding Aquinas' claim that we can make satisfaction for our own sin, yes, this was very much an aspect of medieval theology, with a great deal of emphasis being made on the necessity of "man doing what within him lies". This went to the very heart of the debate between Erasmus and Luther. Death was close by everyone's elbow. In the play "Everyman", which symbolizes any man about to die, Everyman is abandoned by his friends (Fellowship), his family (Kindred and Cousin), and his material possesions (Goods). His only steadfast companion unto the grave is his charitable works (Good Deeds) which he has been neglecting. A key part is the importance of Confession and the necessity to do penance, which sets Everyman on the path to salvation.

Martin Luther's theology, IMHO, was a clear reaction to this mindset, which he himself had held in abundance, and was suited specifically to deal with that point in time. It was meant to deal with a certain kind of fear, but of course, for many men it created new fears of its own.

Aquinas taught that Christ, in his perfect act of self-oblation and worship in his obedience to the Father, merited superabundant grace that was sufficient for all men to be saved, and to be shared with us through the sacramental life in the Church, particularly through Penance and the Eucharist. Unfortunately, the over-emphasis on purgatory and the purification due for temporal punishments led to abuses like the sale of indulgences, which the Reformers rightly objected to, and a corrective built upon freely-given grace was desperately needed. They rejected this whole approach to an "economy of salvation (by the way, I fully concede that the Church was screaming out for reform at the time, and IMO, still is. Semper Reformanda should always be just as much a slogan for us as it is for you guys. What I don't think we needed, however, was a reform that regressed back to more of the dualistic Augustinianism that was suspicious of reason and so pessimistic about human nature).

As for what Aquinas was saying about man making satisfaction for his own sins, I think it would be a mistake to say that grace is lacking from the equation. Aquinas states:

Just as the offense derived a certain infinity from the infinity of the Divine majesty, so does satisfaction derive a certain infinity from the infinity of Divine mercy, in so far as it is quickened by grace, whereby whatever man is able to repay becomes acceptable.... it is impossible to make equivalent satisfaction to God, but not that it is impossible to make sufficient satisfaction to Him. For though man owes God all that he is able to give Him, yet it is not necessary for his salvation that he should actually do the whole of what he is able to do, for it is impossible for him, according to his present state of life, to put forth his whole power into any one single thing, since he has to be heedful about many things. And so his conduct is subject to a certain measure, viz. the fulfillment of God's commandments, over and above which he can offer something by way of satisfaction.

Regarding the mistranslation of Metanoia, I've heard that argument before, but I don't know if it holds much water. The Greek-speaking churches of the East takes Penance just as seriously as one of their sacramental "mysteries" as the Latin-speaking church in the West. In addition, I think that the "turning back" aspect if very much part of penance as we've understood it. In the Catechism, it points out in the very begining of the section on Penance that primarily, the call is to conversion:

I. What Is This Sacrament Called?

1423 It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father5 from whom one has strayed by sin.

It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner's personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.

If you have written, or are currently in the process of writing a book about Atonement, I urge you to read the article referenced above, and which I had sent you before by Eleonore Stump, which is a scholarly but highly readable treatment of Aquinas's thought on this very subject. In that article she points out some of the problems inherent in Penal Substitutionary Atonement (It does not present God as actually forgiving human sin, it punishes an innocent person in place of the guilty, and it leaves human beings with the same proclivities to fall into sin as before, so that our wills are no more in conformity with God's will as they were previously). Professor Stump makes her case that Aquinas's solution deals with the moral wrong that was done (past sin) and the moral long that we are still likely to do (future sin). She states:

..For Aquinas, the problem of past sin is understood differently from the way it is understood in (Penal Substitution)... On (P) the problem with the sins a person has comitted is that they have resulted in God's alienation from the sinner and and in God's consequent inability to refrain from punishing him, without satisfaction's having been made. But on Aquinas' account, man is alienated from God, who is free to require satisfaction or to forgo it; and the problem is a problem in human nature. This is a large and important difference. How one interprets the doctrine of the atonement depends most fundamentally on how one understands the nature of the problem the atonement was meant to solve. For (P), the main obstacle to to human salvation lies, in effect, in God himself, whose justice constrains him to damn human beings unless atonement is made. For Aquinas, the main obstacle lies in sinful human nature, which damns human beings unless it is repaired or restored by the atonement.

What I'm still not picking up on, Derek, is how you can trace a trajectory between Aquinas and the Reformers. I don't see any evidence of it. Their rejection of an "economy of salvation" suggests to me that they would have totally discounted Aquinas as a guide and repudiated him. May I respectfully ask you to consider an alternative explanation in addition to the observations I made to you before?

The influence of Anselm is most definitely there. A feudal wordview still held sway, and Aquinas bolstered Anslem in saying that "it is a greater offense to strike a prince than anyone else." I think the feudal worldview would have been accepted by all the parties in the debate at the time. That sort of thing was probably not in dispute. In line with that thinking, any of the classical theory's notion of a debt being owed to Satan was not going to be considered "fitting". God's sovereignty was paramount, and Calvin in particular was going to protect God's sovereignty at all costs. Satan is almost completely taken out of the transaction, even though St Paul does write about a cosmic struggle against dark powers and principalities.

I'm thinking that the soteriology of the Reformers may have vectored them into a Penal Substitutionary view, because the tightness in their logic would have inexorably left them nowhere else to go. For example, take their views on Justification. In the Catholic view, Christ's righteousness is infused in us at Baptism and is restored through the sacraments when it has been lost. What God declares righteous, he makes righteous. The Reformers held that Christ's righteousness is not infused, but imputed. The righteousness is a legal, forensic declaration, and merely covers the sinner, but does not initially transform him. If you combine this with doctrines such as Total Depravity, Total Inability, Limited Atonement (Particular Redemption), and Perseverence of the Saints, can we consider that it leads logically to a penal substitutionary view? If some are elect, and many are reprobate by God's eternal decree, if man has no way to come to God on his own or by his own efforts, but can only be drawn by the Father, if righteousness is alien and only covers the sinner, and if once saved always saved, is it inevitable that they believed that Christ died to personally take on their sins as a substitute? There are plenty of proof-texts like Isaiah's Suffering Servant, and Paul referring back to Deuteronomy as Christ being "cursed as one who hangs on a tree" to cogently defend that view. See the Lutheran article referred to by Paula above. It gives a sympathetic and respectful treatment of several atonement theories, but at the end comes full circle to us being under God's wrath, but justified by faith alone.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

I just thought that I'd comment that I think this is an excellent post. It is not a short, esily digested blog post of the common sort, but a fairly in depth piece summarizing your thoughts from a number of sources. I might suggest pulling it aside as an article in yoru sidebar.

Anyway, very insightful. i was particularly struck by the reference to your son. Having a todler myself, and working through only the very early stages of fear of the dark, bad dreams, et cetera I know the feeling of wanting to protect... And I waolud be quick to anger if a nightmare were nun-inspired with fire and brimstone, though with a child's imagination any mention of hell at all could be scary.

In any event, I have never liked the substitution blood sacrifice image or idea and I find your thoghts helpful. I believe that Scott Hahn has pondered this and has some interesting suggestions that Christ is our representative, not our substitute. He represents us on the cross and defeating death, and we by divine filiation are right along with him like the good thief, as his siblings.

All the Best,