Thoughts on atonement (with some help from Gerald O’Collins, James B. Torrance, and C.S. Lewis)

I’ve been reading and thinking about the Atonement (i.e., the work of Christ in reconciling us to God) again lately, so I thought I’d jot something down on how I see things. The view I’m now inclined toward is that “Abelardian” and “Anselmian” theories of atonement are complementary rather the mutually exclusive. An Abelardian view emphasizes the revelation of God’s love for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the power of this outpouring of love to move our hearts to repentance. By contrast, the Anselmian view emphasizes Jesus’ role as offering on behalf of us all the perfect human response of love God the Father. This is a response that we, mired in sin and brokenness, are unable to make. By being joined with Christ in faith and baptism, we participate in his act of self-offering. (The Anselmian view needs to be carefully distinguished from the penal substitutionary view.)

In short, the Atonement is bidirectional: there is a movement from the side of God toward humanity, in revealing and pouring out the divine love and forgiveness. And there is a movement from humanity toward God, in the self-offering of Jesus, which makes it possible for us to share, by adoption, in his filial relationship with the Father. The kicker is that both aspects of this divine-human reconciliation are products of God’s grace.

In his review of Gerald O’Collins’ excellent book Jesus our Redeemer, Robert Imbelli summarizes this nicely:

Facile categorizations and contrasts, happily, find no place in O’Collins’s catholic vision. Thus, for example, both Anselm and Abelard receive an appreciative hearing. “Anselm,” O’Collins writes, “laid fresh stress on the humanity and human freedom of Christ, who spontaneously acts as our representative and in no way is to be construed as a penal substitute who passively endured sufferings to appease the anger of a ‘vindictive’ God.” Abelard’s insistence upon love as the key to redemption “shows how salvation is not primarily a ‘process,’ and even less a ‘formula,’ but a person, or rather three persons acting with boundless love.” Both Anselm’s sense of the depth of sin’s dysfunction and Abelard’s sensitivity to the height of redeeming Love provide irreplaceable elements of a comprehensive approach to salvation.

Scottish Reformed theologian James B. Torrance (younger brother of the more famous T.F. Torrance) helps clarify this bidirectional aspect of the work of Christ in his book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. Torrance emphasizes the “God-humanward and human-Godward relationship (movement), both freely given to us in Jesus Christ”:

Grace does not only mean that in the coming of Jesus Christ, God gives himself in holy love to humanity. It also means the coming of God as man–to present us in himself through the eternal Spirit to the Father. (p. 53)

Torrance notes that to forgive sin implies judgment. This is because if there’s no guilt, then there’s no need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is “logically prior” to repentance. It is the forgiveness itself that clearly reveals the guilt in the one being forgiven. And this is what elicits repentance. Torrance contrasts “legal repentance,” where repentance is understood as a precondition for forgiveness, with “evangelical repentance,” which occurs as a result of being forgiven. When we truly repent, we submit to the verdict of being guilty–we acknowledge that we need forgiveness. Thus repentance is one part of the total act of reconciliation or atonement (at-one-ment).

However, because of our brokenness, we can’t repent as we should, if we understand repentance as a “real change of mind, an act of penitence…(metanoia), conversion, reconciliation” (p. 55). This is why God, in his grace, provides a means of making repentance:

God in Christ has spoken to us his word of forgiveness, his word of love which is at the same time the word of judgment and condemnation, the word of the cross. But implicit in our receiving of the word of grace and forgiveness, the word of the Father’s love, there must be on our part, a humble submission to the verdict of guilty. It was for our sins that Christ died. That lies at the heart of the Reformation understanding of grace–of “evangelical repentance.” But who can make that perfect response of love, that perfect act of penitence, that perfect submission to the verdict of guilty? What we cannot do, God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ stands in for us in our humanity, in our name, on our behalf, to make that perfect submission to the Father. That is the wonder of God’s grace! God not only speaks the word of forgiveness to us. He also provides for us one, in Jesus Christ, who makes the perfect response of vicarious penitence. So God accepts us, not because of our repentance–we have no worthy penitence to offer–but in the person of one who has already said amen for us, in death, to the divine condemnation of our sin–in atonement. (pp. 55-6)

Jesus’ entire life–his ministry, his passion, and his death on the cross–is this perfect response of love. This dovetails with seeing the Incarnation as creating a “new Adam,” or as “recapitulating” human existence without succumbing to the temptations and snares of the Evil One. In Jesus, God gets the human project back on track. As Anselm argued, the true “dishonor” that sin causes is that it threatens to derail God’s plans for his creation. Because God won’t allow that to happen, the Son becomes incarnate in human flesh to restore God’s intentions to bring creation to fulfillment.

As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, repentance is the whole process of surrendering our selves, of offering them back to God. This is not some legal requirement; it’s just what constitutes turning back to God. And this is what God in Christ does–blazes the trail back to the Father as it were. “He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God” (“The Perfect Penitent,” Mere Christianity, p. 58). This entire movement, from God to humanity and back, is the manifestation in history of the very triune life of God, into which we are drawn by God’s grace.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on atonement (with some help from Gerald O’Collins, James B. Torrance, and C.S. Lewis)

  1. And don’t miss Rene Girard, Gerhard Forde, or Gustaf Aulén. (I think you have mentioned some in the past, so I’m not assuming you have missed them.)

    While I get itchy if people are ready to dump Anselm, I don’t like his discussion to be the whole horizon. He has a lot to teach us, but I don’t want him has my only teacher. (I would be even itchier if Abelard were my only teacher. But I do think he has some good things to say.) I’m glad to see posts like this.

  2. Rick, yes, I wold definitely include those three (among others) as influences.

    And I agree that Anselm (or Abelard) shouldn’t set the terms of the whole debate. I thought it was worth framing it this way because those are often upheld as the two main positions held by “conservatives” and “liberals” respectively. As usual, the reality’s a bit more complicated–and more interesting!

  3. Casper

    “bidirectional” – sounds mightily semi-pelagian to me!

    I would definitely focus more on an Abelardian rather than Anselmian view I do agree when made distinct from a penal substitutionary model Abelard and Anselm are, if not coherent with each other, then complementary at least.

    In the cross Jesus is both representative of humanity and the revelation of God to humanity, in the latter sense the cross can, I think, be seen a suprahistorical act as well as a historical one. I know you have read this before but here .

    In any case, good post.

  4. Yes, I think the language of “representative” is helpful–maybe more helpful than “substitute” language to the extent that the latter seems to portary the atonement as a transaction that happens “above our heads” or “behind the scenes” without really involving us in any meaningful way.

  5. Schillebeeckx plus McCabe plus your posts on atonement have been turning on a few lights for me. Particularly when it comes to the role of Jesus as a human in our salvation. I don’t know if some of these insights are particularly Catholic or if it just so happens that I’m reading Catholic authors on this subject. Perhaps it’s that for most of my life I have moved in circles where penal substitutionary atonement is the default (in many cases, the only) view.

  6. I’ve been reading *God Matters*, a collection of single or small groups of essays. It’s one of those books which allow you to skip around, rather than read straight through.

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