Presbyterians still believe in God’s wrath

Christianity Today reported that the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected “In Christ Alone”–a popular contemporary hymn–from its new hymnal because it mentions the wrath of God. Here are the offending lines:

In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

The committee putting together the hymnal wanted to change the lines to “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” But the writers of the hymn denied them permission to make the change, so it was omitted altogether.

CT apparently couldn’t resist the “liberals ditch wrath of God” angle, but it turns out that the reason the PCUSA objected to the lines was their use of “satisfied.” In other words, the committee was rejecting not the notion of God’s wrath, but the satisfaction theory of the Atonement.

Bob Smietana, religion blogger at the Tennessean, got the story right:

Critics say the change was sparked by liberals wanting to take God’s wrath out of the hymnal. The committee says there’s plenty of wrath in the new hymnal. Instead, the problem is the word “satisfied,” which the committee says refers to a specific view of theology that it rejects.


The new “Glory to God” hymnal, due out this fall, includes songs such as “Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded,” which talk about substitutionary atonement — the idea that Jesus took the place of sinners on the cross. It also includes songs about God’s wrath.

“People think that we’ve taken the wrath of God out of the hymnal,” Bringle said. “That’s not the case. It’s all over the hymnal. The issue was the word ‘satisfied.’ ”

That term was used by the medieval theologian Anselm, who argued that sins offended God’s honor, and someone had to die in order to satisfy his honor.

The 15-member committee rejected Anselm’s view and voted 9-6 to drop the hymn.

CT, to its credit, has updated its original story with a correction, though the headline still says “Wrath of God’ Keeps Popular Worship Song Out of 10,000-Plus Churches.”

Ironically (considering that we’re talking about a Presbyterian church), it’s John Calvin, not Anselm, who is usually credited with formulating the view that God’s wrath was directed at Jesus on the cross. A more properly Anselmian line would be “the honor of God was satisfied.”

(H/T to Daniel Silliman (@danielsilliman) for the links to the stories.)

Atonement as the restoration of human nature in Athanasius (and Anselm)

Fr. Aidan Kimel (who theo-blog veterans may remember as Al Kimel, an Epsicopal priest who used to run the blog Pontifications before converting to Catholicism–and now apparently to Eastern Orthodoxy) has been doing a series on St. Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation.” The latest installment looks at Athanasius’s understanding of the Atonement as the healing of human nature and the defeat of death:

Athanasius’s soteriological reflections are not motivated by a concern for the satisfaction of justice. The penalty prescribed by God in the garden is not assigned for the purpose of retributive punishment. It symbolizes, rather, the natural consequence of human disobedience: to break fellowship with God, and to thus separate oneself from the only source of life, is to fall into natural mortality. Eternal life is not something that we possess naturally; it is something that we can only enjoy by grace in communion with our Creator.


The plight of man is ontological and thus only an ontological solution will suffice. Athanasius, following Scripture, employs commercial, juridical, and sacrificial language by which to speak of the saving work of Christ; but the significance of this language, I suggest, is determined by the ontology of death and resurrection. What is needed for salvation is not the legal rescindment of the law of death, much less the propitiation of divine wrath (as suggested in some Protestant versions of the atonement). What is needed is the re-creation of human nature, and this re-creation can only occur if the Word dies in the flesh.

I came to a similar conclusion when I blogged some thoughts on Athanasius several years back: The Incarnation effects an “ontological change in human nature,” and by “becoming united to our human nature, the Word of God heals the corruption and proneness-to-death that followed as a result of sin.”

I’d also add that, despite his reputation as the progenitor of the Western, “juridical” theory of the Atonement, St. Anselm can be read in a very similar way. For Anselm, the damage that sin causes to God’s “honor” does not consist in any damage to God in Godself. This is because God is immutable and impassible, so nothing creatures can do can harm God (at least according to the Anselmian tradition). Rather, the “dishonor” consists in the damage it causes to God’s creatures and their ability to properly honor God–damage that threatens to frustrate God’s purposes for creation.

The role of the God-man, then, is to restore human nature, making it once again capable of honoring God properly. As has been pointed out a number of times, for Anselm, this restoration–and not some kind of vicarious punishment–is what constitutes “satisfaction.”

It’s true that for Anselm (and arguably for Athanasius too), the death of Christ still constitutes a kind of “payment,” but it’s one that is necessary for the restoration of human nature, not to assuage the divine anger.

Atonement without violence?

Anabaptist theologian J. Denny Weaver’s much-discussed book The Nonviolent Atonement is the most thorough treatment I’ve read of the problem of violence in traditional theories of the Atonement. According to Weaver, these theories–which include both satisfaction and moral influence types–rely on divinely sanctioned violence to achieve reconciliation between God and humanity. More specifically, in both cases, Jesus’ violent death is “engineered” by God to fill a slot in the divine economy, whether it’s satisfying the divine justice or bringing about the repentance of sinful human beings. Satisfaction atonement in particular, Weaver contends, is linked with a retributive theory of punishment and an image of God that is at odds with the Christian gospel.

Coming from a peace-church perspective, Weaver argues that the idea that God was the agent, or the object, of Jesus’ death is inconsistent with the character of Jesus (and by implication God) presented in the gospels. Jesus was nonviolent, and he revealed a nonviolent God. Weaver denies that Jesus’ death was willed by God, except in the sense that God foresaw that Jesus would inevitably be killed as a consequence of his mission. He concedes that there are passages in the New Testament that seem to support the notion of divinely sanctioned violence, but he offers some (admittedly non-consensus) interpretations to show that they can also be understood through a lens of nonviolence.

In place of satisfaction or penal substitutionary atonement, Weaver offers a theory he dubs “narrative Christus Victor.” According to this account, Jesus’ entire life and ministry was a manifestation or drawing near of the reign of God. Jesus showed, in the flesh, what it looks like to live under God’s reign. It is characterized by forgiveness, compassion, and nonviolent confrontation with injustice. This brought Jesus into conflict with the “powers” of evil–the forces of sin and violence that hold sway over both the human heart and human institutions. It was these powers–not God–that orchestrated Jesus’ death. This is what makes Weaver’s view a variant of the “Christus Victor” model identified by Gustaf Aulén in his book of that name: Jesus triumphs over the powers in that (1) they are unable to deflect him from fidelity to his mission to incarnate God’s reign and (2) God vindicates him and his message through the Resurrection. In Weaver’s scheme, the Resurrection, not the cross, is the pivotal salvific moment–it reveals and establishes that God’s reign as manifested in Jesus is the ultimate power in the cosmos. Salvation for human beings is “switching sides” from slavery to sin and violence to participation in God’s reign.

Weaver tries to show that his view is consistent with the concerns raised by black, feminist, and womanist theologians about the ways in which traditional atonement motifs have allegedly licensed abuse and passivity in the face of oppression. He also interacts with Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and some of the more recent defenders of satisfaction theory to show that, however it may be qualified or softened, any version of satisfaction atonement (emphatically including the penal substitution theory of contemporary conservative Protestantism) ultimately means that Jesus’ violent death is necessary to accomplish salvation. “It can be kept and defended,” Weaver concludes, “only if one is willing to defend the compatibility of violence and retribution with the gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 12).

However one answers that question, Weaver has put his finger on a crucial (pardon the expression) issue between defenders and critics of satisfaction-based atonement theories. The question is whether Jesus’ death, as such, is part of the divinely willed means to our salvation (rather than a consequence of Jesus’ faithfulness to his mission, as Weaver claims). And if God did will Jesus’ death, doesn’t that implicate God in the violence of that death? And is this consistent with the character of God that Christians believe has been revealed in Jesus?

Weaver observes that traditional atonement theories have often portrayed salvation as an ahistorical “transaction” within the Godhead. In this regard, they have often been driven more by abstract ideas of deity and justice than by the concrete biblical narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To reflect the character of God as Christians understand it, theology needs to be thoroughly rooted in that narrative. And if Weaver is right that the NT portrays a Jesus (and by implication a God) who is fundamentally nonviolent, then how can divine-human reconciliation depend on violence?

You can read a summary of Weaver’s argument here.

Anselm on the divine nature

I want to shift gears away from Anselm’s argument for God’s existence and focus on his account of God’s nature (though, as noted, he doesn’t think these are wholly separable).

Recall that, for Anselm, God is that being greater than which none can be conceived (or, “the greatest conceivable being” for short). In chapter V, Anselm amplifies on this definition:

WHAT are you, then, Lord God, than whom nothing greater can be conceived? But what are you, except that which, as the highest of all beings, alone exists through itself, and creates all other things from nothing? For, whatever is not this is less than a thing which can be conceived of. But this cannot be conceived of you. What good, therefore, does the supreme Good lack, through which every good is? Therefore, you are just, truthful, blessed, and whatever it is better to be than not to be. For it is better to be just than not just; better to be blessed than not blessed.

“Whatever it is better to be than not to be” seems to be the controlling idea as Anselm discusses some of God’s key attributes. For example, he says that it is better to be “omnipotent, compassionate, passionless” than not (chapter VI).

In explicating these attributes, Anselm offers arguments intending to show, for instance, how God can be said to be omnipotent even though he can’t, say, lie or change the past, or how God can be compassionate even though he is “passionless.” He also attempts to reconcile God’s justice with his mercy. Furthermore, God, according to Anselm, does not exist in space or time, and God exists as triune (Father, Son, and Spirit).

Anselm’s arguments vary in their persuasiveness, but probably the most disputable point is his method of deriving divine attributes from general premises about “what it is better to be than not to be.” To take the most obvious example, much recent theology has questioned whether it is really better to be “passionless” and specifically whether divine impassibility is compatible with divine love and compassion.

Obviously, the tradition of “perfect being” theology that Anselm represents (and in large measure established) has been hugely influential in Christian theology. The question that has been asked by more recent theology, though, is whether the way this tradition depicts God is faithful to the disclosure of the divine nature that Christians believe occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and which is witnessed to in the Bible. I’m not dumb enough to think I can settle that issue in a blog post, but I do think that Anselm’s appeal to “what it is better to be than not to be” is bound to seem far less straightforward and persuasive today than it may have in his time.

Hartshorne on Anselm’s argument

I should say that I’m not at all confident that I correctly interpreted Anselm’s argument in the previous post. But at least one major interpreter–namely, Charles Hartshorne–agrees that chapter III of the Proslogion is where the action really starts; he refers to the (more famous?) iteration of the argument in chapter II as “but a preliminary try, and an unsuccessful one–elliptical and misleading at best–to state the essential point, which is first explicitly formulated in Proslogium III, and reiterated many times in the Apologetic I, V, and IX” (Hartshorne, “Introduction to the Second Edition,” Basic Writings of St. Anselm, Open Court edition, 1962, p. 6). I’m not well read enough on more recent Anselm scholarship to say if this represents the consensus view or not, but it’s nice to get a little validation.

For Hartshorne, the key insight underlying Anselm’s argument is that divinity must be thought of as existing necessarily:

Anselm’s proposal can therefore be put thus: the contrasts, creature-creator and contingently-necessarily existent, should be seen as one and the same contrast, somewhat differently expressed. All things, except God are contingent–of course, says the theist, since they exist only thanks to the fact that it pleased God (and it might not have) to make their existence possible! But surely God does not exist because it pleased Him (and might not have) to make His own existence possible! In this and many other ways it may be shown that God cannot be contingent in a sense parallel to the contingency of ordinary existents.

To talk about “perfect islands” as analogous to deity is mere trifling, unless insular “perfection” (which, nota bene, is not Anselm’s word) is taken to include the status, “creator of all things else.” But then “insular” loses its meaning! When one reads some cheap and easy refutations of the Proof one gets the impression of the following strange course of thought: if God can exist necessarily, surely many other things can too; or, what God can do, others can do also; or, surely His unique excellence cannot go so far that His very mode of existing, His very relation to the category of existence, is unique also. Ah, but can it not? This may turn out to be the same as the question whether or not theism (and not simply an argument for theism) is logically possible. And if the logical possibility of theism is what the critic impugns, by all means let him say so! (pp. 6-7)

What Hartshorne is saying, I think, is that, for Anselm, if it is possible that God exists, then it is necessary that God exists. That is, necessary-existence is an essential part of the concept “God,” and so if that concept is internally consistent or coherent, then it must be instantiated in reality. The “logic” of the God-concept, so to speak, follows different rules than any other.

Anselm’s “Proslogion”: Divine existence

Over the weekend I reread Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion (as one does), partly motivated by my recent interest in thinking about the divine nature. In addition to setting out the (in)famous “ontological” argument for God’s existence, the Proslogion is a hugely important source for the development of “traditional” or “classical” theism in the Christian tradition.

On this reading, I think I got a better understanding of the ontological argument (a term Anselm doesn’t use, by the way, and which was coined, I believe, by Immanuel Kant). Anselm has often been interpreted as saying that since it is better to exist in reality than merely as a concept in the mind, then God, as the greatest conceivable being, must exist in reality, not just as a concept. As was pointed out by Anselm’s first critic, his fellow monk Gaunilo, this argument would seem equally to prove the real existence of the greatest conceivable island.

But Anselm’s argument is quite a bit more subtle than this, and not so easily refuted. Let’s take a look.

In chapter II, Anselm sketches his argument for God’s existence, in reply to “the fool who says in his heart there is no God” (Psalm 14):

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. . . .

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it [i.e., the fool understands the meaning of the word “God” in some sense, even if he denies God’s existence]. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Now this does look like the version of the argument I summarized above: that it’s better to exist in reality than to exist only as a concept in the mind, so the greatest conceivable being must exist both in the mind and in reality. And thus it would seem to be vulnerable to the common objection.

But in the following chapter Anselm provides what I think is an elaboration of the argument (rather than a second, distinct argument):

And it [i.e., the greatest conceivable being] assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For, it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist;. and this being you are, O Lord, our God.

So truly, therefore, do you exist, O Lord, my God, that you can not be conceived not to exist; and rightly. For, if a mind could conceive of a being better than you, the creature would rise above the Creator; and this is most absurd. And, indeed, whatever else there is, except you alone, can be conceived not to exist. To you alone, therefore, it belongs to exist more truly than all other beings, and hence in a higher degree than all others. For, whatever else exists does not exist so truly, and hence in a less degree it belongs to it to exist.

Here Anselm qualifies the notion of divine existence in an important way. “It is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist.” In other words, he’s not (just) saying that it’s better to exist in reality than to exist only as a concept in the mind. He’s saying that it is better to have the property of not-being-able-to-be-conceived-not-to-exist than to have the property of being-able-to-be-conceived-not-to-exist. That is, the greatest conceivable being would be one which not only exists, but whose non-existence is inconceivable.

So Anselm’s argument looks like this:

1. God is, by definition, that being greater than which none can be conceived.

2. A being whose non-existence is inconceivable is greater than one whose non-existence is conceivable.

3. Therefore, the being greater than which none can be conceived is one whose non-existence is inconceivable.

4. But a being whose non-existence is inconceivable must exist, by definition.

5. Therefore, the being greater than which none can be conceived (i.e., God) exists.

I think the most questionable premise here is number 2, for a couple of reasons. First, it may be that “a being whose non-existence is inconceivable” is itself not a coherent or conceivable concept. At least it’s not immediately apparent to me that it is without further argument. One could also question Anselm’s entire method of ranking modes of being along a scale of “greatness.” Such ranking entails, it seems to me, a particular view of value that may not be universally shared. So, perhaps needless to say, I don’t think it’s a knock-down argument.

Still, it’s a darn interesting argument, and one that has a lot more going for it than is sometimes supposed. Moreover, Anselm’s understanding of God as “the greatest conceivable being” has been extremely fertile with regard to thinking about the divine attributes. That’s the topic I want to explore in the next post.

Getting Anselm right

I’m reading Robert Sherman’s King, Priest, and Prophet: A Trinitarian Theology of the Atonement, and I may provide a more complete summary of the book later. But for now I just wanted to highlight Sherman’s spirited defense of St. Anselm’s theory of the Atonement against some of its sloppier critics.

Longtime readers may know that this is a pet peeve of mine: people who use Anselm as the whipping boy for everything that’s wrong with Western understandings of Christ’s work on the cross. For instance, Anselm is routinely accused of holding to the crudest form of penal substitution when, in fact, he explicitly denies penal substitution!

Sherman takes aim at those critics who say that Anselm’s God is modeled on a petty feudal lord who must extract his pound of flesh to assuage his wounded honor. He notes that this manages to get Anselm wrong in a couple of fundamental ways. First, he points out that it totally misunderstands Anselm’s conception of God’s “honor.” Honor in Anselm’s scheme refers to the beauty and order of creation: sin can’t “hurt” God, but it can mar God’s good creation, which disrupts the divine intentions for that creation. And this is not some esoteric interpretation of Anselm; he’s very clear about it, as Sherman points out:

As far as God himself is concerned, nothing can be added to his honor or subtracted from it…. But when the particular creature, either by nature or reason, keeps the order that belongs to it and is, as it were, assigned to it, it is said to obey God and to honor him…. But when it does not will what it ought, it dishonors God, as far as it is concerned, since it does not readily submit itself to his direction, but disturbs the order and beauty of the universe, as far as lies in it, although of course it cannot injure or stain the power and dignity of God. (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo?, quoted by Sherman, p. 189)

The “order and beauty” of the universe is “disturbed,” for instance, when God’s creatures are victimized and abused, or when the natural environment is despoiled. Human sin has real effects–but for Anselm these are not effects on God’s being per se.

In fact, it literally makes no sense on Anselm’s understanding of God to suggest–as some critics do–that God’s pride is hurt by sin, and that he demands a blood-sacrifice to restore his honor. This is because, for Anselm, God is impassible–i.e., not subject to change–so nothing creatures can do can affect God’s blessedness. This doesn’t mean that sin isn’t serious–the disruption and defacement of creation threatens to undo God’s purposes. For this reason, God can’t simply “overlook” sin. (Sherman has an interesting discussion here of why simply appealing to the parable of the prodigal son isn’t sufficient to show that the Atonement doesn’t involve reparation for sin; since other creatures are affected by sin, more than simply forgiveness is needed.)

For Anselm, Christ’s sacrifice is not done to appease God’s wounded pride, but to restore the damage done to creation by human sin. The beauty of Christ’s self-giving, even unto death on the cross, “blots out” the ugliness of sin. As Sherman points out, Anselm’s conception of justice is more aesthetic than strictly retributive (Christ’s sacrifice is “a gift exceeding every debt” as David Bentley Hart has put it). Moreover, Christ’s sacrifice is not just to “cover” human sin, but to restore humanity to its proper end. In Jesus a new humanity is created–one in which we can participate. This restorative function is a key part of how Anselm understands the Atonement.

None of this is to suggest that Anselm is immune to criticism. But we should criticize what he actually said, not what we might imagine he said.

Placher on Girard on Atonement

When it comes to re-thinking the doctrine of the Atonement, many contemporary Christians are attracted to the work of literary theorist Rene Girard and his account of the “scapegoat mechanism.” In Girard’s telling, what the crucifixion narratives in the gospels do is reveal this mechanism whereby we kill the innocent to create social peace as the basis of much of our religion and culture. This unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism allows us to perceive the innocence of victims and to put an end to scapegoating. Part of what appeals about Girard’s account is that it seems to offer a way of thinking about the cross that avoids the implication that God in any sense required the sacrifice of Jesus.

However, the late William Placher, in an important article on the Atonement, offered some criticisms of Girard that still seem pretty telling to me:

Christians will naturally find such a brilliant scholar’s admiration of the gospel flattering, and Girard gets much right from a Christian point of view, from his insistence on the innocence of ritual victims to his call for a new kind of society based on mutual forgiveness. Yet he also breaks radically with most Christian interpretations. He repeatedly insists that nothing in the Gospels or Paul permits us to think of Christ as a sacrifice. The letter to the Hebrews, he believes, began the tragic wrong turn of Christian theology, for it falls back into thinking that it was somehow a good thing that Christ died, that the sacrifice of one victim really can redeem others—-just the kind of thinking whose fraudulence the gospel ought to have exposed once and for all. As a result, Girard thinks, Christians have continued the kind of society in which social cohesion is based on finding scapegoats—most notably and tragically of all singling out Jews as “Christ killers.”

But does Girard provide us with the kind of forgiveness that we really need? He assumes that once the Gospels have helped us see scapegoating for the fraud that it is we will never again participate in its rituals or believe in its myths. And he does not consider that we might retain some guilt and owe some penance for our evil past actions, even after we have turned away from scapegoating. He seems to assume that once we have understood the problem properly, it practically fixes itself.

The dominant Christian tradition has been less optimistic. At least since Augustine, Christian theologians have insisted that recognizing sin’s evil does not necessarily end its seductiveness; sometimes it can even increase it. Moreover, even if we do not continue making scapegoats and sacrificing victims, we have all, as Girard himself emphasizes, been complicit in such practices for much of our lives. Culture and religion in all previous forms rest upon them. Is it enough to say, “Oh, now I get it, and I won’t do it any more,” and go our way? Perhaps we can forgive other victimizers, and for the sake of breaking the cycle of violence we should forgive them. But can we simply declare ourselves to be innocent? Whatever its problems, the language of sacrifice which so disturbs Girard does speak to the condition of people who find themselves still falling into sin, and sense the depths of their need of forgiveness. Perhaps it deserves a closer look.

I think a lot of the truth in traditional theories of atonement–however much we may want to qualify or reinterpret them–is that there is a profound alienation between humanity and God and that simply revealing the fact of sin is insufficient to overcome it. This has always been the most potent criticism of “moral example” theories of atonement, and Girard’s theory as it stands looks like a more sophisticated version of this type of theory. For the other dominant tradition in atonement theory–that of “satisfaction” or “vicarious atonement”–the alienation between humanity and God (and its attendant guilt) is not something that we can repair on our own, even once we see what the problem is. This is why it requires God to step into the breach. But because it is a problem of human alienation from God, it is something that must be healed through human nature. Hence, following St. Anselm’s logic, the need for the God-man.

The logic of divine love

I was thinking a bit more about Clark Williamson’s question whether Jesus “constitutes” our reconciliation with God “such that we cannot be reconciled to God without him” or “disclose[s] to us that we have always been reconciled to God.” And I wonder whether there might not be some convergence of positions here, at least at the practical level. My reasoning has to do with the scope of Christ’s saving work. A question often asked of satisfaction-type theories where Jesus has to die in order for God to forgive us or to restore our relationship with God is: What happens to people who lived before Christ? Was God unwilling to forgive sins prior to the death of Jesus? And the best answer to this is that Christ’s work has effects that, in some way, apply to those who lived before this work was accomplished. Its scope is not bound by time or space. (If I recall correctly, Anselm makes a move like this with respect to Mary.)

But how, practically speaking, does this differ from saying that God was always willing to forgive and that the Incarnation is the decisive historical manifestation of that forgiving, reconciling love? In both cases, God’s steadfast love is the cause of the Incarnation, and its effects transcend its particular historical manifestation. Which is not to say that the history is unimportant or unnecessary: how would we know what God was like unless it was revealed to us? But once you stop thinking that there was some time before which God wouldn’t or couldn’t forgive sin and that his forgiveness had to be secured by means of some transaction, the differences between the various atonement theories start to seem less significant.

More on Anselm and atonement

I just finished listening to this presentation by Fr. Thomas Williams–an Episcopal priest, distinguished philosopher, medieval scholar, and blogger–on Anselm and the atonement. Fr. Williams does a terrific job of clearing up some misconceptions about Anselm’s soteriology, and he provides a spirited defense of some of its essential elements.

One interesting and I think important distinction he makes is between a “substitutionary” understanding of atonement and a “vicarious” one. The former posits Jesus as an object (of God’s wrath, say) to whom something is done instead of us (our substitute); the latter emphasizes Jesus as the one who takes the initiative of acting on our behalf. Anselm emphatically takes the latter route.

Another key point is that Cur Deus Homo was written in response to the objection that God would be acting irrationally and in an “unseemly” fashion by securing our redemption through the Incarnation and Passion. After all, in the context of a classical view of God, it does seem a mark against the divine majesty for God to become a squalling, squirming human baby or to die a shameful death between two thieves on a cross. Thus Anselm was motivated to show not only that it was rational and fitting for God to act in this way, but that it was the only way God could’ve redeemed humanity. Even though he is associated with the slogan “faith seeking understanding,” Anselm holds that pure reason alone can demonstrate–without relying on scripture or Christian tradition–that, given human sin, God had to become incarnate. And yet, the only thing Anselm thinks he can show by pure reason is that the God-man must give up his life to provide satisfaction, not that he had to die in any particular way, such as crucifixion. Which is why, according to Fr. Williams, Anselm doesn’t go into the “gory details” of Jesus’ death, a la Mel Gibson (at least, not in CDH).

Fr. Williams provides a clear summary of Anselm’s key argument in the logically direct form beloved of analytic philosophers:

1. Necessarily, if human beings sin, God offers reconciliation.

2. Necessarily, if God offers reconciliation, the Son becomes incarnate and offers his life as a recompense.

Therefore, necessarily, if humans sin, the Son becomes incarnate and offers his life as a recompense.

Support for the first premise: God, by his very nature, will not let the project of creation come to nothing. The only alternatives in dealing with sin are punishment or recompense–and Anselm explicitly rejects punishment. Punishment may take care of the debt humanity owes to God, but it can’t restore the relationship. God doesn’t just want to right the balance, but to restore the relationship that sin has breached. (Which is why, incidentally, Anselm’s theory is not a variety of “penal substitution.” In Anselm’s account, punishment and satisfaction are mutually exclusive alternatives.)

Support for the second premise: The only way for reconciliation to happen is for the Son to become incarnate and offer himself. This is not something imposed on the God the Son by God the Father, because the Son has the purposes for creation in common with the Father. Christ’s self-offering, because his life is divine and therefore infinitely precious, can make up for the infinite badness of human sin. And because he is man, it is an offering made by humanity. Human beings have to do something to repair the relationship, but we can’t. Fortunately, the God-man can! However, the self-offering must be voluntary if it is to truly be an act of reconciliation. Violence–a death “unwillingly sustained”–can’t solve the problem. This goes some way, Fr. Williams maintains, toward addressing the critiques of feminists and others who see Anselmian atonement as tantamount to “divine child abuse.”

In Fr. Williams’ summary, Anselm’s argument can be stripped of some of the cruder commercial and feudal metaphors and essentially comes to this: The voluntary self-offering of the infinitely precious life of the God-man repairs the infinite breach that sin had opened between God and humanity and restores the possibility of eternal happiness that God had always intended.

Fr. Williams stresses that he’s not saying this is the right understanding of the Atonement. For that matter, Anselm says this too! The mysteries of the faith are so deep and inexhaustible, no one account gives you the uniquely right way of thinking about them. However, there does seem to be something deeply right about this basic picture. Anselm’s theory has been badly misrepresented by careless readings and second-hand rumors and should not be lightly dismissed.

Having Fr. Williams lay out Anselm’s position so clearly and elegantly reminded me how compelling it can be, but it also clarified some remaining issues I have with it, which I’d put under two headings:

Death as a result of sin. Jesus’ sacrifice is meritorious in part because, being sinless, he didn’t have to die. Anselm shares with most pre-modern theologians the belief that death occurred as a result of human sin. But living in a “post-Darwinian” world as we do, it’s much harder for most of us to see death as a result of sin. What happens to Anselm’s account if death is seen as a natural process rather than something that only enters the world in the train of human sin?

The apparent salvific irrelevance of Jesus’ specific life. Anselm’s rationalist methodology requires him to abstract away from the concrete details of Jesus’ life. But doesn’t this imply that the specific life the God-man led is irrelevant to our salvation? And doesn’t this seem contrary to the gospel accounts? In his proclamation of the Kingdom, his acts of healing and forgiveness, his miracles, his preaching, his consorting with sinners and outcasts, Jesus seemed to be mediating the salvation of God–restoring relationships and making new life possible. Can an Anselmian atonement theory make room for this?

I appreciate Fr. Williams’ effort to dispell the many misconceptions and half-truths that tend to circulate about Anselm, particularly in “liberal” theological circles. But I also think a satisfying contemporary theory of atonement would have to modify Anselm’s account, possibly in fairly significant ways.