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.