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.)

Slavery, divine judgment, and atonement

During my vacation I read James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Oakes tells the story of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged on a brand of antislavery politics that eventually resulted in the emancipation of America’s millions of slaves (via a bloody civil war, of course).

One thing that struck me was Oakes’ description of Douglass’ response to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Douglass adhered to what Oakes describes as “a messianic Christianity in which a vengeful God commanded the bloody overthrow of the slave system.” In Lincoln’s speech, particularly its references to the war being a form of divine judgment on the nation, Douglass saw a vindication of his view.

Oakes points out, however, that there were differences between Douglass’ and Lincoln’s views of divine judgment. Douglass saw things in more black and white terms–slaveholders and those who enabled them were sinners, and God would judge them accordingly. Lincoln, meanwhile, saw the sin of slavery as something that both North and South bore responsibility for, and he held that neither side’s cause could be simply identified with the divine will. “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

(Of course, Lincoln, as a free white man, had the privilege of taking this “broader” view, while Douglass–a former slave–had first-hand knowledge of slavery’s evils. So you could see why Douglass was less inclined to magnanimity.)

But what really interested me about this was that divine judgment played an important role in both men’s thinking, even though they represented what would be considered the “progressive” position of their time, politically speaking. They were invoking God’s judgment–even wrath–in the service of social justice and equality. This contrasts with a lot of contemporary progressive theology, which seems uncomfortable at best with the notion of divine judgment. Instead, God is often portrayed in terms of unconditional acceptance or “hospitality.”

But can unconditional acceptance of oppressors–slaveholders, victimizers, or abusers–be at the same time hospitality for their victims? If God loves his creation, wouldn’t he be wrathful at seeing his creatures abused? (It was Elizabeth Johnson’s defense of divine wrath in her feminist theology She Who Is that first made me realize this was not necessarily a “conservative” position.)

Maybe this is why, despite the many critiques that have been leveled at it, I still find something worth holding on to in traditional “satisfaction” accounts of the atonement. As Paul Tillich has written, we relate to God both as Father and Lord–that is, as a loving Father with whom we can have an “I-thou” relationship, but also as the universal governor of the universe and upholder of the moral order. Tillich thought that the emphasis on God’s fatherhood to the exclusion of his lordship accounted in part for liberal theology’s neglect of what he calls the Pauline doctrine of the atonement.

Lincoln and Douglass both believed there was a moral order in the universe, upheld by divine governance and that this would ultimately doom slavery. But it’s less clear to me whether Lincoln, with his God of inscrutable judgment, or Douglass, with his God of vengeance, could make room for divine mercy. (At least in Oakes’ account, Christ didn’t seem to play much of a role in either one’s theology.)

For all the distortions, that’s what the Anselmian doctrine of atonement–and its many offshoots–tries to do: hold together mercy and justice. God wants to save his creatures but does it in a way that preserves the moral integrity of the creation. There is a price to be paid for sin, though the Christian message is that God, in the person of his Son, has paid it himself. I’m not sure the doctrine is entirely successful, but it at least points to a genuine problem.

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.

“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer?”

In this month’s Christian Century, Anglican theologian Charles Hefling offers a take on the Atonement that’s very close to where I find myself on this nowadays. He rehearses the well-known points that the church has never dogmatically codified a particular theory of the Atonement but has cultivated a variety of models. He also gives a fair hearing to the penal substitution theory, acknowledging that it not only offers a fairly straightforward explanation but also has great emotional and imaginative power. Nonetheless, he thinks it’s fatally flawed, due to its reliance on a retributive understanding of justice:

Recall the beginning of the argument summarized above: God is just. That sets the context for everything else, and the sequel makes it clear that by justice is meant, more specifically, retributive justice, which consists in attaching rewards to merit and penalties to fault. Now justice, so defined, is an attribute of the God described all through the Bible. There can be no objection on that score. The problem, rather, is that penal substitution cannot be squeezed inside the same definition. To punish the guilty is just. They deserve it. The innocent do not. To punish them is not just; it is just outrageous. But Christ was innocent, tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). Nobody would deny that Pilate, Caiaphas and the rest acted unjustly; but if by doing what they did they were executing a divine plan—if God intended to punish his Son by their hands—then evidently God is not just after all.

From this internal contradiction there are two escape routes, one incredible, the other reprehensible. The first introduces the remarkable claim that Jesus was guilty, but only because the guilt of others was transferred from them to him. This expedient so undermines the very idea of moral responsibility that it would be better not to speak of justice at all. Guilt in the relevant sense is not the sort of thing that can be siphoned out of one person and into another. Nor is it any better to argue that punishing the innocent, though admittedly wrong as a rule, can in exceptional cases be just, provided it serves to “send a message” that dramatizes the heinousness of disobedience in order to deter those who might be inclined to disobey. There is a name for that: terrorism.

Hefling goes on to emphasize is that this is a sub-personal way of understanding atonement–one based on a model of impersonal justice instead of reconciliation between persons. Forgiveness isn’t just letting someone off from a penalty; it consists of mending a personal relationship, which requires “a change in both the forgiver and the forgiven.” And a willingness to accept suffering “is intrinsic to what forgiveness, in the personal sense, is.”

Why so? Because, in the first place, evil is like the good it undoes in that it is infectious. It propagates itself. Suppose, then, that I have injured you. As a person, you are free to choose your response. If you choose to retaliate, you perpetuate the evil by causing a new injury. The choice may be wholly justifiable, but it is no less injurious for that. If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine. On the other hand, if you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self-vindication and righteous indignation. Furthermore, you are choosing to make your willingness known to me, to offer me your friendship, to accord me a status and value no less than yours, all without denying my offense or ceasing to be my victim. At the same time, conversely, until I have chosen to acknowledge you as such, to own the injury, ask for your benevolence and reciprocate your offer, the forgiveness that we must both choose if it is to occur has yet to be fully chosen.

In this regard, Hefling calls forgiveness “an instance, perhaps the defining instance, of a more general, more inclusive pattern” exhibited in the teaching of Jesus.

Also, and most important here, it is enacted in the way he is reported to have met the final surge of hostility to that teaching and to himself. The hostility was probably inevitable; in that sense it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer” (Luke 24:26). But the necessity was not absolute. Things could have gone otherwise, to judge by the Gospels. Jesus could have chosen to flee, to fight arrest, to summon 12 legions of angels. All these he chose to refuse.

By so doing he chose to bear the cross, and his choice gave the bearing of it a meaning it would not otherwise have. Among thousands of Roman executions, this one is meaningful—not in the way a quantum of suffering might be meaningful, weighed in the scales of retributive justice, but meaningful as a communication, a word, an expression of willingness consistent with what Jesus had until then been expressing in deed and speech.

Has all this got anything to do with atonement? No. Not in the sense that because Christ accepted his suffering we do not have to suffer. It is the other way around. He accepted it because we do have to. His was a cross that had always been ours, the one way open to us, in a skewed world, for putting a stop to the consequences of our own malice without adding to them. Accepting that way, the way of the cross, was an act of solidarity with us and an offer of solidarity with him—an appeal for us to follow him by willingly taking up whatever crosses the world imposes, by making them occasions for joy, by forgiving.

Hefling anticipates that this could be seen as a “merely” exemplarist theory–that Jesus’ passion provides nothing more than an example for us to imitate. But this objection overlook the fact that taking up our crosses is not something that comes naturally to us.  We depend on grace to be conformed to the pattern established by Christ. This is why we need to recover the teaching that God effects reconciliation not just through the Son, but through both the Son and the Spirit (the two “hands of God” as Irenaeus put it).

One of the peculiarities of Western Christianity has been a tendency to speak of God’s initiative in reconciling his human creatures as though it were entirely a matter of sending his Son into the world. But God’s Spirit too has been sent—and continues to be. On the well-founded assumption that this second divine initiative complements the incarnation, there is reason to suppose that part of the indwelling Spirit’s job description is to be the “drawing” that attracts self-sufficient persons to the self-emptying person of Christ. In other words, the motivation for choosing this exemplar is itself a gift, “the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us” (Rom. 5:5). It would follow that reconciliation—atonement, if you like—can be understood as the action of a tri-personal God, rather than a transaction between the Father and the Son.

The reconciliation effected by the tri-personal God exhibits a form of justice that is more restorative than retributive. God brings good from the evil of the cross not in the sense of exacting punishment but in breaking the cycle of tit-for-tat violence to make reconciliation possible.

Presumably God has always been able to purge the world of its evils with an apocalyptic blast of power. Instead he has chosen to conform to the same justice he requires of his human creatures, to submit to the conditions of at-one-ment with them, to become all they are and are to be. And that is good news.

Hefling’s account has some obvious affinities with J. Denny Weaver’s non-violent Christus Victor motif as well as the more nuanced “exemplarist” theories I discussed here. A common thread is the rejection of a retributive understanding of justice on either biblical or more general moral-philosophical grounds. Although one can certainly cite biblical texts on both sides of this issue, I think Weaver, Hefling, and others have a strong case that a non-retributive understanding of atonement is more consistent with the teachings and practice of Jesus himself.

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.

In defense of Original Sin

In his book A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin, author-theologian-blogger Tony Jones tries to do two things: refute, or at least call into question, the doctrine of Original Sin and offer different ways of thinking about Christ’s atonement that aren’t tied to this (he thinks) false and damaging notion. Ironically, perhaps, I think the second part is more successful than the first. That is, Jones’s book (it’s really more of a long essay) is strongest in showing that there are multiple atonement theories that can contribute to our understanding of the work of Christ. I’m less persuaded, however, that “Original Sin” should be jettisoned, though I agree with Jones that the way the doctrine has traditionally been formulated has problems.

In the first part of the book, Jones tries to show how the doctrine of Original Sin as we know it arose from a particular reading of the opening chapters of Genesis and some passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans, particularly as funneled through St. Augustine. As commonly expressed, it goes like this: The first humans, Adam and Eve, were created morally perfect, not only being innocent of any actual wrongdoing but also lacking any inclination to do wrong. But by disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our first parents incurred both guilt and a disfigured nature, losing the ability not to sin. Both aspects of this catastrophe–the inherent inclination toward sin and the guilt attached to this state–have been passed down to the rest of us. (One variation on this account says that God “imputes” Adam’s guilt to the rest of humanity because Adam was the “head” of the human race, and thus authorized in some sense to incur this guilt on our behalf.)

According to Jones, this doctrine is both biblically unsound and scientifically untenable. He prefers a “paradigmatic” reading of the “fall” story in Genesis–it’s more about how each each one of us falls into sin than how sin came into the world “once upon a time.” Moreover, he maintains that Jesus didn’t explicitly accept a doctrine of original sin–citing as evidence the story in chapter 9 of John’s gospel, where Jesus denies that the man born blind was being punished either for his own sins or the sins of his parents.

The paradigmatic or “archetypal” interpretation of Genesis also informs Jones’s evaluation of Paul’s argument in Romans 5: “Paul states clearly that Adam’s sin resulted in every one of his descendants being sinful, too. So it seems that part of our interpretation of this passage in Romans hinges on exactly how we interpret and understand Genesis 2-3” (Kindle location 173). Unfortunately, Jones doesn’t go into any real detail about how we should interpret Romans 5 on this view, stating only that if “one does not believe that the taint of Adam’s sin is genetic but is instead an archetypal account of the human condition, then it will be taken another way” (178).

Jones is clear that he isn’t denying the reality of sin. I think his position can be fairly summarized by this passage:

The account of the original sin in Genesis 3 teaches us a lot about the state of human nature, our freedom to know right from wrong, and our proclivity to not necessarily trust God. But it does not teach that the sin of Adam and Eve is responsible for the sins of subsequent generations. (108)

While I agree that we need to interpret the fall story in Genesis in light of modern science and biblical scholarship, I’m not sure doing so means getting rid of the idea of Original Sin altogether. This is because the doctrine of Original Sin isn’t just a theory to explain the existence of sin; it also names a common experience. We have (or so it has seemed to many people) a deep inclination to do the wrong thing–to prefer ourselves or our narrow circle of interests to the broader good, to remain indifferent to structural injustice, and to turn a blind eye to violence and cruelty (or even to perpetrate it). St. Paul captures this experience in chapter 7 of Romans: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Even when we know what the right thing to do is, we often find ourselves with a deep-seated disposition not to do it. We can’t simply overcome this disposition through an act of will, and yet we experience guilt because of it. This is a guilt arising not from specific actions, but from a more generalized sense that there’s something wrong with us. (This “something” obviously manifests itself in specific “sins,” but it runs deeper than that.)

As I’ve written before, I don’t think you need to believe in a historical Adam and Eve or a historical Fall to recognize that we need salvation. Early Christians weren’t mostly, we can assume, drawn to the faith because it provided a satisfying intellectual solution to the “Original Sin problem.” It was more likely because they experienced, existentially, forgiveness and liberation from the power of sin through their encounter with Christ and their participation in the Christian community. Paul may well have been in part reflecting on just this experience in light of the biblical narrative when he developed the argument of Romans 5.

How we conceptualize “Original Sin” can, I believe, be separated from some of the more objectionable aspects of the traditional account (such as a fall from a prior state of perfection and the imputation of Adam’s guilt to subsequent generations). Specifically, I think an updated understanding of Original Sin would draw on both modern biological and a social understandings of human nature. And any re-thinking along these lines would likely affect how we understand the Atonement. But however we explicate it doctrinally, bondage to and liberation from sin is a fundamental part of Christian experience.

On “exemplarist” theories of the Atonement

In a post at “Jesus Creed,” John Frye criticizes–in the form of, er, a poem–“Abelard’s Moral-Influence theory [of the Atonement] (via Schleiermacher),” which he claims is making a resurgence (I’m not sure among whom). The gist of the poem is that this theory reduces Jesus to a “poster boy,” an example to follow and that this falls short of the transformation we need. “We need an Invader, not an example.”

The problem here is that Jesus as “an example to follow” doesn’t accurately describe the Atonement theories of Abelard or Schleiermacher–or “exemplarist” theories generally.

In Abelard’s most frequently quoted passage on the Atonement (which comes from his commentary on Romans), he writes:

It, however, seems to us that we have been justified in Christ’s blood and reconciled with God in this: God has bound us more to God through love by this unique grace held out to us – that God’s own Son has taken on our nature and in that nature persisted unto death in instructing us through word as well as example – so that the true love of anyone kindled by so great a gift of divine grace would no longer shrink from enduring anything for the sake of God.

Abelard’s point here seems to be that the Son has taken our nature and shared our lot in life, teaching and instructing us, even unto death, and this gift kindles in our hearts a love for God. In other words, we love God because he first loved us. Jesus here is far more than an example to follow, but is the incarnation of God’s love in our world, which calls forth a loving response from us.

Some scholars, like Thomas Williams, have argued that this only represents one pole of Abelard’s thought, and that he also affirmed something like penal substitution. Whether or not that’s the case, though, it’s clear that Abelard thinks of Jesus as much more than an example of virtue for us to copy. As the baptist theologian Paul Fiddes puts it in his defense of a broadly “Abelardian” Atonement theory, for Abelard, “the love of God is. . . poured out from the event of Christ” (Past Event and Present Salvation, p. 155) and the Christ event results in “an infusing of love into the human heart” (p. 198).

Schleiermacher might more plausibly be read as holding to the “Jesus as example” theory. But even he sees our relation to Christ in much more intimate terms than that. Salvation, for Schleiermacher, consists in entering into a “living fellowship” with Christ so that we might share his perfect “God-consciousness.” This is much more akin to a mystical union than a relationship of imitation.

More recent examples of “exemplarist” theories also emphasize that it is the love of God manifested in Christ that saves us–not our following of Christ’s example. For instance, the British theologian-philosopher Brian Hebbllethwaite defends a broadly exemplarist view of the Atonement in his essay “Does the doctrine of the atonement make moral sense?” He characterizes this view as

exemplarist, not just in the sense that the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ sets us an example to follow, but much more in the sense that the nature of God’s costly forgiving love is exemplified in the life, passion and death of God incarnate. (in Ethics and Religion in a Pluralistic Age, p. 80)

The death of Jesus, for Hebblethwaite (as for Schleiermacher and perhaps for Abelard), is not a condition that has to be met for God to extend forgiveness to us; rather, God’s forgiving love is “manifested and enacted in Christ’s passion and death.” The passion shows that God’s forgiveness is costly, but God did not require the death of his Son as a kind of payment in order to be able to forgive.

Hebblethwaite goes on to argue that the Atonement has two aspects, relating to what have traditionally been called “justification” and “sanctification.” These two elements–relating to the forgiveness of our sin and our transformation into the likeness of Christ–are what constitute our reconciliation, or at-one-ment, with God:

In other words, justification and sanctification–the two elements of atonement–are best understood in terms of God’s free forgiveness and the effective transformation of sinners, the moral seriousness of the former being shown in the whole story of the Incarnation, including the passion and way of the cross, and the moral seriousness of the latter consisting in the fact that conformation to Christ is no easy, automatic transformation but a winning of our penitence and commitment by that incarnate love and an inspiration from within by the Spirit of that same Christ enabling us to become more Christlike in the Christian fellowship and eventually in the communion of saints. This may be regarded as objective a theory of atonement as we can hope for. (pp. 82-3)

My point here isn’t that this is necessarily the correct account of the Atonement (though I have a lot of sympathy for it). It’s that many criticisms of “subjective” or “exemplarist” Atonement theories rest on a strawman version of what their proponents are saying. For Abelard, Schleiermacher, and Hebblethwaite, there’s much more to the Atonement than a good example for us to follow.

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.

Human origins, sin, and “fiduciary” atonement

This article by theologian George L. Murphy today is a very helpful discussion of how an evolutionary understanding of human origins affects the Christian doctrines of sin and salvation. Murphy begins by arguing that the evolutionary account is more consistent with a broadly “Eastern” view of original sin (Irenaeus) than with a “Western” one (Augustine). That is to say, humanity was not created perfect but rather was made good but immature. The fall into sin consisted of a deviation from the path God intended us to travel toward the new creation:

We have then a picture of a divinely intended growth of humanity rather than the appearance of fully mature persons. But once sin comes into the world that growth is distorted. […] The picture that we get in the early chapters of Genesis is not so much one of a single abrupt “fall” from perfection in Genesis 3 but of a gradual “falling away” that begins there and worsens in succeeding chapters, which is the point made in Genesis 6:5-7 as it introduces the Flood story.

The root of this “falling away” is a failure to trust God and that our good consists in following the path God intends for us:

Humanity could, with difficulty, have followed the path of development that God intended, for we are not hardwired, either through genes or enculturation, to behave in particular ways. Temptations would, however, have been strong. Sin was, in words of Reinhold Niebuhr, not “necessary” but “inevitable.”

Refusing to trust and obey God, humanity turned from the goal that God intended and chose another path. Soon we had gone astray. Moving away from God, we were lost in the woods and night was falling.

The longer this goes on, the more deeply successive generations are mired in sin, due to a combination of genetic endowment and social-cultural environment. And our idols proliferate as we put our trust in finite things instead of God.

In light of this understanding of sin as departure from the divinely willed path of development, Murphy proposes an account of salvation that emphasizes new creation. “Since the basic problem as I’ve sketched it is that sin has gotten human history off course, new creation can be spoken of as reorientation of the trajectory of creation.”

Drawing on the thought of Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, Murphy sketches an account of the atonement that focuses on how the death and resurrection of Jesus concretely bring reconciliation (at-one-ment) between humanity and God by creating trust (i.e., faith).

The fundamental problem that got humanity going on the wrong road, moving away from God, is failure to put our trust in the true God. Instead, as Paul argues in Romans 1, people place their confidence in all kinds of idols. That is why humanity was estranged from God, and that is what God had to correct in order to turn the course of history back to his intended goal—that is, to reconcile humanity with himself. God must destroy our faith in idols and create faith in himself.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God acts to destroy our trust in these idols and create trust in him. The cross shows us that those things we put our trust in (e.g., governments, religion, morality) can become the instruments by which God-in-the-flesh is killed! But the resurrection shows that God returns as the crucified one who brings not condemnation, but peace.

Murphy calls this a “fiducial influence” theory of the atonement. Like the more familiar “moral influence” theories associated with Peter Abelard, this account emphasizes that it’s humans who need to be reconciled to God, not vice versa, and that the cross of Christ is what makes possible that needed transformation. It differs, however, in emphasizing that it’s faith, not morality, that saves us.

The “Christ-event” creates this trust/faith, which makes possible our re-orientation onto the path God intended for us:

God’s initial work of bringing sinners from spiritual death is followed by continual renewal of faith and sanctification throughout life. The lives of people are turned back toward God, part of the process in which God reorients the course of creation toward accomplishment of his plan spoken of in Ephesians 1:10, to unite all things in Christ.

This re-orientation has social and even cosmic implications, as “a renewed humanity taking seriously God’s call to care for the earth as God’s garden and to exercise responsible stewardship for creation.” Being rightly related to God allows us to be rightly related to each other and to the rest of creation.

I’ve long found Forde’s discussion of the atonement to be helpful because of its focus on how the concrete actuality of the cross effects reconciliation (rather than on some metaphysical “transaction” happening behind the scenes). And I agree with Murphy that his “fiduciary” theory is more consistent with an evolutionary understanding of human origins than certain traditional atonement theories–for example those which presuppose that physical death is a result of human sin.

Evolution and “making God the author of evil”

I’ve argued before that the question of a “historical” Adam and Eve and the related question of a “historical” Fall is not a “gospel issue.” That is to say, universal human sinfulness is such a self-evident fact that the question of its origin is secondary. The gospel speaks to this phenomenon of universal sinfulness with its offer of universal grace.

But as Richard Beck points out in a thought-provoking post, the hard problem evolution poses for orthodox Christian theology isn’t one of soteriology (what are we saved from and how are we saved) but one of theodicy (how can an all-good God permit such evil as we see in our world). Beck is responding to a critique of evangelical scholar Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam by neo-Calvinist theologian James K.A. Smith. Briefly, Smith doesn’t think Enns takes seriously enough the importance of the orthodox doctrine of the Fall. And Beck thinks that Smith may be right that Enns, by focusing on the origin of humanity, may overlook the broader context that brings the theodicy issue to the fore.

The problem is this: if the evolutionary story of how life came into being is right (and it’s cleary the best account going), then it looks like evil (suffering, death, sickness, predation, etc.) is built into creation so to speak. In other words, if God uses evolution to bring life into existence–as “theistic” evolutionists contend–then it seems that God is directly responsible for the evil that attends this process. And if that’s so, then can we say that God is truly wholly good?

Beck argues that the point of the traditional doctrine of the Fall isn’t so much to account for human sinfulness as it is to safeguard God’s goodness by exculpating God from responsibility for the existence of evil. He goes on to point out, however, that the orthodox story isn’t quite as air-tight in safeguarding God’s goodness as we might think. He notes, for instance, that in the Bible the serpent (representing evil?) is already present in the garden, tempting Adam and Eve. No account is given of its origin. Only much later was the story of a “fall” of Satan and his angels from heaven posited as a kind of prequel to the Adam and Eve story. And needless to say, this just pushes the problem back a step–after all, whence comes the angels’ propensity toward sin? St. Augustine, for one, rather famously wrestled with this question and never reached a wholly satisfactory solution.

Beck concludes:

At the end of the day, theodicy doesn’t really boil down to the origins of evil. It boils down to this: Why’d God do it in the first place? Why, given how things turned out, did an all-knowing and all-loving God pull the trigger on Creation? Why’d God do it?

No one knows of course. Not Smith. Not Enns. Not me. My point here is simply to note that this is a live and acute question for everybody. So I think it right and proper for Smith to point this out for Enns. But the same question is pointed at orthodox theology and it doesn’t have any better answers, just a “mystery” that allows it, often in cowardly ways, to retreat from answering the questions directly.

Theodicy has always been the root problem of Christian theology, orthodox or heterodox. There’s no getting around that. The problem is no less acute here than there.

Readers may be aware of my ongoing interest in this problem. For instance, in my blogging on Christopher Southgate’s book on animal theodicy, I discussed his “only way” argument. This is the argument that creating by means of an evolutionary process–with all that entails in terms of evil and suffering–was the only way for God to get creatures like us in the context of a law-governed universe. God is “off the hook” as it were because there was no other way for God to achieve his ends. Whatever problems there may be with this view (and there are some), it does try to account for evil in a way that doesn’t make God the author of (avoidable) evil. But as Beck says, this is a challenge for all theology, whether it accepts evolution or not.