This post is the third part of our impromptu series on atonement theory. Check out parts one and two.
by John Thornton Jr.
If I'm reading Ben correctly, what he's saying is this:
Atonement theology will always be embedded within certain social formations similar to players on a basketball team. Each one will play a role and help the team accomplish what it hopes to accomplish.
I assume that when Ben writes "substitutionary atonement" what he means is "penal substitutionary atonement." I understand the assumption, but I just wanted to clarify because I believe that so long as any understanding of the atonement takes the incarnation seriously, it will always be substitutionary to some extent. Christ acts for us on our behalf and as us in the incarnation, forming a type of substitution in our relation to God.
However, the nature of that relation is the question atonement theory seeks to answer.
A standard penal substitutionary atonement is rooted in the belief that God created humanity to obey certain orders or laws within creation. In sinning, humanity disobeys God, violates those laws, and because God is just, God must punish us as sinners. Christ recognizes this and, as God, takes the punishment that humanity deserved from God. Thus, our accounts are sort of evened out in a way, based on a satisfactory punishment being given out. God's justice has been maintained in giving Christ the punishment that we deserved.
The resurrection is a bit of an after thought here and Jesus' actual life matters very little. What really matters is that we sinned, broke the law, had to be punished by God, so Christ took our punishment and now we're even.
This theology routinely gets attributed to Anselm of Canterbury; however, it's a bit of a misreading of his work Cur Deos Homo. According to Anselm, God created us for perfect obedience. God gave each creature a "station in life" which it is logical and reasonable for that creature to remain in. Doing so maintains a sort of beautifully ordered, functioning universe. In maintaining the order of the universe by obedience within a station, each creature gives honor to God. God's honor or glory is what holds the universe together. When we as creatures step out of our station in disobedience, we steal honor from God and incur a debt so great that we cannot repay it, but of a nature that God cannot simply forgive it and remain honorable.
Christ comes into our world, in our place, as a substitution and offers to God the perfect obedience we could not. When confronted with the God-Man, we could not accept his claims to perfect obedience and his lack of conformity with our understanding of God. As such, the God-man was put to death. By offering his perfect obedience even to the point of death, Christ offers the full obedience humanity owes to God. God's honor is restored and, because every good gift deserves another, God gives Jesus the gift of eternal life. Because Christ is God, he passes that eternal life onto us. Thus we become initiated into a type of gift giving relationship with Jesus and God, through the Holy Spirit.
What I find helpful about this understanding is that it moves us away from a God who punishes Christ instead of us as the only way in which the atonement works or accomplishes our salvation. To be sure, God does punish humanity, but in this model, it is not because of a breaking of laws, but a stealing of honor which may sound a bit weird to us, but has more of a relational dynamic than simply breaking the law. However, what Christ offers on our behalf is not the acceptance of punishment, but full obedience.
Christ does substitute for us in this understanding, but does so by way of offering obedience in a rationally ordered station of life. Christ becomes the obedient slave that we never could be.
All of this sounds really nice in theory and, in a way, it kind of is.
But, to use Ben's basketball analogy, what does it look like "in the game"? What sort of player or life does this view of the world make, and how does Christ function in it? What kind of people does this understanding make us into?
[This is not to say that we are the judge by which atonement functions or falls. Anselm's theology could be absolutely correct in his understanding of creation, nevertheless, it is important to think through what it looks like to carry this theology to its logical end.]
By my reading, there are two small, but very important pieces at work in Anselm that give a glimpse into what this looks like "on the ground."
At one point, Anselm answers an objection as to how humans can be told to forgive when God is the only one capable of forgiveness. His answer is that sometimes God punishes sinners in this world and is good and right and just when doing so. But (and this is key) sometimes that punishment is handed over to entities/powers in the world to carry it out justly. This makes sense in light of some of what Paul writes in Romans. However, thinking through Anselm's own station in life, and the church's position in the world at the time, it takes a bit of a darker turn. The church is standing on the cusp of the crusades. So you're reading this with a missionary/military effort just about to come online, and thinking "Oh right, sometimes God hands authority over to earthly powers to punish people for their sin. And who could do that more justly than the church?"
And remember who it is who deserve punishment - those who have stepped out of their "proper station in life." Those who are disobedient to the proper order of the universe. Muslims, Jews, disobedient slaves within a kingdom. These are the ones who God punishes, and sometimes hands that punishment over to be meted out by those in the world whom he chooses.
Two pages later, Anselm says that when God punishes, he sometimes does so by seizing both people and their property. He makes no mention that this is done by people in the world acting on God's behalf, but that's still hanging around, fresh in the reader’s mind.
What does any of this have to do with Christ?
A good deal actually. This system requires hierarchy. Honor cannot function amongst equals. There has to be some inequality at some point or in some way for something to seem more or less honorable. And what better way to know who to give honor to than by consulting one's prescribed station in life? Slaves, then, must give honor to their master through their obedience and if they disobey, they have to give up their property or personhood to the master.
Jesus Christ, then, in Anselm’s model, does nothing to upend this system of hierarchy. Jesus is a perfectly obedient role player on this team. Jesus Christ says nothing to the slave other than that when they disobey, they dishonor God. To the masters, he reifies their position of hierarchy and sanctifies the whole stratified system by being obedient even to the point of death.
To think about it in terminology a little bit more familiar, Jesus became the perfectly obedient employee, showing up for work every day right on time, and when his co-workers couldn't accept the value he added to the company, they got him fired. This Jesus does nothing to upset a system that might abuse employees. Christ, in this reading, does not confront hierarchies that kill and destroy, or indict them as being anti-Christ or anti-God, but only sanctifies them by his perfect obedience to them.
We obviously will not ever arrive at a stable conclusion of our understanding of the atonement. Christ’s love and life are too expansive and excessive for us to comprehend. We would do well, however, to continually question the games we play, and how we seek to wrangle Christ into them, as well as what rules we use Jesus to validate and what plays we draw up.
|I couldn't leave him out entirely.|
I was recently at a wedding and during the Lord’s Prayer, the minister said “forgive us our debts, while we forgive our debtors.” She was Presbyterian and apparently that’s how they do it. Meanwhile, the rest of us prayed the word “trespasses” instead of “debts.” After the service, I talked with a few friends about the difference (this is what you do when you and a majority of your friends went to a large Baptist school in Texas and studied religion or philosophy). I made the case for the reading of “debts” for three reasons.
First, I don’t really know what the hell a “trespass” is. Is God really that concerned with loitering and private property? Second, Jesus talks a lot more about money and lenders and collectors than property owners and trespassers. Third, forgiving debts is a hell of a lot harder for me to do. I believe that Christ’s divinity is a radical challenge to everything I presume to be “normal” about being human. For instance, what would happen to our economy if every person had a credit card with no limit and for which no one would ever expect a return? People would stop showing up to work. People would lose their jobs. Our economy would come to an immediate halt. People would no longer have incentive to work and grow or sell food or water or any of the other things we might need simply to survive. This is the risk involved in forgiving debts and is much more challenging to my everyday existence than whatever “trespasses” might imply.
Again, this is not to say that we are the standard by which the gospel is judged, but it is to say that when we find ourselves on a “winning” team, when we find the things we know to be absolute realities (like prison, and debt, and capitalism, and jobs) to be sanctified and glorified by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we might do well to pause and question what team we are on, what game we are playing, and what it means to proclaim Jesus as Lord. If my life (and the debt and prisons and the armies and the death it takes to sustain it) are not challenged by God’s entering into humanity, then I should certainly pause to reconsider whether or not I am worshiping the right Jesus, the Jesus of Scripture and the church.
God's entering into humanity is an affirmation of love and life through and through in a way that does not necessitate punishment of those who step outside of their station, but rather calls into question our desire to establish those stations, our need to administer punishment in the first place.
John Thornton Jr. is a first year Divinity student at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. You can find more of his writings at Clear Words, Full Thoughts. Also, you can follow him on Twitter @johnthorntonjr.
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