God’s Honor and the Atonement

From the April 2007 archives at The Thinking Reed comes this insightful post on how we misread the Atonement as a legal formality demanded by a proud, wrathful God. Actually, one could interpret it as God subverting the human zero-sum model of authority that must be shored up by another’s punishment, by collapsing all distinctions among the offender, the judge and the victim into the Person of Christ. Lee writes:

Anselm’s account of the atonement is rooted from first to last in his understanding of the divine nature, and he reworks the notions of honor and satisfaction accordingly. [John] McIntyre argues that a, if not the, key to understanding [Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo] is the concept of God’s aseity. This is theological jargon referring to the idea that God exists in and through himself, utterly independent of anything else. There is nothing “external” to God which constrains him to act in certain ways.

Thus, there isn’t an order of justice that has to be satisfied by God before he can be merciful to us, as though God were caught in some web of rules. And God’s “honor” for Anselm doesn’t refer to his wounded pride. God’s justice and purpose in creating the world are entirely internal to his nature, and his justice isn’t separate from his love. I think Anselm would agree with N.T. Wright’s point that “wrath,” understood as God’s hatred of sin, is inseparable from his love. How can God not hate that which destroys and corrupts his good creation?

That’s why, for Anselm, the atonement is entirely a provision of God’s love, and not something “imposed” on God from without. Such an idea is absurd in the strongest possible sense. In the Incarnation of the Son God provides for the satisfaction of justice by restoring the harmony and beauty of his creation which has been defaced by sin. But this is rooted in God’s love – love for his creation and inexorable desire that it be brought to fulfillment. Where Anselm differs from Wright and other proponents of a “penal” substitution is that Anselm sees satisfaction as the alternative to punishment. Christ isn’t punished in our place; the self-offering of the God-man provides for a gift so beautiful and good that it effaces or “outweighs” the disorder created by sin. Therefore anyone who “pleads the sacrifice of Christ” is brought into reconciliation with God.

Indeed, the concepts of honor and satisfaction are stretched beyond anything that would really make sense in a human social or legal relationship. God’s honor can’t be damaged, as Anselm points out, because God is unlimited bliss. The best we can say is that his “honor” refers to his unchangeable will to bring creation to its intended consummation. And “satisfaction” is no longer a kind of tit-for-tat proportionate recompense for discrete offenses. The gift of the God-man posesses infinite worth, completely outstripping the evil of human sin. Interesting, McIntyre argues that Anselm in fact subverts the medieval penitential system which prescribed specific penances for particular sins and lays the groundwork for justification by faith: the sacrifice of Christ truly is a once and for all response to human sin.

Browse more of Lee’s blog for posts on such diverse topics as coffee, the liturgy, heavy metal music, Christian peace bloggers, and our old friend N.T. Wright.

Proud Anglicans of the Week

Here’s a roundup of some great Anglican “via media” blogs I’ve discovered this month. All of these folks are thoughtful Christians determined to hold together the compassionate, progressive, dynamic spirit of the church’s liberals and the respect for tradition, truth and theological sophistication of the conservatives. They give me hope that the current fundamentalist-secularist impasse won’t last forever.

Christopher at Betwixt and Between offers a spirited and GLBT-friendly exposition of the Incarnation in his wonderfully titled post A Shitting God. (Hint: If this offends you, you’re exactly the person who needs to read it.)

We don’t want our God to come to us as flesh and blood, bone and sinew. But he did, not deeming equality with God something to be grasped at as did our first parents, but rather relishing simply to be an earthen one–“a shitting god” as one rabbi put it, became truly one of us in all of our comical glory, with our orifices and pleasurable bits, going out of himself to be with us as one of us. To become human is learning to be comfortable in our own skin, the very place God chooses to work, rather than think to escape into the ethosphere and shed off this mutable, vulnerable, carcass, as if we could so easily divide our body and soul leaping from distinction to separation.

The danger to Christianity isn’t homosexuality. The danger lies in certain tendencies in “orthodox” defenses against homosexuality that end with corruptions of our core doctrines or dogma as the case may be. In the end, we near a docetic Christ or a hieros gamos deity, and no more so than the god presented to gay people by the defenders. The fire for another is not our great error, nor harnessing and bridling that fire that love might deepen and move outward; our error is to stamp out that fire and somehow think we can find it all in ourselves without another or others. To do so is to negate the hook in us, as Gregory of Nyssa put it, which is God’s very gift to us for connectivity and intimacy, that lets us be pulled outward toward others, toward God. Another might enter us, and we would rather be self-contained–this is the deepest reality to which an imposition of celibacy for gay people leads. A Manichaean outlook cannot help but attain. That so many would reject such a god is to their credit. God would ravish us, and we would rather bliss out in perfect composure. Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once quipped that “Christianity is the most materialistic of religions.” But only when we take the Incarnation seriously enough that our God took a shit, could see the potential for love in a hard on.

Now that I’ve got your attention…Huw at +Z’ev: Lectionary Midrash posts about how gay people of faith often find themselves doubly shunned by conservative churches and by other gays who are bitter about religious homophobia. This post both comforted me and challenged my impulse to retreat into an enclave of like-minded people (most of whom are my imaginary friends) instead of withstanding the shame of being the token holy-roller in the Episcopal parish and the token P-Flag Girl in the evangelical one. If God is for us, who can be against us? But Lord, it’s so much work…poor little me…waah…

MadPriest at Of Course, I Could Be Wrong is an unrepentantly snarky extreme liberal, but his visual gags are to die for. I especially liked this one. Hat tip to MadPriest also for the link to this video from Episcopalooza.

Finally, Rev. Barbara Cawthorne Crafton at the group blog The Episcopal Majority takes a swat at the misuse of 1 Corinthians 8:9 (“take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak”) to silence gays in the church.

Nannette Croce: “The Box of Cereal”


It’s turning into The Rose & Thorn appreciation week here at Reiter’s Block. R&T editor Nannette Croce’s story about a man facing the brokenness of his relationships is well-paced, heartbreaking, and worth your attention. Here’s the beginning:

Hi, this is Richard Drake. I’m either not home, or I’m busy creating some ingenious piece of software. So leave a message at the tone, and I’ll get back to you – honest.

“Richard, are you there? Are you there?” I thought it might be my boss, but it’s Gwen. Ever since the suicide, she has this new voice, high-pitched and loud, even more of a teeth-grinder than her old one. “I need to talk to you. It’s important.” At the word “important,” I reach for the phone. Then I remember that there is nothing important left to tell me, and I relax back into my chair. “Richard. If you’re there and you’re not picking up….” There is some dead air. The machine clicks off. Maybe I’ll call her later. It doesn’t really matter. She’ll call back if I don’t.

She’s probably calling to ask me one more time what I remember about that weekend…that last one. She has to have asked the same questions a hundred times by now. What did he do? What did he say? Did he act depressed? Where could he have gotten the gun? And I answer her the same way every time. “I don’t remember.” “I don’t know.”

Read the rest here.

An Anglican Hero: William Reed Huntington

In the Anglican church calendar, today is the feast day of Episcopal theologian William Reed Huntington (1838-1909), whose achievements include spearheading the 1892 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, and formulating what became known as the “Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” the four-point statement of Anglican/Episcopal identity that is still used today.

Huntington cared deeply about Christian unity. His intent was to articulate a few core beliefs that made the church distinctively Christian and Episcopal; beyond those, the church should make room for a wide diversity of views. Those four points were the Holy Scriptures as the word of God; the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds as the rule of faith; the sacraments of baptism and communion, as ordained by Christ; and the historic episcopate (bishops who traced their lineage back to the apostles). Bryan at Creedal Christian provides a nice overview of those principles and their implications in today’s post.

James Kiefer, who writes the saints’-day bios at The Daily Office, observes:

The reader will notice that the four points of the Lambeth Quadrilateral: Scriptures, Creeds, Sacraments, and Ministry, correspond roughly to the points listed in Acts 2:41f, where Luke speaks of those who received the Gospel as it was preached on Pentecost.

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.

These early Christians were in the apostles’ doctrine. That is, they believed what the apostles taught about the Resurrection of Jesus, and about His victory on our behalf over the power of sin and death. That is to say, they believed the doctrine summarized in the Creeds.

They were in the apostles’ fellowship. That is, they did not seek to serve God as unattached individuals, nor did they form groups of persons of like minds with their own in whose company they might worship. They joined themselves to the existing band of believers, whose nucleus was the apostles. That is, they were united by participation in the ministry of the apostles and those whom the apostles deputized to carry on their work.

They participated in the breaking of bread. That is, they were regular participants in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. (That they had received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism has already been specified.)

They participated in the prayers. As far back as our records go, Christian services of worship have consisted principally of two things: (1) the reading of the Holy Scriptures and preaching based on them, accompanied by prayer, and (2) the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The pattern was set by Our risen Lord at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), when He first opened the Scriptures to His companions, and then “was known to them in the breaking of bread.” The former part, the prayers and readings and sermons, would often be referred to simply as “the prayers.”

Huntington’s classic The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity is available used at Amazon.com.

Anne Caston: “A Man, Returning, Will Not Be The Man Who Left”

A world view: for months and months before he left
for war, he’d spoken of it as if to be without one
was to be godless. And then the planes. Four.

Forget a world view. What she wants
today is a table solid enough to set things on:
a lamp, a pitcher, a bowl of lemons.

She wants a dress the color of brandy.
She wants a black lace shawl.
A silk slip. A locket.

But Love, that tenderest tyrant of all,
fastens its necklace of flame
at her throat and she gives herself

over again to the lesser glory of who she is
with him: the glory of a bent spoke
and the rut it fell into.

She imagines him sometimes now
as he must have been then
in that other kingdom of men:

his doll-like face in its little uniform
of death; his shuttered eyes,
opening, closing;

and, underneath the ribs,
in place of an actual heart, the far-off
knocking of the guns that opened him.

Reprinted by permission from the website Why Are We In Iraq?


Why Not Church?


Yesterday I wrote to a friend who heads my women’s Bible study group:


It has become quite clear to me that fear of sin is one of the things keeping me from church. The current cultural landscape is such that I will eventually end up offended by something I hear either in the conservative or the liberal church, and I am afraid of being unlikable and conflict-causing when I offer a different viewpoint.

Since the whole point of being a Christian is the grace not to be driven by fear of sin any longer, this is obviously a problem. She wrote back:

I too feel if I went back to [the evangelical church], I would be screaming
You people are crazy don’t you see that I am right and you are wrong

and if I went back to [the liberal church] I would be screaming
You people are crazy don’t you see that I am right and you are wrong

Once I put that down in writing, it gives [the liberal church] a less compelling pull on me. If I’m likely to be a screeching lunatic wherever I go, might as well go somewhere where Jesus is Lord.

Or to put it another way:
Girl…It’s not about you!!

Caron Andregg: “The Thursday Night Trap Club”

We’re skeet shooting
the potter’s seconds.
The catapult slings
skewed plates, cracked
vases in erratic arcs
across the dry creek canyon.

Each Thursday evening
we obliterate
the week’s mistakes.
When the pellet-spread connects,
explodes a shrapnel star
it’s an absolution.

Lucinda’s been casting
reproductions of Egyptian
bowls with tiny feet.
One seems near perfect;
but when I set it
on the trap-box edge
it lists, daylight gleaming
beneath the toes of one foot.

When wet and forming
it must have rested
on a warp, something
not quite level in the firing.

It seems somehow unfair
this small, lame thing
wound up in the slag-box
destined for buckshot
just because it totters.

And it strikes me
how much easier it is
to love a flawed object –
the supplicant’s posture
like a pair of cupped hands;
the sloped bowl tilted in offering;
its little feet of clay.

Caron Andregg is co-editor of the fine journal Cider Press Review, which is accepting submissions through Aug. 31. They also sponsor a poetry manuscript prize open for entries Sept. 1 (deadline Nov. 30). This poem was originally published in Rattle.

The One-Room Schoolhouse

My church is beginning the rector search process, and already we’re feeling sorry for this person because of the conflicting expectations he or she will have to manage. We want a firm administrator who’s also a gentle pastoral caregiver; someone who can address the unique needs of the elderly, singles, young families, Sunday School kids, and college students; someone to balance our budget without disrespecting any of the programs that our strong lay leadership holds so dear. I’m sure this dilemma is common to any church that can boast of a diverse congregation and a large menu of activities. St. Paul addressed it in several epistles with the reminder that we are members of one body, with Christ as the head.

The issue preoccupying me right now is how people who are at different stages of religious commitment can worship together. It takes a skilled minister not to direct his entire attention to one of these groups and treat the others as an obstacle to his agenda.

Seekers and beginning Christians have one set of concerns: How do I know there is such a thing as religious truth, and that this is it? Will this community accept me and be patient with my doubts? Is there space here for beliefs and attitudes from the other worldviews that previously guided my life, or am I expected to repudiate them? Can I trust the Bible or any other religious authority?

Other members who are already firm in their commitment to Christ will have different concerns: How can I experience Jesus more fully as a loving presence in my life? What acts of service is he calling me to do? Why don’t I always act consistently with my beliefs, and how can we as Christians help one another stay on that path? How can I begin hearing God’s voice through the Bible?

In our liberal community, we’re more likely to overshoot on the seeker-sensitive side. This can leave longer-term Christians (I don’t want to flatter myself with the words “more mature”!) feeling that faith beyond a certain level is not encouraged, almost in poor taste. We rightly don’t want to shame or pressure new believers. On the other hand, we deprive seekers of an important hope for their journey when we don’t give them any role models of Christians who’ve found what they seek. At the risk of repeating the only idea I have, I’ll say again that this is what happens when we try to prop up people’s egos with anything other than the forgiving love of God in Christ.

St. Paul’s image of the body of Christ may be too intense for a group where not everyone is on the same page about Christ’s lordship in their lives. It begs the very question that we’re trying to work out: what are we doing here? A less fraught metaphor might be the one-room schoolhouse. Everyone still has a lot to learn, and we’re learning it together. The teacher doesn’t feel his authority is threatened when the big kids help the little ones with their sums. Six-year-olds aren’t criticized for not knowing algebra. Sixth-graders don’t have to hide their copy of The Scarlet Letter inside a Dick-and-Jane primer.

What holds it all together is a teacher who believes there is a real body of knowledge we’re all studying in common. He’s not simply a cafeteria worker scrambling to cater to everyone’s existing tastes for strained peas or spicy tacos (to mix my metaphors for a moment). I pray that our church finds someone who can lead this way with kindness and patience.

Trinity, Atonement, and the Coherence of Doctrine

Years before I found Christianity believable (or truly understood what there was to believe), I found its coherence as an intellectual system immensely satisfying. Now too, the more I learn, the more I appreciate how its core concepts are inseparably entwined. Take away the Resurrection, for instance, and the Crucifixion goes from triumph to tragedy. However much disbelievers in miracles try to recast Jesus’ death as an inspiring martyrdom, if the story ends there, it really isn’t all that inspiring — just another tale of how good guys finish last.
Similarly, Bryan at Creedal Christian points out in a recent post that the doctrine of the Atonement would seem barbaric without the Trinity. The objection is commonly heard, “What kind of father would be so wrathful that he could only be appeased by the death of his son?” Isn’t that the essence of human sinfulness, after all — that there must be a doer and a done-to, a consuming ego and a devoured other? That power struggle vanishes only when we see that the two characters in this drama are really one:

God sending the Son to suffer and die on the cross can only be construed as sado-masochistic if – as Arius taught – the Son is less than the Father. But if, as the Nicene Creed affirms, the Father and Son are one, then Jesus’ willing submission to the cross is not a concession to the Father’s vicious will. Rather, the Divine will is ONE will – a loving, redemptive will for Jesus’ death to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.

When we see Jesus’ voluntary submission to the cross, we see God’s will for the redemption of the world unfolding. We see the reason why Jesus was born.

Both liberal-modernists who deny the divinity of Christ, and Calvinists who fixate on God’s naked power to the exclusion of His love for humanity, have at times obscured the Trinitarian paradox that works through our sinful structures of abuse and domination in order to delegitimize them once and for all. Catholic theologian James Alison eloquently argues this point in his 2004 lecture “Some Thoughts on the Atonement”:

[N]ormally, in the theory understanding of substitutionary atonement, we understand the substitution to work as follows: God was angry with humanity; Jesus says, “Here am I”; God needed to loose a lightning rod, so Jesus said, “You can loose it on me”, substituting himself for us. Boom: lightning rod here: sacrifice: God happy. “Got my blood-lust out of the way!”

The interesting thing is that it worked in an entirely different way: what Jesus was doing was substitute himself for a series of substitutions. The human sacrificial system typically works in the following way: the most primitive forms of sacrifice are human sacrifices. After people begin to become aware of what they are doing this gets transferred to animal sacrifices. After all it’s easier to sacrifice animals because they don’t fight back so much; whereas if you have to run a sacrificial system that requires you to keep getting victims, usually you have to run a war machine in order to provide enough victims to keep the system going; or you have to keep the pet “pharmakons” around the place – convenient people to sacrifice, who live in splendour, and have a thoroughly good time, until a time of crisis when you need people to sacrifice, and then you sacrifice them. But this is an ugly thing, and people are, after all, human; and so animals began to be sacrificed instead. And in some cultures from animals you get to more symbolic forms of sacrifice, like bread and wine. You can find any variation on the theme of sacrificial substitution.

The interesting thing is that Jesus takes exactly the inverse route; and he explains to us that he is going in the inverse route. “The night before he was betrayed…” what did he do? He said, “Instead of the bread and the wine, this is the lamb, and the lamb is a human being.” In other words he substituted a human being back into the centre of the sacrificial system as the priest, thus showing what the sacrificial system was really about, and so bringing it to an end.

So you do have a genuine substitution that is quite proper within the atonement theory. All sacrificial systems are substitutionary; but what we have with Jesus is an exact inversion of the sacrificial system: him going backwards and occupying the space so as to make it clear that this is simply murder. And it needn’t be. That is what we begin to get in St John’s Gospel: a realisation that what Jesus was doing was actually revealing the mendacious principle of the world. The way human structure is kept going is by us killing each other, convincing ourselves of our right to do it, and therefore building ourselves us up over and against our victims. What Jesus understands himself as doing in St John’s Gospel is revealing the way that mechanism works. And by revealing it, depriving it of all power by seeing it as a lie: “your father was a liar and a murderer from the beginning”. That is how the “prince” – or principle – of this world works.

So what we get in St John’s Gospel is a clear understanding that the undoing of victimage is not simply a liturgical matter, it’s not simply a liturgical fulfilment, but is the substituting himself at the centre of what the liturgical thing was covering up, namely human sacrifice, therefore making it possible for us to begin to live without sacrifice. And that includes not just liturgical sacrifice, but therefore the human mechanism of sacrificing other people so that we can keep ourselves going. In other words, what he was beginning to make possible was for us to begin to live as if death were not, and therefore for us not to have to protect ourselves over against it by making sure we tread on other people.

Read the whole lecture here.

Poetry Roundup: Smith, Backer, Roeske

Some favorite picks from recent browsing of online journals. I’ve just quoted a few lines of each for copyright reasons; visit the journals’ websites for the whole poem.

Character Study
by Patricia Smith

…He was scarred
by every change I’d made, every strike-through,
cut/paste, backspace, delete, all the unleased
betrayal that roars through prose. I built him
from a knowing of adjectives, piled on detail
and declaration, and now he is overdone, dragging
all that weight and wheezing when he breathes.
The boy patiently loads his pockets with stones,
bottle caps and jagged pieces of glass, waiting
for the moment when the skin of my neck is exposed.
Only 11, he scans me with man eyes and says it,
claiming my nights, advancing the plot in a way
that can’t be undone. He says: Give me a name.

   Read the whole poem, plus an interview with acclaimed performance poet Smith, at Torch, a journal of creative writing by African-American women.


The Fourth Nest
by Sara Backer

It hurts to cut an old rose bush
into trash-can pieces,
but the backhoe comes tomorrow
to carve blue lines on paper
into trenches in the ground.
To make a new dream happen,
you must give up the one you’re living in.

   Read this poem in the new issue of The Pedestal Magazine.


Cold Snap
by Paulette Roeske

In the news, a woman’s frozen to her floor
in the usual attitude of prayer. Taking her
for dead, the medics joke over a joint
while they chip at the ice. Consider
their surprise when she mumbles an invocation
to whatever saint knows firsthand
cold that cuts to the bone.
When he appears, she holds out a hand
she expects to be taken.
The medics, who think she is waving, wave back,
although she has already boarded a ferry
to nowhere they can imagine.

   Read this poem at The Diagram.