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.
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