By now most people surfing the net have read and forgotten about the decision by the committee for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to drop “In Christ Alone” from the new hymnal. Numerous blogs were written in July and August some by friends and colleagues of mine challenging the decision.
The offending line was “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied,” in particular, the verb “to satisfy.” The verb, whether intentional or not, pointed toward Anselm of Canterbury’s understanding of the atonement as satisfaction and it was Anselm’s idea that the committee did not like. The chair of the committee Mary Louise Bringle was quoted as saying, “People think that we’ve taken the wrath of God out of the hymnal. That’s not the case. It’s all over the hymnal. The issue was the word ‘satisfied.’” Bringle also has an article in Christian Century in which she elaborates on some of the committee’s discussion.
Part of the problem is a rather long-standing confusion between Anselm’s understanding of satisfaction and the Protestant Reformation intensification of Anselm’s idea, which is better known as penal substitution. Although they belong to a family of atonement theories, they represent different takes on a basic idea: Jesus’ death paid a debt for sin that set things right with God.
Another problem is the lengthy debate carried out in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries over penal substitution as a viable model for the atonement.
While I’m not planning to enter into all of this, it does provide a good place to ask consider again how we might understand the atoning work of Christ.
First, Christians should affirm:
- That Christ’s death was vicarious meaning he stood in for humanity as their representative
- That Christ’s death took care of sin in a definitive way
- That through faith in Christ’s death anyone may be made right with God
I am sure that I’ll get objections to what I’ve written, but my aim is to compose broad statements that could be interpreted in a variety of ways given that they are in fact several different kinds of atonement theories.
Second, the challenge for any atonement theory is how to reconcile the two primary trajectories within scripture that fed into the work of Christ.
- The deliverance/liberationist trajectory (prophetic & royal)
- The sacrificial/cultic trajectory (priestly)
The deliverance or liberationist trajectory builds on the exodus traditions and the holy war motifs that correspond to them. They combine the prophetic and the kingly traditions in the Old Testament since the king was the warrior who led Israel into battle and the prophetic tradition built upon the exodus traditions to evoke an alternative consciousness about a new promised land.
In the New Testament exodus traditions form the backdrop to Jesus’ prophetic ministry of deliverance in which he proclaims liberty to the captives, heals the sick, and casts out the demonic. The Gospels, Revelation, and certain places in the Pauline corpus (Ephesians and Colossians) utilize exodus traditions.
The sacrificial or cultic trajectory builds on the levitical traditions and the notions of sacrifice in relationship to worship contained therein. When the Gospels invoke the death of Christ, they utilize levitical imaginary surrounding the day of atonement. Hebrews, however, is the primary location for levitical imagery in which Jesus is both priest and sacrifice.
How you reconcile these trajectories determines what theories you gravitate toward.
Penal substitution, for example, trades in levitical imagery. Paying the penalty for sin connects to ideas about sacrifice. In addition, the role of sacrifice in cleansing the person and making the person fit for worship (cultic ideas) fit well with forensic justification where the individual is declared right in the heavenly court. A challenge for penal substitution is its limited use of biblical data.
I tend toward a combination of Anselm’s idea of satisfaction and a Christus victor (Christ the conqueror) understanding of atonement as a way of reconciling these trajectories.
For Anselm satisfaction is really about doing enough (satis + facere) to repair the damage done to humanity and the cosmos. He connects the notion of sacrifice to restorative justice in a way that keeps in view the entire ministry of Christ. When Anselm claims that humans owe a debt to God that must be repaid, he is referring to the just requirement to restore what has been broken. Through his life Christ fulfills the original vocation of humanity to maintain a just life as the necessary condition to flourish. Justice leads to human flourishing; in other words, holiness brings about happiness. Through his death Christ restores the harmonies of creation that were broken by sin and thus pays the “debt” human beings owe to God.
Anselm brings out the connection between the levitical traditions and balance or harmony. One of the goals of the holiness code in Leviticus and the provisions for sacrifice was to order the life of the nation in relation to covenant. It was a means of maintaining shalom, which refers to the balance, order, and harmony in the nation, the self, and the cosmos.
Christus victor theories focus on atonement as an act of deliverance and redemption from sin. What is particularly insightful about ideas set forth by Irenaeaus of Lyons and Athanasius is that salvation remains connected to the entire drama of redemption expressed in and through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The conquest of Christ begins the moment he reads from the Isaiah scroll that his task is to bring liberty to the captives. He leads humanity on an exodus from sin and death. Thus salvation is about ushering in the kingdom of God.
This means that the cross is the culmination of a battle Christ has been waging against an array of forces from the politics of the Roman empire and the way they impinge on Jewish life to the demonic forces at work in people and in society as a whole. In this scheme one cannot dissect sin out of a larger structure of evil and fallen life. It is that larger structure that Christ assaults with the cross focusing particularly on the power of sin to destroy. But the cross flows into the resurrection and thus healing of the human body is a result of this conquest of the forces of sin and death, the structures of evil in the world.
The Book of Revelation continues this line of thought and comforts those in persecution by proclaiming the sovereignty of God in the ongoing battle with political realities that are ultimately a manifestation of the anti-Christ, a species of the demonic.
Both Anselm and Christus victor also allow for the prominent role of the Spirit in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is the Spirit who hovers over Mary; the Spirit who empowers Christ to fulfill his mission; the Spirit as the one through whom he offered the eternal sacrifice; the Spirit who raises him from the dead.
It seems to me that some combination of Anselm and Christus victor offers a way of reconciling the two primary trajectories in scripture that flow into the work of Christ. They help us to preserve central ideas of restoring shalom and overcoming the structures of evil. They also point toward redemption as a drama, a narrative of the Incarnate Son’s re-living human history in order to destroy sin, death, and the devil. We reenact this drama whenever the community of the faithful come together in the Lord’s Supper, which moves from past to present to future. And so, we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.