Hymns, Theology, and Thoughts on Atonement

By: Dale M. Coulter
Thursday, September 26th, 2013

Jesus the Good Shepherd

Jesus the Good Shepherd

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.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Thursday, September 26th, 2013 at 5:57 am and is filed under Church History, Renewal Studies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

6 Responses to “Hymns, Theology, and Thoughts on Atonement”

  1. Hi Dr. Coulter,

    I liked your defense and clarification of Anslem’s Satisfaction. I liked your support of Christus Victor. But I see that you downplayed Penal Substitution. Does that mean you agree with the PCUSA Committee on Congregational Song? Your agreement seems to be implied. Just asking for clarification.

    Also, I wrote a blog about this a while back if you are interested: http://wmolenaar.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/penal-substitutionary-theory/

    In Christ,

    • Thanks William. I think you have the answer already. It would be strange for me to defend Anselm and simultaneously reject the use of an Anselmian idea. I tend to be less rigid on language anyway.

      As to penal substitution, it’s a hard pill for pentecostals to swallow given our traditional commitment to healing in the atonement. It is extremely challenging theologically to make healing in the atonement work if your dominant model is penal substitution because of its focus on levitical and cultic ideas. When a version of it has been embraced by pentecostals, it has, at times, fit quite easily with a name-it-claim-it theology because it concerns a kind of “transactional” analysis. If faith brings forensic justification through penal substitution, why not bodily healing?

      Since penal substitution belongs to the satisfaction family of theories, I tend to think that Anselm’s understanding retains most of the positive aspects of penal substitution without many of the negatives like its focus on forensic justification and cultic ideas, the little room it provides for healing, etc.

      Thanks for the link to your post and the response to my own.

      • Thank you for your clarification!

        So what you are saying is, the PCUSA Committee wasn’t really rejecting Anslem’s satisfaction theory (which only refers to dealing with God’s restorative justice–”the just requirement to restore what was broken,” and not the wrath of God). They were really rejecting “a Protestant intensification of Anslem’s idea” (which is the penal substitutionary theory “satisfying” not only God’s just requirement for restoration but also God’s wrath).

        So then it sounds like you would are okay with “Penal substitution” in the sense of satisfying God’s wrath by taking our punishment for sin, but you are not okay with “Penal substitution” because of the doctrine of forensic justification that is associated with it in the Reformed tradition.

        But I believe “penal substitution” can be conceptually decoupled from the Reformed tradition’s separate doctrine of forensic justification. Simply understand penal substitution as: Jesus taking the punishment for sin in our place, and thus “satisfying” the justice and wrath of God.

        Also, I agree with your concerns over the possible confusion of penal substitution/forensic justification with the Pentecostal doctrine of healing in the atonement, as some sort of name-it-claim-it guaranteed transaction for physical healing. But this can be dealt with in other ways (fairly easily I might add) than simply rejecting penal substitution, or forensic justification (or both).

        On a side note, Pentecostals could advocate an ecumenical proposal to keep a forensic view of justification in union with the transformative, liberating, redeeming embrace of/participation in the Holy Spirit, as Frank Macchia argues in, Justified in the Spirit (pp. 73-74; 86; 206). But that could be another discussion…

      • Yes on the first paragraph. If they are rejecting Anselm, then I would just agree to disagree with them.

        I’m not OK with penal substitution for a variety of reasons:

        1. It tends to extract the death of Christ from the entire dynamic of Jesus ministry so that salvation is reduced to the death. I would prefer to say with Christus victor that salvation begins when Jesus enters the world through the Spirit and begins to re-live human history.

        2. It treats the life and ministry of Christ as preparatory for the death in the sense that Christ becomes the perfect sacrifice because he lived a life free from sin. Thus his life is a prelude to the real act of salvation. I prefer to see the life he lived as not simply a preparation for his death but part of the conquest and restoration of justice that culminates in his death and resurrection.

        3. It tends to reduce sin to guilt and thus treat the death of Christ as handling guilt for sin a la the cultic tradition of sacrifice. I prefer a view of the atonement that holds together sin as guilt with sin as a power at work in humans (Romans 7) that must be broken. In the words of the hymn: “Would you be free from your passion and pride? / There’s power in the blood, power in the blood / Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide / There’s wonderful power in the blood.” The blood frees one from the disease of sin, not simply the guilt.

        Well, I could mention more, but I think that’s enough to support my point that the problems outweigh the benefits. If you want to reduce penal substitution to Jesus taking one’s place to satisfy God’s justice, why not simply go with Anselm? The concept of restorative justice Anselm has is broader in my view than what you get in penal substitution because the penalty of “penal” substitution is the guilt. This is Calvin’s position and it is why penal substitution goes so neatly with forensic justification.

        If the penalty is guilt it becomes very difficult to talk about the brokenness of the human body as being redeemed through the cross. You can talk about healing as part of the ministry of Jesus, but not the cross.

  2. It appears you have a narrow view of penal substitution, perhaps limiting it to Calvin’s view, to the exclusion of the other atonement theories. But, I don’t believe penal substitution needs to be exclusively forensic, nor does it need to be mutually exclusive with other non-forensic views. See: J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?: The Logic of Penal Substitution,” The Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture in 1973 (http://www.the-highway.com/cross_Packer.html; I of course reject his divine determinist soteriology though). Therefore, your critiques 1-3 (which I largely agree with) are not inherent or necessary to penal substitution.

    You asked, “If you want to reduce penal substitution to Jesus taking one’s place to satisfy God’s justice, why not simply go with Anselm? The concept of restorative justice Anselm has is broader in my view than what you get in penal substitution because the penalty of “penal” substitution is the guilt.” Well, I do agree with Anslem’s satisfaction theory, which is both forensic and restorative. Anselm deals with both human guilt (Cur Deus Homo, 1/20; 2/9) and the restoration of humanity (Cur Deus Homo, 2/16). For Anslem, this satisfaction is primarily in the context of God’s honor, but he doesn’t object to Boso’s view that it also involves a satisfaction of God’s wrath (Cur Deus Homo, 1/6). Anslem also supports penal substitution, in the minimal sense as I have defined it before as Christ taking our punishment (“penal”) (Cur Deus Homo, 1/12-15; 1/17; 1/24). Now I know there is a debate whether Anslem viewed Christ as our representative (“on our behalf”) vs. substitute (“in our place”), but I find this dichotomy unnecessary and unhelpful.

    The only difference I see between Anslem’s satisfaction and later penal substitution is that penal substitution EMPHASIZED a satisfaction of God’s justice/wrath rather than God’s justice/honor as being more biblically supportable (I gave some of this in my blog regarding Romans 1-3).

    Yes, some penal substitution advocates may have had too narrow a view in limiting the atonement to some sort of forensic transaction ONLY, but their views don’t need to dominate the definition of penal substitution. And even if they held a forensic view of penal substitution, it is still not mutually exclusive with the other non-forensic views. I know of no penal substitution advocates today who say a forensic penal substitution is the only biblical view of the atonement [please show me if there are serious scholars who say this]. And, even if there were, then they would be in error, and their error would be one of exclusivity not an error over the basic tenet of penal substitution: Jesus bore the penalty and punishment that we deserve for sin on the cross, and thus satisfying the justice and wrath of God for our salvation.

    And back to the issue at hand, this is precisely what the PCUSA Committee on Congregational Song has rejected.

    • William

      I don’t think we’re going to be able to adjudicate this disagreement here, so a few final points:

      1. I see the differences between Anselm and penal substitution as far greater than you imply.

      For one, Anselm does not trade in legal metaphors. He combines metaphysical ideas about harmony and beauty (see his use of fittingness) with metaphors derived from Feudalism (debt, satisfy, robbing God, etc.) and an emphasis on eudaimonism (see his writings on freedom where he talks about the relationship between justice and happiness). He is not operating in the arena of the courtroom like some Protestant Reformers were, most of whom rejected eudaimonism entirely. If your interpretation is correct, then Catholics who tend to accept Anselm and reject penal substitution are wrong. I think you need to take a closer look.

      2. Yes, many evangelicals like multiple models, but as Wayne Grudem makes clear in his Systematic, penal substitution is viewed as the orthodox position within evangelicalism. You can reject other models, but not penal substitution. It’s at the top of the hierarchy of atonement models.

      3. It’s funny you referenced Packer, whom I like greatly, since he explicitly says that the atonement is about retributive justice, not restorative justice.

      One of the key differences is over the question of whether Christ’s work actually does something for him, not just those he came to save because if it does, then it is, in a sense, for him too. Anselm, Aquinas, et al. would say that his work does something for Christ because he is the human working toward perfection. Christ’s mission is not just for others, but also for the perfection of his own human nature. In other words, it is not primarily about the pouring out of God’s wrath upon Christ. For Anselm, the debt to God is that humans have broken his creation. The penalty is a broken humanity and cosmos, and humans live with the penalty every day. What Jesus must do is restore that brokenness and fulfill the original vocation of humans to move from justice to happiness. It is restorative, not retributive. Penal substitution advocates will generally say that Christ’s work does nothing for him because he was perfect from the beginning, which tends to rule out the view of Irenaeaus that he had to become perfect. Jesus is not growing through the cross, but enduring the punishment of the cross.

      Penal substitution can only be stretched so far before it cannot contain the new wine. You cannot make all of the components of penal substitution fit with other models; something has to give so you either modify penal substitution to the point where it no longer looks like penal substitution or you modify the other models to fit it. I would counter your claim that my interpretation is too narrow by saying yours is too broad, which is why I don’t think we’ll resolve it in this dialogue.

      One final point: if you want to get Anselm you need to do some reading in the late eleventh century and early twelfth century. I don’t think you can get what he is doing entirely unless you see him standing between Jewish and Muslim criticisms of atonement and the theories offered at the Cathedral and monastic schools of the day (remember Anselm was in charge of the school at Bec before he went to Canterbury).

      Thanks again for your comments!