Ted Grimsrud—September 13, 2015
[I am in the midst of a series of presentations to a Sunday School class at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on rethinking our understanding of salvation. I was asked to make a total of four presentations, drawing on my 2013 book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books) and various other writings I have produced on this theme. This written version of my first presentation actually sets the context for the book more than summarizes the book. It is a discussion of how our traditional atonement theology is problematic and why it might be useful to think of an alternative. I have found this a useful challenge to summarize the main ideas of this project.]
These are some questions to get you thinking about this topic of Christian salvation: What were you taught (explicitly and implicitly) about (the means of) salvation when you were growing up? How (if at all) have you revised your thinking on that theme? What role (if any) has the idea of Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice played in your beliefs about salvation? How would you characterize the view of God reflected in your salvation theology? What connection would you make between one’s view of salvation and how life is lived out as a follower of Jesus?
The word “atonement” was coined in English, perhaps very early in the 16th century, as a way to talk about Christian salvation. It was actually created by simply joining together the phrase at-one-ment. It was meant to be used as a way of talking about how human beings are to be reconciled with God. So, “atonement” does not directly translate any Hebrew, Greek, or Latin word; it is something new. It has been called perhaps the only theological term with an English origin.
We should note, then, that the very word “atonement” was created around 400 years after the influential medieval theologian and church leader Anselm of Canterbury wrote his classic text that defined Christian salvation theology—the most influential work for both Catholics and Protestants. Anselm’s position articulated in Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) established what came to be called the “satisfaction” model as the essential understanding of atonement that shaped western Christianity (it is essential to realize that Anselm’s work came about a century after the formal separation between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy as the two main branches of Christianity—and the view of salvation developed in eastern Christianity was quite different than the western theology; so what follows is a critique only of the western, Anselmian theology).
So when the word “atonement” was coined, the Anselmic satisfaction approach was in mind. So, even though in recent years theologians have argued for a variety of atonement “models,” some based on streams of Christian thought that long predate Anselm, to talk about “atonement” may most accurately be seen as referring to the satisfaction view—most likely that was the view in mind when the word “atonement” was invented. What I will discuss here as “problems with atonement theology” will be focused on the satisfaction view and some of its variants.
The satisfaction view of atonement has dominated western Christianity for close to a millennium now. Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism (which adds a more intense element with the notion of punishment, “penal substitution”), and through Calvinism most of Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism all have generally held to some form of the satisfaction view of atonement as the heart of their salvation theology.
For the satisfaction view, the separation between humanity and God is due to human failings that God is required by the moral nature of the universe to hold against us. This may be thought of in various ways. We violate the commandments of God that in some sense reflect a moral balance that is thereby disrupted. Or due to our sin nature and our sinful actions we are impure in God’s eyes. Or we dishonor God by not offering God the complete obedience that God, as the Great Sovereign to whom we owe our being, deserves (or requires).
However it may be characterized, the basic dynamic results in a dilemma where we have severed our relationship with God by our sins and God cannot simply forgive us or act directly to bring healing. God’s holiness (or God’s justice or God’s honor) must be satisfied before the relationship can be restored. The debt we owe God must be paid or the equilibrium or balance of the moral universe must be restored—or God must destroy or condemn us.
So, the place where the action must take place, the place where the transaction must happen, the place where the means to create salvation must be effected, is on God’s side. God is the one who needs must be satisfied. If there is to be salvation, something must happen for or to God. God must be satisfied. Our debt to God must be fulfilled.
Now, obviously in this view, human beings—sinful, weak, and disobedient as we are—cannot possibly pay this debt. Since we are the problem, since we create the alienation, obviously we would be incapable to doing what is needed to satisfy God. This is not unfair or unjust because we are the ones that caused the problem. But we live in the midst of a seemingly unsolvable dilemma—we mess things up, we can’t fix them, and God can not unilaterally act to bring salvation without overturning the universe’s very moral foundations.
What happens, though, is that God does find a way to overcome the dilemma. In Anselm’s terms, God becomes human. God is incarnated in the person Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus lives without sin (that is, he does not break any commandments and remains pure and obedient). He is thus a human who does offer God the honor God deserves and requires. And then Jesus dies as a perfect, blemishless sacrifice to God. With such a death, Jesus does satisfy what God needs—paying the debt, offering the perfect obedience, balancing the scales of justice. Jesus’s sinless life and sacrificial death provides the good that overcomes the terrible bad of human rebellion against God.
In the penal substitution variation of this atonement tradition, Jesus takes upon himself God’s profound anger as our substitute, accepting the punishment for sin that we deserve—even though he actually was without sin. As this substitute, he satisfies the needs of God’s retributive justice to respond to wrongdoing with punishment.
In whatever form, in all of these ways the key aspect of what would make salvation possible is resolved. Something needs to happen on God’s side of the divine/human divide. God needs to be satisfied—and is through Jesus’s perfection and death. That is, the only act that can satisfy what God needs is a violent, sacrificial death by an innocent victim.
Thinking about this approach to salvation from the perspective of peace theology, I want briefly to identify a number of problems.
• It portrays God as harsh, violent, inflexible, judgmental, non-compassionate, weak (God can’t simply forgive and must be subject to moral rules of the universe), and unfair (God creates the way we are and then judges and condemns us for being the way we are). In this view, God is not loving and merciful all the way down.
• It posits violence as necessary for redemption to happen, an expression of what Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence.”
• It provides an influential model for how human beings might respond to wrongdoing—with punitive violence, retributive justice based on an understanding of the moral nature of the universe that has debt and retribution as core elements (a model that finds expression is justifications for war, capital punishment, violent child discipline practices, et al).
• It minimizes the significance of Jesus’s life. What matters is his sinlessness (understood mainly in terms of not breaking laws) and perfection, not his modeling how to love our neighbors and challenge unjust authority. It is the way that Jesus is different from other humans that is central for salvation—he dies so that we don’t have to.
• It ignores Jesus’s own teaching and actions related to salvation. Jesus himself forgave sinners directly without the need for a sacrifice to provide satisfaction. Jesus responded to human impurity by compassionately entering the lives of the “impure” and offering healing—not by destroying them as the penal substitution model would require of a “holy” God.
• It doesn’t take seriously the emphases of the prophets in their critique of sacrifice. They opposed the use of sacrifice to buttress centralized power structures such as the temple and priestly elite. They proclaimed that God desires mercy not sacrifice.
• It ignores Jesus emphasis on overturning a debt-oriented approach to human life. “Forgive us debts as we forgive the debts of others.” The satisfaction approach, in all its variations, presupposes the on-going validity of a debt-oriented moral universe rather than recognizing Jesus’s rejection of that approach.
• It, in a sense, lets the forces that killed Jesus off the hook. As we will see in a later post, Jesus was killed as a result of the Powers rebelling against God and the story means to help free us from giving those Powers (such as the state, religious institutions, and cultural biases) our loyalty. The satisfaction atonement theology minimizes the actual social dynamics by making the story of Jesus’s death mainly about the cosmic transaction between God and Jesus.
•In a general sense, in conclusion, the satisfaction atonement theology does not empower faithful living after the pattern of Jesus’s way of life.
A Better Approach?
In light of these problems, what might be a better way to think theologically about salvation? There are various efforts to propose different atonement theories (e.g., “Christus Victor” and “moral influence” are two of the most prominent). However, because of how closely key elements of the satisfaction are linked with the term “atonement,” I think it might be better to think of salvation theology apart from the motif of atonement (hence the title of my book, Instead of Atonement).
The three posts to follow will summarize my effort at grounding my salvation theology in the biblical story—and to explain how this different approach may actually empower peacemaking and restorative justice (in my book, I use criminal justice as an example of how the satisfaction view has contributed to serious problems in our culture and suggest how a restorative justice approach might be linked with this alternative salvation theology). More of my writings on these themes may be found here.
[Here are parts two, three, and four]