Saturday, it seemed like such a good idea to launch a set of pocket summaries of atonement theories to spark conversation and debate. But today, I wonder…
Well, I’m committed now. So here goes.
These blogs will come in no particular order, but I’ll with Anselm since it’s the background to the theory of Penal Substitution we were questioning yesterday.
Anselm: Atonement as Satisfaction
Anselm of Canterbury wrote in the 11th Century. He wanted to offer an explanation of salvation that focused on what God was doing in Jesus — specifically, to offer explanation of ‘Cur Deus Homo‘ (why God became human). As you’ll soon see, the theory is very much influenced by an honour code shaped by Feudalism, with God as the ultimate feudal Lord.
And the theory goes something like this:
- God the creator is of infinite worth.
- Human beings are created to be in relation to God and to honour him by submitting perfectly to God’s will. Human beings owe God perfect obedience every moment of their lives.
- Sin is the failure to give God his due.
- (here’s the feudal bit) If we fail to give God (the overlord) his due, we dishonour him. We then have to make amends (Satisfaction) for the breach of honour, by paying more than we originally owed.
- But we can’t give God more than we originally owed, because we already owed God everything.
- and to make it worse — the extent of the affront is determined by the relative ‘worth’ of the one we dishonoured. God is if infinite worth. We dishonour God. So we’re in a real mess.
- Anselm says that in order to make Satisfaction, we need to offer God something that is greater than all that that is owed to God — i.e. greater than all creation.
- There is nothing greater than all creation, except God himself. Therefore God is the only one who can make satisfaction for the affront of human sin.
- But only a human being can make satisfaction for human sin, because it is human…
- Therefore God becomes human.
- Jesus, as God, has enough worth to make satisfaction for human sins. Jesus, as human, can make a human offering/ gift as satisfaction for human sins.
- But how? (careful, there’s a shift of focus here:) Remember: death = the price of sin. When most humans die, they are doing nothing more than paying what is due. But Jesus was without sin, and did not ‘owe’ God death. By choosing to die, Jesus therefore ‘gained merrit’: his death was supererogatory.
- God was so pleased by Jesus’ free choice to die that Jesus gained lots of honour points. Those honour points were transferred to us. Therefore we are saved.
Phew. Aren’t you glad it’s not the 11th century?
I’ll leave you to critique this.
The key thing to note is that Jesus’ death is a gift not a requirement. Although death is the price of sin (as with Penal Substitution), Jesus is not being punished on the cross. Rather, he is making an offering, to give God something precious and valuable (his life). Though why that offering should have to be on a cross is not entirely self-evident.
Anselm’s theory is very definitely not the same as Penal Substitution — but it paved the way for it, as Anselm’s feudal world view was reinterpreted in terms of the 16th century law courts.
If you had to choose one, which would it be?
And if you refuse to choose either, what would you offer instead? (though to be fair, there will be more options yet to come.)