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Friday, December 08, 2006

David Hart / Atonement

After seeing posts at The Lesser of Two Weevils and PamBG's Blog on atonement, I thought I'd write a little about it too.

I don't care for the atonement theory, in any form, but it's hard to hold a view contrary to that of someone like Thomas Aquinas :-) so out of curiosity, I looked up the Eastern Orthodox view. I found the ransom theory of atonement, the "classic" or "physical" theory accepted by the church fathers until around the 12th centurty ... it has God paying a ransom (Jesus death) to the devil in order to save those under the devil's power (us). Anselm's theory replaced this, at least in the West, and his theory was later modified by Aquinas.

I then searched for something more on the Orthodox view by David Bentley Hart, as I like his writing style. What I found were references to an article he'd done - A Gift Exceeding Every
Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo
- in Pro Ecclesia, but it was nowhere online. Then I realized he'd used the article in his book, The Beauty of the Infinite, which was in a depressingly tall pile of unread tomes in my beadroom :-)

If I understand what he's written correctly ( no guarantee of that :-), he wants to reconcile Anselm's (Catholic) "satisfaction" atonement theory with the (Orthodox) "ransom" theory, or rather, he wants to show that reconciliation is not needed ... that interpretations of Anselm, both Eastern and Western, have been misguided and that the two theories are not really different. I've posted a little of what he wrote, below.

An interesting aside, before I post the excerpts ... while I was looking for the Hart article, I came across a group blog that has a brother of his, Fr. Robert Hart (an Anglican priest), as a contributer ... The Continuum

Now, on to the book bits ...


... the notion that Christ's death constitutes an appeasement of divine wrath against sin figures more than marginally in the history of Christain reflection upon salvation, especially in the West. Is it not the case, one might at least ask, that the theology of atonement has usually involved some sense that the death of Christ is required by the Father as a transaction that accomplishes reconciliation, and has therefore made God complicit in the violence of sacrifice? The locus classicus of the "substitution theory" of atonement is, of course, the Cur Deus Homo of Anselm .... If one is to reconsider the presence of violence in Christian sacrificial themes, and not do so with quite the peremptory disregard for tradition that Girard evinces, it would be disingenuous (to say the least) to ignore not only Anselm's influence but the claims his theology makes upon Christian thought ...

The argument of Cur Deus Homo ... Every rational creature is created to partake of beatitude in God, Anselm asserts, in return for which the creature owes God perfect obedience, by withholding which humanity offends infinitely against the divine honor and merits death .... the God-man must come, in order to make satisfaction on humanity's defense ....

But Anselm's argument, thus denuded of every nuance and ambiguity that enrivhes the text from which it is drawn, is susceptible of every causal misconstrual the theological mind can devise .....

... the closer the attention one pays Anselm's argument, the harder it becomes to locate the exact point at which he supposedly breaks from patristic orthodoxy. The divine action follows the same course as in the "classic" model: human sin having disrupted the order of God's good creation, and humanity having been handed over to death and the devil's rule, God enters into a condition of estrangement and slavery to set humanity free .... Anselm's is not a new narrative of salvation. In truth, this facile distinction between a patristic soteriology concerned exclusively with the rescue of humanity from death and a theory of atonement concerned exclusively with remission from guilt - the distinction, that is, between "Physical" and "moral" theories - is supportable, if at all, only in terms of emphasis and imagery; Athanasius, Gregory of nysea, and John of Damascus (to name a few) were no less conscious than Anselm of the guilt overcome by Christ on the cross, nor he any less concerned than they with the Son's campaign against death's dominion .... And it is explicitly not a story about a sustitutionary sacrifice offered as a simple restitution for human guilt, but concerns, rather, the triumph over death, the devil, and sin accomplished in Christ's voluntary self-donation to the Father, which the Father receives (as Gregory the Theologian would say) "by economy", so that its benefits might rebound to those with whom Christ has assumed solidarity ....

Even here, then, in the text that most notoriously expounds the sacrificial logic of atonement, the idea of sacrifice is subverted from within: as the story of Christ's sacrifice belongs not to an ecomony of credit and exchange but to the trinitarian motion of love, it is given entirely as gift - a gift given when it should not have needed to be given again, by God, at a price that we imposed upon him .... the primordiality of the gift is the truth of Christ's paschal donation: the gift God gives in creation continues to be given again, ever more fully, in defiance of all rejection, economy, violence, and indifference; there is no division between justice and mercy in God, on Anselm's account, because both belong already to the giving of the gift - which precedes, exceeds, and annuls all debt.



Blogger Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

I was going to put a post up about Aquinas and atonement, but you go the jump on me a little bit here. :-)

There is a professor by the name of Eleonore Stump at St. Louis University who has written a book about Aquinas. I don’t claim to have read it, but this two-page review refers to a central part of her thesis, stating:

"the function of satisfaction for Aquinas is not to placate a wrathful God or in some other way remove the constraints which compel God to damn sinners. Instead, the function of satisfaction is to restore a sinner to a state of harmony with God by repairing or restoring in the sinner what sin has damaged"

Stump does have a shorter treatment of this in an article about Aquinas and the Atonement (and how it should not be construed as penal substitutionary) that you might want to read if you get a chance. It’s about twenty pages or so. She could put it into words much better than I can (she uses good concrete hypothetical examples) I think you'll be pleasantly surprised about what Aquinas was trying to get across.

PDF Version

HTML version

4:50 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


I hope you do post something about Aquinas and atonement ... I didn;t read about his version, just that it was the one that the church has adopted, so I'd like to hear more about it. I'll take a look at that paper - thanks :-)

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for that wonderful summary of Hart's book crystal. I love what he has to say about the sacrafice of the cross as gift. The idea that the price of our redemption is one set by our own sin marred view of the world and not one charged by God resonates so deeply with me. I like that he ties it to the economy of love within the Trinity where all that is given is both giver and gift. Beautiful!

5:22 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura - thanks for visiting :-)

Hart's book is a tome - that part was just a bit from a few pages near the middle. He has a lot of online articles if you want to read more of his stuff - you can find a list of them at the bottom of Wikipeia's entry for him.

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What came first ??:-
The delusion that man is important.
The delusion that a super being is looking all the time and caring about man

3:56 AM  

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