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Monday, November 13, 2006

James Alison / Atonement

A post at Talmida's blog, The Lesser of Two Weevils, touched on atonement. I don't like the theory of atonement, but I can't intelligently explain why ... the idea of original sin, an angry God, a scarifice, Jesus having no free will ... it just mixes me up :-).

But I've recently read an article in The Australian EJournal of Theology by Fr. James Alison - An Atonement Update - that was helpful. Fr. Alison discusses how atonement, from the earliest Jewish liturgy to what we today know of as the substitutionary theory, is turned on its head through Jesus.

I almost hesitate to post part of the article here, as it's long and the few parts I've picked out below can't really give a good picture of the whole. But for those who want to check out the shreds :-) ...


I tried, over three chapters of On being liked to set out some bases for thinking through what it means to say that Jesus died to save us. That was, and is, very much an ongoing project. Since writing those chapters I have been greatly helped by the work of Margaret Barker, especially The Great High Priest and her study of the book of Revelation The Revelation of Jesus Christ, in helping me take this further. Barker’s insights seem to me to combine extraordinarily well with the New Testament detective work of scholars like J. Duncan M. Derrett and the anthropology of desire which René Girard has made luminous for us to offer the possibility of a richer and deeper understanding of the atonement, and one which will, I hope, not only help to overcome divisions within Christianity as to how Jesus’ death is to be understood, but also give a far more positive account of the Jewishness of that saving death than we are used to.

So, I’d like to give you a kind of progress report on where I think this understanding is going, by trying to defend a thesis with you. My thesis is that Christianity is a priestly religion which understands that it is God’s overcoming of our violence by substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not.

The first thing that I ought to do, therefore, is to rehearse for you my brief account of what is traditionally called the substitutionary theory of atonement. This is what we are up against ...

God created the universe, including humanity, and it was good. Then somehow or other humankind fell. This fall was a sin against God’s infinite goodness and mercy and justice. So there was a problem. Humans could not off our own bat restore the order which had been disordered, let alone make up for having dishonoured God’s infinite goodness. No finite making up could make up for an offence with infinite ramifications. God would have been perfectly within his rights to have destroyed the whole of humanity. But God was merciful as well as being just, so he pondered what to do to sort out the mess. Could he simply have let the matter lie in his infinite mercy? Well, maybe he would have liked to, but he was beholden to his infinite justice as well. Only an infinite payment would do; something that humans couldn’t come up with; but God could. And yet the payment had to be from the human side, or else it wouldn’t be a real payment for the outrage to be appeased. So God came up with the idea of sending his Son into the world as a human, so that his Son could pay the price as a human, which, since he was also God, would be infinite and thus would effect the necessary satisfaction. Thus the whole sorry saga could be brought to a convenient close. Those humans who agreed to cover over their sins by holding on to, or being covered by, the precious blood of the Saviour whom the Father has sacrificed to himself would be saved from their sins and given the Holy Spirit by which they would be able to behave according to the original order of creation. In this way, when they died, they at least would be able to inherit heaven, which had been the original plan all along, before the fall had mucked everything up.

Now, rather than make mockery of this storyline, I want to suggest that the trouble with it is that it is far too little conservative. I want to put forward a much more conservative account. And the first way I want to be conservative is to suggest that the principal problem with this conventional account is that it is a theory, while atonement, in the first place, was a liturgy ...

Let’s remember that we’re talking about a very ancient Jewish liturgy about which we only know from fragmentary reconstructions of what might have gone on in the First Temple ... the early Christians who wrote the New Testament understood very clearly that Jesus was the authentic high priest, who was restoring the eternal covenant that had been established long before; who was coming out from the Holy Place so as to offer himself as an expiation for us, as a concrete living out and demonstration of God’s love for us; and that Jesus was acting this out quite deliberately ...

In the Second Temple ... The priestly mysteries had been lost ... i.e. the real high priest was engaged in being the sacrifice, “the victim”, the priest, the altar and the temple on the city rubbish heap, at the same time as the corrupt city guys – which is how the ordinary Jews saw them at the time – were going through the motions in the corrupt Second Temple, which was not of such great concern to the people. They didn’t think it was the real thing. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries would have regarded the Temple which they knew and the priesthood which ran it as, if you’ll excuse the imagery, the diet-Pepsi version of a long lost real Coke.

From our point of view these are all aspects of atonement. What Jesus was doing was fulfilling a set of prophecies concerning a liturgical happening, which is to us largely mysterious. The reason I wanted to tell you about it is that it is very important for our understanding when we see that this is not simply an abolition of something that was bad, but someone fulfilling something that was considered good but not good enough. Do you see the difference? That means that our tendency to read the whole world of priesthood and sacrifice as an “unfortunate Semitic leftover” is really very wrong ...

... what Jesus was doing was substituting himself for a series of substitutions. The human sacrificial system typically works in the following way: the most primitive forms of sacrifice are human sacrifices. After people begin to become aware of what they are doing this gets transferred to animal sacrifices. After all it’s easier to sacrifice animals because they don’t fight back so much; whereas if you have to run a sacrificial system that requires you to keep getting victims, usually you have to run a war machine in order to provide enough victims to keep the system going; or you have to keep pet “pharmakons” around the place – convenient half-insider half-outsiders, who live in splendour, and have a thoroughly good time, until a time of crisis when you need people to sacrifice, and then you sacrifice them. But this is an ugly thing, and people are, after all, human; and so animals began to be sacrificed instead. And in some cultures from animals you move on to more symbolic forms of sacrifice, like bread and wine. You can find almost any cultural variation on the theme of sacrificial substitution.

The interesting thing is that Jesus takes exactly the inverse route; and he explains to us that he is going in the inverse route. “The night before he was betrayed…” what did he do? He said, “Instead of the bread and the wine, this is the lamb, and the lamb is a human being.” In other words he substituted a human being back into the centre of the sacrificial system as the priest, thus showing what the sacrificial system was really about, and so bringing it to an end. He was the Great High Priest giving portions of himself as lamb to his fellow priests, just as the High Priest in office would distribute portions of the sacrificed lamb to the other priests.

So you do have a genuine substitution that is quite proper within the Christian living out of Atonement. All sacrificial systems are substitutionary; but what we have with Jesus is an exact inversion of the sacrificial system: him going backwards and occupying the space so as to make it clear that this is simply murder. And it needn’t be ...

We are the angry divinity. We are the ones inclined to dwell in wrath and think we need vengeance in order to survive ... it turns on its head what has passed as our penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which always presupposes that it is us satisfying God, that God needs satisfying, that there is vengeance in God. Whereas it is quite clear from the New Testament that what was really exciting to Paul was that it was quite clear from Jesus’ self-giving, and the “out-pouring of Jesus’ blood”, that this was the revelation of who God was: God was entirely without vengeance, entirely without substitutionary tricks; and that he was giving himself entirely without ambivalence and ambiguity for us, towards us, in order to set us “free from our sins” – “our sins” being our way of being bound up with each other in death, vengeance, violence and what is commonly called “wrath” ...



Blogger Talmida said...

I admire you for continuing to struggle with this theory, Crystal. It makes my head spin! I was so comforted by that article that Steve linked to (at American Catholic) that I have just put the whole atonement idea aside as academic for the moment. I know I should figure it out eventually, but I find myself drawn to Overberg's explanation, including this comment:

Other contemporary scholars, including Walter Wink, are more direct. He states that the early disciples simply were unable to sustain Jesus' vision of the compassionate and nonviolent reign of God. Overwhelmed by Jesus' horrible death and searching for some meaning, the disciples slipped back into an older religious conviction that believed violence (sacrifice) saves.

I don't think any of us in this century can ever understand what sacrifice meant to the Jews of the second Temple (and even more so after the Temple was destroyed), so we can't wrap our heads around the deepest meanings of what the NT authors were trying to convey.

Thanks for posting this, I'll have to explore more of Alison.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, I'll have to read the whole thing when I have time (say, fall of 2009).

I the atonement idea, as expressed by Anselm, is brilliant and perhaps appropriate for his time, but at the same time I have problems with the idea of an angry God who is forced into atonement -- neither an angry God or a God that is forced into anything makes sense to me. At the same time, I have problems with the paragraph that Talmida quotes above. The idea that Jesus' death was nothing more than a political execution and that a theological explanation of it was nothing more than the apostles' way of dealing with it seems to me to strip the cosmic power from it.

I tend to see the Crucifixion as a compliment to the Incarnation, a necessary step towards the fulfillment of the Resurrection. I think Christ's suffering and death was redeeming in the sense that it completed the Incarnation through solidarity with those who have suffered most. He not only became flesh, but he experienced the suffering that humanity can suffer. I like the idea of liturgical atonemnet as a compliment to this.

As far as original sin goes, I think it's a concept that many of us modern and liberal Christians are too willing to get rid of. Of course the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is a myth (in the good sense of the word) that explains how we can turn away from God (that is, turn towards evil). Original sin is not something we are saddled with because of a mistake of a distant ancestor, but that tendency to move towards self and away from God and others -- the tendency, ultimately, towards evil, which results in cruelty and suffering. So if Jesus takes on flesh and is like us in suffering but not in sin, he redeems our suffering by sharing in it.

I don't think a proper response to sin is crushing guilt, but awareness of our ability to move away from it, with God's help.

How I have been babbling! Back to my charters, and thanks for the thought-provoking post, Crystal.

8:05 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Talmida, hi. I've read that article from American Catholic and really liked it ... the idea that Jesus wasn't plan B :-). The Eastern Orthodox idea is closer to the view expressed by Overberg. I always feel like I should figure everything out before "the end" but maybe that matters more to me than to God.

11:04 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Liam,

sometime you have to tell me your conversion story - I'm thinking it is maybe relevant to your thoughts about all this?

I like your idea of original sin.

About Jesus' death, I think I'm somewhere between you and the historical Jesus scholars - that his death was a politcal execution, but also more than that - a conscious choice on his partto be one with us and to be an example of God's authentic love and committment, even though, and because, it meant death ... or at least that's what seems right to me, but it's just a feeling.

Thanks for your thoughts.

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The conversion story will eventually be posted -- Sandalstraps has asked for it too, but it's long and I want to do it when I have time to do it right.

I do think you're that it does have something to do with these topics. I was drawn back to Catholicism by a sense of weight of its tradition and the beauty of its liturgy on one hand, and a more mystical sense of the transcendent on the other. So I feel very comfortable localizing my faith in those things as well as in scripture. That's why I don't want to just throw away two thousand years of development in a search for either a historical Jesus or a pure form of scripture -- don't get me wrong, I think both of those pursuits are important, essential even, but I don't see them in competition with tradition either.

I am not a "traditionalist" in the sense of clinging to Trent. I love Vatican II and I think trying to figure out what the early church was like is important, but I also think that God did not abandon the Church after the early days and it's up to us to figure out what in the tradition is inspired and what is human weakness -- I think that's true of scripture, too.

In the end, I also believe that the meaning of God is completely transcendent and unknowable (although we can intuit it and approach it). In the end, questions of atonement or justification by faith or by works is just so much talk -- it is important, because it is all we have and we owe it to God to take it all seriously, but the question of faith is prior to all of that and is essentially experiential. The Church and the tradition is how we share it with one another across space and and across time.

Did that make any sense?

1:13 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Provocative post, Crystal, and a beautiful write-up by Liam.

This fellow, whose writings on atonement I've always found interesting, disappointed me when he recently wrote:

Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae, which is recognized as codifying the idea of penal substitution that has become the doctrine of the Catholic church (I'm sure they call it something else) and was later adopted by the Reformation (i.e. the shift from Anselmian Satisfaction where satisfaction (reparation) is an alternative to punishment, to the punishment itself being what satisfied) explicitly denies that the substitution is a legal one...

Well, we do call it something else, because we emphasize Christ's loving sacrifice more than God's sense of wrath.

As we can see from the views expressed here, it is not so simple to say that Catholicism teaches penal substitutionary atonement. To me, that teaching cannot be traced to how much Thomistic scholasticism one holds to, but how much pessimistic Augustinianism one holds to - the view that we are all just massa peccata in the hands of a sovereign God, and furthermore a God known more for wrath than for mercy.

2:55 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Liam, yes it makes a lot of sense to me - religious experience is what I base my belief on ... the theology has come after to make it more understandable, but it would be dead and meaningless to me without the prior experience.

3:35 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


it's all Augustine's fault! ... something more I can blame on him - heh :-)

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Crystal. Sandalstraps ( pointed me to your blog because I've been boring for Jesus on James Alison.

I'm actually going to do my MA thesis on Alison's theology of atonement, although this is a small part of his theology.

Anyway, nice to "meet" you. I've been blogging some bits and bobs about Alison recently on my blog too.

11:32 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi PamBG, thanks for dropping by. Fr. Alison has a lot to offer ... I'm slowly working my way through the articles at this website. Good luck with your thesis :-)

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fr. Alison has a lot to offer

Yes, he does indeed! Enjoy working your way through the website. (I've not yet managed that feat either!)

1:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a fabulous snip, thanks. Here's hoping your restless brain finally let you get some sleep last night.


5:47 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Oh no .... and I was just telling myself how glad I was I had deleted that before anyone say it.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


7:01 AM  

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