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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Duns Scotus and atonement

There's a post at America magazine's blog about the new missal translation, The Impending Liturgical ' Reform' Re-Visited, that mentions the replacement of the phrase, 'Jesus' blood is shed "for you and for all [men]"' with the proposed "for you and for many". But I don't want to discuss the translation change of "all" to "many" but instead want to discuss why the idea of Jesus' blood being shed in atonement is so taken for granted at all (a round-up of various atonement theories, the idea that Jesus had to die to reconcile we sinners with God, can be found here).

Before I became a Christian, one of the things that most put me off was atonement theory, and even now it still bothers me. What makes the most sense to me would be the idea that Jesus was incarnated to show us, through teaching and example, what God is really like, that he realized over time that his preaching and actions would probably get him killed, and though he didn't want to die he persevered with his teaching and actions anyway, out of integrity and love.

Before you start gathering kindling for my stake :) let me post a bit from an article I've mentioned before, Light Over Darkness: The Meaning of Christmas by Ken Overberg SJ ....

[...] What was the purpose of Jesus' life? Or simply, why Jesus?

The answer most frequently handed on in everyday religion emphasizes redemption. This view returns to the creation story and sees in Adam and Eve's sin a fundamental alienation from God, a separation so profound that God must intervene to overcome it. The Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, is considered God's action to right this original wrong.

How did this view develop? Just as we do when we face tragedy, especially innocent suffering, so the early followers of Jesus tried to make sense of his horrible death. They asked: Why? They sought insight from their Jewish practices like Temple sacrifices and from their Scriptures. Certain rites and passages (the suffering servant in Isaiah, psalms of lament, wisdom literature on the suffering righteous person) seemed to fit the terrible end of Jesus' life and so offered an answer to the why question. Understandably, these powerful images colored the entire story, including the meaning of Jesus' birth and life.

Throughout the centuries, Christian theology and piety have developed these interpretations of Jesus' execution. At times God has even been described as demanding Jesus' suffering and death as a means of atonement—to satisfy and appease an angry God.

An interpretation that highlights the Incarnation stands beside this dominant view with its emphasis on sin. The alternate view is also expressed in Scripture and tradition. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the Word made flesh has remained something of a "minority report," rarely gaining the same recognition and influence as the atonement view.

What, briefly, is the heart of this alternate interpretation? It holds that the whole purpose of creation is for the Incarnation, God's sharing of life and love in an unique and definitive way. God becoming human is not an afterthought, an event to make up for original sin and human sinfulness. Incarnation is God's first thought, the original design for all creation. The purpose of Jesus' life is the fulfillment of God's eternal longing to become human ........

One of those mentioned in the above article was Franciscan John Duns Scotus. I have to like Duns Scotus, if only because Radical Orthodoxy so dislikes him :). Here's an article on him and the Incarnation - Duns Scotus and the meaning of Love by Seamus Mulholland OFM, and here below is a bit from an article from Christianity Today about Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas, and atonement - Ongoing Incarnation by Philip Yancey ....

More than two centuries before the Reformation, a theological debate broke out that pitted theologian Thomas Aquinas against an upstart from Britain, John Duns Scotus. In essence, the debate circled around the question, "Would Christmas have occurred if humanity had not sinned?"

Whereas Aquinas viewed the Incarnation as God's remedy for a fallen planet, his contemporary saw much more at stake. For Duns Scotus, the Word becoming flesh as described in the prologue to John's Gospel must surely represent the Creator's primary design, not some kind of afterthought or Plan B. Aquinas pointed to passages emphasizing the Cross as God's redemptive response to a broken relationship. Duns Scotus cited passages from Ephesians and Colossians on the cosmic Christ, in whom all things have their origin, hold together, and move toward consummation.

Did Jesus visit this planet as an accommodation to human failure or as the center point of all creation? Duns Scotus and his school suggested that Incarnation was the underlying motive for Creation, not merely a correction to it. Perhaps God spun off this vast universe for the singular purpose of sharing life and love, intending all along to join its very substance. "Eternity is in love with the inventions of time," wrote the poet William Blake.

Ultimately the church decided that both approaches had biblical support and could be accepted as orthodox. Though most theologians tended to follow Aquinas, in recent years prominent Catholics such as Karl Rahner have taken a closer look at Duns Scotus .....

In trying to read more about Duns Scotus and atonement, though, i found references to acceptance atonement, and I have to admit that I don't really understand exactly where Duns Scotus is on Incarnation/atonement. Must do more reading on this.


Blogger Steve Hampton said...

Crystal - Thanks for such a great entry. We always seem to see things ass-backward. God didn't need a bloody human sacrifice (He even stopped Abraham from that one). God Himself had to sacrifice Himself. At/one/ment could only happen when Divine Being Itself could experience the fear,isolation and suffering(meaning.. acceptance) of human death. Only then; in God's last ("It is complete") task in becoming fully human, could the abyss between humanity and divinity be bridged. Christ Jesus is that Bridge. Each individual can choose whether to 'cross' it or not.

8:09 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the comment. At/one/ment :)

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Sonja said...

This is really interesting. I know basically nothing about Scotus. Thanks for sharing Mullholland's essay; I'm reading it now.

9:00 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Sonja,

I know little of him too, just that he and William of Ockham are the bad boys of scholasticism, at least for most RO guys.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Great post Crystal on a very dense and complex topic. Thanks also for the e-mail, which I just read (you see, I broke my self-imposed "internet fast"!) I'll write back and visit as often as I can until Lent my friend.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Dennis said...

Try reading "I See Satan Fall Like Lightning", Rene Girard, Orbis press.

Whole different approach from an anthropologist.

Dn. Dennis

7:23 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Dn. Dennis,

Thanks for the recommendation - I'll look for that :)

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Koinonia said...

If anyone would like to research this subject more in depth, check out

It's very readable and extremely interesting (both the text and the videos.

2:03 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

The sacrifice of Jesus Christ was not a sacrifice to God it was the sacrifice of God. Whenever forgiveness is offered there is a sacrifice made by the one forgiving. When Christ suffered and died God received from his creation the ultimate rejection and hatred. Through this, God suffered at the hands of wicked men a depth which until then was potential. From this depth of absolute evil and rejection, he offers forgiveness. The cross reveals the pain in the heart of God for his wayward children and the impact of his love is our only hope of change and redemption.

8:18 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:21 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

That sounds like an explanation, carefully crafted over time into a doctrine, that would make sense of the fact that Jesus was unexpectedly murdered when the disciples had hoped and believed he would instead start an earthly reign as king. How could God have let that happen? Oh, it was all about Jesus being a sacrifice.

But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice' ... Matthew 9:13

12:23 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Clearly, God was not caught unawares by the crucifixion of Christ and it was not unexpected by Jesus as he foretold the events to his disciples even though this was not their expectation.

1:27 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

We could argue about it all day, but there's no proving anything one way or the other. I just don't find the idea that Jesus planned to be born as human in order to die for our sins very convincing. You feel differently.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

First, the statement above attributed to Kike is my statement, I do not know how it came to be posted as MIke. I think you misunderstood what I was trying to say in that statement. I was not implying that God needed or wanted a sacrifice, but that any act of forgiveness is a sacrifice. Neither have I mentioned our sins in relation to Christ's death which I see more as a victory over sin, death and forces of evil.

2:54 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

What I'm taking issue with is the traditional view of atonement ... the idea that Jesus had to suffer and die to pay for our sins ... the catechism's view. I think what matters is the life and the resurrection of Jesus, not his suffering and murder.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Jesus said, "If I am lifted up I will draw all men to me". Christ anticipated his total rejection and murder at the hands of wicked men and did not flinch from it as he said he came "to give his life a ransom for many". The whole ministry of Jesus and ultimately the cross demonstrated the extent of God's love for the rebellious people that instigated his crucifixion and by extension his love for all mankind. In this sense, the cross is important but not as a payment that God required in order to forgive us.

9:42 PM  

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