Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section II)
Section II: Models of the atonement
(1) The Moral-Exemplarist Theory. I will rather quickly dispense with the theory traditionally attributed to Abelard, which is also represented in Pelagianism and Arminianism. Essentially, this model presents Jesus as a moral example whose self-offering on the cross was a display of love which ought to be emulated by everyone. The reconciliation between God and humanity is not accomplished on the cross, but rather by each individual as he or she follows the way of the cross in obedience. The importance of Jesus as an example is not to be dismissed, since Christianity must emphasize the centrality of discipleship for all believers. However, the ‘imitation of Christ’ cannot be viewed as the basis of the ‘at-one-ment’ between God and humanity, if we wish to avoid turning the gospel of grace into the pseudo-gospel of our good works. Such a false teaching would undermine Paul’s primary insistence in his letters, that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ allows us to be free before God and before others. Any ‘moral influence’ model of atonement quickly turns into the competitive pursuit of righteousness based on human obedience. If all we had were the parables and teachings of Jesus, such a doctrinal conclusion could be plausible. However, these teachings have their place only within the larger context of Christ’s passion and the interpretation of this divine event by the early church. We thus confess that the entire biblical witness, including the Pauline letters, are authoritative, and consequently any doctrine that places the responsibility of reconciliation upon fallen human creatures must be discarded regardless of how pious and biblical its teachings may be.
(2) The ‘Christus Victor’ Theory. According to Aulén, the ‘Christus Victor’ model is the original theory of the atonement among the patristic period. This theory takes many different forms, but the general theme is evident enough just in the title. Essentially, the ‘Christus Victor’ theory stresses Christ’s victory over the powers of death, satan, sin, or whatever else is identified as the opposing force or entity which must be defeated in order to effect reconciliation. Where this theory is entirely right is in its insistence that God in Christ does not surrender to the power of sin in the passion, but rather the passion in all its suffering and passivity is the very means by which the triune God effects new life and redemption for the world. Where this theory goes wrong is in its rather odd attempts—at least in some patristic literature—to explain away the apparent passivity of Jesus at the hands of his executioners. So we have Origen’s ransom theory of the atonement, in which God baits satan with the hook of a crucified Jesus, only to trick satan on the third day, defeating satan’s power in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. (We find this theory represented in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) Origen’s theory is speculative and dualistic, and presents God more as the Great Trickster than as the Great Redeemer whose love and mercy are displayed in the self-giving of God on behalf of humanity.
Other versions of this theory abandon the ransom model while retaining the emphasis on divine victory. By placing these together under a single category, we can see that ‘Christus Victor’ is not so much a single theory as it is a motif or theme that runs through most theories of the atonement. This becomes most evident when we realize that one can affirm the substitutionary atonement and also believe that Christ was the victor on the cross—as we shall see was the case for Barth. In fact, any orthodox theory of the atonement will have to affirm, in some form, the victorious nature of the passion. The only theory which has no need for a divine victory in the event of the cross is the ‘moral-exemplarist’ model. Thus, the subtitle of this section, “The ‘Christus Victor’ Theory,” is actually a misnomer: there is no one theory of Christ’s victory. If the atonement was realized in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, then Christ was by definition victorious. The question of what or whom Christ is victorious over is the source of the various differences among proponents of this theme.
Excursus: Contemporary ‘Christus Victor’ theology
I should also mention that the ‘Christus Victor’ model has been adapted in light of contemporary feminist and black theology to offer a nonviolent presentation of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. This model is generally called the “narrative Christus Victor” and is discussed at length in J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement. I do not suggest that this modern appropriation of the ancient eastern theory of the ‘Christus Victor’ should be embraced, only that it is worth one’s attention. The criticisms lodged against the typically violent and vengeful portraits of God in classical doctrines of the atonement ought to be taken seriously. There are ways of avoiding an inexcusably violent God and a God who is entirely contextualized according to the frameworks established by contemporary social norms, but to do so requires a truly trinitarian and biblical analysis of God’s divine work of reconciliation. Before we reach that topic, however, I must address the Anselmian theory.
(3) The Satisfaction Theory. Anselm’s theory of the atonement, from Cur Deus Homo?, is arguably the most famous. His is the paradigmatic ‘western’ theory, often placed in contrast to the ‘eastern’ model of the ‘Christus Victor,’ and it formed the basis for the penal substitution theories which were propagated in the period of Protestant Orthodoxy. Anselm’s so-called ‘satisfaction’ theory is grounded in the idea that humanity failed (and fails) to give God the honor that is due, and by robbing God of what is proper to God, humanity owes an infinite debt. Here I quote Anselm from Cur Deus Homo?, which is written as a dialogue with a man rather accurately named, Boso:
Anselm. If man or angel always rendered to God his due, he would never sin.Whether or not we find Anselm convincing, we can at least see where his soteriological commitments will lead him. Clearly the debt we owe God cannot be paid by any merely finite human person. If it could, then that person would be worthy of our worship. God alone must accomplish our salvation, as Anselm argues in Chapter V. Anselm is on weaker ground when he places compassion over against judgment by stating that God cannot simply be compassionate on human sin but instead must punish such sin in order to restore the divine honor.
Boso. I cannot deny that.
Anselm. Therefore to sin is nothing else than not to render to God his due.
Boso. What is the debt which we owe to God?
Anselm. Every wish of a rational creature should be subject to the will of God.
Boso. Nothing is more true.
Anselm. This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us. For it is such a will only, when it can be exercised, that does works pleasing to God; and when this will cannot be exercised, it is pleasing of itself alone, since without it no work is acceptable. He who does not render this honor which is due to God, robs God of his own and dishonors him; and this is sin. Moreover, so long as he does not restore what he has taken away, he remains in fault; and it will not suffice merely to restore what has been taken away, but, considering the contempt offered, he ought to restore more than he took away. For as one who imperils another’s safety does not enough by merely restoring his safety, without making some compensation for the anguish incurred; so he who violates another’s honor does not enough by merely rendering honor again, but must, according to the extent of the injury done, make restoration in some way satisfactory to the person whom he has dishonored. We must also observe that when any one pays what he has unjustly taken away, he ought to give something which could not have been demanded of him, had he not stolen what belonged to another. So then, every one who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God. (Book I, Chapter XI)
Anselm. Let us return and consider whether it were proper for God to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of the honor taken from him.Anselm has set up the conditions for a potentially disastrous theological conclusion: that God the Father punishes the Son to satisfy the Father’s honor. This is disastrous for a couple reasons. First, it fails to give proper attention to the triune economy of salvation. Anselm so strictly appropriates the role of judge to the Father and the role of the judged to the Son that the perichoretic relations within the Trinity are obscured. The Son, we must insist, is not simply the one who receives the Father’s punishment for sin; the Son is also the divine judge who willingly takes upon himself the divine judgment. Anselm often seems to reduce ‘God’ to the Father, while the Son is the God-man who can receive the full brunt of the Father’s punishment (II.VII). Second, Anselm speaks as if the Son bears the judgment for sin so that we are spared from judgment (cf. II.XIV). This position follows from the third and most disastrous aspect of Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement, which is that the suffering and death of the Son satisfies God's wrath and moves God from wrath to love. Christ dies at the hands of the Father in order to appease the wrath of God, in order that God may then be the loving God for all of humanity. In direct contrast to this, we will see that Barth insists upon viewing the judgment of sin on the cross as the outpouring of God’s holy love. God offers Godself in the person of Jesus Christ in order to accomplish God’s judgment on sin, but this judgment is upon all humankind, since all are ontologically located in the person of Jesus Christ as the electing and elected one of God.
Boso. I do not see why it is not proper.
Anselm. To remit sin in this manner is nothing else than not to punish; and since it is not right to cancel sin without compensation or punishment; if it be not punished, then is it passed by undischarged. (I.XII)
Before we explicate Barth more carefully on the atonement, it is worth noticing that Anselm’s satisfaction theory is actually a late medieval variation of Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation:
Anselm. Listen to the voice of strict justice; and judge according to that whether man makes to God a real satisfaction for his sin, unless, by overcoming the devil, man restore to God what he took from God in allowing himself to be conquered by the devil; so that, as by this conquest over man the devil took what belonged to God, and God was the loser, so in man’s victory the devil may be despoiled, and God recover his right. (I.XXIII)The doctrine of recapitulation is the simplest of all explanations, in that it simply expands upon the typology of Adam and Christ—Adam as the origin of sin and death, and Jesus Christ as the origin of righteousness and life. Jesus, as the second Adam, restores creation and brings new life to all, just as the fall of Adam brought death to all. Recapitulation finds its biblical basis in Romans 5:12-21, in which Paul states:
For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. . . . Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all people, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people. (vv. 15, 18)In his variation of recapitulation, Anselm combines the Adam-Christ typology, the ‘Christus Victor’ motif (“the devil may be despoiled”), and his own emphasis on satisfaction and divine honor. We can see why his doctrine of the atonement has captured the theological imagination of so many in the west. Anselm’s theology has its flaws, but it represents some of the best work of theology in the history of the church. In the next section, we will explain how Barth and von Balthasar explicate the doctrine of the atonement in a way that does justice to the doctrine of the Trinity, the perfections of God, and the doctrine of election.