Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section III)
Section III: Foundations for a doctrine of the atonement
In the third and fourth installments on the doctrine of the atonement, I intend to use the constructive theology of Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar to establish parameters for an orthodox doctrine of the atonement. I will rely heavily in these sections on the recently published book by David Lauber, Barth on the Descent into Hell: God, Atonement and the Christian Life (2004, Ashgate). Before outlining those parameters in the fourth section, I first need to clarify and (re)establish basic theologoumena shared by both Barth and von Balthasar. These will serve as essential and specific foundations for the more general parameters that will be set forth in the following section. Much of what I say here will hearken back to earlier paragraphs in this series.
1. God is pro nobis (for us). Barth and Balthasar both have the confession “pro nobis” at the center of their respective theologies, which comes from the Nicene Creed: Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, “He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate.” Balthasar goes so far as to state that the pro nobis “unlocks not only all Christology but the entire Trinitarian doctrine of God that flows from it, as well as the doctrine of the Church” (Theo-Drama IV, 239). Any doctrine of the atonement must start from this essential affirmation: Deus pro nobis. We are able to confess—in fact, we must confess—that God is for us only because God has revealed God’s very nature to be pro nobis in the person of Jesus Christ. The mission of the Son reached its telos in the passion, in which Christ suffered and died in our place for us and our salvation, and thus the internal triune being of God is definable as for the world. The triune Lord desires to be our God, and for us to be the covenant people of God: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev. 26:12).
2. God alone atones for sin. Barth follows Anselm and the orthodox tradition of the church on this point, but it is worth how Barth develops the tradition through the trinitarian framework of his theology. We see this especially in Barth’s assertion that Jesus as the God-man does not simply satisfy the infinite debt of honor that humanity owed to God. Rather the very incarnation, life, and passion of Jesus Christ is a divine act. As Eberhard Jüngel warns us, “it is not God who sacrifices the human Jesus—this is not human sacrifice! No, God so identifies himself with the human Jesus put to death by humans, that we must affirm that this human being was God’s Son. To put it accurately: God does not identify himself with the executioners, but with the executed one” (Justification 163). The person and work of Jesus is the self-determination of the triune God who alone took the initiative to deal with sin and death definitively once and for all, which is why Jüngel calls the death of Christ “God’s offering of himself,” and he even goes so far as to say, “God sacrifices himself” (164). In terms of Barth’s theology, Lauber says it best, so I will quote him at length:
The passion of Jesus Christ, according to Barth, is from first to last a divine action, and as a divine action it is motivated and carried out by God’s love alone. The goal and the actual consequence of the passion is the single outcome of the reconciliation and redemption of humanity. In the passion, humanity is brought into a proper covenantal relationship with God; humans as sinners are destroyed and, as a result, established as new creatures. Human beings as sinners are purified by the fire of God’s love and are recreated by being put to death and resurrected as new creatures. The passion, which Barth describes as the worst event imaginable, is funded by God’s love, and God’s love is unlike any love known in the creaturely realm. God’s love is pure holy love and it is radical. This holy and radical love takes the initiative in effectively removing the obstacle that separates humanity from God. Sin is the obstacle and can be dealt with only through its radical eradication, which leads to its annihilation. God’s love takes the initiative in that humans do not offer a sacrifice, no matter how pure, in hopes of satisfying God’s wrath, nor do humans benefit from the punishment of a representative human being, and are in turn freed from the punishment that awaits them. Rather, God’s radical and holy love satisfies itself. God’s love takes the form of wrath and God’s love is satisfied through its own activity as a result of the outpouring of God’s wrath. God’s wrath works itself out in such a way that the individual sinner is killed, extinguished and removed. From the rubble of this destruction, the individual is resurrected and recreated, and is established in a right covenantal relation with God as new creature. (36)Lauber goes on to clarify Barth’s theology so that, in stressing the divine action in the atonement, we do not lose the genuinely human element in the life and passion of Jesus. Both the divine and human elements must be held together in order for the atonement to be truly substitutionary and effective, but we must remember the human element is divinely determined by God who elects to become human in Jesus and assumes humanity into the Godhead in the assumptio carnis, so that nothing human is alien to God’s inner being. “Christ’s suffering and descent into hell is human suffering of God. It is genuine human suffering, death and presence in hell taken up into the very life of God, and as such God triumphs over and destroys suffering, death and hell” (Lauber 37). God is self-determining, self-actualizing, and self-giving. God justifies Godself in the justification of humanity, and God satisfies Godself in the reconciliation between God and sinful creatures. God is not determined by some external definition of justice; rather, God determines the nature of justice in God’s own judgment upon sin and death. The triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit determine and effect what is necessary—“necessary” only according to the divine will—in order to accomplish the destruction of sin and sinful humanity and the resurrection of a new humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
3. God is the one who loves in freedom. Barth’s doctrine of God consistently brings the perfections (attributes) of God into dialectical tension, refusing to sacrifice either the unity of God or the richness of God’s being. This is especially significant in his treatment of the love and wrath of God. Since love is God’s most essential and primary perfection, wrath is defined as the outpouring of God’s holy love in relation to the sin of creatures. Barth writes:
We can only be overlooking or misunderstanding the biblical message if for one reason or another we try to be spared having to take quite seriously the fact that God is the God who for the sake of His righteousness is wrathful and condemns and punishes. He is not only this, but He is also this. … If we truly love Him, we must love Him also in His anger, condemnation and punishments, or rather we must see, feel and appreciate His love to us even in His anger, condemnation and punishment. For we cannot avoid the conclusion that it is where the divine love and therefore the divine grace and mercy are attested with the supreme clarity in which they are necessarily known as the meaning and intention of Scripture as a whole, where that love and grace and mercy are embodied in a unique event, i.e., in Jesus Christ, that according to the unmistakable witness of the New Testament itself they encounter us as a divine act of wrath, judgment and punishment. (CD II/1, 394)Lauber writes the following in response to this passage:
Here we see that love is not in tension with wrath; grace is not opposed to judgment; and mercy is not contradictory to punishment. The love of God, when faced with resistance by sinful humanity, takes the form of wrath in order to deal effectively with this resistance, which results in the removal of humanity from its miserable condition. … Here we may conclude that wrath serves divine love. Wrath is the form that divine love takes in the face of resistance and opposition. (17)In other words, love and wrath, grace and judgment, mercy and righteousness, Deus pro nobis and Deus in se do not stand side by side as different parts of God’s being; rather, these perfections interpenetrate and flow out of a unity in the triune being of God. To be more precise, these perfections are defined out of the concrete center in the Logos incarnate, Jesus the Christ. We know who God is internally out of God’s external acts in the divine economy of salvation. When we thus say that God is the “one who loves in freedom,” we mean that God freely determined in Godself to be God for us in Jesus Christ.
Finally, in the discussion of the triune being of God as the one who loves in freedom, we must also affirm that the self-offering of the Son in the incarnation and passion is not an act that moves God from wrath to love; rather, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is God’s self-donation in a divine economy of love. The Son’s obedience to the Father in going to the cross on Good Friday and then, as Balthasar asserts, “going to the dead” on Holy Saturday, is a divinely determined act of love that flows out of God’s righteousness and grace. God’s very being is such that God takes on the depths of Sheol—even the very depths of hell itself—in order to reconcile humanity in the covenant of grace.
The passion is the goal of the incarnation. The passion is also a continuous divine act in which God is both the subject and object of Jesus Christ’s reconciling work. This being the case, there is no movement from wrath to love on God’s part as a response to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ; rather, God’s love is the source of the reconciling significance of Christ’s death. … Christ does not suffer solely under the wrath of God (wrath abstracted from God’s love) and in this suffering move God’s disposition towards humanity from wrath to love. Rather, God’s wrath is a function of God’s love. Therefore, divine love is the source for what took place on the cross. (Lauber 14-15)I close this subsection with the words of Eberhard Jüngel, who makes it very clear that we cannot think of the atonement as something that satisfies God’s wrath in order that God may then act out of love towards us. Sinners cannot atone for themselves by making a sacrifice; not even the Old Testament cultic sacrifices operated with this kind of theology. “It is not God who is conciliated, but God who reconciles the world. Sinful human beings do not atone for themselves; the Holy God removes the sin from sinful human beings. He does this by granting his holiness to those who are totally unholy” (Justification 159-60).