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).


GoobyNelly said…
If only John Stott had read this before writing The Cross of Christ.

My one concern is where Lauber says "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."

I admit that the word "destroyed" is somewhat bothersome, given my prior understanding of what it means to destroy something. In my mind, this can be too close to "annihilation." There is a difference between the image of "purification" of the sinner (where destruction might mean de-structuring followed by a re-structurting), and the image of the "resurrection" of the sinner. How do these two images relate? What exactly is happening metaphysically to the human being in this process of salvation? Furthermore, how does Christ relate to us in this process?
Sorry to blab a bunch of questions.
Halden said…
I wouldn't worry too much about the langauge of being "destroyed." It seems very consonant with the new testament descriptions of how we share in Christ's death by grace. Paul constantly insists that "you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3 cf. ch.2-3 where this is developed more thoroughly). Romans 6 is more emphatic that "our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed" (6:6).

I think the key to being able to retain the language of being "destroyed" is to focus on who the issue at hand lies in identity. The essence of identity in sin is self-possession, or at least that's what Athur McGill argues in his excellent book, Death and Life, and I agree with him. The message of the gospel is one of complete self-disposession, that is to say, of death. The call of the gospel is to passively let go of grasping after our impulse to possess ourselves and yeild to the reality that our life is pure gift to recieve from God. However, that letting go of self-possession is death. It entails the destruction of our identity in sin and can only hope for a newly reconstituted identity based in receptivitiy to the infinite gift of life from God through Christ. McGill states that "In Christ, God seperates us from ourselves". This truly is a death and a destruction, but it is followed by God's fully gratuitious act of making us alive through grace in the life of the Holy Spirit poured out on us by the risen Son.

I guess what I'm trying to say in a roundabout way is that what happens ontologically in salvation is our actual death, by virtue of being baptized into Christ's death. Ontologically, we die to our sinful identity and are given a wholly new identity in Christ which we receive from the Father through him. To be sure, this is realized eschatologically, in fact there is some wisdom I think in realizing that it can take a hell of a long time for things to die more often than not. But, ontologically, I do see that as what's happening. A real death of our sinful identity in Christ and a real resurrection in Christ. That, to me is the essence of salvation. That Christ's work pro nobis truly goes all the way down on the ontological level, ground the death and resurrection of ourselves in him.
WTM said…
The destruction happens objectively in Christ, and not in the moment of salvation subjectively conceived.

David, you did "God who loves in Freedom" but not "God who is free in his Love," both of which find their way into Barth's account of the divine perfections. This is necessarily a material concern, but formal things push how the material aspects are construed / interpreteed (as you well know).
GoobyNelly said…
Hey Halden,
I love what you say about identity, and I think perhaps my question could be interpreted as wanting to hold onto some former identity (i.e. one that is sinful).

But it seems to me that destruction of the human subject objectively in Christ needs to be conceived in a way that does not completely annihilate me as the human subject, and then replace me with a completely new person who has no affinity with my current self. That does not seem like salvation at all.

Hence, the language of purification seems more appropriate, because it is the old self being cleansed and made new. There is an apparent continuity in being. So is there any way to speak of continuity of being between the old self and the new self? If "old" and "new" are simply predicates/modes of the same self, then there is continuity of my being in my being saved.
Halden said…
I can see your point about wanting to preserve continuity. The danger with the language of "destruction/new creation" is that it risks destroying the continuity of the person from sin to salvation. The danger of the "purification/re-structuring" language is that it risks granting autonomy to us and legitimating the idea of existence-as-possession.

Perhaps the solution is just to use different categories, like death and resurrection, which are the categories of Scripture.

Or perhaps there's just a tension between destruction of the old, with the new being completely new and renewal of the old in which the new the renewal of that which had been intended from the begining.
D.W. Congdon said…
I echo Travis in identifying the locus of this destruction in the objective event of Christ's death and resurrection. Death and resurrection are only a present-day existential experience insofar as we recognize that our true identity is found 'there and then' on the cross of Christ. I have written about this in my post on the solo verbo particle of justification. I propose in that post, following Jüngel, that we can think of the objective-subjective movements as the ontological and ontic facets of the single event of our death and resurrection in Christ. The ontological center of our identity is in Jesus, the electing and elected one. The ontic center of our identity is in the here and now as we are displaced from ourselves and taken extra nos. We are destroyed ontologically, and we existentially affirm this reality in our ontic selves in the act of faith.
GoobyNelly said…
Thanks for the string of thoughts, guys. David, I'm lost on the difference in meaning between "ontological" and "ontic," two terms which I apparently have incorrectly been using synonymously. If you can clear that up for me, perhaps I'll be able to understand Travis's response as well.
D.W. Congdon said…

If it helps, here is John Webster commenting on this aspect of Jüngel's theology in his book, Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to his Theology:

These problems come together in the distinction between the 'ontic' and 'ontological' strata of human existence, a distinction to which Jüngel often returns. He makes the characteristic claim that 'justification by faith defines man theologically. This theological definition concerns the whole of mankind and therefore all men.' This claim is very similar to the claim that to be human as such is to be a 'man who expresses God', and the similarity is nowhere more evident than in its attempt to deal with those parts of human history where the external evidence of justification is not evident. The distinction between 'ontic' and 'ontological' is introduced to cope with just this counterevidence. All men are ontologically defined in the event of justification. Although this determination may not be realised at the explicit ontic level, its lack of realisation cannot count as its denial. For the ontological stratum, the 'truth of life', is primordial over against the ontic actuality of man: 'man is ontologically derived from justification by God which takes place in Christ' and realises this 'ontically, insofar as he believes. In faith man exists as what he already is in Christ.' The inclusivity of the justifying act of God in Christ is such that there can be 'no ontological godlessness of man' — atheism, disbelief, sin, are a failure to realise at the ontic, existential level the ontological truth of the human condition. (114-15)

Did you read my post on solo verbo? I saw a lot of the same things. The distinction between ontological and ontic is first discussed at length by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time, and that is where Jüngel picks it up. Jüngel rightly sees in this distinction a way of philosophically speaking about the objective-subjective difference which Barth discusses all throughout his theology. The ontological is the actual, the true, the christological. The ontic is the present, the immediate, the existential.

Now, to be fair, this distinction is somewhat arbitrary, in that it is not dictated by the words themselves except for the tradition of such a distinction made in modern philosophy. Many writers use them interchangeably. I find the distinction quite helpful, so I follow Heidegger and Jüngel on the structure, though it does not change the material I receive and appropriate from Barth.
D.W. Congdon said…

Your comment makes you sound like a good Molnarian! :) Ah, the usual McCormack-Hunsinger debate rears its ugly head.

I speak only of "the one who loves in freedom" here simply because that is the most basic and primal definition Barth has for God. The other one comes out of his reflection on God's freedom, but it is more like a gloss on the main definition rather than a separate one in its own right. To be fair, I do discuss God's freedom, but perhaps I do not stress it as much as you would like.
Halden said…
What I wonder is if Zizioulas' distinction between the "biological" and "ecclesial" ways of being constituted as a human persons would be another way of addressing the issue of continuity of identity when we speak of our death to sin and resurrection to new life in Christ.

Our biological self is the point of continuity, which could be understood as the ontic, or the existential or however you want to term that. The Ecclesial self is who we truly are ontologically as we are thus constituted in Christ through his work of atonement "there and then" (tip of the hat to you, David!).

The question of the Christian life, or sanctification, then becomes one of striving to be conformed (in our ontic, or existential reality) by the Holy Sprit to who we truly are (ontologically) in Christ.
WTM said…

I'm thinking of the rather dialectical relationship between paragraphs 30 & 31.
Also, I'm happy to find myself on the side of Hunsinger, but why do we need to pull Molnar into this mess? :-)
D.W. Congdon said…

I really like the distinction between our biological and ecclesial selves, but it communicates something in addition to the ontological-ontic distinction. The latter emphasizes the then-now distinction, while Zizioulas' categories emphasize the individual-communal distinction. One is more temporal, the other more spatial. Biological and ecclesial identities are both present-tense, spatial realities: my body and the body of Christ (even though the church is of course connected back to the person of Christ himself). Ontological and ontic are primarily temporal realities: one is 'there and then,' and the other is 'here and now.'

I think the biological-ecclesial distinction is something that is necessary to emphasize alongside of the ontological-ontic distinction, because speaking of our existential being tends toward individualism. But we need the language ontological and ontic, because we do not want to view the church as something that can in itself give identity to people. The church is the not the agent or center of our identity, but rather it is the triune God who works through and with the church and to whom the church bears an embodied witness. The church brings people before the God who alone offers a new identity. In this sense, it is truly an ecclesial identity, but only because the church locates its own identity in the ontological reality of Jesus Christ, in whom we are all present.

Which brings us to the issue of church proclamation. What the church can and should proclaim to people is not, "We can give you new meaning and identity for your lives," but rather, "God has already established you as a new person in Jesus Christ. Come and hear the Good News that your old self was crucified and your new self raised again for new life. This is the Word of God to you."
Halden said…
I think Zizioulas intends the distinction to include the then-now becuase his understanding of the ecclesial self is eschatologically constituted in Christ.

What Zizioulas calls the ecclesial self is the person (re)constituted in Chist by the Spirit in communion with the Triune God who is present in the church, and cheifly in the Eucharist. The temporal and eschatological aspects are not inherent in the terms, but Ziziouslas brings them out in his developement of them in Being as Communion