Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section IV.1)

Section IV.1: Parameters for a doctrine of the atonement: triunity

An orthodox doctrine of the atonement must affirm that God’s economy of salvation is …

(1) … triune. In order to understand the atonement, we have to think through the triune economy of salvation as the act of one subject in three modes of being—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The being-in-act of God is a triune being-in-act in which the works appropriated to each person of the Trinity are perichoretically united in the one Lord, Deus pro nobis, who loves in freedom. The doctrine of the Trinity is essential for the doctrine of the atonement in at least the following three ways: (1) The doctrine of the Trinity forms the dogmatic ground out of which can arise a doctrine of the atonement in which the salvation effected on the cross can properly be both a divine and human event; (2) the doctrine of the Trinity is the interpretation of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in which the economic activity of God reveals the immanent being of God as the gracious triune Lord; and (3) the doctrine of the Trinity allows us to preserve both the radical nearness and the radical distance between the Father and the Son in the event of the cross through the Holy Spirit’s “bond of love.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar stresses the centrality of the Trinity in the atonement, both as its ontological basis and as the noetic conclusion of thinking through the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Balthasar constructs a kenotic doctrine of the Trinity in which the persons of the Trinity are mutually self-emptying and self-donating from all eternity in a divine drama of love. The protological “primal kenosis” occurs in the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, which corresponds to the kenotic act of creation and reaches a dramatic climax in the incarnation of the Son in Jesus. All of this reveals the “genuine dynamic activity within the triune life of God” in which Balthasar “emphasizes God’s independence from the world” and at the same time “affirms God’s real involvement with the world” (Lauber 58). Significantly, for Balthasar, the kenotic drama between the Father and the Son “implies such an incomprehensible and unique ‘separation’ of God from himself that it includes and grounds every other separation—be it never so dark and bitter” (Theo-Drama IV, 325). As David Lauber makes clear, “God exists in this manner of self-giving and in no other” (58).

We can see from this trinitarian backdrop how the self-giving of Jesus on the cross for the sake of sinful humanity is the economic overflow of God’s own internal being. Who God is eternally ad intra forms the very basis for what God accomplishes in relation to creation ad extra. Lauber writes:
The ‘distance’ between the Father and the Son provides the space for the radical separation experienced by the Son, who has taken on the condition of sin, from the Father. The eternal self-giving of the Father is the ontological condition for the possibility for the extravagance of the self-giving of the Son in willingly taking on the world’s sin and enduring the abandonment that this sin necessitates. (60)
Two quotes from Balthasar illustrate how the ontological drama of kenosis within the triune life of God establishes the possibility for what became actuality in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
The exteriorisation of God (in the Incarnation) has its ontic condition of possibility in the eternal exteriorisation of God—that is, in his tripersonal self-gift. (Mysterium Paschale 28)

Everything that can be thought and imagined where God is concerned is, in advance, included and transcended in this self-destitution which constitutes the person of the Father, and, at the same time, those of the Son and the Spirit. God as the ‘gulf’ of absolute Love contains in advance, eternally, all the modalities of love, of compassion, and even of a ‘separation’ motivated by love and founded on the infinite distinction between hypostases—modalities which may manifest themselves in the course of a history of salvation involving sinful humankind. (MP viii)
Balthasar thus stresses the importance of internal difference and otherness within the Godhead. He speaks of this dynamic movement within God in terms of a “primal kenosis” in which the persons of the Trinity eternally give of themselves. It is the eternal event of sharing between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that constitutes this “community of mutual otherness” (Jüngel) as the deity, as God. God is the event of self-differentiation in which the triune Lord is, at the same time, self-positing and self-posited. God determines Godself to be both the sending Father and the sent Son, both the one who commands and the one who obeys, both the priest and the sacrifice, both the judge and the judged. God is in Godself the event of reconciliation. In that God justifies Godself, the world is reconciled to God. Nothing external to God can enable, disrupt, or alter the event of reconciliation, and yet this very exclusivity is the ground for the infinite inclusivity of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Reconciliation is accomplished in the triune being of God as the “union of death and life for the sake of life” (Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World 299).
In that God differentiates himself and thus, in unity with the crucified Jesus, suffers as God the Son being forsaken by God the Father, he is God the Reconciler. God reconciles the world with himself in that in the death of Jesus he encounters himself as God the Father and God the Son without becoming disunited in himself. On the contrary, in the encounter of God and God, of Father and Son, God reveals himself as the one who he is. He is God the Spirit, who lets Father and Son be one in the death of Jesus, in true distinction, in this encounter. … Thus God is differentiated in a threefold way in his unity: in the encounter of Father and Son, related to each other as Spirit. But in the fatal encounter, God remains one God. (GMW 368)
While Balthasar speaks of the separation between the Father and the Son, Jüngel speaks of the “encounter” between God the Father and God the Son; in this divine encounter, God is self-differentiated without becoming disunited. God preserves the “mutual otherness” within the Godhead as integral to the dynamic movement within the being of God—both between the persons of the Trinity and between God and the world. Jüngel writes much that is in concord with Balthasar’s theology of the divine kenosis, though instead of speaking of God’s self-emptying, Jüngel speaks of God’s selflessness ad intra and ad extra. Jüngel defines God’s being in light of the tension between divine self-relatedness and selflessness; the former speaks of God’s immanent freedom, while the latter of God’s economic graciousness and overflowing love in the incarnation of Jesus. Thus, Jüngel defines God’s triune being as the “still greater selflessness in the midst of a very great self-relatedness.” The very being of God is the event of love which moves beyond self-relatedness toward selfless donation and overflow. The triune God is the dynamic event of self-giving.
A “still greater selflessness in the midst of a very great, and justifiably great self-relatedness” is nothing other than a self-relationship which in freedom goes beyond itself, overflows itself, and gives itself away. It is pure overflow, overflowing being for the sake of another and only then for the sake of itself. That is love. And that is the God who is love: the one who always heightens and expands his own being in such great self-relatedness still more selfless and thus overflowing. (GMW 369)
The self-relatedness of the deity of God takes place in an unsurpassable way in the very selflessness of the incarnation of God. That is the meaning of talk about the humanity of God. It is not a second thing next to the eternal God but rather the event of the deity of God. For that reason, the “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity, and vice versa. And thus the Crucified One belongs to the concept of God. For the giving up of the eternal Son of God takes place in the temporal existence of one, that is, of this crucified man Jesus. In him, the love of God has appeared (1 John 4:9), because that love has happened in him. The crucified Jesus belongs to the Christian concept of God in that he makes it necessary that a distinction between God and God be made. Therefore, the incarnation of God is to be taken seriously to the very depths of the harshness of God’s abandonment of the Son who was made sin and the curse for us. (GMW 372)
More than any other theologian, Jüngel conceives of God’s being in light of the Johannine confession: God is love. The event of love requires “mutual otherness” and self-differentiation between the lover and the beloved. This distinction is primary for Jüngel and establishes the ground for the other divine self-differentiations, such as priest and sacrifice, judge and judged. In the divine self-positing as lover (Father), beloved (Son), and bond of love (Spirit), the immanent Trinity is both internally differentiated and externally oriented.
Only in the unity of the giving Father and the given Son is God the event of giving up which is love itself in the relation of lover and beloved. The Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son constitutes the unity of the divine being as that event which is love itself by preserving the differentiation. … It is solely the Spirit of God as the relation of the relations who constitutes the being of love as event. This love as event is what makes up the essence of deity, so that the full identity of the divine essence and divine existence has been thought in these three divine relations: Father, who loves of himself; the Son, who has always been loved and has loved; and the constantly new event of love between the Father and the Son which is the Spirit. (GMW 374-75)
The triune Event of Love posits a dynamic movement toward the Other within God, as the persons of the Trinity exist in selfless giving to one another. In the event of reconciliation between God and humanity, the Trinity moves outward and downward, condescending to be with humanity as Emmanuel—God with us. In the incarnation of Jesus, the God who is love enters into the nexus of nothingness by assuming the full depths of human existence. By identifying Godself with the human Jesus, God involves Godself in the crisis of death, plunging into the abyss of nothingness as our sole mediator and redeemer. The triune Event of Love enters into the dank cellars of lovelessness in order to eradicate the sinful drive toward relationlessness and definitively establish new life in correspondence to God in the place of our “sickness unto death.” The triune God comes to the world in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who willingly ‘goes into the far country’ in obedience to the Father; the triune God completes the reconciliation of humanity to God through the ‘event of the cross’; and the triune God perfects the new relation beween humanity and God through the ongoing agency of the Spirit.

This narrative of God’s being-in-coming is what we mean when we confess that “God is love.” God is the infinitely rich story of love—a love that not only enters nothingness but returns victorious, a love which comes into fatal contact with death itself and, behold, still lives! The triune God from eternity past is the one in whom the deepest opposites—heaven and hell, East and West, unity and separation, life and death—are able to cohere within the relational unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But God is not merely the unity of opposites; God moves beyond the tension toward reconciliation, renewal, and redemption. God is the still greater unity in the midst of such great separation; the still greater grace in the midst of such great sinfulness; the still greater life in the midst of such great death.

According to Jüngel, “The being of love unites love and death in that in the event of love life goes beyond itself” (GMW 222). Life goes beyond death, beyond sin, beyond nothingness itself, because life is only found in the God who goes beyond death, beyond sin, beyond nothingness. Life comes to us in the midst of our death and establishes new life. The gospel proclaims that the God of life, the God who is love, came in Jesus Christ in order to “make all things new”; the telos of the incarnation is thus the resurrection, in which the eschatological Yes is proleptically realized in the midst of the hellish No of the grave. The resurrection is the definitive event of life going-beyond-itself; the resurrection is the “still greater life in the midst of such great death.”
Resurrection means the overcoming of death. But death will cease to be only when it no longer consumes the life which excludes it, but when life has absorbed death into itself. The victory over death, which is the object of faith’s hope on the basis of God’s identification with the dead Jesus which took place in the death of Jesus, is the transformation of death through its reception into that life which is called eternal life. (GMW 364)
The God of the resurrection, the God of life, does not exclude death but rather aborbs it. In Jesus Christ, the triune God defeats death by dying; and yet in absorbing death in the crucifixion of Jesus, the triune God still lives. God transforms death by receiving death into the very life of God. The infinite repletion of God’s being means that death is not excluded but included in the inexaustible richness of divine existence. The God of life is the God who brings creation toward its proper end and as such is the God of new life. The triune God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God of the future—a future in which “we will be changed,” because in Jesus Christ, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:52b, 54b). The God of the resurrection is the constantly new event of the future who overcomes the past and teleologically reorders the present toward the reign of love. It is toward this eschatological hope that the atonement points; the atonement, in fact, is the very ground of our hope. The cross awaits in eager expectation the “day of the Lord,” in which the love that overflowed “for us and our salvation” on Good Friday will reign supreme in the glorious light of Easter. The Event of Love in Jesus Christ, as God’s ceaseless going-out-of-Godself, not only comes from the future but brings us forward out of the past toward the future of God when death will be swallowed up in life, and sin swallowed up in grace. As “the union of death and life for the sake of life,” as the one who assumed our death in order that we might enjoy new life for all eternity, God defines Godself as Love.