Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Believe the Good News, 3

Lets do a little archaeology today. Let's do a little digging around this theory of atonement we have identified, penal substitutionary atonement (psa). In my first post, I suggested that psa in the form we know it is only about 150 years old. There are much older theories of atonement (Christus Victor, moral theory, recaptiulation theory, theosis), and even ways of talking about salvation that do not require a theory (the primary way the Bible talks about it in my opinion). So, what is the history of psa?

(While my sources here are numerous, a good place to get after this is in Joel Green and Mark Baker's book, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross).

Certainly, there are biblical pieces that are gathered up along the way into what eventually becomes psa. The Bible talks about the wrath of God. The Bible talks about the forgiveness of sins. The Bible talks about sin as transgression. New Testament writers refer to Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, and even as taking our place. PSA has been built with biblical components, but they've been put together in a way that the Bible doesn't.

For instance, is the wrath of God related to my individual sin? Is it God's wrath that is "satisfied" by the death of Jesus? Can God only forgive if someone is killed? Is personal guilt and justice as retribution the best way to understand the relationship between God and humankind? PSA assumes a "yes" answer to these questions, but these aren't necessary connections. The fact that Christians did not put them this way for a long time is exhibit "A".

So, how did these strands begin to be woven together? It's complicated, but I want to identify four movements. The first movement I want to associate with Augustine (354-430). Augustine set the course for much of the subsequent theology of the West. Through his involvement in defending the church in two doctrinal controversies (Pelagian and Donatist: there will be no quiz), he strengthened the roll of the church as the dispenser of salvation through an elaboration of the sacraments. He also developed what became known as a "psychological" explanation for the Trinity. The Trinity and the interior of the individual were in some way analagous. I know this is all very complicated, but the point is that Augustine did much to individualize salvation. The focus of salvation became less on the ultimate purposes of God at the end of history, and more on the status of an invidual understood psychologically.

Phew. I know that's thick, but let's just say that the phrase "I accepted Jesus into my heart" wouldn't have emerged apart from the moves made by Augustine.

Our second move is related to Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Anselm moved the focus of satisfaction from the Devil to God. In other words, before Anselm Christians thought of Jesus' death as satisfying Satan's rightful hold on humanity. We were in bondage to the Devil. Jesus' death was the ransom that freed us from his rightful claim on us. Anselm suggested instead that it was God's sense of honor that was being satisfied by the death of Jesus. This is a huge move in the development of satisfaction theories of the atonement. Note here, however, that is God's honor, not his sense of justice, that requires satisfaction.

For our third move, we look at Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther is known for the central place that justification by faith through grace played in his understanding of the gospel. Since Luther, Protestants have read Romans and the rest of the New Testament through this lens. The major metaphor for salvation in the popular Christian imagination became a legal one--justification. Luther's own journey toward sola fidei (faith alone) was intensely personal. He struggled mightily with his own personal standing before God. For those of us Protestants who have read the NT since Luther, the issue of our personal legal standing before God has become almost the exclusive way in which salvation is understood. Still, with Luther we do not have psa.

Our final move could be represented by many. We will simply point to Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Hodge was an influential theologian at Princeton. He was one of the authors of the The Fundamentals and his multi-volume systematic theology was widely read. A major portion of Hodge's work was devoted to substitutionary atonement. For Hodge, the issue in salvation was satisfying God's wrath related to his sense of justice. Salvation was a legal issue, our rightful standing before God as judge. Jesus' death satisfies the wrath of God and allows us to be judged innocent. Hodge keeps Anselm's focus on God as the one requiring satisfaction, but shifts the issue from honor to justice.

This shift is not surprising. It's in the water for Hodge. It coincides with the rise of Western legal theory. It fits well notions of personal morality and responsibility that develop after the "turn to the subject" in philosophy. Hodge's exhaustive treatment of this theme carried the day and we can scarcely think of any of these issues differently.

So, in a very simplified way, that's the archaeology of psa. Let me say here that just because its a fairly recent theory doesn't mean its wrong. This is the way of theology. The church is always making sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus in light of its own cultural raw materials. Theology is always improvisational in that sense. The problem is making psa more than one expression of how Christians have understood salvation. To make something partial or imcomplete stand in for the whole distorts all the elements of the theory involved. The character of God, the meaning of Jesus' death, the human condition, and the scope of salvation are all distorted if this is the one way the gospel is understood.

There are real problems with psa. And as a script for church life--worship, evangelism, fellowship--it's severely limited. Again, the good news is that we've got options.


preacherman said...

Excellent series. I want you to know that I enjoyed reading your series on this topic. It is such an important topic that many don't discuss. Thank you for discussing it with us all. I enjoy reading your blog and again wanted you to know that I have added your blog to my list of favorites. I will be reading as much as my health allows. I hope you and your family have a great weekend. God bless you and all you do in making a kingdom difference.

Mark said...

Mark, thanks for your thoughts on this - and its refreshing to see some substance on the topic. It is tempting when doing "archeology" of a concept to cast off the evolutionary process its been through in order to return to the original source. As I was reading through your post, I felt like you were making that move. I'm grateful that at the end, you reminded us that "theology is always improvisational". We shouldn't take theological lenses as set in stone, but neither should we chuck them just because they don't sit well with us. Thanks for your healthy, critical investigation of psa. God bless you in your studies!

Mark Love said...


Good point. I do think there is a more fundamental way of thinking about salvation than a theory, and that with the church's burden of doing theology in a Greek thinking world it moved away from that (it became more concerned with ontology than eschatology). I think there is something here to recover. The past isn't just illustrative for us, it is in many ways constitutive (ala Gadamer). We have no critique apart from the very sources of the tradition that simultaneously allow for and are the target of our critical sense. But the move is always forward. And it is always partial and by necessity, contextual. It is always improvisational and curious, elements that come to us form the tradition itself.