Saturday, March 18, 2017

Theories of Atonement VI

Anselm of Canterbury

1.  The Big Switch

In prior posts, we discussed to varying degrees three different atonement theories that arose in the patristic period.  The first – the notion that Jesus’s death was a ransom paid to the devil for the release of humankind – is called, not surprisingly, the ransom theory.  The second – the view that Christ achieved humankind’s salvation by invading the devil’s kingdom and achieving a military victory – is called by the name that Gustave Aulen gave it: the Christus Victor theory.  And the third theory – that Christ healed mankind by uniting human nature with his Divine Nature and then destroyed death through his own death on the cross – is called the recapitulation theory, in that Christ restored humanity to its original holiness.  As Irenaeus said, “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man” Irenaeus, Against Heresies.     

As you may have figured out from the last post, among the ancient Christians, the recapitulation theory ended up prevailing over other views, having been adopted by such early Church luminaries as Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Irenaeus and Gregory of Nazianus.  And, for about a millennium, the recapitulation view remained the dominant theory.  

I suspect that, despite its long endurance, the patristic view of atonement probably is alien and unfamiliar to many Catholics and Protestants today.  It certainly wasn’t included in my catechism growing up.  The reason for its current strangeness is that here in the West the recapitulation theory was almost totally abandoned following the publication in 1098 of Anselm of Canterbury’s seminal work, Cur Deus Homo (Literally, why God man or more accurately, why God become man).  This view, or variations on it, has been adopted across the board by both the Catholic and Protestant establishments.  Indeed, the online Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that, “the appearance of St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo made a new epoch in the theology of the Atonement.”

The beginning of the preface of Cur Deus Homo; the 12th century manuscript is preserved in Lambeth Palace Library, London.

It is puzzling how such a total revolution occurred, especially at a date so far removed from the original founding of Christianity.  Indeed, the American theologian, George Cadwalader Foley, suggests that the theory arrived too late in the day to be valid:  “The fact that the Church had to wait a thousand years for such a philosophy of the Atonement suggests the strongest doubt of its truth….”  Our Eastern Orthodox cousins, however, still hold to the recapitulation theory and have not embraced Anselm.  Some Orthodox writers go so far as to call Anselm a heretic.  

We can guess why this change occurred.  Perhaps, the classic Greek thought that so infused the patristic theory that it no longer had much meaning for the Christians of Anselm’s day, now waist-deep in the medieval world.  Or, perhaps the great schism between the Eastern and Western churches – reaching its culmination in 1054, just 44 years before Anselm’s work was published – created a distaste in the West for all things Greek.  No doubt some scholar has studied this and has some answers, but to date I have seen no word on the subject.  In any event, the change was, as far as I can tell, sudden (by historical standards) and total.

The statue of Anselm in Canterbury Cathedral, holding a copy of Cur Deus Homo in its right hand

2.  Anselm on God’s Honor

Cur Deus Homo was written as a dialogue between Anselm and one of his students and later an abbot, Boso, and purports to make a purely rational argument without resort of Scripture for the necessity of the Christ’s death as a means of atonement.  Boso is Anselm’s straight man in the dialogue, being a bit slow on the uptake and requiring regular correction by Anselm.

So, what was Anselm’s groundbreaking proposal that changed everything? First, he points out the inadequacy of the patristic view.  He characterizes the classical theory as the notion that Christ died in order to defeat the devil and free humankind from his clutches – Aulen’s description of the patristic view.   Anselm rejects the theory, stating that, since the devil is one of God’s creatures over which God had complete dominion, there was no reason for God to become human to defeat him:
As to what you say of his [Christ’s] coming to vanquish the devil for you, with what meaning dare you allege this? Is not the omnipotence of God everywhere enthroned? How is it, then, that God must needs come down from heaven to vanquish the devil?
Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (hereafter, all quotes will be from Cur Deus Homo unless otherwise indicated).  

From our own study of patristic thought, we can see that Anselm had not exactly done his homework on the Greek fathers, and appears to know nothing of the recapitulation theory.  In any event, however, Anselm does not see our separation from the divine and the menace of death as humankind’s problem; rather, for Anselm our problem was with God.

God, as the supreme sovereign, if nothing else, must receive the honor that is His due.  By our rendering honor to God, all things “hold their own place in this universe and maintain the beauty of its order.”  The way humans and angels render to honor to God is by being obedient His will.  Failure to follow God’s will, even in the slightest, dishonors Him.  “He who does not render this honor which is due to God, robs God of his own and dishonors him; and this is sin.”  

With Anselm, there are no mortal or venial sins.  The smallest act contrary to the will of God is a betrayal and an utmost serious matter.  To give an example, he asks Boso, “If you were to see yourself in the sight of God, and someone were to say to you, ‘Look over there,’ and God were to interject, ‘It is totally against my will that you should look,’” on what account should you look in the direction that God forbid?  When Boso answers that he can’t think of any motive that would make it right, Anselm ups the ante:  “What if the whole universe, except God himself, was going to perish and fall back into nothing if you didn’t do this small thing against God’s will?”  Boso, as Anselm later confirms, answers correctly, “When I think of the action itself, it seems very slight; but when I view it as contrary to the will of God, I realize there is nothing so grievous, and no loss that would compare with it. I must confess that I ought not to oppose the will of God even to preserve the whole of creation.”  Thus, the slightest disregard of God’s will dishonors Him beyond measure.   

The honor and respect we owe God, however, is not for the sake of God:  even when we sin, we “cannot injure or tarnish the power and majesty of God.”  Rather, honor must be paid to God to preserve the order and beauty of the universe.  In the proper ordering of things, God, the lord and ruler of all, must receive his deserved honor.  Otherwise, deformity is introduced into God’s perfect order.

3. The Impossible Situation  

It is not hard to see that, given the high bar, everyone has dishonored God in some way or another, and has played some part in introducing distortion into the universe.  Thus, some corrective measure must be taken against us all if balance and order are to be maintained.  For Anselm, this can be done in two ways:  satisfaction or punishment.  Satisfaction restores God's honor through the individual's payment to God of what he has taken, and directly restores the imbalance.  Punishment repairs the universe through God’s assertion of his sovereignty and rule in the face of the dishonor.  

Any failure to either make restitution or receive punishment for our sins would be so disgraceful as to be unimaginable to Anselm.   
It is therefore necessary that either the honor abstracted shall be restored, or punishment shall follow; otherwise, God were either unjust to Himself, or were powerless for either, which it is a shame even to imagine.
Anselm emphasizes the calamitous results if God were not to insist on satisfaction or punishment:
If Divine Wisdom did not insist upon these things [satisfaction or punishment] when perversity attempts to disturb the regular order of things, there would be caused in that universe, which God should rule, a certain deformity from this violated symmetry of its order, and God would seem to fail in His government. Which two consequences, being inconsistencies, are therefore impossibilities, and hence it is necessary that all sin be followed by satisfaction or penalty.
But making recompense is not so easy.  One cannot restore God’s honor by simply correcting his or her behavior.  He must also make payment for the injury from sin already inflicted on God’s honor, something all tort lawyers understand:   “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.”

Consequently, we face an insurmountable barrier.  We already owe God total obedience, so there is no act of obedience by which we can compensate God for his lost honor that is above and beyond what we already owe.  “When you render anything to God which you owe him, irrespective of your past sin, you should not reckon this as the debt which you owe for sin.”  Indeed, “[i]f in justice I owe God myself and all my powers, even when I do not sin, I have nothing left to render to him for my sin.”  So, we simply cannot make satisfaction ourselves.  Unfortunately, man’s inability to make the payment does not excuse him:  “But if there is any guilt in that inability, it neither lightens the sin nor excuses him when he fails to pay his debt.”  So, it appears that the only possible outcome is punishment – everlasting torment for the entire human race.

Some of you may be asking, why doesn’t God simply forgive the dishonor?  Jesus at least seems to think that God is boundlessly merciful, particularly if we show mercy to others.  For a few examples, see Matthew 5:7, 6:14, 18:23-35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37, 7:44-50, 15:11-32; John 8:1-11.  Unfortunately, however, according to Anselm, this is not an option.

As we have already noted, for Anselm, “Nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a creature to take away the honor due to the Creator and not make recompense for what he takes away.”  It follows that, “if it is not fitting for God to do anything unjustly or without due order, it does not belong to his freedom or kindness or will to forgive unpunished the sinner who does not repay to God what he took away.”  And thus, not only do God’s honor and justice remain intact by His insisting upon either satisfaction or punishment, but also all things “hold their own place in this universe and maintain the beauty of its order.”

4.  How Christ the God-man Achieved our Salvation

Luckily for us, failure – in this case, the ruination of the entire human race – is not an outcome desired by God.   According to Anselm, God had willed and initiated a plan to build a holy nation.  He started with holy angels who were “perfect in number.”  As we know, however, some of the angels fell.  So, to ensure the completion of his plan, God decreed the creation of humankind to replace the fallen angels.  As Anselm says, “It was fitting for God to fill the places of the fallen angels from among men … otherwise they who fell will not be restored, and it will follow that God either could not accomplish the good which he begun, or he will repent of having undertaken it; either of which is absurd.”   

So, now, God must find a way to for humanity’s debt to be paid so that the fallen angels can be replaced:  “the heavenly kingdom must be filled with men,” but “this cannot happen unless the satisfaction is made for sin.”  

As it so happens, God devised a way to get humankind out of hock.  While there is no debt forgiveness in heaven, someone else could pay the debt for us.  Although the debt is great – according to Anselm, “human sin is greater than everything that exists, except God” – it could be paid by God himself, who is also greater than everything that is not God.  Indeed, “no one but God can make the satisfaction.”  Anselm also adds, however, that “no one ought to make it [the satisfaction] except man; otherwise man does not make satisfaction."

So, in Anselm's view, the only possible way of repaying the debt was for a being of infinite greatness, acting as a man on behalf of men, to repay it. Because the debt was incurred by humanity, the debt to God’s honor must be made through an action of a man (or woman).   On the other hand, only God can pay such debt since it is only God who does not already owe God.  Here, God can do what a man cannot do.  So, we needed a Redeemer who was both truly God and truly man: one, as Anselm says, "who is God-man." 

And how did Christ restore God’s stolen honor?  Christ paid the debt by an moral achievement beyond anything that could have been expected of him:  He stood firm in obedience to God even unto death:  “he bore with gentle patience the insults put upon him, violence and even crucifixion among thieves that he might maintain strict holiness….”  God, as a matter of justice could not require an innocent person – Jesus was without sin after all – to suffer death.  “No man except this one ever gave to God what he was not obliged to lose, or paid a debt he did not owe. But he freely offered to the Father what there was no need of his ever losing, and paid for sinners what he owed not for himself.”  Jesus in effect went far beyond the call of duty, and in doing so paid a tremendous tribute to God.  Thus, by showing God honor beyond what was required, Jesus re-paid to God the honor that humankind has stolen from Him by sin.  

One thing that should be said here, Anselm makes a big point of saying that God did not order Jesus to submit to death.  God wished Jesus to do so, because that would pay humankind’s debt and God could proceed with building His heavenly kingdom.  But he never ordered it.  Had he required Jesus to die, there would have been no honor flowing to God since it would have simply fulfilled an existing obligation.  

Anselm went so far as to explain exactly how Christ’s death became a benefit for us humans. By performing such an excellent deed, justice required that a reward be given to Christ.  But, the Son already has everything that God has, so he has no use for a reward.   Says Anselm, “How then can a reward be bestowed on one who needs nothing, and to whom no gift or release can be made?”   He adds:  “The reward then must be bestowed upon some one else, for it cannot be upon him [the son].”  

The solution is not hard.  Since Christ earned the reward, “the gift should be given by the Father to whomsoever the Son wished.”   Well, the point of this whole exercise was humanity’s salvation, so Christ willed that the reward that He earned be passed on to us.

And that, according to Anselm, is how Christ’s death saved us from eternal punishment.

5. Casting about for Truth

As we pointed out at the beginning of this post, Catholicism presently endorses and teaches Anselm’s theory of atonement.  What will not escape notice by even the most casual reader, however, are the striking differences between the recapitulation theory of atonement and Anselm’s thinking.   It is fair to say there appears to be no resemblance whatever between the two theories.  The Patristics saw Jesus’ life and death as healing the sickness in the human soul and nullifying the power of death, while Anselm saw Christ’s death as a way of honoring God, thus, inducing Him to act favorably toward humankind. 

The differences in the approaches cannot be reconciled.  Much of what Anselm advocates as central points in his theory had been anticipated and expressly rejected by the Church fathers.  For example, Gregory of Nazianzus dismisses the notion that Jesus died to confer a benefit on the Father:  
Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this [Christ’s Body and Blood] offered, and for what cause?...  [I]f to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father…?   
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45 ‘For Easter.’

And then, Athanasius makes it clear that God can forgive our trespasses where there is repentance.  At one point he argues that the incarnation was necessary to heal us because sin is more than a transgression of the law, but involves a sickness of the soul.  He says, “Had it been a case of a trespass only [failure to follow the will of God], and not of a subsequent corruption [illness], repentance would have been well enough.”  Athanasius, On the Incarnation.  In other words, God could have forgiven our trespasses upon our repentance, but because sin is also a sickness, we also needed to be healed by Christ.  This notion, of course, is directly contrary to Anselm’s contention that God cannot forgive sin. 

And, one last example, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) has a view of the role and purpose of divine punishment that is incompatible with Anselm.  As we discussed earlier, Anselm claimed that, in order to maintain his sovereignty, God was required to punish those who did not repay God for taking his honor.  The sinner must pay his debt by his own will, “or else God subjects him to himself by torments...” By doing so, God “shows that he is the Lord of man...”  So, “as man in sinning takes away what belongs to God, so God in punishing gets in return what pertains to man.”  Accordingly, God must exact torment from people who offend his honor in order to make it unmistakable that he is in charge.   I think it fair to say the Anselm saw God’s punishment as retributive and not rehabilitative.

Clement, however, wholly rejects Anselm’s notion of punishment, and claims, instead, that God’s punishment “is for the good and advantage of him who is punished.”   Clement, The Instructor.  Indeed, Clement cites Plato in support of his argument:  “For all who suffer punishment are in reality treated well, for they are benefited; since the spirit of those who are justly punished is improved.”  Id.  So, “as children are chastised by their teacher or their father, so are we by Providence.”  Clement, The Stromata (“Patchwork”).  Says Clement, “So he [God] saves all; but some he converts by penalties, others who follow him of their own will…”  Clement, Fragments-Comments on the First Epistle of John.  Clement then goes on to expressly condemn Anselm’s view of divine punishment:  “but I will not grant that He [God] wishes to take vengeance.  Revenge is retribution for evil, imposed for the advantage of him who takes the revenge.”  Clement, The Instructor.

As I say, there is no reconciling the patristic writers with Anselm.

Some time ago, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Ross Douthut (“The Pope and the Precipice”), which argued that, if the Catholic Church abandons its position on banning divorced Catholics from receiving communion, the authority of the Catholic Church will be irreparably damaged, everything will unravel and the Church will go into a death spiral.  No doubt many have heard this argument in other forms.  Of course, there are several well-known examples of the Catholic Church changing its pronouncements:  on slavery (the Catholic Church did not condemn slavery until 1888, only after every Christian nation had already outlawed it), usury (Christians can now become bankers!), and religious freedom (“error has no rights” became in 1965 “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person.”)  But, here is a change concerning something much more fundamental:  the meaning of the central tenet of Christianity, God’s redemptive act of Christ’s death and resurrection.  And, it has not altered slightly, but dramatically, as we have seen.

So, the notion that the Church has a tight hold of eternal truths cannot itself be true.  Either the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ infused humankind with divine spirit and extinguished death or it satisfied the debt we owed to God.  Either way, the Church was wrong about the atonement for about a millennium.

But, if we step back for a minute and recall my first post in this series, this should not be so surprising.  The inconsistency about how Christ’s life and death reconciled us to God only matters if the point of religion is to identify and peg down ultimate truths.  As we have already discussed, however, according to thinkers like Michael Polanyi and James Carse, the value of religion lies not its ability to encapsulate final unalterable truths.  Religion, rather, endures and has meaning for us because it is engaged in the endless pursuit of and debate about the deeper matters – issues whose answers continue to elude the faithful.  Religion doesn’t end thinking; it pushes it beyond old boundaries.  As Polanyi says, religion “is like an obsession with a problem known to be insoluble, which yet follows, against reason, unswervingly, the heuristic command: 'look at the unknown!' ”  These two theories are simply points in an ongoing discussion about the meaning of the cross and the empty tomb.

But it does not end here.  We will continue to explore other theories of atonement.  And if our automobile doesn't turn upside down, and break my ice cream cone, next time I’ll tell you about Peter Abelard. 


James R said...

Great story telling! A fascinating read! As I read, I'm reminded how we humans associate human attributes to animals. We also do the same for our gods. It's remarkable how even the greatest thinkers in the Church anthropomorphize their god. And I love how you will typically seduce the reader with high sounding, profound concepts only to tap them at the end as if to say, "But, of course, this is all not some catholic truth, but wonderful parlor talk." Religion is far less about truth than about wrestling. Some of your final statements anticipate some coming lines in "An Enigma on Man", but you have re-envigorated the blog's readership with your series to more than counter the deadening from mine. As strange as Atonement sounds, it obviously touches something in people, as we try to understand our predicament and relationship in the universe.

Big Myk said...

Anselm not only thought of God as human, but saw Him as a very particular human -- a feudal monarch. With the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century accompanied by European invasions of the Vikings, Magyars and Moors, normal communications and travel were essentially destroyed. As the result, it was necessary to develop small self-sufficient communities, headed by those who could provide protection and security. Here was born the feudal lord. Since any central authority had collapsed, a society grew that was almost entirely based on personal loyalty and service. Under this system, vassals pledged fealty to the lord, promising to refrain from any action that would threaten the well-being of the lord and to perform services at the lord's request. If a vassal did not live up to his obligations, he was subject to punishment by his lord for treachery. He could lose his fief or perhaps his life.

Social order depended on this loyalty, and so, yes, the failure of a vassal to obey his lord could cause a distortion in the social order. It's not hard to see from where Anselm got his inspiration.

There were other problems with Anselm. Yes, there is an ordered universe governed by universal, predictable, absolute mathematical laws. And, as Richard Feynman says "Why nature is mathematical is a mystery...The fact that there are rules at all is a kind of miracle." So, there is a kind of beauty to the universe as well. But, Anselm gives humans way to much credit to suggest that our behavior could ever actually affect the order and beauty in the universe. We can affect the order in our communities, and that's why there is law enforcement. But the universe can take care of itself.

There are many other complaints one could make, but perhaps the biggest is that Anselm put so many constraints on God, who is supposed to be all-powerful. It's like George Carlin trying to come up with trick questions for Father Russell. My favorite was "Hey, uh, if God is all-powerful, can he make a rock so big that he himself can't lift it?" Anselm raises the question of: "can God make a rule so strict that even he can't break it." Of course, a feudal monarch was hemmed in by his own obligations.

I was going to throw a lot of this in the post, but I thought it wouldn't be fair to Anselm to single him out. Nevertheless, the ending to Cur Deus Homo we would have loved to see -- and you recall that it was written as a dialogue -- would be this (and you have to give Boso a stereotypical, slightly racist Chinese accent):

Boso: Very interesting theory, but, you overlook one very important point.
Anselm: And that is?
Boso: Is stupid. Is most stupid theory I ever heard.

James R said...

Even your addendum comments are great. I have a slight contention when you stray away from religion into science and say:

"But, Anselm gives humans way to much credit to suggest that our behavior could ever actually affect the order and beauty in the universe." On certain levels that is true, but in a number of levels that is not true. Your post has changed the universe. Perhaps, not in a big way, unless it goes viral, but it has, at least for me. And there are even more fundamental ways where our actions, knowledge and being in the universe recursively change the universe, but I don't want to get ahead of what's coming in the next few weeks.

Big Myk said...

Ah, yes. The Butterfly Effect. When the Butterfly Effect Took Flight