Friday, July 17, 2009

The Doctrine of the Atonement: False Choices

Fr. Robert Hart (brother of David Bentley Hart) writes an incisive and clear article on the atonement that contains a historical perspective that is a relief after reading much of the contemporary literature on the doctrine of the atonement with its hand-wringing fear of offending post-modern sensibilities. As usual my comments are inserted into the text in [bold and brackets].

"The following are offered as statement of undeniable fact. [I love a theologian who occasionally passes on the overly common false modesty evident in the guild today in order actually to assert the truth with conviction!]

1. The Church has always taught and known from Scripture that Christ's offering of himself was the kippor (atonement) typified by the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, as foretold most clearly in the Suffering Servant passage (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), and by his title Lamb of God. [In the comments, Hart responds to a critic by saying that he ought to have used the term "propitiation" and did not mean to imply that he did not hold it by not using the term here. So, yes, Hart means what he writes here seriously.]

2. The Church has always taught and known from Scripture that Christ's offering of himself was forensic, because God's Law is perfect justice. Therefore, our salvation required a sacrificial victim (as it proved to be, the self-offering from love). [Justice and love are rightly held together here.]

3. The Church has always taught and known from Scripture that Christ's offering of himself was a ransom to free those held hostage to sin and death.

4. The Church has always taught and known from Scripture that Christ's offering of himself was the victory, as Christus Victor; and that it is one act with his resurrection.

In modern times, theological writers have set points 1 and 2 against points 3 and 4. [This is an unfortunate move, but a common one. It is an attempt in most cases to explain salvation without explicitly affirming our moral guilt due to sin, which is highly offensive to late modern Western man.] In this scenario points 1 and 2 are attributed to St. Anselm and considered to be uniquely western, whereas points 3 and 4 are considered to be uniquely eastern. [This east versus west thing has gotten entirely out of hand and Hart is going to counter it effectively.] Furthermore, in this modern scenario that reinvents history, Anselm is believed to have written that God was infuriated with us until Jesus pacified the Father's rage. In even worse misrepresentations of Anselm, God is said to have taken pleasure, in the modern sense of the word, from his Son's crucifixion. Of course, these last two ideas are expressed with most certain conviction by those who, apparently, do not know Anselm from Popeye the Sailor Man. [Well said! There is altogether too much equivocating on this point even by those who do or ought to know better.] His writing very clearly sets forth the Atonement as the will of the whole Trinity (for God had one will), and therefore Christ's self-offering as the manifestation of the love of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost (as St. Paul taught, Rom.5:8). The images of God the Father as a raging tyrant pacified or pleased (in the modern sense of the word) by his Son's agonies, has never been western theology at all, and was never taught by Anselm. [Right; it is about time someone defended the Western theological tradition, especially St. Anselm, against the calumnies being hurled against it even in publications by Evangelical publishing companies.] Use of Biblical language that is metaphorical, such as "wrath," does not change this fact.

Having read the Bible over and over since I was 14 (and I am now, in 2009, 51), and having studied for well over three decades the teaching of the Church, east and west from Antiquity forward, it is obvious to me that all four points are true, and that the people who insist that we must choose between either 1 and 2 or 3 and 4, suffer from deficiency of logic or from blind spots in their knowledge of the Bible. [I would only add that the blind spots in some cases appear self-induced as part of a campaign to discredit the whole Christian doctrine of the atonement in stages. Normally, one ought to adhere to the rule "Never attribute to malice aforethought what can more simply be explained by stupidity" (a form of Occam's Razor usually applied to university administration). However, in some cases, heretics sieze on #1 and #2 and appear outraged by them in order to sink the whole ship. Never trust anyone who denies #1 to faithful to #4 for long.]

Final Comments:
Fr. Hart is to be commended for a fine article. I have only quoted part of it and you can read the rest here.

No comments: