The Satisfaction Theory and Kinship Ties
by Jane E. Strohl (September / October 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 5)
A Response to "Preaching against the Cross"
Child abuse — sexual, physical, and emotional — is a terrifying reality in 21st century American society. Churches and their institutions have been revealed too often as inhabiting the immoral low ground on this issue — harboring perpetrators, cultivating ignorance of the ugly truth, and thereby effectively silencing victims.
Some critics of the communities of faith challenge us to see the root of our problem at the very heart of Christian theology, that is, in the doctrine of the atonement. Pastor Marshall serves us well by calling attention to the charges of divine child abuse that allegedly undergird a theology of the cross. He is right that Lutheran confessors of the faith need to respond to them. For faith that seeks understanding, it is not enough simply to "glorify the cross that now sits in a land of deep darkness," as Pastor Marshall exhorts us to do. We must also be apologists on its behalf, in the classic sense of that term, giving good account of the cross-centered faith that is in us and acknowledging the potential for harm in our doctrines and symbols.
|The way of the cross is not something that God inflicts upon Jesus. It is the defining passage in God's own being, experienced through Jesus. It is God's unyielding confrontation with the abusers, sin and death. |
The church has never definitively resolved the mystery of Christ's passion. Historically, Christian theologians entertained various doctrines of the atonement. The Anselmian satisfaction theory ultimately predominated, displacing the dramatically appealing yet theologically deficient portrayal of Christ's sacrifice as a ransom paid the devil to free sinners from their bondage. For, as Anselm persuasively argued, although humankind had freely given itself over to the devil's rule, nonetheless the devil had transgressed in alienating God's creatures from God and hence was owed nothing when their rightful Lord determined to recover them.
Anselm concentrated on the injury done by sinful humanity to God and proposed an understanding of the atonement that holds both God's justice and God's mercy inviolate.
Anselm and Bossy
Scholars have sought to make sense of Anselm's work within the context of the feudal structures that Anselm knew. Most illuminating has been the work of medievalist John Bossy, whose Christianity in the West 1400-1700, focuses on the concept of kinship foundational to the social structure of Anselm's era. Anselm argues that the debt owed by humanity to our Creator because of sin is infinite because the being wronged (God) is infinite. To restore the balance of the creation in accordance with the plumbline of divine justice, the debt must be paid. Because the debt is infinite, only an infinite being can discharge it, but since the debt has been incurred by human beings, a human being must pay it.
From these premises, Anselm reasons to the conclusion that God must become human. Indeed, both parties to the transaction are in need of the God-man for them to realize their true nature and fulfill the divine plan. The other options available to God — to allow the human creature to suffer punishment and perish or to dismiss the debt and let bygones be bygones — are spurious. God has committed Godself to the fulfillment of the creation; to abandon it to chaos and destruction would be the denial of God's being. So would a "cheap" grace that sustained life at the cost of jettisoning justice. Thus, to be true to God's own self, God needs the Christ to mediate.
On the human side, according to Bossy, Anselm is working from a concept of kinship that accords primary identity to the group, tribe, or family rather than to the individual. If my brother injured your brother, we, as their kin, could act to make restitution and thus clear the slate between the families, or, alternatively, to compound the fracture. (Think of the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.) The God-man, then, is a member of both of the estranged kin groups and able to remedy the breach between them.
Not Penal Substitution
According to Bossy's analysis, Anselm is not propounding a theory of penal substitution. It is not that the innocent one bears an unjust punishment, suggesting that God is satisfied as long as someone bleeds for God's offended honor. Rather, our brother, who is also God's son, turns the depravations of sin and death on their heads by freely subjecting himself to them. And God, who is so moved by the courage, steadfastness, and generosity of this self-offering, responds by showering Christ's kin with the merits of his sacrifice. Clearly Anselm is seeking to make sense of the atonement within a juridical framework. Indeed, his critics faulted him for portraying God as in some way subject to the demands of a justice that, having originated with God, now seems to constrain God.
Bossy argues persuasively that the interpretation of Anselm's theory as a doctrine of penal substitution represents a slippage from the original concept and reflects the difficulty of construing the satisfaction theory when the understanding of kinship ties underlying it is no longer commonly shared. As an historian and a theologian, I have found very helpful the reconstruction of what Anselm was trying to say in his original context and the distinction between that and what later generations have been able to hear.
Pastor Marshall rightly emphasizes the fact that Jesus is understood to have chosen the way of the cross of his own volition. This, for Anselm, is what fills God with wonder and delight, this willingness of Christ to provide for God and humankind what was needed, even though he could have rightly claimed exemption from the way of all flesh. To do Anselm justice, he was certainly not propounding a doctrine of the atonement that celebrated divine child abuse. But neither does his construal of this divine mystery make immediate sense in our contemporary context; it has yielded to penal substitution, which is decidedly problematic in its implications for both God's justice and God's mercy.
Anselm's insistence that both God's justice and mercy prevail is essential. In addition, the concept of kinship can still be useful for us when we place the atonement securely in the communion that is the triune God. The way of the cross is not something that God inflicts upon Jesus. It is the defining passage in God's own being, experienced through Jesus. It is God's unyielding confrontation with the abusers, sin and death.
Jane E. Strohl is an associate professor of Reformation History and Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California.