Chapter 19 tackles one of the biggest questions in Christian theology, for the trained theologian and the layperson: how is it that Christ’s death on the Cross atoned for humanity’s sins? For that matter, what does “atone” mean?
This chapter was written by Oliver D. Crisp. Dr. Crisp is Professor of Analytic Theology at the University of St. Andrews. He earned his PhD at King’s College, London and worked for a while as Professor of Systematic Theology at a place I was once eager to attend: Fuller Theological Seminary in California. (My my how we change. ) Crisp has written seven books of theology that look quite serious. My favorite title is Deviant Calvinism. No idea what is “deviant” about his Calvinism, but I appreciate the upstart rapscallionism it suggests.
Crisp sets out to set the historical context (broadly) for theologies of atonement. The first he explains is ransom theory. According to ransom theory, humans have “sold themselves” into slavery to the Devil through their sin. God wants to save humanity from this state, so she sends Christ down to “trick” the Devil into bringing about his death on the Cross, a death which actually pays the ransom price that frees enslaved humanity. The complication with ransom theory is the involvement of Christ in a deception and the rather (what Crisp calls “naive” but what I call) juvenile idea of humans somehow sinning themselves into slavery by the Devil. I mean, if this is truly the way it is (slavery and all that) then I suppose it’s a good theory, but again with my question: how are we to know? I’m not sure where the idea of slavery could be defended as a literal metaphysical state, though it certainly has been referred to figuratively. BUT I RAMBLE
The second theory Crisp describes is the satisfaction theory, which traces its history to St. Anselm. Anselm’s theory is that the nature of God is such that she “requires satisfaction for sin committed against [her]” (432). For some reason I can’t quite fathom, the temporal sins of humans are infinite slights against God; thus she needs an infinite being to bring satisfaction. Also, Anselm (rather arbitrarily?!) says that satisfaction requires a human being to be the one to act on behalf of other human beings. So we have two questions: why does a finite sin and sinner bring about an infinite demerit? And why does satisfaction require a human being? Accepting both entails the necessity of Christ (the God-Man), but those claims aren’t well-defended so it’s not entirely clear why one needs to accept them.
Of note: some say the satisfaction theory is rather too transactional, calling it the “commercial theory of atonement.” I kind of love this because it calls to mind (valid) criticisms of my favorite moral theory, utilitarianism.
Next is the moral exemplar theory of atonement which says Christ is “merely” a moral exemplar “whose work we should emulate, and whose acts of love in the atonement ought to stimulate in us a reciprocal response of love to God” (435). This brings to mind The Grand Inquisitor chapter in The Brothers Karamazov, where Christ is argued to have set too high a moral, ethical, and spiritual standard for finite and fallen human beings. Crisp says the main objection to this theory is the moral cost of the incarnation and death of Chris. Why didn’t God simply set up a human moral exemplar? Why did she make such a cost to herself? I actually think Christians have a good answer to this, appealing to God’s virtues of justice and love. If God sets the cost of sin, and the cost is significant pain and suffering, in her justice and love she takes on the cost herself. Of course, this answer then requires the follow-up of why God would set a price that only she could or would pay… but we shouldn’t pull too many threads lest all fall apart.
Finally, we get to Crisp’s preferred theory: penal substitution. In penal substitution, Christ takes on the “legal” or formal consequences of someone’s sins and is punished in the sinner’s place. The question in this theory Crisp sets out to answer in order to defend this as a theory of atonement is: what reason do we have for God being just in punishing Christ in place of sinners?
(Worth noting: Crisp says the way penal substitution is done, the way God treats Christ as the sinner and the way the punishment of Christ “counts” for the sinner, is “beyond the scope of this chapter” (436). I don’t claim that he should have addressed this, BUT this is a HUGE question! I hope a future chapter does address it, because it seems incredibly significant to me.)
To defend penal substitution, Crisp brings in Augustinian realism, the claim that Adam’s moral corruption and culpability for his original sin are somehow passed down to all his descendants, that all following humans somehow participated in the original sin and moral corruption along with Adam. This is often justified by the theory of traducianism, the theological theory that new individual souls are, like genes, produced by the merged souls of the parents.
Ok first, are we really assuming Adam was the first human, fully-formed and eventually popping Eve out of his rib?! I sincerely hope not. But the theory doesn’t make much sense unless we assume this, so… not a great start.
But back to the text. Crisp then goes into great defense of the idea that those saved by Christ, or “Redeemed Humanity,” is a single “object”, of which Adam was temporally first and Christ is somehow… logically first? Proleptically first? It’s not quite clear. But really, this gets back to my complaint about arguments for the Trinity. Redeemed Humanity is a set with defining characteristics, not an object with moral qualities. Metaphysically these arguments don’t make a lot of sense to me. Also, how is Christ part of either the object or set (choose your poison) of Redeemed Humanity? The whole point of the atonement is that Christ is not redeemed, but redeemer. He is what enables the set of Redeemed Humanity. Christ is the outside element needed to prove the consistency of the system, if we want to channel Gödel. (And why wouldn’t we want to?!)
I hate to be the cranky curmudgeon again, but I’m not happy with any of these theologies of atonement. Perhaps it’s because I have a big question about atonement in general: why does a finite sin from a finite being produce an infinite cost to a perfect, whole God? Why is God wounded, or dishonored, in such an infinite way? It brings to mind Peter Strawson’s description of “objective attitudes” by which we analyze the harmful acts of humans. If we see that someone is “not herself” in some way, not acting in a way we determine is “free” (aka, is acting under coercion, or extreme ignorance, or some other aberration from typical free agency), then they are not quite as culpable for that act — they are not quite “as” guilty and are not to be resented as fully as someone we determine to be working in full possession of themselves and their agency. Wouldn’t a perfect, infinite God be a little more lax in her assessment of our infinite culpability, seeing us as truly finite and ignorant as we are? The requirement of atonement at all, the setup for it, seems cruel and unfair.
But one thing I found fascinating was Crisp’s talk about traducianism and about souls being “seeds” from prior souls that kind of turn into new souls, that that is how sin is passed along and how it was participated in by those temporally distinct from the original sin. Um, how Buddhist is this?! VERY Buddhist. Very karma. Much samsara. (Aaaaaand my foreshadow finds its fulfillment.)
So as per usual, I come away with more questions than answers. I very much enjoyed all the different theories and terms, though: traducianism! Augustinian realism! satisfaction theory! remoto christo! Overall, this was a very enjoyable read.
The venerable pedigree of a given theory is not, after all, a cast-iron guarantee of its being the best explanation of the data.Crisp 431