[Frederica-l] Passion and Atonement

Frederica at aol.com Frederica at aol.com
Fri Sep 26 15:52:28 EDT 2003

I've had a lot of response from conservative Christian friends to the 
Beliefnet column I sent out yesterday-- 


Some of the response seems to be based in confusion, so I wanted to follow up 
with clarification. Don't feel you have to read this if you're not interested 
in these details; this isn't a new published article. 

I'd like to pinpoint where the actual disagreement is. First, here's where I 
think we don't disagree. 

--I expect that Mel's movie will be a powerful witness and help many revive 
or begin a commitment to Christ. 

--Mel stands as an artist in a longstanding tradition of depicting the 
Passion graphically; as an artist, he is free to depict it any way he wants. 

--Mel is historically accurate; the events really were that bloody. 

Here's what snagged my curiosity. In the NYer article Mel says "I want it 
very bloody" and "just like in the Gospels." It had never occured to me before 
that the Gospels do not depict it as very bloody. Reality was very bloody, but 
when the writers of the Gospels came to that point in the story, they made a 
different choice than Mel does. 

I thought further about this. I knew that the history of graphically bloody 
Crucifixes and Passion meditations goes back to medieval times, but before that 
I lose the thread. Starting at the other end, with the relatively restrained 
Gospels, and moving forward, I didn't know of any examples of early devotional 
writing that dwelt on the Passion using this tone of compassionate empathy. 
The early liturgies for Good Friday have a subtly different flavor--awe and 
gratitude for the suffering, rather than identifying with it. Early depictions of 
the Crucifixion are more like the Gospel of John--Jesus is serene and regal. 
Why did they choose to portray it that way? When did this change, and why?

Now at this point I'm not talking about Mel's movie any more, but about 
history. My goal was never attack the movie, but to use his one comment as a 
jumping-off place for exploration. I think however because of the way Beliefnet 
titled and packaged the piece it came across as Mel-bashing. My goal was a more 
comprehensive exploration of changing views of Jesus' suffering. My title was 
"The Meaning of His Suffering," which is why that's still the last line in the 

I discovered of course that depiction of the Passion has changed over the 
centuries depending on what people thought it meant to our salvation. It's 
actually not useful to turn to Scripture to settle the argument, because everybody 
believes their view is based in Scripture. (Translation can cause problems, 
too, for example "propitiation" instead of "expiation," though the term really 
has no perfect English equivalent.) People who espouse one view accuse opponents 
of ignoring the Scriptures they think most pertinent, and vice-versa. 

But what we see is three distinct viewpoints, which arise at different points 
in history. This is news to many people; it has never occured to them that 
sincere believers read the bible differently in the ancient past. But the 
history really isn't in dispute. I was taught it thirty years ago in Episcopal 
seminary. (The best short summary of this history is "Christus Victor," by the 
Lutheran theologian Gustav Aulen, and I highly recommend it.) Scholars and 
historians agree that this shift occurred; the disagreement among believers is what 
you should do about it. 

Some (like me) believe you should always adhere to the earliest consistent 
understanding in any theological question. Others say that later explanations 
may be better, more thorough or logical ("development of doctrine"), even if it 
reframes understanding of the question. And still others say that God is 
always doing a new thing, and may even appear to reverse himself; it's wrong to be 
locked to the past, change is good. Basically, three positions.

That's the core of our disagreement--whether you cling to the earliest und
erstanding, or later development, or a "new thing" altogether. That's the point 
where conversation should take place.


Here's the boring historical part. If you're with me so far, you don't 
necessarily have to read it. But if you're confused, keep going.

Many of my correspondents don't know this history and insist instead that the 
Blood Atonement theory is the earliest. It just isn't so. They believe this 
because they find evidence for it in the Scriptures, but as I've said, this is 
a matter of your favorite Scriptures lighting up for you, in accord with how 
you've been taught. 

The appearance in history of the Blood Atonement, or Substitutionary, theory 
can actually be located pretty precisely, in the work "Cur Deus Homo?" ("Why 
Did God Become Man?") by Anselm, Bishop of Canterbury, in the 11th century. 
Anselm's idea is foreshadowed in some earlier writers, like Tertullian, but it 
was not the general view. 

The general view of the early church was not as crisp, as thorough, as 
Anselm's. And this is why Catholic and Protestant theologians have seen Anselm's 
theory as a great advance. Henry Bettenson, in his anthology "Documents of the 
Christian Church," calls "Cur Deus Homo," "one of the few books that can truly 
be called epoch-making." 

Catholic and Protestants have never claimed that Anselm's Blood-Atonement 
theory is the earliest; they've said it is the best. It was a breakthrough. That 
implies something else came before. 

Anselm's theory, as we know, is that our sins create an overwhelming offense 
against God's honor, a debt. God cannot merely excuse this offense and wipe 
the debt away, because it constitutes an objective wrong in the universe; 
justice would be knocked out of balance. There must be punishment. 

Anselm: "Let us consider whether God could properly remit sin by mercy alone 
without satisfaction. So to remit sin would be simply to abstain from 
punishing it. And since the only possible way of correcting sin, for which no 
satisfaction has been made, is to punish it, not to punish it is to remit it 
uncorrected. But God cannot properly leave anything uncorrected in his kingdom. 
Moreover, to remit sin unpunished would be treating the sinful and sinless alike, 
which would be incongruous to God's nature. And incongruity is injustice. It is 
necessary, therefore, that either the honor taken away should be repaid, or 
punishment should be inflicted." 

He goes on to say that "no sinner can make" complete satisfaction for sin. 
"None can make this satisfaction except God. And none ought to make it except 
man...One must make it who is both God and man." 

Because Christ did not deserve to suffer for us, but paid the debt 
voluntarily, he "ought not to be without reward...If the Son chose to make over the 
claim he had on God to man, could the Father justly forbid him doing so, or refuse 
to man what the Son willed to give him?" 

I think most of you will recognize this. It is the standard view of 
traditional Catholics and Protestants. 

During the Enlightenment theologians began to criticize this theory as 
legalistic, as too rooted in the Old Testament and not enough in the New, as 
portraying a God who hardly seems to be one of love. They began to develop an 
alternative theory which was little concerned with punishment of sin; instead, 
Christ's sacrifice was meant to move and inspire, so that we voluntarily return to 
God, and God is moved to reconcile with us. This theory is called "exemplary" 
because Jesus is the example rather than the sacrifice. It's proponents claimed 
to root their view in Abelard, a younger critic of Anselm. The big debate in 
the 19th century cast these two views as "objective" and "subjective." 

Because of this, conservative Christians in the West are disposed to see any 
attack on the Substitutionary theory as a move toward liberalism. 

That is not so. There is a whole third viewpoint, which prevailed throughout 
the first millennium, and continues outside Western Christianity today. 


Now I'm going to describe this theory. Though I've described it from time to 
time in my writing, I have a hunch that no non-Orthodox could explain it back 
to me, because its simply too unfamiliar. It's strange to us; its premodern. 
It has the Devil in it. A theory so odd doesn't fit any of our categories, so 
as soon as we read about it we forget it. 

I've heard that you have to be exposed to an unfamiliar idea seven times 
before you remember it. So read this section seven times. :-)  Without grasping 
this alternative classic theory, we fall back into presuming that, if it ain't 
substitutionary, it's modern, liberal, and bad. 

This theory, in short, does not consider the possibility that God could not 
just forgive us. It presumes that he *does* just forgive us. The thing that so 
troubled Anselm--the image of a great offense against God that could not be 
paid or remitted--didn't occur to the early church. 

However, "the wages of sin is Death." Because we are sinners, we are captives 
of Death. The term means more than mortality: it is a package including the 
Devil, evil spirits, temptation to sin, and so forth, "the Tyrant." We have 
sinful hearts that incline to choose self, and this cooperation with Evil keeps 
us infected with the seeds of our own destruction. We are responsible for our 
own fate, because we cooperate with Evil. We are powerless to escape this fate. 

Note that the emphasis is not on sins being an offense against God. It is 
more organic, like a disease inside a person. But imagine that the person loves 
and caresses the disease, and joins his will to it in affirmation. What can be 
done? What would a loving parent do? 

The classic view sees God the Father and Christ his Son agreeing to rescue 
lost humanity. The Son must actually go into the realm of Death and break it 
open. He sets the captives free. 

The Cross is a high point in this story. But it is part of a complete story 
that begins with Christ's decision to become human, as we see in the 
Phillippians 2 hymn. It proceeds through the Resurrection and is crowned by the 
Ascension and "sitting at the right hand" and even the final Judgement. The whole 
story is what saves us. (by the way, salvation is organic too, and transforms the 
entire person; its not merely the legal remission of sin. It's called theosis.)

When I was researching this a few years ago I asked some Patristic scholars 
what I should read to get a handle on the early church theory of the Atonement. 
They replied that there really isn't one, in terms of Western thinking. The 
best thing to read would be "On the Incarnation," written by young Athanasius 
about 318. I kept saying, No, I'm not asking about the Incarnation, I'm asking 
about the Atonement. They said, It's the same thing. Salvation is the whole 
story. (You can probably find "On the Incarnation" on line; its not very long. I 
like the edition published by St Vladimir's Seminary Press, which has a great 
introduction by C S Lewis.)

Here's an example of how little the early church dwelt on the pain of the 
Passion. Athanasius asks rhetorically, If the whole point of the rescue was to 
get Jesus into Hades, why did he have to be crucified? Why couldn't he just have 
died peacefully as an old man? (You might be wondering that yourself about 

Athanasius reels off a lot of reasons in reply: that the Author of Life could 
not have possibly gotten sick, that the Crucifixion was a public death and so 
Christians wouldn't be accused of faking it. But he never says that it was 
necessary for Jesus to suffer in order to pay our debt. 

It was necessary for him to suffer in order to get into Hades, yes. It was 
the price of admission. But not a punishment. Christ achieved our deliverance at 
the cost of his blood, but it was not a payment. 

As I said, the early church writers did not try to work out a theory as crisp 
and complete as Anselm's. They agreed on the central reality--Christ went 
into Hades and set us free--but did not establish any detailed explanation of how 
it took place. The language in Scripture about "ransom" and "sacrifice" was 
explored poetically, without an attempt to establish explicit doctrine. Gregory 
Nazianzus says that such language is always bound to lead to uncertainty. If 
a "ransom" is paid to a kidnapper, it wasn't paid to God; God wasn't holding 
us hostage. But if it was paid to the Devil, the very idea is outrageous. The 
Devil was a usurper and had no right to fair payment. It couldn't be a 
sacrifice in payment to the Father, because the Father would not even accept the 
sacrifice of Isaac--how much more appalling would be the sacrifice of his own Son. 
So, Gregory concludes, we just can't press these images too hard.

It definitely cost Jesus his life's blood to rescue us. It was a ransom in 
that sense. He offered it in obedience to the Father. It was a sacrifice in that 
sense. When the sacrifice to the Father was explored in more depth and 
likened to Temple sacrifice, as in Hebrews, it was treated poetically, 
typologically, not literally. 

It was this softness of logic that makes the classic theory frustrating to 
Western Christians, and elicits impatience. The answer "It's a mystery" sounds 
like "it's unreliable". Here we must note another influence on our thinking: 
the Scholastic movement and Thomas Aquinas. In the West we developed a tradition 
of vigorous intellectual inquiry, and to some extent divided this from 
popular piety, so that theology became a realm for experts. (An aside: this 
worship-study split shades into a heart-mind split, and I speculate is one reason 
Western worship services, heavy on emotion, are attended by more women than men. 
It's not that men are intrinsically less religious--look at Islam and Orthodox 

It's hard for us to imagine a Christians culture in which people didn't 
pursue a theological question to the very end. The compensation is that study and 
worship are united, so that what we understand moves us to love God, and love 
moves us to deeper understanding. It would be strange to even to think of those 
as two different functions, because we are a unity. There are things we don't 
particularly need to know in order to live on this earth and follow our Lord. 
Early Christians would say that the exact mechanism of the Atonement is one 
of those things. We know that Christ has rescued us from the Evil One, and that 
we must exercise constant vigilance to keep from hurling ourselves 
voluntarily back into the pit. That's all we need to know. 

To answer the initial question of "When did treatment of Jesus' suffering 
change?" it appears that graphic meditation on the Passion begins about the 14th 
century. In medieval times, too, the depiction of the Devil is reduced in 
significance, and he becomes a semi-comic figure. In the substitutionary atonement 
there is really no role for the Devil; the whole transaction is between 
Christ and the Father, so the Devil fades away (not in reality, of course). 

I've been Orthodox ten years and only recently begun to see how different 
these views of the Atonement are. Every step of the way as these paths diverge 
they lead to divergent views of everything else: what sin is, what forgiveness 
is, what the Father's love is like, even the problem of evil (in the Christian 
east the West's big question, "how can a good God permit evil?" doesn't occur; 
we know evil is in the world because our sins keep polluting it, keep opening 
the door. Our sins empower the Evil One, and he delights in hurting the 
innocent, not only because he enjoys their suffering, but relishes the grief of 
observers as well.)  

An unfamiliar idea like this is disruptive and unsettling, and prompts floods 
of other questions. I may not have time to answer them all. But I hoped, by 
this message, to at least lay out the groundwork. 

best, F

Frederica Mathewes-Green
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