[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.
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