Thursday, April 28, 2016

Christus Victor Part VI

(This is part of a series discussing Christ's crucifixion and the Atonement theories that seek to understand the cross. Earlier posts may be found here, here, herehere, and here.)

Beginning in the Middle Ages, a new understanding of the Atonement emerged that at first challenged, and later, almost entirely replaced the “Christus Victor” approach.

The Patristics certainly discussed the Atonement, but never in a systematic, thorough fashion, in part because they were so focused on Christological issues (such as reconciling the divinity and humanity of Christ) as well as developing a doctrine of the Trinity. 

 Therefore, a detailed Atonement theory did not appear until Saint Anselm of Canterbury.[1] Anselm (1033-1109) spoke against the earlier classical view, averring that Redemption is not primarily about the rights of the devil, but the wrong done to God on the part of humanity. 

Anselm’s historical context had a profound impact upon him as he developed his new theory of the Atonement. In the Middle Ages, feudalism governed European society with a series of hierarchical classes of people existing in a give-and-take relationship. For example, a lord would provide his vassal with material goods and defense whereas, in exchange, the vassal owed his lord loyalty and tribute. It was a society based on honoring and serving landowners. Justice, in this system, was fixed on satisfaction, not punishment like current law in the United States. As Anselm developed his theory, he was profoundly impacted by his view of God as a great feudal lord.[2]

Anselm’s Atonement theory (referred to as the satisfaction theory or Latin theory) is advanced in his work Cur Deus Homo? In this book, Anselm represses the classical notion of the cross as a victory over the devil. In its place, he maintains that the cross is predominantly deliverance from the guilt of sin. Through the cross, humankind is reconciled to the Father through the satisfaction made by the Son to the Father’s justice.[3] 

To elaborate, Anselm begins by explaining that man is created for happiness. Happiness, however, necessitates a life without sin, something no human could claim. Thus, in order to be happy, humankind needed remission of sin.[4]

The quandary is that all creatures, as vassals, owe a basic debt to God, the great lord. This debt subsists in being subject to God’s Will. If someone pays this debt, he or she is not in sin. If unpaid, that individual lives in sin. Anselm writes, “He who does not render this honor which is due to God, robs God of His own and dishonors Him; and this is sin.”[5] 

Since man has clearly sinned, he is mandated to restore what is due to God or else will remain in sin. In his feudalistic frame of mind, Anselm included another point: it is not enough to merely restore what one took from God. In addition, individuals are mandated to provide extra compensation for having even offended God in the first place. “…Every one who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God.”[6]

At first, the solution seems clear: God in an act of sheer mercy should simply forgive the sins of fallen humanity. Anselm, however, declares that God cannot straightforwardly wipe away the sins as if they had never occurred. To remove sin in such a way would eradicate any punishment. If there is no punishment, it is as if the sin had not transpired and this is not just since both the guilty and non-guilty would be treated equally. 

Thus, without satisfaction, God cannot allow sin to go unpunished. So there are dual dynamics present: the sinner cannot achieve the happiness he or she is destined to have because of sin and there exists a need for satisfaction to the wrong done to God.[7]

Then there is the final clinch in this series of dismal acknowledgements: the satisfaction must be in proportion to the guilt incurred. Yet, no matter how much one gives back to the Lord, whether it be prayer, abstinence, or contribution, humans already owe God all of this! Boso, the individual with whom Anselm dialogues in Cur Deus Homo? speaks the obvious predicament, “If in justice I owe God myself and all my powers, even when I do not sin, I have nothing left to render Him for my sin.”[8] Anselm states in reply, “Even God cannot raise to happiness any being bound at all by the debt of sin, because He ought not to.”[9]

The circumstances of humankind is one of which there is colossal satisfaction to be made. Anselm explains that the first man and woman had been placed in paradise, situated between God and the devil. They were meant to defeat the devil by remaining loyal to God. Instead, on his own accord, man sinned and permitted himself to fall under the will of the devil. In freely succumbing to the devil, humanity incurred the penalty of death. 

Anselm enumerates, “…so in his weakness and mortality, which he had brought upon himself, he should conquer the devil by the pain of death, while wholly avoiding sin. But this cannot be done, so long as from the deadly effect of the first transgression, man is conceived and born in sin.”[10]

Satisfaction must be greater than all else but God Himself, something that only God is capable of doing. Simultaneously, only a man can make the satisfaction because man is the one who owes the satisfaction to God. To this predicament there can be only one solution: a God-man.[11]

Anselm explains that the key to the Atonement is God becoming human. If there were no Incarnation, there could be no Redemption. Only Jesus, fully human and fully divine, could fulfill both sides of the justice issue.[12] Anselm writes, “For, as it is right for man to make atonement for the sin of man, it is also necessary that he who makes the atonement should be the very being who has sinned, or else one of the same race.”[13] 

When the issue is raised why God could not have created an angel or another human to accomplish Redemption, Anselm responds that God Himself had to do it because if God created a sinless man to redeem mankind, men and women would be indebted to this individual as opposed to God.[14]

There remained another question with Anselm’s view. If God freed humans from sins, hell, and the power of Satan, could He not have done this by His Word alone? If not, then God must not truly be an omnipotent God. If, however, God could have accomplished salvation in this means, yet insisted upon Jesus suffering on the cross, what kind of God must this be? 

Anselm counters that the Father did not force Jesus to die; He did not kill the innocent for the guilty. According to His own free will Jesus died for humankind’s salvation. While the Father clearly approved of the Son’s desire to die for this reason, He neither caused the desire nor the suffering.[15] Finally, God could not have brought about salvation by His Word alone, for reparation must be from a human since it was the human race that committed the transgressions and owed God the satisfaction.[16]

[1] Aulén, 1.
[2] Carroll and Green, 261.
[3] Aulén, 2.
[4] Saint Anselm, Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus Homo, trans. Sidney Norton Deane (Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1948), 201.
[5] Saint Anselm, 202.
[6] Saint Anselm, 202.
[7] Saint Anselm, 203.
[8] Saint Anselm, 224-225, 227.
[9] Saint Anselm, 230.
[10] Saint Anselm, 230-231.
[11] Saint Anselm, 244-245.
[12] Carroll and Green, 258.
[13] Saint Anselm, 247.
[14] Saint Anselm, 178-179, 184.
[15] Saint Anselm, 185, 191, 198.
[16] Carroll and Green, 258.

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