Thursday, March 29, 2012


Lenten Meditation  29 March 2012

            “Jesus is, in effect saying, “This is how evil is transformed into good.  I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed or helpless again!  I am giving you the victory over death!”  (Page 188)

The Resurrection of Christ (1611-12) by Rubens

            Atonement is probably the only theological concept which has its roots in the English language rather than Greek or Latin.  At-one-ment is the Middle English way of speaking about reconciliation or recovery of relationship; theologically this is a way of speaking of the reconciliation between God and humanity through the saving work of Christ, especially Christ on the Cross.

            Before the high Middle Ages, some theologians, including Irenaeus and Origin and Augustine, understood that the “sacrifice of Christ” was a necessary payment of debt for the sins of the world, not unlike modern theologians, but in payment to the Satan to buy humanity out of the control of evil.  In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the beginning of Scholasticism, several competing theological understandings arose.  St. Anselm posited that the debt or sacrifice was to be paid not to Satan but to God in satisfaction for the debt owed for sin.  Peter Abelard, on the other hand, argued that the only reason for the Incarnation, Passion and death of Christ was to show visibly the complete love of God for creation.  John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan, argued that the redemptive work was clearly shown in Jesus’ life death and resurrection, but raised the questions of the precise nature of redemption and challenged the metaphors of debt and payment price.

            To grossly compact history, Anselm, Abelard, Duns Scotus and others debated understandings of Atonement for centuries without a condemnation for any of these positions.  In the sixteenth century, with the rise of the reformation theologians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic theology accepted St Anselm’s position and rejected all other understandings of Atonement.

            Modern Christian theology has in some ways taken in its entirety the theology of Atonement of Anselm—the understanding that a debt must be paid, a blood sacrifice is essential in order for reconciliation to be effected between God and humanity.  Whether Anselm himself understood God to be an angry, blood-thirsty, distant deity, needing to be assuaged by the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, unfortunately this image of God has become the major icon of contemporary Christianity for non-believers.  Of course, those words are not used, but by inference it is not only possible but one is likely to arrive at such an understanding.  In fact, I have heard those who reject Christianity use the argument, “How can I believe in a God who requires the blood of his son to appease his anger?”  The incredibly popular movie of 2004, The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, is a graphic depiction of the brutal death of Jesus with only a hint of Resurrection, portraying what has come to be called substitutionary Atonement, which grows completely out of Anselm’s theology.  The substitution is, of course, that Jesus paid the debt you have incurred by your sin, the debt putting you out of the reach of grace and the love of God.  The movie was presented as a way to draw people to Christ, but from conversations and experience all it did was appeal to the basest level of human desire to see gore and suffering, not unlike travelers who stop to gawk at a wreck on the highway.  The movie did not swell the ranks of seekers or church goers; it only made money for the producers and distributors of movies.

            Tomorrow I will look more in depth at the theology of Peter Abelard and how it, I believe, is much closer to the biblical understanding of God’s love which flows out of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  Certainly both understandings of atonement theology are accepted by Episcopalians and Anglicans.  My hope is that this conversation will open up a deeper insight into God’s grace, love, and mercy for all of us in order that we might be able to articulate why our faith is so dear to us.  In other words, I am hoping that those who read these essays have the words to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ” as our Baptismal Covenant challenges us.

(This essay relies on both Rohr’s book Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality and the Catholic Encyclopedia available on line.)

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