The offence of the cross
The various versions of satisfaction atonement function with the assumption that doing justice depends on retribution. Punishment is the expression of the divine law and order, of the inviolability of the divine order of the world. This is reflected in Anselm’s substitutionary theory, which derives from the medieval feudal system. It not difficult to see that Anselm reflects this world view, but it would be wrong to summarily dismiss the doctrine because of this: God does not demand satisfaction for sin because he is in some way personally affronted or offended by transgression. What is at stake is the order and beauty of the universe, for which God is responsible. Anselm’s understanding of satisfaction atonement differs significantly from penal substitutionary atonement. Whereas penal substitution pictures retribution in terms of punishment exacted by divine law, for Anselm it was the offended honour of God that required retribution. This is an important distinction, because the image of penal substitution is not true satisfaction atonement as articulated by Anselm. Indeed, some scholars blame reformers like Calvin for the unhealthy images which focus on the ‘wrath’, ‘hostility’ or ‘dread’ of God. The logic of satisfaction atonement makes God the chief avenger, but, for Anselm, God is not one who has to inflict punishment, but rather is concerned with the defence of honour.
An atonement motif in which the Father has one of his children killed in order to show love to the rest has led ministers and scholars to claim that it presents an image of ‘divine child abuse’. And, quite reasonably, if God is omnipotent and all-loving, why could he not simply forgive humanity without demanding this sacrifice? But such criticisms only echo the flaws which Abelard found in substitutionary logic. He wrote:
If the sin of Adam was so great that it could be expiated only by the death of Christ, what expiation will avail for the act of murder committed against Christ, and for the many great crimes committed against him or his followers? How did the death of his innocent Son so please God the Father that through it he should be reconciled to us?
Since man cannot save himself, Anselm’s deletion of Satan from the equation logically leads to the conclusion that God is the only one left to orchestrate the death of Jesus. Calvin emphasised the substitionary office of Christ by explaining why God’s ‘wrath’ was necessary:
…unless our minds are first struck and overwhelmed by fear of God’s wrath and by dread of eternal death, we are taught by Scripture to perceive that apart from Christ, God is, so to speak, hostile to us, and his hand is armed for our destruction; to embrace his benevolence and fatherly love in Christ alone.
Notwithstanding these concerns, this model not only has a scriptural foundation, but it clearly articulates how Christ’s death two thousand years ago is relevant in the present age - the Word became flesh (Jn 1:14) in order that humanity be saved. In his substitutionary role (Gal 3:10, 13), Christ reveals that God is for us by taking on the burdens that we cannot handle. He does this to free us to engage in other more important and more happy and more fruitful activities than being caught up in our own guiltiness. God becomes flesh because God’s very being demands it in order to be in relationship with us, not because he is somehow obliged. Since law is the expression of the will of the Lawgiver, of the personal God, then, if it is broken, it cannot and does not heal itself. Sin has caused a break in the world order, a disorder so deep-seated that atonement is necessary. As Athanasius observed:
Repentance does not satisfy the demands of truth and justice. If the question pertained solely to the corruption of sin, and not to the guilt and ill-desert of it, repentance might be sufficient. But since God is both truthful and just, who can save, in this emergency, but the Logos who is above all created beings. He who created men from nothing could suffer for all and be their substitute. Hence the Logos appeared… He saw how inadmissible it would be for sin to escape the law, except through a fulfillment and satisfaction of the law.
‘Substitution’ or ‘satisfaction’ are appropriate words when it is accepted that it is God’s inner being that is being satisfied; not something external to himself. Talk of law, honour, justice and the moral order is true only in so far as these are seen as expressions of God’s own character’ (cf 2Tim 2:13; Tit 1:2; Heb 6:18; Ps 89:33; Dt 32:4). When he is ‘provoked’ (eg Dt 32:16 cf Jdg 2:12), it is not a limitation of his patience, but the inevitable reaction of God’s perfect nature to evil. Yet he does not treat us as we deserve (Ps 103:10; Rom 2:4-16; 3:25). God has a kind of ‘dual nature’ – not that He is inconsistent, but that He is simultaneously both holy and love. The modern objection to the forensic language in relation to the cross is mainly due to the fact that the idea of the Divine Holiness has been swallowed up in that of the Divine Love; this means that the biblical idea of God, in which the decisive element is this twofold nature of holiness and love, is being replaced by the modern, unilateral, monistic idea of God.
And the mystery of the cross is impoverished by it; and the doctrine of the Church is rendered increasingly incomprehensible if its own ministers cease to understand it, or to preach it.