Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Anselm of Canterbury: Satisfaction theory

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Anselm was the abbot of a Benedictine monastery called the Abbey of Bec. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury under William II of England but had conflict with the king over differences of opinion on the authority of the church in relation to the state. Anselm spent much of his life in exile where he did most of his writing. Anselm is considered by some to be the father of Scholasticism. He wrote a very influential book on the incarnation and the atonement called “Cur Deus Homo?” or “Why did God become man?” It was in this book that he articulated his famous Satisfaction view of the Atonement.

Anselm, drawing from his own historical context, spoke of God as being like a feudal Lord. By sinning we have not only disobeyed God, but we also failed to ascribe him the honor due his name. A Lord must demand not only repayment of what was taken from him but his offended honor must also be satisfied.

“A person who does not render God this honor due Him, takes from God what is His and dishonors God, and this is to commit sin. Now, as long as he does not repay what he has plundered, he remains at fault. Neither is it enough merely to return what was taken away, but on account of the insult committed, he must give back more than he took away. For example, one who harms the health of another does not do enough if he restores his health, unless he makes some compensation for the injury of pain he has inflicted. Similarly, for one who violates the honor of some person, it does not suffice to render honor, if he does not make restitution of something pleasing to the person dishonored, in proportion to the injury of dishonor that has been inflicted…Thus, therefore, everyone who sins must pay to God the honor he has taken away, and this is satisfaction, which every sinner must make to God.”

God is just and so must always defend justice. Humanity has committed a great injustice by failing to ascribe to God the honor he deserves. God cannot simply forgive humanity without also satisfying the requirements of justice.

“Likewise, if there is nothing greater or better than God, there is nothing more just than for the supreme justice which is the same as God Himself, to preserve His honor in the order of the universe…God preserves nothing with greater justice than the honor of His dignity…Then it is necessary either that the honor taken away be restored, or that punishment follow. Otherwise, either God will not be just to Himself or He will be unable to attain either. And it would be monstrous even to entertain that thought.”

According to Anselm, no human being is able to offer to God the satisfaction he deserves. Because humanity was not able, God became human and offered satisfaction in our place.

“Man the sinner owes to God, on account of sin, what he cannot repay, and unless he repays it he cannot be saved…there is no-one…who can make this satisfaction except God himself…But no-one ought to make it except man; otherwise man does not make it.”

Jesus through his righteous life and perfect sacrifice not only pays our debt but offers God satisfaction through the greatness of what was offered. Anselm celebrates this as both merciful and just. Because we have received such mercy we should in turn be merciful.

“His death outweighs the number and greatness of all sin…God's mercy… is so great and so harmonious with His justice that it cannot be conceived to be greater or more just. Indeed, what can be thought to be more merciful than for God the Father to say to a sinner, condemned to eternal torments and having no way to redeem himself: "Receive my only begotten son and render him in place of yourself," and for the Son to say "Take me and redeem yourself"? For the Father and the Son do make these respective statements, as it were, when they call and draw us to the Christian faith. And what is more just than that He to whom is given a reward greater than every debt should forgive every debt if it is presented to Him with due affection?"

Anselm stresses the severity of sin and God’s righteous wrath at our disobedience. For Anselm, if we are to be reconciled to God, restitution needs to be made for the way in which we dishonored him. God finds away to love us while still preserving his honor.

1. What do you think of the idea that sin is failure to ascribe God the honor due his name?
2. Do you agree with Anselm’s contention that it would be a violation of justice for God to simply forgive sin?
3. How do you feel about the idea that Jesus had to suffer on the cross to satisfy God’s offended honor? Is it just for a righteous person to suffer in the place of the wicked?
4. Some people have argued that this theory of atonement changes the mind of God in relation to us, but leaves us unchanged. Do you think Anselm’s theory is incomplete?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Gregory of Nyssa: Ransom

Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)

Gregory of Nyssa was a simple and quiet man who entered monastic life after the death of his wife. He would have been content to live out his life as a monk, but his brother Basil the Great insisted that he become bishop. Despite his reluctance to accept the position, Gregory became a great defender of orthodox Christianity, and played a large part in the victory of Nicene doctrine at the council of Constantinople. Gregory is most well known for his deep mystical writings. The material presented here is from his Great Catechism.

Gregory is representative of the ransom theory of the atonement. He believed that human beings were created for beauty and holiness and endowed with free will after the divine image. Satan deceived us into pursuing a beauty apart from God. Falling for Satan’s lie and choosing to serve him rather than God, the human race became enslaved to sin and death. We freely chose to come into Satan’s dominion and so the devil has rights over us. God could not violate justice by taking what rightfully belongs to Satan, so it was necessary that he buy us back out of slavery.

“We must remember that man was necessarily created subject to change (to better or to worse). Moral beauty was to be the direction in which his free will was to move; but then he was deceived, to his ruin, by an illusion of that beauty. After we had thus freely sold ourselves to the deceiver, He who of His goodness sought to restore us to liberty could not, because He was just too, for this end have recourse to measures of arbitrary violence. It was necessary therefore that a ransom should be paid, which should exceed in value that which was to be ransomed; and hence it was necessary that the Son of God should surrender Himself to the power of death. God's justice then impelled Him to choose a method of exchange, as His wisdom was seen in executing it.”

Because Satan deceived humankind, God in turn deceived the devil by hiding his Son in human form. Gregory believed that God’s deception of the devil was justified not only for our sake, but also for the sake of Satan himself who would benefit from the incarnation as well.

“A certain deception was indeed practiced upon the Evil one, by concealing the Divine nature within the human; but for the latter, as himself a deceiver, it was only a just recompense that he should be deceived himself: the great adversary must himself at last find that what has been done is just and salutary, when he also shall experience the benefit of the Incarnation. He, as well as humanity, will be purged.”

Satan fell for God’s trick, and saw in Jesus a worthy Ransom for all of humanity.

“The Enemy, therefore, beholding in Him such power, saw also in Him an opportunity for an advance, in the exchange, upon the value of what he held. For this reason he chooses Him as a ransom for those who were shut up in the prison of death. But it was out of his power to look on the unclouded aspect of God; he must see in Him some portion of that fleshly nature which through sin he had so long held in bondage. Therefore it was that the Deity was invested with the flesh, in order, that is, to secure that he, by looking upon something congenial and kindred to himself, might have no fears in approaching that supreme power; and might yet by perceiving that power, showing as it did, yet only gradually, more and more splendor in the miracles, deem what was seen an object of desire rather than of fear. Thus, you see how goodness was conjoined with justice, and how wisdom was not divorced from them.”

The devil fell for the bait, but the Son of God hidden within proved to power for his might to contain or conquer. The power of evil was thus destroyed. Christ’s righteousness served as a kind of antidote to evil. The life that was in him overturned the power of death.

"For since, as has been said before, it was not in the nature of the opposing power to come in contact with the undiluted presence of God, and to undergo His unclouded manifestation, therefore, in order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active."

All of humanity shares in the victory Christ achieved because he is joined with us through the incarnation.

“He stretches forth a hand as it were to prostrate man, and stooping down to our dead corpse He came so far within the grasp of death as to touch a state of deadness, and then in His own body to bestow on our nature the principle of the resurrection, raising as He did by His power along with Himself the whole man. For since from no other source than from the concrete lump of our nature had come that flesh, which was the receptacle of the Godhead and in the resurrection was raised up together with that Godhead, therefore just in the same way as, in the instance of this body of ours, the operation of one of the organs of sense is felt at once by the whole system, as one with that member, so also the resurrection principle of this member, as though the whole of mankind was a single living being, passes through the entire race, being imparted from the Member to the whole by virtue of the continuity and oneness of the nature.”

Gregory sees the atonement as a great defeat of Satan. He emphasizes the devil’s role in humanities fall. Humanity is rescued from bondage to the devil. Gregory also sees the atonement as being universal in scope. All of humanity shares in the salvation that Jesus brings and even the devil is restored through Jesus’ work of redemption.

1. Some have argued that deception is an unworthy tactic of God. Do you think it is inconsistent with God’s character to deceive the devil?
2. What do you think about the idea that sin places us under the devil’s dominion?
3. Does Satan have any rights that God should be beholden too?
4. How do you feel about Gregory’s claim that all humanity and even Satan himself shares in the benefit of Jesus’ redeeming work?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Athanasius: Christus Victor

Athanasius (293-373)

Athanasius was an early Christian theologian and Bishop. He is best remembered for his critique of Arianism and defense of orthodox Christianity. Athanasius was present at the first council of Nicaea with his teacher Alexander Bishop of Alexandria when Alexander refuted the doctrine of Arius. Arius believed that Jesus, the son was a created being, and not equally God with the father.Shortly after Bishop Alexander died and Athanasius was made bishop of Alexandria. Despite the fact that Arianism was refuted at Nicaea, the doctrine continued to plague the church and Athanasius spent much of his life in exile for his rejection of Arius’ heresy. Athanasius, contrary to Arius, believed that Christ was fully God and fully man. Athanasius believed that God had become human in order to rescue humanity from sin and death. He is representative of the Christus victor, or recapitulation, theory of the atonement. The following quotes are from Athanasius' On the Incarnation.

According to Athanasius, God created man in his image. His intention was always that they should be made a partaker of the divine nature. Human beings sinned and brought corruption and death into the world. Because of this they became subject to death and began to loose the likeness of the divine image and the knowledge of God.

“because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting."

Athanasius believed that God became human in order to restore in us the divine image that had become wrecked by the fall. Jesus becomes a new Adam and in him humanity is recreated.

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind made after himself, and seek out his lost sheep.

Jesus became incarnate in our own human nature and became subject to death and decay. He takes upon himself the curse of the death that was ours due to the fall. Just as the old Adam as the representative of humanity brought us all into ruin, Jesus as the new Adam dies in our place and cancels the curse of death.

“Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered his body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby abolished because, when he had fulfilled in his body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This he did that he might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of his body and by the grace of his resurrection."

Through his death on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus defeats death. Jesus takes the sting out of death and gives us life and victory through his resurrection. We come to share this victory by faith.

“If, then, it is by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ that death is trampled underfoot, it is clear that it is Christ himself and none other who is the Arch-victor over death and has robbed it of its power. Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of his body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally.”

Athanasius emphasized Jesus’ victory over death and his recreation of the lost image of God in man. For Athanasius, humanity’s greatest need is to be rescued from the curse of death brought about by sin. Jesus came to give us immortality and knowledge of God.

Discussion and Reflection

1. What does it mean to be made in the image of God? How might that have been damaged by the fall?
2. What do you think about the idea that Jesus’ incarnation was a recreation or recapitulation of humanity?
3. Athanasius focuses a lot on death as the penalty for human sin, and Jesus’ crucifixion as a conquering of death. This appears to present problems for those who understand the creation accounts in Genesis as non-literal. Is Athanasius’ theory reconcilable with modern science that teaches us that death existed long before the appearance of human beings?
4. Athanasius says that Christ makes us alive through “the appropriation of his body.” What do you think he means by this?