Monday, November 17, 2008

Anselm's return: more thoughts on the doctrine of the atonement

I just performed an interesting thought exercise. Part of Year IV theological studies here involves taking a thesis writing tutorial class. The Prof. has been pushing us pretty hard to develop some ideas of what we will write about next year. Tomorrow's assignment: turn in a two page proposal in which you lay out the main lines of your thesis. So, (almost) completely off the cuff, here is what I'm thinking to write about (no surprise to Unam Sanctam readers who remember me from days gone by):


The doctrine of the atonement merits close attention for two reasons, one speculative, the other practical. Firstly, the sacrifice of Christ upon the altar of the Cross is at the very center of Revelation and therefore also of theology, and yet the inner working, so to speak, of the atonement remains open to speculation. Secondly, it has great practical consequences: the doctrine of the atonement stands at the heart of the sacred Liturgy, which shapes to a great degree the faith and therefore also the lives of those who participate in it.

The traditional Catholic theory of the atonement was first formulated by St. Anselm (d. 1109). Its basic lines are these: Christ offers to the Father, in the place of sinful mankind, an infinite satisfaction. The value of his sacrifice more than counter-balances the offense of sin. With the order of justice thus restored, and the Father’s wrath appeased, God is pleased to forgive man his sins. Classical Protestantism retained much of the Catholic understanding of the atonement, but with the mistaken tendency to treat Christ’s sacrifice as a case of penal substitution, i.e., as if Christ’s death were a case of our just punishment being reassigned to him – God’s just anger redirected at him. In the modern era this notion of penal substitution has increasingly crept into Catholic theology, especially in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Ratzinger’s theology of the atonement is especially interesting along the same two lines outlined above. In regards to speculation upon the atonement, Ratzinger makes an excellent contribution to the discussion through the example of his hierarchical method, wherein he allows his soteriology to be shaped and guided by Christology, as also through his development of a line of thought taken from Romano Guardini that seeks to understand Christ’s “suffering through” evil as a process of healing mankind’s guilt from within. Secondly, in regards to the practical importance of the doctrine of the atonement, Ratzinger expresses both the importance of the liturgy in shaping the faith and therefore also the lives of the faithful, and the importance of the doctrine of the atonement in shaping one’s approach to the liturgy.

The main lines along which my thesis will develop are these: first, a consideration of the practical importance of the doctrine of the atonement according to the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Second, a discussion of the method employed (rightly) by Ratzinger in interpreting Christ’s sacrifice. His method, in brief, is to respect the hierarchy of truths: he allows his soteriology to be illumined by Christology, which is illumined in turn by the mystery of the Trinity. Third, then, it will be necessary to turn to the basic datum of Christology that Ratzinger applies to his soteriological speculation, i.e., that Christ is the Son of the Father: an obvious statement with great implications for the doctrine of the atonement.

My fourth task will then be to turn to Ratzinger’s theology of the atonement itself: and in this regard he offers a negative critique of “mechanistic” theories of the atonement (here it will be necessary to counter objections put forward by proponents of the penal substitution theory in regards to Christ’s “cup” of suffering, his cry from the Cross, and especially his descent into hell), positing instead that Christ’s death is a great transformation of death into love. It is here that Ratzinger develops his favorite theme of “suffering through” evil and sin, for if Christ’s suffering is not part of some mechanized legal process in which he is punished for our sins, then why the intensity of his suffering? Ratzinger’s answer is that suffering is simply the form that love takes in a broken world; it is a necessary part of the process of healing guilt from within.

Fifthly, I will be to take stock of Ratzinger’s theology of the atonement within the wider field of Catholic tradition: his interpretation of Christ’s death as essentially an act of love (rather than punishment) fits easily into St. Thomas’ doctrine of the fourfold salvific causality of Christ’s Passion (by way of sacrifice, satisfaction, redemption, and merit). His emphasis on love, however, over and against St. Anselm’s emphasis on justice, must in turn be counter-balanced by the latter. In conclusion, I propose to return to the practical importance of the question of the atonement to see what connections can be drawn between Ratzinger’s soteriology and liturgical theology.


Anonymous said...

Gee... I saw the title of this thread and got all excited..... really !!!

I thought a new Narnia movie was being released.

Anselm, not Aslan.... darn.. now I guess I have to atone for that. :(

Boniface said...


Glad to see you again! I hope you sock it to the Hans Urs von Balthasar crowd, among whom is Dr. Healy of AMU, who believes there is no hell.

You ought to read the short story "Dream of a Ridiculous Man" by Dostoevsky for an excellent insight into the idea of "suffering thgouh" evil and the idea of suffering as the form of love in a fallen world. It is only about ten pages long -- easily readable in one sitting.

I'm glad you are back! Please don't be a stranger!