Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Nonviolent Atonement

by J. Denny Weaver
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2001

reviewed by Anselm

The main premise of the book: God is a pacifist (neither using nor sanctioning violence).
The secondary premise: all three of the main families of atonement theories depend upon divinely sanctioned violence.
Conclusion: therefore none of them are true.

A "Narrative Christus Victor" theory of the atonement is then proposed as an alternative.

Pacificsm is taken as a premise with very little discussion or argument. I disagree with the premise, and therefore it is tempting to throw the book out without further discussion, but I'll grant it temporarily for the sake of argument.

The secondary premise is more interesting. The author follows Gustaf Aulen's distinctions between three main families of atonement motifs: (1) the classical Christus Victor motif, in which Christ's death is the ransom price paid by God to the devil; (2) the satisfaction motif, in which Christ's death satisfies the requirements of God's justice thereby allowing us to receive His mercy; (3) the subjective / humanist moral influence motif, in which the death of Christ is a demonstration of God's love for us, and an example of a moral life and death.

The moral influence motif is dismissed without very much discussion on the grounds that it clearly envisages Christ's death as intended by God in order to catch our attention, which is contrary to His pacifism.

The classic Christus Victor motif receives a reworking in order to eliminate any trace of Christ's death being intended by God, which is clearly the case in the classic versions of the theory, e.g. where God offers Christ's life as a ransom for the lives of sinners, or where Christ's humanity disguises his divinity as bait on a fishhook - when the devil takes the bait, he can't stomach the divinity and disgorges sinners along with Christ.

What Weaver tries to save from this theory is the element of conflict with evil, but here Christ came simply to resist evil by nonviolent means in order to teach us nonviolent resistance to the forces of evil in the world; he knew that he would probably get killed in such a mission, but in no way was it intended as such. His death was no more planned, although it was foreseen as a possibility, than were the deaths of the North American Jesuit martyrs (my example, not his).

He spends most of his energy, however, in arguing against the satisfaction atonement motif. His criticism of this motif is nicely summed up here:

"Make no mistake about it. Satisfaction atonement in any form depends on divinely sanctioned violence that follows from the assumption that doing justice means to punish"

This is where it becomes interesting to me. Although I don't agree with pacifism as a general principle, I do that violence against an innocent man is unacceptable. So practically, we are in agreement that divinely sanctioned violence against the spotless lamb of God is inadmissable. The author is also correct in his assertion that the assumption "doing justice means to punish" leads to a reprehensible doctrine of satisfaction atonement involving just such divinely sanctioned violence.

However, his crucial mistake is to pin this assumption on all proponents of the satisfaction theory, whereas in fact it is the specific difference between Anselmian (Catholic) and Calvinistic (penal substitutionary) satisfaction theories that the former do not make this assumption whereas the latter do. In point of fact, it is quite ironic that for all his justified criticism of this assumption, it is precisely his own inability to understand justice in any other way which leads him to miss the difference between the Anselmian and the Calvinistic doctrines. To be fair, he points out repeatedly that the gross emphasis on divine punishment is characteristic of the Protestant development, whereas it is not emphasized at all in Anselm himself. Ultimately, however, he can only regard this as a matter of emphasis rather than a real difference, precisely because of his own assumption that Anselm, by speaking about justice being satisfied, must really mean punishment.

Rather than seeing another way in which justice can be satisfied, i.e. by a compensatory gift, the author simply abandons justice and leaves it unsatisfied, beated down, as it were, by God's mercy, instead of working in harmony with it. The specific brilliance of the Anselmian doctrine is that the scales are rebalanced not in that God repays us (represented by Christ) in kind, but in that we (represented by Christ) repay God. Christ offers his own infinately precious self as a gift which is more pleasing to God than all our sins are displeasing. That this gift of himself took the form of death does not mean that it is death precisely as such that God is pleased with. It was rather the perfect expression of love that goes all the way "to the end" (Jn 13:1).

Further Remarks

Aside from the general argument, there are a number of problems with the author's presentation and argumentation in regards to various details.

1. He proposes as a criticism of satisfaction theories of atonemant that sinners are quite passive in the whole process. Justice is satisfied quite apart from anything we do, and this leaves us with the problem that the atonement seems not to have immediate ethical implications. I would note in return that this surely applies to the penal substitution doctrine, and it is no coincidence that this doctrine is found together with justification by faith alone, apart from good works. The Catholic doctrine of satisfaction depends upon our incorporation into Christ, with all the ethical implications of being fully identified with Him.

2. Weaver writes, "Stated in oversimplified fashion, the pre-Constantinian church looked to Jesus the Lord as the norm of faith and practice... On the other hand, the emperor symbolied the empire. Once Christianity became the religion of the empire... preservation of the empire or the institution of the social order became the decisive criterion for ethical behavior, and the emporer or ruler became the norm against which the rightness of a behavior such as killing or truth-telling was judged" [pp. 84-85]. This is a shockingly false historical analysis, especially in light of the famous confrontation of Emperor Theodotius and St. Ambrose of Milan.

3. His interpretation (on p. 192) of St. Anselm's words is quite faulty:

Anselm says (as summarized by Weaver): It is not fitting for Got to remit sin by mercy alone, without any payment for the honor taken away from him; to remit sin in this way is the same thing as not to punish it; and since to deal rightly with sin without satisfaction is the same thing as to punish it, if it is not punished it is remitted irregularly.

Weaver concludes: "This means that satisfying sin is equated with punishing it..." "Anselm thus considered the punishment of sins necessary." Although he admits that Anselm never actually says that Christ's death is a punishment, and so he agrees that the blame for the worst excesse of penal substitution (e.g. "divine child abuse") belongs to the Reformers (especially Calvin).

I conclude: Anselm says that if God forgives without satisfaction (payment), this is unfitting; to forgive without satisfaction is the same as to forgive without punishment (this is where Weaver jumps in and concludes that for Anselm satisfaction = punishment; it is possible, however, to understand Anselm as saying that forgiveness without satisfaction is the same as forgiveness without punishment inasmuch as in either case justice seems to be lacking); but then in the last line of Anselm's reasoning here, he says that where there is not satisfaction sin is dealt with rightly (justly) by being punished. It would seem then that where there is satisfaction, sin may be dealt with rightly without punishment.

Further on, he repeats this misunderstanding of Anselm: "the punishment of death pays the debt that balances sin and restores order" [p. 201; cf. 202]; in fact, however, payment of a debt(satisfaction) renders debtors prison (punishment) unnecessary.

In conclusion, I agree with his criticisms against satisfaction atonement precisely insofar as they are directed at the penal substitution doctrine, but I hold (surprise!) that Anselm's doctrine completely escapes his criticisms. From this standpoint, his pacifistic alternative proposal is both unconvincing and unnecessary.


Boniface said...

What is it with these people who want to leave God's justice unsatisfied but are entirely anal about making sure things like mercy and pacifism are justified from a human perspective? Like it's more important for us to be satisfied than God..

Nick said...

It just goes to show what happens with the Sola Scriptura mindset, you never know what new spin on a major doctrine is going to show up next.

I honestly see no way of explaining passages talking about God's wrath and "propitiation" in a purely pacifist framework.

W. said...

One of God's commands to humanity: Genesis 9.6: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.

Unknown said...

Along those lines, I wonder what Mr. Weaver would think of Boniface's recent posts on OT warfare?