Friday, January 07, 2011

Book Review: Poena Satisfactoria

It is with great joy that I just finished reading the Master's Thesis of my friend and co-blogger, Anselm, who, as you know, as been plugging away at this thing for the past three years at the International Theological Institute in Tramau, Austria. I am happy to promote his wonderful work here, which he recently self-published as a short book (106 pages, available through the USC webstore, here) entitled Poena Satisfactoria.

Poena Satisfactoria is both a devastating criticism of the Protestant theory of atonement known as "penal substitution"and an explication of Thomas' teaching on the atonement, which the author refers to rightly as "vicarious atonement." The author also includes the doctrine of St. Anselm, put forward in the classic Cur Deus Homo, and contrasts this with both St. Thomas' doctrine and that of the Reformers.

While the author has a great deal of praise for St. Anselm for his contribution to the field of soteriology, he finds fault with Anselm's satisfaction theory of atonement in that it seems to exalt the objective standard of justice by which atonement is demanded almost above the freedom of God. According to St. Anselm, mankind owed a debt that could not be paid. Justice demanded that satisfaction of the debt must be paid by those who incurred it - mankind. However, man could not pay the debt of sin insofar as its weight is beyond the capability of any mortal to accomplish, since sin is committed against an infinite Person (God). Only God could be capable of making such a payment - but justice demanded that man must pay it. Therefore, a God-Man was necessary to pay this debt and fulfill justice. Christ fulfilled this obligation by the formal perfection of His offering, thus satisfying the demands of justice and reconciling man with God. Though true in its fundamentals, the biggest critique the author offers of Anselm's view is that God seems constrained by the demands of "justice", which seems to be almost above God. Any atonement theory, to be truly satisfactory, must at the same time reconcile the perfect justice established by Christ's atonement with the complete freedom of God in the atonement. The book refers to St. Anselm always with respect, but not without disagreement.

The views of the Reformers are put forth and repudiated. I am not going to go through all the arguments that our author provides, as to do so involves delving into the depths of Lutheran and Calvinist soteriology, which I am loathe to get into here. I do suggest reviewing my co-blogger Anselm's writings on soteriology (linked about halfway down the sidebar) and rereading his introductory post on the subject here. It is sufficient to mention that according to the Reformers, the real value of Christ's death lies in the physical pain that He endured on the cross. The simple punishment (poena simpliciter) suffered by Christ's body is made to be the essential principle of the atonement. This punishment is seen as the actual "wrath of God," inflicted by the Father as the agent upon Christ, who though innocent, takes the full punishment due to sin upon Himself. God's wrath is still outpoured, only it is upon Christ instead of sinners. Once this wrath is "emptied" upon Christ, His justice is satisfied and man can be reconciled to God.

In explicating St. Thomas' teaching on the atonement, the author points to the perfect charity of Christ as the source as the primary reason for the acceptability of His sacrifice, which goes hand in hand with Christ's sinlessness, perfection and divine nature. In making charity the animating principle, St. Thomas is able to avoid basing the atonement on an appeal to an exalted "measure of justice" that even God must obey, while at the same time placing the value of Christ's sacrifice not on His physical sufferings (poena simpliciter) but on the perfect charity with which He offered Himself to God to endure those sufferings. This perfect offering, voluntarily undertaken in perfect charity, makes the punishment Christ endured a satisfactory punishment (poena satisfactoria).

There is much more too - there is a great chapter on the end on Christ's descent into Hell complete with a deconstruction of the Balthasarian interpretation of this event, which would have us believe that our Lord suffered the pains of Hell on Holy Saturday. This argument is opposed by appealing to St. Thomas' teaching, that Christ descended into Hell with regards to place, but not as one of the damned - He came as a liberator, not a victim.

I am sorry for my poor explication of my friend's wonderful book; no doubt I am leaving out important points and possibly butchering some of his arguments. But the book is way better than my review of it. Readers will appreciate its scholarly tone, its tendency to be relevant to a dozen side-issues while remaining focused on only one, and Thomists will appreciate the copious amount of the Angelic Doctor that is cited in the text and footnotes. I highly recommend this book for getting to the traditional, Catholic view on the atonement of Christ.
Click here to go to the USC webstore and purchase Poena Satisfactoria; and don't forget to check out John's other book, Cathedra Veritatis on papal infallibility!

1 comment:

Anselm said...

Thanks for the kind review, Boniface!