Anselm vs Penal Substitution

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Anselm of Canterbury's work "Cur Deus Homo" (which translates as "Why the God-man?") is usually credited with being the first articulation of what would later become the doctrine of Penal Substitution. However a closer reading of Anselm indicates that he would have in all likelihood have rejected Penal Substitution.

The first important thing to note is that in Anselmian Satisfaction there is a distinction between satisfaction and punishment. In Penal Substitution they are the same: the punishment is what satisfies justice. In Anselmian Satisfaction satisfaction is an alternative to punishment. The satisfaction is what restores honor so that punishment can be averted

"The honor taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow" (bk 1 ch 8)

Satisfaction here takes the form of restoration, mending what has been broken, paying back what was taken, etc. If the guilty party is unable to make this restitution then the only alternative is punishment. The principle is taken from the legal courts of the time where a person would either be required to pay a fine, or if they could not afford it they would be punished instead. In Anselmian Satisfaction, since we cannot ourselves make satisfaction and restore God's honor since even if we led a perfect life we would only be giving what is our due, we are headed for punishment. So Christ not only lives a sinless life, which is again his due, but also is willing to endure death for the sake of love. This goes beyond the call of duty and thus honors God, restoring God's honor which Anselm saw as the central problem of the Atonement.


In contrast to this, Penal Substitution does not see satisfaction and punishment as two separate alternatives, but as the same: it is the punishment that satisfies God. Anselm would have likely agreed that it was appropriate to punish the guilty, and that in the absence of restoration (satisfaction) that punishment was appropriate. However he would not have agreed that it was fitting for the innocent Son to be punished in order to justify the guilty.


"What justice is there in his suffering death for the sinner, who was the most just of all men? What man, if he condemned the innocent to free the guilty, would not himself be judged worthy of condemnation?"


Anselm's answer to this is that


"God the Father did not treat that man as you seem to suppose, nor put to death the innocent for the guilty"


he goes on to say


"It seems to me that you do not rightly understand the difference between what he did at the demand of obedience, and what he suffered, not demanded by obedience, but inflicted on him, because he kept his obedience perfect." (bk 1 end of ch 8 and begin 9)


In other words, God did not require or take pleasure or satisfaction in Christ's suffering, rather Christ suffered because he was obedient to love to the point of suffering and even death. One can think of a firefighter who is wounded going into a burning building trying to save people from the flames. No one is "satisfied" that the firefighter was hurt in the fire. What is heroic is that despite the danger and pain that firefighter went into the inferno for the sake of saving others.


Anselm is right to reject "condemning the innocent to free the guilty" whichPenal Substitution proposes. However there are some problems with Anselm' theory as well. The largest of which is that it is rooted in what is called "natural law" which means that rather than looking at the revelation of God in Scripture, he instead looks to human laws and cultural understandings of what is right and "must be" and then imposes this on God.


I would like to suggest further that there is a difference between Anselm's natural law of "reason" as he calls it which is based on the cultural assumptions of his time and arbitrary and artificial human laws on the one hand, and a truly "natural law" on the other hand based on laws of nature. For instance when Anselm claims that there must either be satisfaction (restitution) or punishment, this is in fact arbitrary. Why must there be? Couldn't I simply decide to forgive instead? This was the argument of Socinus, and it is a compelling one. In cases of human reaction the two options Anselm gives are not the only ones available.


But what happens if we think if this in terms not of artificial human law, but in terms of natural sickness? Then the statement becomes that either the wound is treated (satisfaction), or it will fester (punishment). Either the sickness is cured (satisfaction), or it will result in death (punishment). Here we have a model that makes much more sense than a legal one. There is no third option of simply ignoring the sickness, and the act of mercy instead of being a passive non-action of not punishing becomes here active healing. Furhter the satisfaction does not seem to be applealing to vanity or vengeance, but simply to solving a real problem and the "punishment" again is not arbitrary (so we can ask: why not just forgive?) but is a natural consequence. Sickness, if untreated leads to death.


In Anselm's theory Christ needed to first restore God's honor before God could show us favor. In Penal Substitution Christ had to first be punished before God would show us favor. In a medical view however, the act of the physician is an act of favor. The "problem" is not with God but with us. We are the ones who need to be reconciled, who need to be fixed, not God. Again, to apply Anselm's argument here: Christ does not suffer in order to appease or satisfy God, rather God in Christ loves us so much that he enters into our world of sickness, coming to heal and restore us, and in loves us to the point of making himself subject to our sickness. He takes this sickness upon himself (and here I am leaving Anselm and adding in Christus Victor) and overcomes it thus setting us free from its hold.



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Why I am not a Universalist

Friday, September 15, 2006

I've noticed that many proponents of Penal Substitution see it not simply as one theory of the Atonement, but as the Gospel, meaning that to deny it is the same as saying that there is no problem of sin or separation from God. I've noticed the exact same assumption from people who call themselves Universalists: they talk of Christ's work meaning that everyone is automatically saved already.

Now I am all for the thought of God making everything right in the world and "wiping away every tear", but I have seen too much injustice and misery in the world to believe that sin is not real and everything is fine. I don't believe in an imaginary problem where God is angry from some unknown trivial legal transgression that we did. I'm sure you've heard this before: God is holy, and so if you have lied to your mom or cheated on a test ever then you are condemned to eternal Hell, and even if you didn't Adam did so you're literally damned if you do and damned if you don't. In this scenario the Gospel becomes telling a person this "bad news" of how they are condemned to the severest of penalties imaginable (eternal torture) for a petty infraction, but that this same God who made this judgment wants have a loving trusting relationship with them(!)

This is an "imaginary problem" because it is not based on real human need or lostness, but on some transaction in heaven that we would never be aware of if someone did not tell us the news. The problem of sin is real. It is not detached from our experience but dominates it. My wife is a social worker and works with the homeless and the addicted. She sees people at their lowest and most broken. People who are dying alone, people who are enslaved to a life of drugs and degradation. This is the most obvious manifestation of lostness, but if you dig a little deeper you will find suffering and brokenness right next you. That person siting across from you in the pew struggles with thoughts of worthlessness and suicide. The nice woman you see at the supermarket is going through a messy divorce. One you really get to know the people around you, you will find stories of pain, injustice, brokenness, and regret everywhere.

The reason I object to a legal understanding of the Atonement is not because I think sin is not real, but precisely because I do. Because it is real, a mere legal acquittal will not solve the problem, it will not break people out of their bondage and cycles of being hurt and hurting others, it will not restore what has been lost and broken. That is what we need. If being a universalist means trusting that despite our helplessness, sinfulness, and stupidness that God can overcome all of that and find a way to really heal our real problems of sin, suffering, and lostness... yes I place my hope in that and work towards that by fighting injustice, caring for the broken, and showing the same compassion and mercy to others that I so desperately need. What I object to is the kind of universalism that leads to a "don't worry be happy" inaction in the face of human need.

It seems people have a need to think that they are fine, and so God loved them and they have worth. But we know that we are not fine. The "good news" is that God loves us even though we are not fine, and in fact tells us that he has a heart for those who are not "ok". That means that we can be real, and it gives us a basis for compassion.

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Bonhoeffer, Just War, and Nonviolence Pt 2

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bonhoeffer's classic “The Cost of Discipleship” was based on the Sermon on the Mount. On the basis of the Sermon on the Mount he had boldly spoken out against Nazi anti-Jewish policies, and sought to persuade his fellow Germans to oppose Hitler. He argued that following Christ meant loving the “sick, the suffering, those who are demeaned and abused, those who suffer injustice and are rejected”1 in other words, the very people Hitler sought to eliminate. He called on Christians to follow their Lord in “giving their honor for those who had fallen into shame and taking their shame upon themselves”2 fully aware that this meant facing both imprisonment and death. Bonhoeffer was eventually arrested for helping Jewish families to escape into Switzerland. At that time, the plot to kill Hitler was still in its planning phase. The assassination was attempted a year later while Bonhoeffer was still imprisoned. In “Ethics” he explains his rationale for participating in the plot. Six years had passed since he wrote “The Cost of Discipleship” and now in “Ethics” the theme of the Sermon on the Mount so prevalent in Bonhoeffer's past writing was strangely absent. What had happened? Glen Stassen explains that Bonhoeffer's understanding of turning the other cheek in The Cost of Discipleship was mostly passive, a non-participation in evil rather than as a way of actively overcoming evil with good. Because of this, when he looked for a way to actively oppose Hitler, he did not find guidance in the Sermon on the Mount3. One wonders what someone with the vision and courage of Bonhoeffer might have done, had he understood love of enemies as an active way to combat evil.

At the time, Gandhi had just had major success with his nonviolent resistance against Brittan. Bonhoeffer had made plans to visit Gandhi at his Ashram in India and had received a formal invitation. As history had though Bonhoeffer never went. Instead he returned to Germany to join the underground Confessing church. In "The Cost of Discipleship" one can clearly see Bonhoeffer calling for nonviolent resistance

"The followers of Jesus have been called to peace...His Disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others... in so doing they overcome evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate. But nowhere will that peace be more manifest than where they meet the wicked in peace and are ready to suffer at their hands. The peacemakers will carry the cross with their Lord for it was on the cross that peace was made."4

Gandhi and later King where able to organize massive nonviolent resistance against violent oppression. But when Bonhoeffer stood up, he stood virtually alone. "In 1933 Bonhoeffer was almost alone in his opinions; he was the only one who considered solidarity with the Jews, especially with the non-Christian Jews, to be a matter of such importance to obligate the Christian churches to risk a massive conflict with that state”5 If we must place blame here, it is not with Bonhoeffer, but with the church that ignored his cries. Bonhoeffer writes these scalding words,

The church confesses that she has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred and murder, and that she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and had not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”6

People often say that nonviolence would not have worked against Hitler, but where nonviolence was tried against the Nazis it did in fact work. Walter Wink chronicles how thousands of Bulgarian Jews and non-Jews participated in massive protests and civil disobedience and as a result, all of Bulgaria's Jewish citizens where saved from Nazi death camps. Similar success was achieved through nonviolent action in Romania who refused to surrender a single Jew to
the death camps, Finland which saved all but 6 of its Jewish citizens, and Denmark which smuggled 6500 of its 7000 Jewish population to safety.7 Nonviolent Resistance on a massive scale might have worked in Germany, but Bonhoeffer stood alone. In the absence of any alternatives that he could see, Bonhoeffer chose trembling before God to incur guilt for the sake of his fellow man rather than retain his purity while watching them suffer. Nonviolence does not always work, but then again violence does not always work either. The plot to assassinate Hitler failed, and in a brutal retaliation 5000 people were killed including Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was hanged by the Nazis on April 9, 1945.


1Bonhoeffer quoted in Kelly & Nelson, “The cost of Moral Leadership” p 92 from “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works vol 4 - Discipleship”, p 106-7
2 ibid
3Glen Stassen and David Gushee, “Kingdom Ethics”, p 144. (See also Stassen's “Healing the Split in Bonhoeffer's Ethics” forthcoming)
4Cost of Discipleship p 126
5Heinz Eduard Tödt, quoted in “The Cost of Moral Leadership”, p 21
6Ethics p 50
7Engaging the Powers, p 254

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Psycho Surgery

Sunday, September 10, 2006

This is a bit off topic perhaps, but I thought it was really cool. Mental Illness is a big problem in the United States. A good many of the homeless people you see on the street are mentally ill. There are of course other people who are homeless. They are usually clean shaven, look nice, bag your groceries for you or help you find that power saw at Home and Garden, then sleep in their car at night. These people are the invisible working poor and homeless. the are in visible because when you see them you would never guess that they are homeless.

The people we think of as "homeless", the ones who look like Hell and talk to themselves are almost always suffering from a combination of mental illness, addiction, and abuse. That's because someone had the bright idea of letting all of the mentally ill patients out of the hospitals to fend for themselves, which brings us to today's topic: medication. If a person has for instance Schizophrenia and takes their meds, they can be pretty much cured. No paranoia, no voices, no hallucinations. The problem is that the illness impairs judgment, similar to how being drunk does. So the people may try to stop using the meds and "feel" fine, when really they are quickly deteriorating into insanity. next thing you know they are on the street, and often end up in jail where they become the victims of abuse, both by the criminals there, and by a system that was set up to punish people, not help them with mental illness.

So the problem is how to get these people to regularly take their meds so that they wont hurt themselves or others and can be free from these debilitating diseases. That's where "psycho surgery" comes in. Its a new technique where they implant electrodes into the brain and these send permanent signals to make the brain work right. its a similar idea to a pacemaker that helps your heart to beat right, or even to wearing glasses that help your eyes see right. So you get the effect of taking medicine, without the problem of always needing to take it, which can also be a big financial burden on a person if they always need to get expensive medicine their entire life.

So far it is a very new technique, only around 80 people in the US have had it. But it has already helped people suffering from severe depression or OCD where they cannot even leave the house and made them able to be normal again. Scientists see a possibility of not only treating mental illness but also addiction, which is huge since addiction is one of the hardest things to cure.

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Bonhoeffer, Just War, and Nonviolence

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian was among the few German Christians who was outspoken against the evils of Hitler. After escaping to America, he made the decision to return to Nazi Germany saying,

"I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.”1

Back in Germany he joined the small resistance movement and, himself deeply committed to non-violence, made the agonizing decision to take part in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. For Bonhoeffer this meant making the choice to deliberately sin and risk being condemned to Hell (what he did constituted both 1st degree murder and high treason under German law) rather than do nothing and remain personally “innocent” in the face of the massive evil of the Nazis. Fully accepting the guilt of his actions, Bonhoeffer threw himself on the mercy of God. He writes,

When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace”2

Bonhoeffer forces us to wrestle with him, he refuses to allow us to resolve the question of whether he was justified or not, leaving us with him in his tension before God. Bonhoeffer is adamant that we cannot take his decision as a justification for violence, but instead takes the guilt of that upon himself, seeing it like the decision to amputate a limb. While we may understand his decision and respect his courage, Bonhoeffer insists that we cannot ultimately justify or glamorize his choice. We may justify hurtful actions like abortion or divorce or war, but that does not make them "good" or "just". If we wish to join Bonhoeffer, it must be here in that tension trembling before God.


Next time we will examine the shift in Bonhoeffer's thinking that began as a focus on the Sermon on the Mount and a commitment to nonviolence in "The Cost of Discipleship" to his decision to participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler in his "Ethics".


1Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship p 18
2Dietrich Bonheffer, Ethics p 244


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Just Peacemaking Theory

Friday, September 01, 2006

Love of enemies is at the center of what the cross means. While we were God's enemies he gave his life for us. Frustratingly though the discussion seems to get forced into a dichotomy of either fighting and hurting and wrath or inaction. This is how the classic dilemma of the cross is presented: God should act in wrath, but wants to show mercy. But if this means inaction that would be unjust.

This dichotomy is not just on a theological realm but comes into every sphere of conflict. Should we bomb the terrorists, or do nothing? In love of enemies God found a way to do something that would reconcile rather than destroy us. With the current spirit of war in our country I am always looking for real alternatives to war and bloodshed. Going beyond just saying what is wrong and presenting a real alternative. I discovered something called Just Peacemaking Theory which does just that.

Twenty-three Christian ethicists, international relations scholars, conflict resolution specialists, theologians, one New Testament scholar, and a handful of Peace Action leaders, have been working for five years to create what they call Just Peacemaking Theory. Just Peacemaking Theory goes beyond the debate of whether war is justified or not, and instead offers ways to prevent war and create peace based on techniques of diplomacy, conflict resolution, repentance, reform, and nonviolent action. They have summed these up into 10 practices that have been empirically proven to prevent wars and end conflict around the world.

1. Support nonviolent direct action.

2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.

3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.

4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.

5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.

6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.

7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.

8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.


9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.


10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.


Glen Stassen's webpage at Fuller has a lot more details, check it out.





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