Tuesday, June 12, 2012
In 2010 I wrote an article for EQ entitled "Substitutionary atonement in the Church Fathers" (you'll find a link in the Articles section to the right) where I argued that the "substitutionary" aspect of the atonement was not understood by the Fathers in the terms of retributive justice (as the Calvinist doctrine of penal substitution holds) but in terms of God's restorative justice.
Recently, Garry Williams has written a rebuttal of my article in EQ where he argues that the Fathers did understand substitution in terms of the fulfillment of retributive justice. After this came out many of you wrote to me and asked for my response to his critiques. Well, today is your lucky day! I've written a response entitled:
The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers
In this new article I decided not to reply to every point Garry made in his article (which I thought would just be self-indulgent and tedious to most folks). Instead, I decided to take the strongest points he made, and address those in a deep way. So I've focused the article on two big figures: Athanasius and Augustine.
I dig in deep to their respective understandings of the atonement, getting into a lot of the Greek for Athanasius, but also (and I think perhaps more substantially) using my artist's eye to recognize the broad narrative themes they both paint of God's struggle to save humanity. So there's lots of good stuff for you theology nerds out there to sink your teeth into!
At the same time, I wanted to go beyond my first article and ask some more probing questions of the Fathers: Beyond their understanding of the atonement--which I maintain are clearly based on a model of God's restorative justice--do the Church Fathers also embrace the way of restorative justice as it applies to our lives together? In other words, is their understanding of God's restorative justice only applied to our individual personal salvation, and the rest of life governed by retributive/punitive justice? Or does that understanding of God's restorative justice inform how we should act in our world--including how we understand the role of civil authority? Considering the history of violence and religion that still shapes our thought today, these are difficult but critical questions to ask.
So give it a read and let me know what you think in the comments below!