Subjective and Objective Atonement - Abelard,Girard

Monday, October 16, 2006

I've noticed that proponents of Penal Substitution seem to divide the world in to two camps: those who see the Atonement as objective (themselves) and those who see it as subjective (everyone else). By "objective" and "subjective" they mean whether the Atonement deals with an objective problem outside of ourselves such as God's wrath against sin, vs. the Atonement dealing with a subjective problem within ourselves such as our being estranged from God because we have a false image of him. The classic example of a subjective understanding of the Atonement is Abelard who saw the purpose of the cross as wooing us to God by a display of sacrificial love displayed on the cross.

Most proponents of Penal Substitution would acknowledge that there is indeed a subjective element to the cross since the love shown there does compel and speak to the heart of the lost just as Jesus does. However they would argue (I think rightly) that if our problem was only a subjective one that it would be rather unjust for the innocent Jesus to die just to appease us.

This idea of Jesus dying to appease our own wrongful need for retribution is, as far as I can tell, essentially what Girardian theory says, and for this reason Girardian theory strikes me as wrong. Again: if our problem was only a subjective one it would be unjust for the innocent Jesus to die just to appease us.

Similarly I would agree that an understanding of the cross based only on Abelard's view is equally lacking. To make an analogy: if a fire fighter runs into a burning building and dies in the flames trying to save people from an objective danger (the fire) this a noble thing. However if that same person would set themselves on fire to show us their love, this would be very disturbing to say the least. Likewise, Jesus dying only to show us God's love and not for a real objective reason would be equally disturbing. So there must be a objective reason for the cross (that can also speak to us and compel subjectively).

Where I think proponents of Penal Substitution get it wrong is in thinking that any view of the Atonement besides their own is automatically subjective. As we have seen Abelard's view is subjective, likewise (and if I any proponents of Girard would like to contradict me on this I would be happy to be corrected) Girard's view is subjective. Indeed the majority of liberal Christianity has presented understandings of the cross that are subjective. That is why I stress that I am not coming at this from a liberal perspective but from neo-evangelical one (some might also say neo-orthodox but since I have not read enough Barth I cant really say). My understanding of the cross is objective, but it sees another objective problem that goes deeper that appeasing wrath.

Penal substitution's objective necessity for the Atonement is that our sin has evoked God's just wrath and that this wrath must be quenched through punishment. That punishment is taken by Jesus who takes our place and thus appeases God's wrath. The problem with this theory is that it does not actually solve the objective problem of sin. God is not angry without reason, he is angry because of our sin. As with any anger, you get angry about something because you care about it. If you care about your kid and see them doing things that are hurting them it makes you angry because you care about them. This is the picture of God's wrath that we see all through the prophets: God is angry with Israel because of her sin and longs to see her turn back. He is angry because he loves. So in order to really deal with the objective reason for the anger what needs to happen is not simply that God can unleash his rage on someone, but that the problem that made him rightly mad in the first place is fixed. The objective problem is not God's wrath, but our sin which has incurred God's wrath. God's wrath is "propitiated" (made favorable) when our sin is healed. The primary work of the cross is not to appease wrath, but to solve the source of wrath by healing our sin.

Penal Substitution would claim that God only expiates our sin after he has been propitiated (that is: he will forgive us only after his wrath has been satisfied through punishment). This makes very little sense to say that someone will only forgive after they have gotten payback. Conversely I would say that God is propitiated ("made favorable") because our sin is expiated (removed). Remove the sin, and there is no reason to be mad. To quote JI Packer:

"The idea of propitiation includes that of expiation as its means"
(The Logic of Penal Substitution)

There are in fact many objective theories of the Atonement. Penal Substitution is one. Then there is the view I have been outlining above where the objective problem is our need for moral healing (I like to call it "Incarnational Atonement" which is a combination of Vicarious Sacrifice and Recapitulation), and of course there is Christus Victor where the objective problem is our bondage to the devil.

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At 11:19 AM, Blogger FANCY said...

This is interesting I have to come back and read moor


At 8:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're not completely understanding Girardian theory. Girardian theory doesn't understand the death of Jesus as satiating human wrath. Girardian theory is a theory re the foundation of all religion and really all societies. You say, "This idea of Jesus dying to appease our own wrongful need for retribution is, as far as I can tell, essentially what Girardian theory say". This isn't really correct, and what I'm going to be writing isn't probably really correct/thorough, but I'll give it a try.
Girardian theory posits that all human religion is founded upon a collective murder/lynching. Essentially, there's a violent crisis in the community. A mimetic crisis. Cycle of violence. People are imitating each other's violence. More people are being pulled into the vortex of violence. The community is about to destroy itself. Then a scapegoat is found. Someone makes an accusation against someone who is weak, and is not able to fight back. That accusation is copied. Violence builds against the scapegoat. The scapegoat is said to responsible for the violence that is plaguing the community. The scapegoat becomes a demon. At last all the community sins have been forced upon the scapegoat. Violence that formerly would have been directed against their neighbors is now directed against the scapegoat. Finally the unity of the community is complete, all the people have been drawn together to stone the scapegoat. Around the scapegoat's dead body former enemies become friends. These primitive people have now been blessed with a divine peace. The scapegoat becomes a god. A two-sided god, both bringer of violence and restorer of peace.

Some time in the future when violence begins to plague the community again, they return to what worked previously and ritually reenact the collective murder that brought peace the first time. The god in the form of an animal or a human being is collectively murdered/sacrificed again.

I'm not making sense I know, but a couple things.
Kings, in the beginning, were the ritual scapegoats. Kings were the substitutes for the community, they survived by finding substitutes for themselves. Girardianism is all about substitution. Girardian atonement theory is substitutionary atonement theory par excellance.

All human religion is founded around a collectively murdered body. The community becomes good while the victim is evil. Jesus comes to reverse this.

Jesus comes not to appease our need to base our unity and identity around a collectively murdered victim, but to abolish our ability to do so. We are no longer able to justify ourselves by collectively murdering someone else, we are justified by Christ giving himself to us.
Peter hearing the cock crow is not something that happens in pagan religions. In pagan religions the victim is always evil and remains evil.
Probably didn't make much sense, but there's alot more to say.

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Buck,

Thanks for your comment and I certainly could be misunderstanding Girard. I'm still not really following your post though. What you describe as the scapegoat mechanism sounds to me like mob violence, in other words a bad thing. I think Girard overstates his case in saying that this is at the core of all religions and societies, but it is certainly true that this is a societal phenomenon.

My question is still what Christs sacrifice has to do with it? If he is appeasing it, then that would be wrong. I've heard both Marcus Borg and Walter Wink (I think Borg was following Wink here) say that the cross exposed the evil and injustice of the cross, and this would make sense that he exposes the injustice of the lynch mob mechanism. This sounds also a lot like Christus Victor where Christ overcomes the devil through the cross. I know that Wink builds off of Girard. I'm not sure if he is expressing Girardian theory here, or going beyond it. What do you think.

At 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I'm understanding Girard right Pagan gods are victims of lynch mob murders. The pagan god is both the bringer of evil/violence and the restorer of peace. The god brings violence to the community and then by the violent expulsion of the god peace is restored. All pagan/primitive religions have this same basic structure. Violence is embodied in the god.

The cross has unveiled the violence of the community. It is a condemnation of mob violence. I think Girardian theory has a lot of similarity with Christus Victor, the whole setting a trap for the devil.

I think I've moved beyond Girardian theory, a least a little bit, at least re atonement theory. I've come across Margaret Barker and her work re Temple Theology.
In this article James Alisontries to combine Girardian theory with Barker's work on temple symbolism.

This is probably the definitive Girardian atonement pageon the Internet.

Margaret Barker's essay on the Atonement (pdf) is very good.

Inspired by Barker I've been looking closely at the concept of the Jubilee and its climax in the Great Day of Atonement and how this how relates to Jesus. Jubilee is the great in gathering and renewal, and the day of atonement re how Jesus brought everyone around him, not substituting anyone else, how after he was murdered and everyone turned away, and then as a symbol of the what the cross does Peter hearing the cock crow and realizing what he has done, and how he and the rest of the disciples are called to be Priests or High Priests like Jesus and bear/forgive the sins of others.
Communion table is Christians gathering around a table to remember the broken body and blood of Jesus and to remember our sins and how they all end in murder if we don't repent.

I know, I know I'm not making any sense. Way too much to say, not enough time/space or really ability.

Luckily I always copy my comments, before I attempt to post them in blogger, or I would lose all my ramblings.

At 11:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was going to say that I think your understanding of Girard as positing Jesus as a substitute for human wrath was wrong... but I think someone already said it. Jesus' death was not sacrificial, thus he did not appease either human or divine wrath. What he did was expose the wrath for what it is- he exposed the foundations of human violence, which always justifies itself by saying that God approves. If Jesus was appeasing human wrath, he would have taken on the role of the scapegoat. He did not do this. He was fully conscious that his persecutors were in a state of delusion, and that that is always how human violence occurs. He was conscious enough of this dynamic to say "Forgive them, they know not what they do." Jesus was also aware that fighting back against persecution employs the same persecutory complex as the original persecution. Who is to be the judge of when retaliation is justified? All persecutors think they are fighting righteously against evil; that is why a God of mercy cannot take sides to persecute. This is not relativity. There is only one truth, and it's the truth of the scapegoat. But violence extends the conflict.
Jesus doesn't appease anyone, and it's a total misunderstanding to say that he takes on or appeases human wrath as opposed to divine wrath. He takes on neither. He merely takes the ONLY possible route to stop sacrificial violence.
This is my understanding.

At 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Jesus doesn't appease anyone, and it's a total misunderstanding to say that he takes on or appeases human wrath as opposed to divine wrath. He takes on neither. He merely takes the ONLY possible route to stop sacrificial violence."

Thanks for the insight. I find your argument here compelling and a better interpretation of Girard than mine.

Next time leave your name so we can know who you are :)

At 1:20 AM, Blogger Alastair McIntosh said...

Hello - I'm Alastair McIntosh from Scotland and I hit on this blog while trying to check out the meaning of "objective" and "subjective" soteriological theories. Can I just say how useful your discussions are, and I like the self-questioning tone of your debate. I was a friend of Walter Wink's (he passed away a couple of years ago) and while I couldn't say where exactly he stood on the issues you raise, Walter's big thing was that the Cross was about breaking what he called the Domination System - the system of "power over" in its many forms. I am working on this in my own writing at the moment. As a Quaker, I see the Cross as the supreme symbol of nonviolence. I see it as the love that, here and from eternity, dissolves the violence of the world. (I use violence - hybris - as is cognate in the Greek with hubris, and therefore equivalent to what evangelicals mean in their use of the word "sin"). What I've just said about dissolving violence is not something for which I have a systematic theology developed. Rather, it is an observation, or perception, from the contemplation of the sacred heart that is the Cross. To me, this is why Girard is interesting, but he just doesn't go far enough (at least, in my reading of him some years ago). He misses the power of love that overcomes the love of power. That God is love, that "sins" are dissolved, that the buck starts here and in the mystical body, we are that - as Hinduism puts it - "tat tvam asi" (thou art that".


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