The History and Development of Satisfaction Doctrine

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Tracing the development of Satisfaction doctrine is a confusing one, in part because the definition of the word has changed. In common usage today it means gratification (one recalls the song by the Rolling Stones), but the theological meaning is of making restitution: mending what has been broken, paying back what was taken. In Anselm, satisfaction is an alternative to punishment.

"The honor taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow" (Cur Deus Homo Bk 1 Ch 8)

One makes satisfaction in order to avoid punishment. We can think here of a person paying a fine to avoid being thrown in debtor's prison. If someone else makes this restitution for us and "pays the fine" we are spared punishment. 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.

The concept of satisfaction changes in Aquinas where it is punishment that makes satisfaction.
First satisfaction is defined as compensation "Satisfaction is compensation for a past offense". Aquinas states then that "there is due satisfaction [ie compensation] when the punishment balances the fault" (Summa XP Q13 A1)

This sounds like penal substitution, but Aquinas is careful to say that he does not mean this to be taken in legal terms

"If we speak of that satisfactory punishment, which one takes upon oneself voluntarily, one may bear another's punishment... If, however, we speak of punishment inflicted on account of sin, inasmuch as it is penal, then each one is punished for his own sin only, because the sinful act is something personal. But if we speak of a punishment that is medicinal, in this way it does happen that one is punished for another's sin." (FS, Q. 87-A8)

What he means then by "satisfactory punishment" as opposed to punishment that is "penal" is essentially the Catholic idea of penance. Aquinas refers to the practice saying, "A satisfactory punishment is imposed upon penitents" (TP, Q49 A3) and defines this idea of "Satisfactory Punishment" (penance) as a compensation of self-inflicted pain in equal measure to the pleasure derived from the sin "punishment may equal the pleasure contained in a sin committed." (XP Q13 A1) One might say we make restitution (satisfaction) through acts of penance similar to how fasting purges the body of toxins.

Aquinas sees penance as having two functions. First to pay a debt, and second "to serve as a remedy for the avoidance of sin" . In this later case he says that "as a remedy against future sin, the satisfaction of one does not profit another, for the flesh of one man is not tamed by another's fast" and again "one man is not freed from guilt by another's contrition"(XP Q13 A2). Since according to Aquinas "Christ bore a satisfactory punishment, not for His, but for our sins." (FS Q87 A7) The penance Christ did has its effect in paying the "debt of punishment" incurred by our sin.

This is a concept similar to Anselm's that we owe a debt of honor to God, with a critical difference: While Anselm said we could never pay this because any good we could do was owed to God anyway, Aquinas says that in addition to our due of obedience we can make up for our debt through acts of penance "man owes God all that he is able to give him...over and above which he can offer something by way of satisfaction". Unlike Anslem, Aquinas claims that we can make satisfaction for our own sin, and that our problem is not our personal sin, but original sin "original sin... is an infection of human nature itself, so that, unlike actual sin, it could not be expiated by the satisfaction of a mere man." (XP Q13 A1) Thus Christ, as the "second Adam" does penance in our place paying the debt of our original sin. Aquinas is careful to stress here that this is done not in legal terms but as an act of charity quoting how we are called to "bear one another's burdens in love"(XP Q13 A2).

As much as I can appreciate the focus on love and inner reform in Aquinas I am not so thrilled with the idea of self-inflicting physical pain (penance) nor do I see how Christ taking the debt of punishment for us is not a contradiction of Aquinas' claim that "one is punished for his own sin only, because the sinful act is something personal". Then again, his Summa Theologica is over 4000 pages of dense Medieval theology(good grief!) , so it is entirely possible that I am missing it somewhere in there.

Aquinas was of course not the first to introduce the idea of penance which had a long tradition in the Latin speaking church due in part to the fact the the word for repentance in Latin is the same as the word for penance. Because of this Biblical passages such as Matthew 3:2 had been translated in Latin as "Do penance for the kingdom of God is at hand".

Both Luther and Erasmus criticized this saying that penance was an incorrect translation of the original Greek word "metanoeite" which means a change of mind and allegiance rather than a feelings of contrition evidenced in outer acts. One meant "turn back" while the other meant "feel bad". As a result Protestantism rejected the idea of penance as a condition for forgiveness saying that forgiveness came "through faith alone by grace alone". It is painfully ironic that while the Reformers so violently rejected the concepts of penance and indulgences, they accepted and understanding of the cross based on these very concepts.

Yet there was another twist. With Calvin the idea of satisfaction changed again. He retained the formula of Aquinas that satisfaction is made through punishment, but instead of meaning that inner restitution was made through penance, Calvin conceived of this in legal terms: the law required punishment in order to be satisfied. Both Anselm and Aquinas would have agreed that it was just to punish the guilty in the absence of restitution. Where they would have disagreed is in saying that another could take the criminal (penal) punishment meant for another. In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm's discussion partner Bozo asks,

"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 is that

"God the Father did not treat that man as you seem to suppose, nor put to death the innocent for the guilty" (Cur Deus Homo Bk I Ch 8)

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