Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Sacrifice as Satisfaction, Not Substitution: Atonement in the Summa Theologiae

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Sacrifice as Satisfaction, Not Substitution: Atonement in the Summa Theologiae

Article excerpt

Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo offered this scathing castigation of the concept of Jesus' atoning sacrifice: "A god who demands the child-sacrifice of his own son to satiate his own wrath? That is not Jehovah. That is Molech."* 1 Many current Christian thinkers, such as Mark Heim, Michael Hardin, and Brad Jersak, agree with Puhalo, and blame traditional models of atonement for perpetuating violence. Further, they believe that schemes which include Christ's sacrifice as satisfaction for sin put violence in the heart of God. J. Denny Weaver, in The Nonviolent Atonement, makes room for the notion of sacrifice in his "narrative Christus Victor" theory, but only so long as the sacrifice does not act as "satisfaction" for humanity's sins.2

In response to such criticisms, traditionalists have begun to defend the conventional conception of atonement theology. An example of such a defense is the article by George Sumner in a recent issue of the Anglican Theological Review, entitled "Why Anselm Still Matters."3 Unfortunately, that article, along with many like it, presents a version of the traditional Anselmian theology that is simply incongruent with Anselm's own argument in Cur Deus Homo. Sumner inaccurately frames Anselm's work in the scheme of penal-substitutionary atonement, arguing that Christ endured punishment that was intended for humanity.

This essay is a response to both of these ideas about sacrifice and atonement theology. The word "sacrifice"-in terms of Christ's passion and death-has been demonized within ecclesial circles in the last few decades.4 It has been connected to a "violent atonement," which itself has been blamed for the violence, oppression, and "cult of suffering" within Christianity. Sarah Coakley noted this trend, and suggested its correlation to "a notable intellectual retreat" from philosophical expressions of Christian belief.5 Like Coakley and George Sumner, I argue that a robust notion of redemptive sacrifice is worth retrieving. Unlike Sumner, though, I do not think that either the notion of sacrifice, or of satisfaction, necessitates acceptance of penalsubstitutionaiy atonement. Further, I believe that an examination of the concept of sacrifice expressed in Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae can help Christians today make sense of Anselm's theory of satisfaction.

Before we can explore how Aquinas understands Christs sacrifice as satisfaction, we must first address what Aquinas means by satisfaction.

Aquinas, Anselm, and Satisfaction

In short, Aquinas takes Anselm's understanding of satisfaction in Cur Deus Homo as the template for his own system of atonement and redemption. Anselms main argument is that, though human beings were created to live in blessed happiness with God, their sin became an obstacle to this happiness. Their sin, a lack of willing obedience to Gods sovereignty, caused them to be out of joint with the harmony of God's order, and thus out of union with God. Anselm relies on the feudal images of honor and debt to express this disharmony. Human disobedience offends the honor of God, which cannot happen without consequences. Therefore, in order for God to protect God's honor, human beings must be punished (that is, suffering life without blessed happiness), or they must make recompense for the honor they have taken from God.

What does it mean to make recompense, though, and how does recompense function in Anselm's scheme of satisfaction? In order to understand how Anselm can claim that humanity must make amends for "offending God's honor," we must establish what he means by this term, "honor."

It is essential to note the following two points: First, in no way should one think of the "honor" of God as God's ego. Offending God's honor is not equivalent to insulting an aristocrat. In Anselm's thinking, the stakes are infinitely higher. The entirety of the universal order rests on God's honor being upheld. William Loewe points out that even within the human context much rested upon the lord's honor: "The honor of the lord proves to be far more than some private arrangement for the lord's gratification or indulgence. …

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