November 11, 2008

The Atonement- Recap

About L&L When is the Next Meeting?


Sid Cundiff facilitated this session of L&L, which turned out to be one of our finest, at least, if one is judging by how long the participants lingered to talk over the matter at hand. We looked at various theories of the Atonement, that is, the ways in which the Church has understood the meaning of the Passion.

Several views were discussed, in particular those of St. Anselm (satisfaction) and John Calvin (penal substitution). The latter was the subject of much scrutiny and criticism. Calvin's theology of Atonement seems to involve a series of noxious opinions which are incompatible with core Christian dogmas. Calvin drives a wedge between the Father and the Son in claiming that (1) the Father sees his Son as a filthy sinner rather than a pure and spotless Victim and (2) Christ descended into Hell not to proclaim the victory of God but to suffer the punishment of the damned.

Calvin does seem to provide a model of the Atonement which serves as a basis for assurance of salvation, while at the same time making a certain sense of some biblical passages concerning the suffering of Our Lord (cf., the Servant Songs in Isaiah). However, Sid pointed out that to suffer for the sins of another need not imply penal substitution, or suffering "in the place of," since the Greek preposition ὑπέρ is better rendered "on behalf of," which invites a more Anselmian construal (while not logically excluding the Calvinist opinion). No one at this meeting felt inclined to simply plunk for Anselm, though. This writer, for one, prefers Irenaeus and the author of Hebrews (cf., 2.9-18, which passage was discussed).

In any event, Sid suggests that the Catholic Church has throughout the ages, with some notable exceptions, not felt the need to provide an explanation of the Passion because she has been busy participating in the Passion, mystically represented in the Sacrament of the Altar. However, the Church has not completely ignored the speculative question (cf., Irenaeus, Anselm). Catholic theologians, moreover, have not failed to address the intrusion of "penal substitution."

A preference for legal and nominalist paradigms over mystical and ontological (i.e., sacramental) categories has led some theologians to significantly overlook the participatory dimension of the Atonement. Calvin does make much of "union with Christ," particularly in relation to his Protestant communion service. But his repudiation of the Mass, and especially the sacrifice of the Mass, makes it impossible for him to take full account of the Eucharist vis-a-vis the Atonement.

We concluded by talking about the "wrath" of God, which led to deep theological waters.