The Penal Theory of Atonement
The enduring influence of Augustine, Calvin and Luther on modern culture in general, and on Christianity in particular, continues to this day. Although Augustinianism's influence on Christianity waned in the 19th century with the burgeoning of Enlightenment thought and the establishment of the democratic idea (i.e., Thomas Jefferson and the early Deist views on the intrinsic goodness of man), the emerging forms of evangelical Christianity in the West incorporated some Augustinian elements through Calvinism and Lutheranism.
Although the sacrificial theory of atonement was first articulated only in the 11th century, by Anselm of Canterbury, and reformulated in the 19th century by the Evangelical Christian Charles Hodge, Anselm's explanation for the atonement was based on a traditional Augustinian concept of God. This concept of salvation was yet another example of Augustine's corrupting influence on Christianity. Since sin is an offense to the "honor" of God, God has to punish people or have them offer "satisfaction" to make amends for the offenses committed. In order to satisfy God's justice, Christ agreed to die on the cross in substitute for sinful human beings. Christ's death is an act of obedience that outweighs humanity's sinful acts and therefore merited God's reward. Since Christ did not need God's reward, He passed it on to humanity, thus allowing God to forgive us for our sins.66 In Hodge's version God is a prosecutor or a judge who is satisfied only when the punishment rightly deserved by mankind has been discharged.
Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow argue that this theory has been a major obstacle to the understanding of Christianity: "It demotes the resurrection from its central place and changes the cross from scandal to abstract theory. It makes things sound as if God wanted Jesus to die...Surely not! Jesus is God's beloved Son, the Father and the Son are not divided or in opposition...Before the cross happened, God loved sinners and wanted to save them. The cross did not purchase love for sinners. It is we, not God, who need to be changed in attitude."67 The penal theory is not without deep biblical resonances in the Old Testament's depiction of God's wrath, but it is certainly inconsistent with the essential message of Christ's gospel, that God's offer of salvation was extended to all. As Clark Pinnock puts it, "The decisive element in Jesus' teaching and acting was communication of the boundlessness of God's grace to sinners."68 As Jesus stated, "I tell you...there will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (Luke 15:7) Or in Michael Winter's words, "In Jesus' own dealings with sinners and in His teaching about forgiveness, compensation is never required as a prior condition for being received back into the love of God. This is true of the parables of forgiveness, the narratives of conversion or reconciliation of individuals or in the plain teachings of Christ. Satisfaction is never required as a condition of their being reconciled with God the Father."69
In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the son is accepted by his father even though he does not repay him the money he squandered. In Matthew 8:21-22, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive his brother ("Should it be up to seven times?"), and Jesus replies, "Until seventy times seven." He makes no mention of prior compensation. Even on the cross, as sinners drive nails through His hands, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them." The goal of the Father is a reconciled human community—the new covenant of Christ. The means to this goal is forgiveness and repentance, not retribution and compensation. What God asks of human beings is certainly not less than He is willing to give Himself. In Matthew 6:14, after reciting the Lord's Prayer, Christ explicitly states, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you."
Advocates of penal atonement sometimes insist that because God is just He must grant justice and punish transgression. But as Christos Yannaras, the Greek Orthodox theologian, asks:
“But from what do they derive this "must" to which they subordinate even God? Does there exist, then, some necessity that limits the love of God, limits His freedom? If there is, then God is not God or at least He is not the God that the Church knows. A "just" God, a heavenly police constable who oversees the keeping of the laws of an obligatory - even for Him - justice is just a figment of the imagination of fallen humanity, a projection of its need for a supernatural individual security within the reciprocal treachery of collective coexistence..."As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God's use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy," says St. Isaac the Syrian.”70
I am not of course denying that Christ's death was a voluntary sacrifice undergone for the salvation of humanity. On this fact the biblical witness is unequivocal. But the point is that the Western, Roman Catholic--Evangelical Protestant penal satisfaction theory of atonement is an inadequate explanation for the efficacy of Christ's mission, death, and resurrection. It exaggerates the gulf that exists between humanity and God by depicting the human being as Sinner and God as the Judge, and it violates the biblical witness to God as the Father who desires the restoration of communion with and among His sons and daughters. It reflects an Augustinian preoccupation with guilt and ontological deficiency,
and it assumes that the whole purpose of Christ's work was merely to secure individuals' legal acquittal in the heavenly tribunal, thus partially mitigating their ontological deficiency and sparing them from the torments of eternal Hell. This is an impoverished conception of redemption that eschews its social, political, and cosmic implications.
A corollary to the penal atonement theory is a conception of faith that is entirely unbiblical. Justification is reduced to a private transaction between the individual and God. Faith is defined as a passive acceptance of the fact that one is a sinner and Christ is one's savior. On the basis of this passive acceptance one is declared legally righteous by God. "Christ's righteousness is imputed to the sinner in a forensic or legal sense, even though one does not yet display righteousness or holiness of character."71 This view is in conflict with the biblical concept of faith, justification, and righteousness, all of which are means not simply to expiate the individual's guilt but to create and sustain a community that conforms to a "new social-spiritual order of human relationships under the authority of God,"72 and a community that lives in communion with God.
Faith is understood by Paul not as the passive acceptance that one is a sinner saved by Christ, but as an attitude that is instrumental in bringing about the reconciliation of humanity and God: "For Paul, Abraham is the classic example of faith. In Romans 4 (cf. Hebrews 11:8-19), Abraham's faith is described as a continuing attitude of trust in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties and temptation to despair...So like the Old Testament concept of (emunah) [faith], Abraham's faith was a matter of attitude and conduct."73
It is beyond the scope of this article to examine the various theories of atonement. (Such a "fully-orbed Biblical perspective" is provided by Driver, who takes into account all of the dimensions of the atonement, e.g., expiation, sacrifice, intercession, etc.) The point here is merely to show how certain Augustinian deformations of Christianity (1) conflict with scriptural witness and (2) lead to an acceptance of the status quo, and a capitulation to the powers of this world, and thus prevent us from understanding the Church as a force for transformation in a world in bondage to sin and death.
Although Augustinianism is associated with an epoch that the modern world is believed to have long transcended, it will be shown (below) that the Augustinian narrative, along with its root metaphor of the irreparably damaged soul, retained its hold upon the collective imagination-it merely clothed itself in secular garb suited to the fashion of modern times. The philosophies of the Enlightenment were generally optimistic and thus presented a stumbling block to Augustinianism, with its bleak vision of human possibility. However, Augustinianism had sunk its roots deep into the collective imagination of Western humanity, and it was not destined to fade away.
St. Gregory of Nyssa
The solution to the debacle of civilization requires the recovery of an anthropology that is both Christian and humanistic. The antithesis posited by Augustinianism between God and humanity must be overcome in theory and in practice if Christianity is to be a force for cultural transformation. The Russian Orthodox philosopher S. L. Frank wrote approximately fifty years ago that "Christianity is the religion of worshipping God not as opposed but as deeply akin to man."90 A Christian humanist anthropology could provide the philosophical foundation needed for the development of the capacity for love.91 Eastern Christian theology, Orthodoxy, has not been marred by the misanthropic premises that have been characteristic of Western Christian theology, Roman Catholic and Protestant, for centuries. From the early Greek fathers to modern Orthodox theologians, one dominant theme has been sounded again and again: the purpose of the Incarnation was to make it possible for human beings to be reunited with God, to become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). As St. Athanasius put it, "He (the Son of God) became man that we might become God (divine)."92
Western Christianity would have taken an entirely different course had it assimilated the teachings of the early Greek Fathers instead of taking its lead primarily from Augustine. For instance, we can only imagine the impact on Western Christianity of St. Gregory of Nyssa, whom Hans Urs von Balthasar described as "the most profound Greek philosopher of the Christian era, an incomparable mystic and poet,"93 would have had if he, and not Augustine, was the major influence of Western Christendom.
In contrast to Augustine, St. Gregory denied (1) that human nature is sinful, (2) that all human beings are equally sinful, and (3) that humanity can do nothing but sin. St. Gregory said human nature cannot be sinful, for nature is what is created by God, and it was not created evil or sinful. What is constitutive of our nature is that it is created in the image of God. Christ is the image of God, and man the image of Christ; man is the image of the Image. Gregory's definition of God was succinct: "God by His nature is goodness itself. Or rather, God transcends in goodness everything that man can conceive or comprehend. Consequently He made human life from no other impulse than because He is good...Man was made in God's image. For this is like saying God made human nature a communicant of everything good." By saying that man was made in the image of God, it is implied that it is man's destiny, as Lossky put it, to participate "in the plenitude of the Divine Being, in the abundance of Divine Goodness."94
The source of evil lies in the freedom of man. Sin is not in the nature of humanity but is entirely an act of the will. Sin is sin because it is voluntary. Otherwise God would not condemn us for it.
Before the Fall, man existed in communion with God in a state of immortality. Then, death was not, disease was absent, "mine and thine"—these bad words—were far from the life of the First Man. For as the Sun is common to all and so is the air, and before, all the grace of God and His blessing was common to all, so also in equal measure was participation in all good according to capacity open to all, the sickness of greed was unknown, the hatred of the superiors towards inferiors was not. (In fact there was no such thing at all as superiors.) And a thousand such other things which no one will ever be able to enumerate exhaustibly in words, and which man possessed in his greatness, I mean equality and honor to the angels, boldness of access into the presence of God, the vision of the super-cosmic good, and all the ineffable beauty of the Blessed Nature could then be seen in us also, manifesting the divine image in
themselves, in the prime of the soul when it was still shining.95
Once the commandment was broken by Adam and Eve, man was destined to die because he had abandoned God. "For sin is estrangement from God, who is the True and Only Life."96 The Fall "shattered man's union with the angels"97 and subjected humanity to an endless cycle of birth and death. This life, which most people today assume is natural, Gregory called a "life in death."98 Death now casts its shadow over all existence, transforming the original state of ecstatic life into a "chilled life"99 characterized by "sexual union, conception, birth, pollution, the nipple, food, excretion, gradual growth to full stature, adult life, sickness, death."100
Human nature is not evil in its essence, for it is God's creation. As St. Gregory puts it, "Human nature is still free to choose between good and evil, and that is the basis on which the call to repentance can be addressed to man."101 For
For He said: "Return, oh sons of men." What is the teaching here? The word refers to the nature, and implies the healing from evil. For since being changeable you fell away from the good, you need again to be changing for the good...Thus it is in the choice of men to conduct themselves to that which they wish, either to the good or to the evil...For him who returns again to the good from his turning away, even if his life is spotted with myriad faults, the multitude of evils appearing together as a thousand years, when he turns to God it all becomes nothing..."102
Gregory does not accept the idea of irresistible grace. He writes, "virtue compelled is not virtue."103 In his theology and the teaching of the Orthodox Fathers, human effort complements the grace of God.
Although the image of God in man has been obscured by sin, it has not been destroyed or irreparably damaged. It is understandable, given the existence of evil, that some have come to this conclusion. St. Gregory notes, "Through those who have rightly ordered their lives, we can see the divine image in man. For someone who is carnal and a slave of passion makes it unbelievable that man was originally adorned with divine beauty, other persons who practice noble virtue and keep themselves pure from pollution should confirm you in the better conception of human nature."104
St. Gregory writes that since the fall "the Godlike beauty of the soul which came into being as imitation of the archetype has been discolored like some iron implement by the rust of evil." And he urges his readers to wash this image by a pure way of life as if "with water" so that "the beauty of the soul stands revealed once more."105
In the Orthodox Church, through the initiative of the Holy Spirit and the response of human beings, an eschatological process is taking place that will culminate in the gradual process Gregory refers to as "passing through the fire of purification." Eventually there will be a universal restoration: "Participation in bliss awaits everyone...After many ages evil will disappear and nothing will remain except good. This will be the completion of the return of all intellectual creatures to the original state in which they were first created, when there was as yet no evil...The beauty of our similarity to God, in which we were formed at the beginning, will again shine forth.106
Contemporary Orthodox theologians agree with St. Gregory that salvation is a product of divine and human action, that the image of God has not been destroyed by the Fall; and they decisively reject the doctrine of double predestination, affirming with scripture that God desires the salvation of all. St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Orthodox tradition are at one with western Christianity in their belief in a tragic fall. Where the traditions diverge radically is in their conception of the anthropological consequences of the Fall. Whereas Western theologians typically state that the Fall has partially or totally destroyed the image of God in man, Eastern theologians state that the image of God in man has been obscured by the Fall. The eschatological implications are obviously profoundly different. The doctrine of the destruction of the image of God coheres with the Augustinian idea of the bondage of the human will, and the utter dependence of human beings upon the “predetermining” decrees of God only for salvation. But if the image of God in man is merely obscured, then it lies within the power of those who become aware of the existence of the image—in however latent a state, to make it manifest once again and to summon others to the same task.
Twentieth century Orthodox theologian Father Georges Florovsky emphatically affirmed the indestructibility of the image of God in man. "Without doubt even in the demonic depths the creature remains the work of God and the traits of divine design are never effaced. The image of God, obscured by the infidelity of sin, is nevertheless preserved intact, and that is why there is always, even in the abyss, an ontological receptacle for divine appeal, for the grace of God."107
This is also why humanity retains the freedom and the responsibility to work—with the assistance of the grace of God—for the liberation of all humanity and for the reunion of all of creation with its divine Creator. "Our Lord left to us His own work to carry on and to accomplish. We have to enter into the very spirit of His redeeming work. And we are given power to do this. We are given power to be the sons of God."108