Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Uncool Doctrine

To continue this blockbusting "wake up and smell the church history" series, a word might be said in defense of the doctrine that gets almost as much abuse as its critics say it inspires: Substitutionary atonement. AHHH! Just writing it terrifies me.

Should its said critics fail to abandon Christianity entirely due to their allergy to the idea, another strategy is to appeal to the "dynamic diversity" of early views of the cross. To be sure, the cross is an inexhaustible mystery, and no angle - provided it's a true one - is entirely unhelpful. Still, some angles are more helpful than others. Those who wish to go back to the earlier Christus Victor model (à la Aulén) may not realize what they're asking for. Enter Rachel Fulton:
"The Christ of the early Middle Ages, it has often been remarked, was a god far more comfortable on the battlefield than in the heart, a war-leader rather than a pitiable victim of human sin, his Cross not so much an instrument of torture as a weapon of victory, a 'royal banner' purple with his blood, 'trophy' on which his triumph took place" (54).
Against such a backdrop emerged Anselm, whom Fulton paints almost as a proto-Martin Luther:
"It was because he was oppressed, quite possibly as much as [the infamously self-flagillating] Peter Damian, by the fear of answering Christ as he came in Judgment that Anselm was able to write the prayer[s] that he did, with this difference: Anselm, unlike Peter, had convinced himself that there was, in fact, no debt to be repaid because there was nothing, not even fear, with which he could pay" (146).
Such a liberation was only possible through the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (AHH!) that Anselm recovered from Hebrews and Paul. Or if Paul's too harsh for you, there's always the Johannine tradition. Should that not inspire, take Jaroslav Pelikan's word for it:
"Vivid and homiletically useful though such [Christus Victor] analogies may have been, they could not withstand closer scrutiny. Did Christ carry out the work of redemption, 'so as to deceive the devil, who by deceiving man had cast him out of Paradise? But surely the Truth does not deceive anyone?'" asked Anselm.... "the interpretation of Christ on the cross as the victor over man's enemies had to yield to the identification of Christ in his suffering and death as a sacrificial victim" (134-6).
Concludes Fulton rather suggestively,
"The transformation accomplished by Anselm was as much a matter of emphasis as it was of novel understanding (even the Fathers used the image of debt), but it was, in the end, irreversible. No longer would medieval Christians look upon the crucified body of their Lord and see primarily an opportunity to pray for help in their adversity and for liberation from the torments of hell. As Anselm's meditations and prayers circulated throughout the monasteries and pious households of Europe... pious Christians would learn to think of their relationship to Christ in terms of an obligation to praise not simply the God-man but the man who had died in payment for their sins." (190).
Substitutionary atonement then, seen in historical context, provided the exact opposite of what its modern/postmodern critics claim - liberation from guilt and shame. While the card may have been overplayed by Evangelicals, abusus non tollit usum. As a corrective, may I suggest reading Anselm instead of contemporary Reformed theologians.

Then again, complaining about Evangelicals can get you a book deal.