Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (14) Anselm reconsidered

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

Here we begin a non-numbered ‘bridge chapter’ on Anselm. The bridge is between chapter 3 ‘The Question of Justice’ and chapter 4, ‘The Gravity of Sin’.

Why Anselm? Well because no-one in the history of Christian theology has been more influential and controversial when it comes to the atonement and understanding God’s justice. See his Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-Man? c. 1095-98).

How do you understand the cross? How does God ‘deal’ with sin? What is the ‘satisfaction’ theory of the atonement and why do many people not like it?

Rutledge sets out to defend Anselm’s ‘theory’ of ‘satisfaction’ from criticism that it is

juridical, feudal, rigid, absolutist, vengeful, sadistic, immoral and violent. (146)

Her argument in this chapter is that such reaction are

overly literal, unimaginative, tendentious and unsympathetic readings of Anselm. (146)

Her aim is to show that aspects of Anselm’s teaching about the atonement are still of ‘pivotal importance’ for thinking about the cross and justice today.

So what are some of the central elements of Anselm’s atonement theology? To summarise Rutledge’s summary:

  • Humanity’s relationship with God is ‘wholly ruined’
  • We are unable to restore what is owed to God because of sin and are therefore needy
  • If we do not wish to restore the relationship we are unjust

Rutledge draws parallels to the human condition: both neediness and injustice runs through each one of us. Anselm speaks of the universal human condition. Anselm again:

  • Restoration and happiness will not take place save by the payment of the debt incurred by sin.
  • ALL people face this predicament

Rutledge suggests that negative reactions to Anselm here are more to do with the ‘offence’ of being told you are either needy or unjust and require a debt to be paid.

Anselm’s arguments, Rutledge argues, resonate with our modern world in other ways. The offender remains in ‘debt’, but given the offence caused, mere payment of the debt will not bring restoration, something more is needed to repair the relationship satisfactorily with the one dishonoured.

So, as we agree today, it is not enough to ‘let bygones be bygones’ and to overlook justice. As Rutledge argued in the previous chapter, it is intolerable that wrong can be done with impunity. All around us are individuals and groups pursuing justice that in some way will ‘right a wrong’

Just today as I write this, in Northern Ireland, over 46 years after the event, a British soldier has been charged with murder during the mass shootings of civilians in the 1972 Bloody Sunday demonstrations in Derry. The families have spent their lives seeking some sort of transparency, some sort of truth and some sort of justice.

The desire for justice runs deep in us all.

If sin is not exposed, named, and renounced, then there has been no justice and God is dishonoured. (152-53)

So Rutledge affirms Anselm in his statement that

‘compassion [without atonement or ‘satisfaction’] on the part of God is wholly contrary to the divine justice, which allows nothing but punishment as the recompense for sin. Therefore, as God cannot be inconsistent with himself, his compassion is not of this nature. (Anselm 1.24, Rutledge, 153)

So love or compassion or forgiveness on its own is not enough – justice is needed. Without justice (sin being atoned for) there is only punishment for sin.

Many today are deeply uncomfortable with this idea of punishment.

Rutledge defends Anselm. He is no hellfire preacher, he writes with a pastor’s heart and is saddened by the human predicament. His theology is more ‘we reap what we sow’ – punishment is exile from relationship with God, a loss of happiness. And it is only God himself who can rescue us from our predicament because that his character is one to restore and renew.

So Rutledge contends, it is a caricature to see Anselm as obsessed with legal and forensic language that depersonalises God and makes atonement like a business transaction. But neither is it denied that Anselm’s imagery, scholastic language and metaphors are rather alien to the narrative flow of the Bible.

We return to another couple of objections to Anselm in the next post – is God compelled by necessity to atone for sin in order to restore his honour?

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