We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).
This post is staying with Rutledge’s discussion of Anselm.
We come back to big questions
What happened at the cross?
What picture does the cross give us of God? Does the Son die on the cross to appease the wrath of a vindictive Father?
Anselm’s satisfaction ‘theory’ of the atonement has had many detractors. The term ‘child abuse’ for the Son’s suffering on the cross to appease the wrath of a vindictive Father did not originate with Steve Chalke, it has been around for some time.
Rutledge summarises how Anselm, and the view of the cross as a way of ‘satisfying’ God’s honour, has been seen as:
- Depicting the ruthlessness of God
- An overly mechanical view of the atonement
- Where salvation is primarily a change in God’s attitude to humans not a transformation in believers themselves
- A drama of an infinitely offended God against a humanity unable to satisfy the demands of his vindictive wrath
And to this we can add, what about the question of necessity – was God somehow ‘forced’ to atone for sin in order to restore his honour? And if so, does this reduce the cross to an act of almost legal obligation?
Yes, says Rutledge, Anselm’s language and reasoning is removed from the biblical narrative and thought world, but the content of his theology has often been unfairly dismissed as a result.
Rutledge defends Anselm, arguing that such objections are caricature. The ‘twist’ is that God is NOT under some external obligation which binds his actions. No, rather it is in his very nature to show grace.
The atonement, therefore, for Anselm is
…nothing mechanical; it means rather, that the story of our deliverance has an inner logic that brings joy to the believer. (156)
Similarly, in regards to ‘honour’, Anslem’s God is not some sort of feudal despot obsessed with his own honour and status. Rutledge has an interesting point here, if we use ‘righteousness’ instead of ‘honour’ we would do no violence to Anselm’s argument.
Again, rather than seeing static systems of honour and satisfaction in Anselm, he is much more concerned to communicate how God graciously acts to put right what is wrong. God does not need to defend his own honour.
‘God is not a tin-pot dictator obsessed with his privileges’ (157).
God’s honor is God’s righteousness, his holiness, his perfection – but it is also God’s love and freedom, which show themselves in the kenotic self-emptying of the Son. (157)
Since the weight of sin is so great, there is no possibility of atonement or satisfaction until that debt is paid – and there nothing in all universe that can do this besides God.
This is not somehow ‘Father against Son’, as Rutledge says the crucifixion ‘should never be interpreted as a deed done to an unsuspecting Son by his Father’ (161). Rather, the Son endures death freely and out of love for the salvation of all.
Who Gets Reconciled God or Us?
The last point on Anselm; a further critique is that he seems to make it sound as it if is God who is changed by the atonement and not us. God’s honour is satisfied and he is reconciled towards humanity.
But the Bible never talks of God being reconciled, it does talk of humanity being reconciled to God. So the key question is this
How can we talk about the wrath of God unless we conclude that somehow the sacrifice of Jesus caused the Father to change his mind? This indeed would cast the Father in a bad light. (163)
But Rutledge argues this is a caricature of Anselm. God’s attitude never alters. There is no change in God, he always wants salvation and reconciliation. It is fundamentally important that we grasp this – God is not capricious and needing to be appeased in order to behave in a nicer way. The cross reconciles us to God, not the other way around.
God’s judgement is enclosed in his love. (164)
This is the heart of Anselm, not caricatures that abound of him. Rutledge quotes David Bentley Hart on Anselm and then Anselm himself
“In the God-Man (Deus Homo), within human history, God’s justice and mercy are shown to be one thing, one action, life, and being … the righteousness that condemns is also the love that restores.” (Hart, 164)
“He freed us from our sins, and from his own wrath, and from hell, and from the power of the Devil, whom he came to vanquish for us, because we were unable to do it and he purchased for us the kingdom of heaven: and by doing all these things he manifested the greatness of his love for us.” (Anselm, 1.5, Rutledge, 164.)
Next, we begin chapter 4 on ‘The Gravity of Sin’