Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (15) the cross as cosmic child abuse?

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).

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:

  • Legalistic
  • 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’

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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?