Christ as Saviour –Part 1: Satisfaction
Anselm advanced an inflencial view of the death of Jesus Christ as a Satisfaction of God’s honour. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus both responded to that theory.
Scotus was more radical in his response based on the divine will and acceptance of the Merit of Christ for us.
I summarise both Bonaventure’s and Scotus’ responses to Anselm and then give reasons why I think Scotus view is better.
I then set Scotus view within an evolutionary view of the world.
Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo?”
There is a special emphasis in the New Testament and in Christian traditions that Jesus is in some way a remedy for the failures of humanity in our relations to God, each other and the wider world. Such things are often expressed under the terms Atonement (making a reconciliation) and Redemption (paying a price). In the older traditions of the Church the Jesus death on the cross was seen in various ways as Christ’s surrender to the devil (ie to the evil of the world) in order to release us and restore us to God’s intended everlasting life and union.
Anselm rejected such views as ransom paid to the evil powers and insisted the Christ paying a price of our salvation to the Father and that become a dominant them of Latin Western theology. So when it comes to considering the writings of Bonaventure and Duns Scotus on the matter we need to view them in response to Anselm. His influence led to other variations of what was needed for our Atonement so that we could be reconciled to God. Later expressions of Atonement brought through Christ’s death were to incorporate themes of satisfaction of the Law or God’s Justice and Jesus as a substitute in our place to turn aside God’s wrath.
Anselm’s major work “Cur Deus Homo” (Why did God had become man?)” gave a definitive answer related to salvation expressed as a Satisfaction of God’s honour that humanity had infringed by being sinful. Anselm argued that no other sentient being could have done this. It needed a divine and human person to pay back a debt of honour to God that humanity had infringed by sinning.
As already said his theory of the debt of honour paid by the Saviour was in contrast to traditional Greek Patristic teaching that Jesus had paid a ransom to the forces of evil and had tricked the devil into accepting His death. Instead acccording to Anselm, Jesus paid our debts of failure to God by His own willing obedience. The debt of sin could not be cancelled by God’s compassion alone and would in fact make God unjust. There had to be payment to God proportionate to our many sins and that we ourselves could not satisfy God. The payment by Christ is the compassion of God towards us.
There are of course three big problems with Anselm’s explanation of the Jesus’ death
Firstly it is based on a image of God as something like a feudal overlord with bad dose of anger at having His honour infringed, rather than the loving “abba” (father) preached by Jesus, looking for his errant son to return home. It emphasised a need to God to be in some way appeased for our sinfulness. Other similar theories of appeasing God’s anger against sinners suffer the same defect.
Secondly, in today’s context it is based on an old scheme of an “original” sin inherited from Adam and Eve. Today we need a new model of salvation based upon dealing with our tendency to choose self rather than God’s justice and goodness and loving nature. We need an image much more related to the divine loving kindness and mercy, in whose cause Jesus is content to face death in order to lead us back to our rightful and intended being.
Thirdly and possible more importantly, Anselm makes little use of biblical texts and lacks the context of Jesus own words, the gospels of the epistles. He lacks the greater story of Jesus in relation to Jesus as Messiah and fulfilment of the Old Covenant and the Kingdom of God.
In the light of this I turn to the two Franciscan masters to see if they have any advanced or better view and if their accounts of the death of Christ can provide a better basis of faith in the meaning of the death of Jesus.
Bonaventure – The Fitting action of God in Christ
Bonaventure follows Anselm at several points but deserts him in others. In his Commentary on The Sentences of Lombard he writes of a need for a repair of our relationship with God and that Christ is the one who makes that repair by the expiation of fault. It was “fitting” that our human nature should be restored, or as I would put it, become the God-centred beings that God desires us to be. But how should this situation be restored?
Bonaventure follows Anselm in thinking that punishment is due to us because of sin. God’s answer to our sin must include God’s righteousness and love, omnipotence and wisdom. Some sort of “satisfaction” (some sort of restoration of relationship with God) is needed. It is God’s mercy in Himself that supplies what is needed.
However, did Jesus actually need to die to bring about the Satisfaction? And here Bonaventure is at some variance with Anselm. Bonaventure says with God all things are possible. God could have chosen another way to satisfy His justice in respect of human sinfulness, something we shall also find in the arguments of Duns Scotus. The main argument then is that while God could have used possibly other means to making the required satisfaction and reconciliation it seemed instead to be most “fitting” with the death of Jesus because of His willing obedience to God in contrast to our own disobedience.to God.
When we come to view Bonaventure’s thinking on the cross of Christ in his more mystical writings he has a greater emphasis on the wonder of the love of Christ that leads Him to the suffering vocation on our behalf. The emphasis is changed to think about how looking at the suffering Christ should lead to a change in us as well as any change in God for us. He shared our mortal nature in order to lift us up in hope and give us incentives to love. He is a “holy victim” offered for us, but to awaken compassion and love in us. Thus Christ’s own love draws us to Him in what He does for us and enables us to accept what God has done and be changed by it.
Scotus – The Loving Will of God for Our Atonement
Scotus is far more radical than Bonaventure in his approach to the meaning of the death of Christ on the cross. As with other aspects of Scotus philosophy and theology it is focused on God’s free and loving will towards creation, His predestination of the Incarnation first and the desire for us to share in the divine fellowship and glory. The Trinitarian love and will predestined these things first before any consideration of sin and its effects.
Scotus disagrees fundamentally with the claim of Anselm that only a person who was both God and man could have brought about salvation. God as God could have chosen any means of salvation. For Scotus, as in other things, it is a matter of God’s free will to choose what may be done for the purpose of salvation. Scotus’ argument is also related to his own argument that the Incarnation was first and foremost for the glory of the Son who was to become part of creation and the greatest person who could exist in creation, to be a focus for the whole of creation and its future.
Secondly Scotus disagrees with Anselm’s claim that sin is infinite and therefore needed an infinite satisfaction. He argues instead that all sin, however pervasive, is actually finite and made up of finite acts, however numerous they may be. Effects of sin are also finite. Scotus instead contends that the death of Jesus was something accepted by the Father’s will, that God decides to accept the death on our behalf rather than it being necessary. The finite good act of Jesus death God accepts and then applies infinitely to cover all our sin. God can do this because He wills it that way. It is the loving will that wants us to be different to what we are and so God seeks to restore us.
In other places Scotus seems to agree with Anselm that Jesus pleases God and placates God for our sins and offences against God. However, this “satisfaction” is much more related to overcoming our sin to draw us back into divine fellowship, leading then to our own co-operation with His grace to overcome actual sins, rather than Christ paying a necessary price for us.
Another aspect of Scotus philosophy and theology that may have bearing on salvation is what he writes of “divine sending” in the relationships of the Trinity. The Father can send the Son and Spirit, and the Son can send the Spirit because the Father produced the Son and the Father and the Son produced the Spirit in eternity before all time and creation. Therefore the Father can sent the Son and the Son be sent but this is part of a self-offering and self-giving and not a mere ordering. It is about a self -communication of the Persons of the Trinity to the world in creation and salvation.
In response to Scotus I would want to say two things.
First, that like Anselm, Scotus lacks focus on the huge amount of Biblical references that could be employed. He pays little attention to the whole theme of God’s covenant and the Kingdom of God.
Secondly, on the other hand, I uphold that any act of “satisfaction” or transfer of merit from Christ is due to the Triune love and an operation of the whole Trinity in association of Jesus human obedience and willingness to follow the motive to Justice and goodness rather than selfish will. The death of Jesus is therefore a sign of the Transcendent grace (unmerited love) that covers us and draws us near to the Trinity. I reject wrathful ideas of “satisfaction” since God the Father loves us and the divine Son, showing the love of the Father and His will for our salvaion “loved us while we were sinners”.
It therefore seems to me that the whole emphasis from Scotus, based on God’s willing acceptance of the sacrifice of Jesus from a shared will to love, and sending Christ for the completion of future glory has some preferable elements compared to either Anselm, Bonaventure or other “penal” and “satisfaction” explanations of the death of Jesus for us.
Evolution and Salvation
Having shown some preferable elements in Scotus account of Atonement and the Merit of Christ that provides it, how might Scotus view of salvation look in respect of an evolutionary view of the world? If we look at the various factors in Scotus scheme of salvation we can perhaps see the role of Christ in regard to salvation in the following way
1.In the beginning the Word and Spirit, sent from the Father creates the life of the cosmos. From this comes the start and evolution of all life.
2. The Word and Spirit purposefully lead the cosmos to its climax and future with God. In this the Word is “Predestined” to be united with humanity in the person of a divine –human union.
3.Human beings in our God given free evolution have failed to become what God has intended and instead of doing God’s goodness and justice we have remained often motivated only by self-will that remains selfish and tribal, at odds with God, each other and the world. This incompleteness and self-centred existence leads to damaged relationships, estrangement from God, the world and even against ourselves and our greater potential as beings-in-communion. It carries the consequences of guilt and debts of guilt that must be overcome and this we cannot do for ourselves.
4. The Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, united in their eternal love, love the world that came from their own being in love and which they caused to exist for love’s sake. Despite the sin and estrangement of incomplete nature of humanity it is the willed desire of God the Holy Trinity to bring estranged humanity back to our Intended Being. Thus while the Incarnation was not specifically for salvation, the desire to bring things to completion in the unity of love must include the means of overcoming our estrangement and all our wrongs. Thus the intended Incarnation also becomes in part a mission of rescue and repair.
5. The Father “sends” the Son not to satisfy His wrath, but as part of the divine love, and the Son comes from the same love to restore us. In the Incarnation the Infinite Word, the Son, is united with the humanity of a free-willed human being (Jesus of Nazareth) who is completely free and yet who has a greater will to do God’s love and justice, in a way that is so much better than our self-centred will. His love of God’s justice and determined to do the goodness of God sets Him at odds with selfish humanity. He is opposed by sinful actions and becomes a victim of the injustice of the religious leaders and the corrupt power of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. In this it looks as if He is “cursed” and abandoned even by God. But this sign of being cursed becomes God’s own way of uniting Him with our conditions of estrangement and He bears the sins of all who did this to Him.
6. The Father accepts this goodness and obedience of Jesus and takes this wonderful and finite act of love and wills that is should cover the sins not only of those who crucified Jesus but to cover us all. In this way his spilt blood of sacrifice becomes the visible covering of the sin and estrangement of all of us. He can be spoken of as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, by God’s own act of accepting His free –willed offering.
7. In this also the eternal and divine Son, united in the flesh of Jesus, does Himself bear in love all the consequences of our estrangement and satisfies the Justice of God and the whole Trinity reaches out to us in love to bring us back to our Intended Being. Thus there is no division between Father and Son and there is complete loving act towards us to which we are invited to respond in faith and will. The finding and honouring of the love sets us once again back on the path we should be walking.
O what wonder of love
The ever good and everlasting Triune love that comes into the world to put right what has gone wrong
To return us to our rightful mind and being that is intended as our very best
Behold Him arms outstretched upon the cross of shame, who by His obedience to God has brought Him thus to this sad and sorry state.
Hear forever those words of love..
“Father forgive them for they know what they do”.
And surely the Father throws a party for us as we are found back in His loving embrace, where we should be.