Classical Anglicanism is all about the atonement. The liturgies of the prayer book are saturated with the blood of the cross. This is a scandal to the world and an embarrassment to many modern Christians. As Fr. Gavin Dunbar has pointed out in an article in the most recent issue of The Anglican Way, many liberal Christians in the last hundred years have eschewed the doctrine of satisfaction which teaches that Jesus’ death on the cross not only forgives us our sins but also satisfies God’s holy and just wrath against us for our sin. According to Fr. Dunbar, liberals see this understanding of the atonement as “primitive, violent, vengeful, and sadistic,” and even as “a kind of ‘divine child abuse’ deeply implicated in social and psychological structures of oppression.” I experienced the very sentiment that Fr. Dunbar describes firsthand in seminary. I was taught in my systematic theology class that Saint Anselm, often thought of as the great medieval articulator of the satisfaction theory of the atonement, was a close-minded neanderthal who tried to impose the barbaric class warfare of his culture onto the Gospel.
The Orthodox Itch
Theological liberals, however, are not the only ones who find the doctrine of satisfaction to be revolting. The Eastern Orthodox blogger Fr. Stephen Freeman has written a series of posts recently that are critical of what he calls “forensic models” of the atonement. In his view, the doctrine of satisfaction produces a version of Christianity in which the whole action of salvation becomes extrinsic to the human person. All the action takes place in the court room, so to speak, in which Jesus offers His sacrifice to the Father, changing the nature of our relationship with God without actually changing us. “If God simply declares us to be ‘just,’ ‘forgiven,’ or ‘made whole,’” says Freeman, “then the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection become something of an abstraction. Their ‘necessity,’ would only exist within God Himself, who might otherwise have ‘declared’ us to be righteous without all the bother.”
He contrasts the doctrine of satisfaction with what he refers to as an “ontological model” of the atonement. In this model, sin is treated primarily as a disease. The cure is not to be found in some sort of legal transaction but in true union with Christ:
Christ unites Himself with man (the Incarnation) and in so doing takes upon Himself, and into Himself the fullness of our humanity (excepting sin – which is foreign to our nature). Importantly, however, just as Christ takes upon Himself our humanity, so He also unites Himself to us, we take on His divinity.
Here Freeman echoes Saint Athanasius’ famous maxim, “God became man so that man might become God.”
A Straw Man Argument for an Irrational God
There would be something to Freeman’s criticism if satisfaction were the only thing happening in the atonement. Indeed, many liberals have said just what Freeman purports to say, that the doctrine of satisfaction creates a legal fiction in which God looks upon us as holy without actually making us holy, something which God certainly could have accomplished without the cross. All that’s left then is an irrational God acting out a sick drama for his own benefit, the Father taking out His anger at us on His Son when He could just as easily let the whole thing go.
Perhaps there are strains of Protestantism that have been so rigidly cold, but Anglicanism has never taught the doctrine of satisfaction in isolation from a robust doctrine of sanctification. The same eucharistic liturgy that proclaims that the death of Christ on the cross was “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world,” also includes these words: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” This sentiment is carried forth in the writings of the reformers and the divines. Lancelot Andrewes also echoes Athanasius when he wrote, “Christ fitted our body to him, that he might fit his Spirit to us.” Similar statements can be found in Taylor, Hooker, Laud, etc. There is no legal fiction here. A real change is taking place in which we are being made one with God through Christ. Such an understanding does not negate the doctrine of satisfaction at all. If anything, it flows from it.
The Real Issue is Emotional, Not Theological
Freeman has written elsewhere that “Intricate theories of the atonement which involve the assuaging of the wrath of God are not worthy of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” And herein lies the real difficulty, both for theological liberals and for many Eastern Orthodox. The issue here is not some sort of false dichotomy between “forensic” and “ontological” models, but a genuine inability on the part of many people to stomach the fact that God’s wrath plays a key part in our salvation. It is an uncomfortable thought, particularly if we assume God is overreacting to our sin. It is easy to picture a tyrannical God who does what all tyrants do and takes out his irrational anger on someone too weak or ignorant to fight back. It is much more difficult to comprehend that God is incapable of tyranny and that His righteous anger against sin is entirely free from selfishness or self-centeredness. We might even say that it is dispassionate, not in the sense of being uncaring but in the sense that it is fueled not by emotion but by the perfect attributes that make up God’s very being: holiness, righteousness, and love.
God is a Big Meanie
Freeman rightly points out that a sacramentally devoid understanding of salvation can make no sense of biblical passages like Romans 6 which focus us not on Christ as a replacement for us but on Christ uniting us to Himself in both His death and resurrection. But the theory of salvation that Freeman champions has no room in it for the great swaths of Scripture that proclaim God’s wrath as an agent of salvation. For instance:
God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:8-9)
Why do we need saving from the wrath of God? Could the Father simply choose not to have wrath against us? Certainly, but to do so would be to assume that sin is not really all that big of a deal, that justice is an expendable quality. And frankly, none of us want a God like that. A God who creates a world in which justice does not matter is a God who does not ever make things right, a God who allows holocausts and child abuse without the least bit of outrage or sympathy for the victims. In those extreme examples, it is easy to see the necessity and even the beauty of God’s wrath against sin. Yet we cringe when that same absolute intolerance of evil on God’s part is applied to us, despite the fact that it is in and through this attribute of God that we really are made holy. Hence, Peter writes:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)
Here we see the convergence of all the models into one. In the days of Noah, the wrath of God was exercised against sin, resulting in the obliteration of both the sin and the sinner by the waters of the flood for the sake of setting the world right again. But Peter says that this same water found in Baptism is much better. It drowns sin just like the flood did, but unlike the flood it leaves sinners like you and me still standing, not because we have become better people since the days of Noah, but because Christ’s sacrifice has accounted for our sin. Christ exchanges His righteousness for our sin in the waters of Baptism, giving us by grace what is His by nature. In Baptism, the work of cross, bloody as all get out, is stamped onto us with an indelible mark. The Son does not save us by asking the Father to be a little more understanding about sin because boys will be boys and what does it really matter anyway? Rather, the Son voluntarily receives our sin into Himself and receives the wrath of the Father into Himself so that sin can be destroyed without destroying us.
The Hidden Sin
This picture of salvation may not be one that many people find appealing. Surely, we think, there must be a less bloody, less barbaric way. But hidden beneath the folds of such a noble and enlightened thought is a self-justification project. We rail against the implications of the doctrine of satisfaction because we rail against the very idea that God has a right to be intolerant of our sin. Indeed, we would much prefer to think about Christ as the great moral example or as the victor over death and the devil than as the priest who places His own sacrifice of Himself between God’s judgment and our souls on a daily basis. Of course, there is just enough truth in the lie to be dangerous. Christ is our great moral example and He is the victor over death and the devil. But He is none of those things if He is not first and foremost the one who sacrifices Himself to save us “miserable offenders.” And we hate that, because if it is true, then we have no business doing anything other than dropping dead and allowing Christ to pour new life into us. If it is true, then He really is the savior, and we, in fact, are not.