Sunday, April 26, 2009

Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread

As we celebrate this 3rd Sunday of Easter (remembering Easter is 50 DAYS ... not just a SUNDAY!) here's some food for thought to go along with the bread of life from our friend Giles Fraser, Rector of Putney, in south London.)

[Church Times: 24APR2009] THIS WEEK it is 900 years since the death of Anselm of Canterbury, argu­ably most noted for his inven­tion of the ontological argument, and for putting up the scaffolding for the theory of penal substitution, only really finished off by Calvin in the 16th century.

Now, while I think the ontological argument is a pretty harmless par­lour game for brainboxes with too much time on their hands, penal sub­stitution is a very bad thing indeed.

Some Christians get very worked up by anyone’s having a go at penal substitution. This is largely, I think, because they confuse this medieval-cum-Reformation reading of salva­tion with the gospel itself, and just cannot see that penal substitution is one reading of the text among others.

The basic idea is that human beings owe God an unpayable debt on account of their sin, and that Jesus pays off this debt by being nailed up on a cross. To many of us, this account turns God into a merciless loan shark, deaf to our pleas for forgiveness. Whatever hap­pened to “I desire mercy not sacri­fice” (Hosea 6.6, Matthew 9.13)?

Another weakness is that it gives the resurrection nothing to do in the overall scheme of human salvation. If we are saved on the cross, then there is no saving work left for the resurrection to do. Thus it gets sidelined as a spectacular after-party to the main event, which gets wrapped up on Good Friday.

That just can’t be right. Those who insist otherwise might like to take a closer look at Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? (“Why a God-Man?”), where he sets out his understanding of salvation. It is made up of 47 mini-chapters; all have titles, but not one of them refers to the resurrection. Indeed, the resurrection hardly merits a mention throughout the whole book — a book on human salvation. No wonder so many of us find penal substitution so uncon­vincing.

My views on all this are mild and moderate compared with some of the things said about penal substitu­tion by members of the Orthodox Church. Take Dr Alex­ander Kalim­oros’s celebrated essay on Eastern Orthodox soteriology, The River of Fire, where he insists that “The ‘God’ of the West is an offended and angry God, full of wrath for the dis­obedience of men, who desires in his destructive passion to torment all humanity unto eternity for their sins, unless he receives an infinite satisfaction for his offended pride.”

This theology, Dr Kalimoros asserts, is the work of the devil, leading Western Christians to athe­ism. That may be a little strong, but it might just wake some people up to reconsider Anselm’s dubious legacy.


Christopher said...

St Anselm did NOT teach a penal substitution theory of the Atonement. At best he taught a substitutionary or vicarious theory of Atonement. They are not the same thing. Because for St Anselm, Jesus and the Father are one, simplistic readings of a Divine Child Abuse model into his theory just don't do justice to his work.

I recommend the blog, Ember Days, that of an Anselmian scholar, as antidote to misinformation about St Anselm.

rick allen said...

I have to agree with Christopher that this post seems to seriously distort Anselm.

I'd have to look over the whole thing, but I'm not sure that the "wrath of God" is even mentioned in Cur Deus Homo. I may be wrong--it's a biblical phrase, of course--but I think Anselm's use of the terminology of "honor" allows him to avoid that.

But here he is himself:

"Boso. Now I see clearly that he did not give himself up to die for the honor of God, as a debt; for this my own reason proves, and yet he ought to have done what he did.

"Anselm.. That honor certainly belongs to the whole Trinity; and, since he is very God, the Son of God, he offered himself for his own honor, as well as for that of the Father and the Holy Spirit; that is, he gave his humanity to his divinity, which is one person of the Triune God. But, though we express our idea more definitely by clinging to the precise truth, yet we may say, according to our custom, that the Son freely gave himself to the Father. For thus we plainly affirm that in speaking of one person we understand the whole Deity, to whom as man he offered himself. And, by the names of Father and Son, a wondrous depth of devotion is excited in the hearts of the hearers, when it is said that the Son supplicates the Father on our behalf."

This, it seems to me, is a far cry from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." If anything, the shape of Cur Deus Homo seems to reflect that of Athanasius' de incarntione, in its reflection on the predicament created by man's sin. In fact, though Anselm's treatise is conventionally treated as some novel theory of atonement, I think it's much better understood as a meditation on the fitness of the incarnation.

Rev. David Justin Lynch said...

I am a combination of Peter Abelard and Gustaf Aulen. I wrote an essay on this which I will Email to Mother Susan. She can read it and do with it what she wishes.