Atonement: why do Irish clergy avoid this issue?

Recently on this site, under the heading ‘Religion shouldn’t make people miserable‘ one anonymous poster responded by reflecting on the horror of the Jesus’ suffering on the cross, and then asked the question: “Why did he do this?”
The anonymous ‘Brendan’ immediately provided his own answer: “He did this to atone for our sins. Yes, our sins offend God, so much so, that only a sacrifice of His Humanity and Divinity could atone for them.”
Any good dictionary of theology will summarise the varied ways in which theologians, down through the centuries, have set out to explain how exactly we are ‘redeemed’ (i.e. liberated) by the Crucifixion, and how this event is supposed to accomplish ‘atonement’ or reconciliation between ourselves and God. The theory summarised above, St Anselm’s ‘satisfaction’ theory, was arrived at only in the 11th century, long after the church had accommodated itself to the medieval social pyramid. St Anselm hypothesised that the Father, being far superior to any medieval King, must take even greater offence at any breach of his laws, and that this offence must require greater ‘satisfaction’ than can be provided by the suffering brought by sin to the sinner himself.
In the early church it was argued instead that we are redeemed and reconciled with God simply through the entirely loving and self-giving life of Jesus, culminating in Jesus’ gift of himself. That is to say that Jesus, by his goodness, had raised all humanity to a new level of moral achievement. It did not occur to the early church fathers to attribute to God the human weakness of ‘taking offence’, or to imply that some act of human violence against his Son would be required to propitiate the Father.
What’s fundamentally wrong with the Anselmian satisfaction theory is that it implicitly attributes to God the mentality of a medieval human king, for whom violence was a necessary and just response to a breach of his ‘honour’ by a subject. That’s why so many later theologians have reverted to the earlier ‘moral influence’ theory: Jesus embodied the Father’s aspiration for all of us – his wish for us to be guided by love alone. René Girard’s view of God as entirely non-violent and as bent on freeing us from the source of all violence (mimetic desire or covetousness) – is a recent variation on that early church theme.
Why is it that we absolutely never hear this issue broached by our Catholic clergy in Ireland? The anonymous Brendan’s presentation of the medieval satisfaction theory did not provoke a single clerical response here, even though it does far more to distance us from God than to bring us closer to Him. Is this issue never discussed by our clergy even among themselves?
“Didn’t God the Father want his son to be killed?” This angry question came at me once from a Derry Catholic woman in her eighties. That was the basic theology she had absorbed from a lifetime of devotion: it troubled her deeply. Had it been questioned even once from the ambo in her hearing she would surely have remembered that. (Might that have been the inadequate theology that the young Seamus Heaney received also, in roughly the same neck of the woods?)
And now, when one poster offers the same incomprehensible God-diminishing theology on this site, not a single ordained theologian demurs. Can someone explain that? Is this issue never addressed in the seminary in Ireland? Or are clergy advised that this whole issue is far too difficult to raise with us mere lay people? If so, as the anonymous Brendan’s response shows, that fear is a truly serious mistake.
Sean O’Conaill
N. Ireland


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  1. Eamonn O Carragain says:

    Thank you, Sean, for a most thoughtful contribution; and for the link to your website, which has a rich gathering of equally thoughtful and convincing pieces by you. Good to know that such a lucid and useful resource is there for all of us.

  2. I want to thank Seán for this excellent piece. It reminds me of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification agreed by our Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999.
    I had never really thought very much about Justification until I had to study and comment on this document shortly after it was published. It was quite a revelation for somebody like me who had spent most of my life building up a good store of brownie points. I was told, at the time, that Hans Kung had led the way on this many years previously.There are many, many quotations from Scripture in support of the joint statement. One particular example that really struck me was ” Together we hear the gospel that” God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who be believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”” (Jn. 3.16)
    I am sure there are any able scholars who frequent this site who could give us an easily understandable summation of the Doctrine of Justification

  3. I’d like to hear more from religious/clerics on this one, too. All that’s been done ‘in the name of God’.
    What’s not been done because of a ‘THEORY’ ‘of atonement’.
    The roads to hell often paved with good intentions.

  4. Martin Murray says:

    This is a key part of our inherited Christian narrative that needs to be revisited revised and refocused. The image of God it projects is totally at odds with the image of God that Jesus revealed. But we continue to hammer the square peg into the round hole and hope people won’t notice. But people do notice. They realise they are being sold a pup and aren’t buying it any more. This may not be something that clergy or mainstream theologians feel brave enough to tackle, so embedded is it in our liturgical worship, prayers, music and teaching. But unless those with the microphone do, the credibility of the church will continue to suffer and people will continue to vote with their feet. It is encouraging however to observe beyond officialdom, the Spirit at work among the faithful of the broad Christian family everywhere (re)discovering more authentic pre-modern understandings of the Cross and Jesus’ role in our redemption – such as the one Sean outlines above. Please God the moratorium on theological exploration instilled by previous papal administrations is a thing of the past and our theologians can come out of hiding and get to work. There is much to be done on this (and indeed other issues, such as our depressingly unsatisfactory teaching of original sin). Keeping theological pace with developments in human consciousness, scientific discovery and new cosmology is an ongoing task that should be a source of joy and wonder, not insecurity and fear.

  5. Sean, thank you a thousand times for this excellent and thought-provoking article. You ask the crucial question, “Why is it that we absolutely never hear this issue broached by our Catholic clergy in Ireland?” At the risk of being blatantly obvious, could it be that they never even thought of questioning the Anselmian satisfaction theory? That this, sadly, is what they really believe? As Richard Rohr so often points out, one must have experienced the reality of being guided by love alone in one’s own spiritual life before attempting to pass on this theological reality to others. The implications of this point should surely provide food for thought and some serious discussion and reflection.

  6. The reason for atonement? The answer may be found in the question that is put to us by Jesus…..Can Satan cast out Satan? Who, other than Christ, is able to guarantee that those who belong to the Father are not devoured by darkness?

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    Mk 10:45 Jn 10:15 Jn 15:13 — good beginning for this

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    I wonder is this issue generated by extreme feminists who portray Calvary as “divine child abuse”?

  9. #6 & #7 Darlene and Joe
    “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45
    My sources tell me that in the early church the emphasis was indeed on the liberating power of Jesus’ total self-giving. To ‘redeem’ was to free someone from slavery by paying the slave-owner’s price, the ‘ransom’. The slave-holder was obviously Satan – so Abba gave Jesus to us to free us from the power of evil. It must therefore be a huge mistake to see the crucifixion as something demanded by Abba to assuage his own anger. Anselm apparently made this mistake because he thought that Jesus’ life was too high a price for God to pay for the purpose of liberating us.
    As to ‘the power of evil’, Jesus did not identify this with sexual sin. He said “I have overcome the world,” (John 16:33) not “I have overcome the flesh”. The ‘world’ is surely our enveloping social context, which constantly invites us into self-promotion and competition rather than service – and into violence as well if others compete violently with us. We have this tendency above all because we are not secure in our own self-esteem – and that is why we need to be centred on the Trinity – dwelling beyond us, within us and among us. For they are still centred on our liberation from ‘the world’.

  10. Kevin Walters says:

    We are taught that God is Love but the essence of Love is Truth.
    Our Father gave of himself in his Son to reconcile mankind to Him. The essence of love in His Son is Truth, and he bears witness to it, Jesus teaches us not to resist the evil doer and is true to his own Word, he can do no other but submits to his own essence which is Truth and bearing witness to the Truth permits the evil in man to murder him, He is lifted up by mankind for mankind’s redemption, we see a reflection of the evil within ourselves (own actions) as he submits to the Will of our Father bearing witness to the Truth (their own essence).
    The Truth knows (embraces) itself, it can do no other, those who refuse to acknowledge the living Word of God, once they have heard (understood) it within their hearts, are destined to eternal separation (damnation) from God, as our Father is restrained by His own essence, as His essence (Truth) is not within them.
    “All who acknowledge me I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven”
    When we acknowledge with honesty the Truth within our own heart it will induce humility, (if it does not, we are not been honest and delude ourselves) at that moment in time, we are given the power to become children of God (as we are part of His essence Truth) and if we continue on this path of bearing witness to the Truth within our own hearts as in the parable of the mustard seed, growing in the light of the Holy Spirit (Truth) producing leaves of compassion that give shelter to all from physical and spiritual suffering, we too will do the same.

  11. #8 Joe O’Leary
    The Alpha evangelical course, originating in Anglicanism and now quite widely used by the RCC, was not designed by ‘extreme feminists’. It employs a variation on the Anselmian satisfaction theory to explain atonement – the substitution theory, most vehemently supported by John Calvin.
    This argues that since divine justice requires the punishment of the sinner, a blow must fall on someone. Jesus’ acceptance of crucifixion made him the ‘substitute’ for ourselves.
    The Catholic Catechism uses both of the terms ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitute’ in explaining atonement – and I don’t believe it was drafted by ‘extreme feminists’ either. As use of the Alpha course illustrates, there linger in our church the vestiges of a sourcing of the violence of the crucifixion in the Father – and this belief fuels most evangelical Protestantism. That is where the ‘extreme feminists’ – and a substantial portion of secularist scorn generally – are coming from.

  12. I found the following fascinating passage quoted on a Wikipedia page:
    From: H. N. Oxenham, The Catholic doctrine of the atonement (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865), p. 112-3,119:
    “…we may pause to sum up briefly the main points of teaching on Christ’s work of redemption to be gathered from the patristic literature of the first three centuries as a whole.
    “And first, as to what it does not contain. There is no trace, as we have seen, of the notions of vicarious satisfaction, in the sense of our sins being imputed to Christ and His obedience imputed to us, which some of the Reformers made the very essence of Christianity; or, again, of the kindred notion that God was angry with His Son for our sakes, and inflicted on Him the punishment due to us ; nor is Isaiah s prophecy interpreted in this sense, as afterwards by Luther; on the contrary, there is much which expressly negatives this line of thought.
    “There is no mention of the justice of God, in the forensic sense of the word; the Incarnation is invariably exclusively ascribed to His love; the term satisfaction does not occur in this connection at all, and where Christ is said to suffer for us, huper (not anti) is the word always used.
    “It is not the payment of a debt, as in St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, but the restoration of our fallen nature, that is prominent in the minds of these writers, as the main object of the Incarnation.
    “They always speak, with Scripture, of our being reconciled to God, not of God being reconciled to us.”

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    St Paul begins his account of the Redemption by talking of the wrath of God, and Isaiah has God lay on the suffering servant the iniquities of us all. No one found that offensive or dreamed of caricaturing it as “divine child abuse” until recently. Well, it is true that liberal theologians like Oxenham (close to Döllinger) tried to sanitize out everything that connected NT redemption with sacrifice, but their thusiaphobia had little purchase with the ordinary faithful. I think people understood the power of the sacrificial language and found it chimed well with human experience. Most of the indignation currently fomented against it is based on caricatures.

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    Oxenham was also a convert from Anglicanism and probably influenced by the Oxford Movement’s distaste for the Reformers. They too had a highly sacrificial understanding of redemption, a joyous exchange in which Christ takes our guilt and gives us his righteousness.

  15. #13 #14 Joe O’Leary
    In what sense are you using the word ‘sacrifice’, Joe? A blood-spilling act of violence against an innocent victim to propitiate a powerful and sometimes violent God? Or an act of self-denial and self-giving to reveal a God who is also constantly loving and generous – and intent on peace?
    Isn’t it clear that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ moves through 180 degrees in the course of the biblical texts, from the first of these understandings to the second? And that in being both priest and victim Jesus completes that turn?
    Until you face this question your God-the-Father remains ambivalent – the very image of an abusive parent. And nothing like the father of the Prodigal Son – or like Jesus either for that matter.
    As to the unimportance of this question before modernity, how could you forget the violence of Christianity throughout the Middle Ages – justified always by ‘wrath of God’ theology? (For example the sacking of Jerusalem in the first crusade, the vicious scapegoating of the Jews at times of plague, and the persecution of supposed witches.) Had the church always taught that the only acceptable Christian sacrifice was one of self-giving, and that the Passion had revealed the injustice of all scapegoating, could that violence have happened?
    Please provide the Pauline reference to the wrath of God in the context of Redemption. As to Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’, wasn’t that always interpreted as a prophetic foretelling of the Passion – before Girard pointed out that it simply reflects the all-against-one theme that recurs in the Bible (e.g. Joseph and his brothers, the blaming of Job for his own misfortunes, Susannah and the Elders)?
    For Girard the Bible is supreme in revealing the pattern of all-against-one violence, focused on an isolated victim, that all ancient religion ritualised in blood sacrifice. The Gospels are the culmination of that revelatory process – so clearly revealing the innocence of the victim that our species simply cannot forget the lesson. A God who reveals the injustice of that process is obviously intolerant of it – and is also entirely visible in the father of the Prodigal Son. From where else could the principle of universal human rights have come?
    That is surely the only theology, and the only understanding of ‘acceptable sacrifice’, that can rescue Christianity from the scandal of Christian violence. A theology that remains, on the contrary, wedded to a God who veers insanely between kindness and cruelty can only perpetuate that scandal.

  16. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, you are mostly attacking distortions of sacrifice, not the teaching of Paul, Hebrews, 1 John, 1 Peter, Anselm (who talks about justice and mercy not about any vengeful God), Luther, Calvin, or Trent. The brilliant and stimulating René Girard is currently under attack from all fronts, and in his later work he gives a more positive spin to sacrificial language used of Christ. I would not leap to embrace what you report he says about the Suffering Servant. The wrath of God is the first thing mentioned by Paul in his great treatise on redemption, Rom 1.18, and the great turning point in that letter, Rom 3.24-5, uses language that sounds very much like the “satisfaction” and “substitution” of the Catechism. The wrath of God is a holy wrath against injustice and oppression, which falls on us sinners; but God “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3), “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5“21); “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3`13). Thus God’s righteous wrath is turned aside and “the love of God is poured forth in our hearts” (Rom 5:5) and “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Insofar as the lunatic fringe of feminist theology, denounced as such by the mainstream feminist theologians, characterizes the Pauline vision as “divine child abuse” they lose credibility; though a feminist critique of that language, more subtly expressed, might have some merit.

  17. #16 Joe O’Leary
    Again, Joe, you evade the crux of the matter, leaving the intentionality of the Father as ambiguous as the word ‘sacrifice’. Why can you not say clearly that for you the word ‘sacrifice’ has a non-violent connotation – when the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham would very definitely have been a violent act, to appease a violent God?
    If you cannot insist that Christian sacrifice (understood as self-giving) is the antithesis of violence, then you implicitly attribute violence and vanity to the Father in desiring sacrifice.
    Yes, I can see that those Pauline passages could be read as supportive of the Anselmian ‘satisfaction’ theology – but they could also be read very differently – to mean simply that sin by its very nature has dire consequences for all of us, including the sinner. You seem unaware of the spin given to ‘substitution’ by violent Christian fundamentalism: for this mindset God’s anger is still rampant (e.g. against gays) and we are still headed for Armageddon. To escape eternal conscious torment we must all be ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb’. If you have never had to listen to someone totally distraught because they had been told they were not ‘saved’ you have lived a very sheltered life.
    René Girard is under attack mainly for three reasons. First, for defending the essential truth of the metanarrative of the Creeds from the postmodern insistence that no metanarrative can be true; second, for insisting that the Bible is a revelatory exposure of the pacific intent of God and of the origins of all violence in human mimetic desire (covetousness); third, for defending the Gospels from a charge of anti-Semitism.
    Girard’s change of mind on ‘sacrifice’ took place solely because Raymund Schwager helped him to see that ‘sacrifice’ has always had the secondary connotation of a gift given to God (underlying the violence of the sacrificial knife) and that in Jesus gift of himself that idea of gift-giving became the dominant connotation. The crucifixion entirely removed the violent connotation because Jesus submitted to violence instead of inflicting it. It was that submission that pleased the Father – not the deed of crucifying Jesus by his enemies.
    Girard believes that the continuation of the scapegoating process under Christendom had to do with a lingering of the ancient attribution of violence to all Gods into the Christian era (i.e. to a lack of deep Christian conversion). That lingering is clearly present in satisfaction and substitution understandings of atonement.
    Face it Joe: is God violent? If so, made in his image, mustn’t our violence (e.g. potentially against Islam) be justifiable also? Girard has never changed his mind on the pacific nature and intent of the Father, but I cannot make out where you stand on that.

  18. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, the NT language is very rich and complex but all of it is valuable; it is understandable, however, that fundamentalists or unsophisticated believers might be confused by it. However, can you give me examples of specifically sacrificial language being used by fundamentalists in their campaigns against Muslims or gays? Where are the Crusades portrayed as sacrificial? Can you hold the sacrificial language of the New Testament responsible for Christian violence throughout history? As you point out, that language is a profoundly non-violent response to violence.
    The NT is clear enough that the death of Christ, though a violent act committed on an innocent victim, is lived by the victim himself in a thoroughly non-violent way. The Father does not inflict violence on the Son but “hands him over” to the shame and pain of Calvary — allowing him to taste the cup of human suffering to the full. The “intentionality” of the Father is to overthrow sin and death through the one supreme sacrifice of the beloved Son, offered once for all. One could say that the Father himself non-violently suffers the violence inflicted on the Son (and on all human beings who suffer death).
    Sin, death, violence exist, and God clearly has not abolished them by fiat. The death and resurrection of the Son are the divine response to them. It transforms them, and the NT understanding of this owes hugely to the sacrificial understandings built up over the centuries in Israel.
    I am postmodern enough to believe that this entire sacrifice-language is culture-bound (and that there is no universal essence of sacrifice itself — which indeed as you point out is one of the main objections to Girard from anthropologists); it is our conventional means of grasping what God was doing in Christ. “God was in Christ reconciling the world with himself” (2 Cor 5:19) is another, complementary way, in Paul himself. Divine salvation consists chiefly in revealing and enlightening in the Johannine writings; Christ dies to reveal the divine glory (which fills the sanctuary at the hour of sacrifice in Exodus 40); there is still a sacrificial core — Christ is the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, but the stress is on this as a gift for the world (The bread that comes down from heaven for the life of the world; I lay down my life for my sheep, or for my friends).
    Another point to recall is that sacrifice is followed by a communion meal. Jesus eats the paschal lamb with the apostles (thus participating in actual animal-sacrifice) and himself becomes our paschal lamb (1 Cor 5:7). This lamb was slain once but the communion meal goes on to the end of time. Here is an interesting article on the eucharistic sacrifice: http://churchhistorysurprise.blogspot.jp/2014/02/foundations-of-anglican-church-lxvi_13.html

  19. #18 Joe O’Leary
    You say:
    ‘The “intentionality” of the Father is to overthrow sin and death through the one supreme sacrifice of the beloved Son, offered once for all. One could say that the Father himself non-violently suffers the violence inflicted on the Son (and on all human beings who suffer death).’
    That’s clear, Joe, thanks. It’s how I see things too, and, for me, it discounts the view that the violence of the crucifixion originated somehow in the inadequacy of the sufferings of the rest of us to make up for the offence given by our sins to God, or in the need for a divine blow to fall on Jesus in place of ourselves.
    Just to be clear – I do not argue that the Eucharistic sacrificial liturgy in itself conveys the message that God is violent. I am saying that in the absence of an explicit rejection of, especially, substitutionary atonement theory (which does appear vestigially in the Catechism and completely ‘up front’ in the Alpha programme) the intent of the Father becomes clouded. This is quite likely to lead to a mistaken theology of an unforgiving Father and a misinterpretation of ‘sacrifice’. That elderly Derry woman I mentioned in my initial post wasn’t taking her question about the Father’s role in the crucifixion from extreme feminism. Her angry bafflement had simply never been allayed by clear teaching in her own church.
    The basic problem, as I see it, is a common failure on the part of our clergy to convey clearly the progressive nature of biblical revelation – both of who God is, and (especially in the OT) of who God is not. An example comes straight away from your linking of the Eucharist to the Passover. According to the Exodus story that original Passover sacrificial meal was indeed intended to ward off a blow from God, the killing by the angel of death of the firstborn sons of Egypt, in punishment for the obduracy of Pharaoh. If no time is taken here to explain that this story arises also out of a developing theology intent on depicting God as victorious liberator and saviour of his chosen people, and that it shouldn’t be understood as detailed literal history, misunderstandings supportive of belief in a violent God are very likely to contaminate our understanding of the Eucharist as well.
    We simply do not hear with sufficient emphasis that Jesus is the definitive revelation of who the Father is also – that a ‘soft cop, hard cop’ inference is totally mistaken.
    So I’m still wondering why our clergy usually don’t take the time to do that, and to expand on the meaning of Catholic ‘sacrifice’ as having to do with self-giving and non-violence. Why are all these issues ‘don’t go there’ territory – especially when we also direly need committed preaching on the common priesthood of all the baptised? If not going there has to do with fears of disturbing the ‘simple faithful’, those fears are now totally out of place. These days far more people are alienated by bland, repetitive homilies that insult their intelligence and don’t address the most difficult issues.
    As to what those issues actually are for people in the pews, we never get consulted on that either!
    Thanks also for that reference to the very helpful article on the origins of Eucharistic sacrifice, and the problem of explaining all that back in the 16th century. It helps to explain where some Reformed criticism of the RCC in NI comes from – e.g. the hullabaloo over Peter Robinson’s attendance at the funeral Mass of a PSNI officer murdered by dissident IRA.

  20. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, the problem is the phobia of so many clergy about studying theology or preparing their sermons in a serious way. Also there does not seem to be a forum where they could chat with the faithful about theological worries, some of which are genuine causes of anxiety. I am sorry to say that Anglican preachers put us to shame here. A lot of the false problems could be allayed if preachers would just look up what the exegetes say about the readings for the Sunday, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary or some other such source.

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