Love, Not Atonement

Coming to Holy Week, we are brought face to face with our Theology of the Cross, our Soteriology. The following from Richard Rohr OFM may be of interest in that reflection.

Pádraig McCarthy
Love, Not Atonement
Friday, March 20, 2015
The common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”–either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109). Anselm’s infamous Cur Deus Homo has been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written.” My hero, Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), agreed with neither of these understandings. Scotus was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, or blood sacrifice (understandably used in the Gospels and by Paul). He was inspired by the high level cosmic hymns in the first chapters of Colossians and Ephesians and the first chapter of John’s Gospel.
After Anselm, Christians have paid a huge price for what theologians called “substitutionary atonement theory”–the strange idea that before God could love us God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for our sin-drenched humanity. With that view, salvation depends upon a problem instead of a divine proclamation about the core nature of reality. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and accept “his” own children–a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive father were already far too programmed to believe.
For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness, but the proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as the hymn in Ephesians puts it (1:4). Our sin could not possibly be the motive for the divine incarnation, but only perfect love and divine self-revelation! For Scotus, God never merely reacts, but always supremely and freely acts, and always acts totally out of love. Scotus was very Trinitarian.
The best way I can summarize how Scotus tried to change the old notion of retributive justice is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. God in Jesus moved people beyond the counting, weighing, and punishing model, that the ego prefers, to the utterly new world that Jesus offered, where God’s abundance has made any economy of merit, sacrifice, reparation, or atonement both unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) all notions of human and animal sacrifice and replaced them with his new economy of grace, which is the very heart of the gospel revolution. Jesus was meant to be a game changer for the human psyche and for religion itself. When we begin negatively, or focused on the problem, we never get out of the hamster wheel. To this day we begin with and continue to focus on sin, when the crucified one was pointing us toward a primal solidarity with the very suffering of God and all of creation. This changes everything. Change the starting point, change the trajectory!
We all need to know that God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing humans can do will ever decrease or increase God’s eternal eagerness to love.
Adapted from Richard Rohr: Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, pp. 183-188

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  1. Thank you for posting this. The buying into the “substitutionary atonement theory” by all the main Christian denominations, including our Catholic Church may have given us some cracking hymns to sing on a Sunday but unfortunately has left us with a very poor image of God and a very formalistic Christian narrative that is received as bad news rather than good news by most people, apart from those who consider themselves the chosen few.
    I’m not a theologian and it is only in the last few years that I have discovered that there are many different salvation theories to explain the role of Jesus and the Cross. But tragically we are not taught them. However it is pleasing to see that in our day, questions are being asked of the atonement theory and that other more satisfactory theories (that make my heart sing), are beginning to make appearances within mainstream Christian discourse, including this article.
    It will take a long time for Anselm’s “most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written.” to be dislodged from its privileged place within our liturgies, hymnody and evangelisation /catechetical programmes, but the sooner, the better.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Two other reports also deal with a similar theme.
    An article entitled “How A Poor Theology Of The Cross Created America’s Broken Justice System” by Benjamin Corey: do an internet search for the title as given, and you can find it a few sites. The argument is that a poor theology can lead to serious consequences, however unlikely it may seem.
    The Crux website has a page answering questions submitted. “Was Crucifixion necessary?” is the first question answered at

  3. Longing for Good News says:

    Good News at last. Why do we hear it so seldom.

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