Substitutional Atonement by John Kinney

Prayer:  We are part of a mystery we do not understand.  For that we are grateful.

It is good to be with you in person.  My message is one I have been hesitant to give.  It involves looking at a long-held belief in a different way.  To me that is very Quaker.  Wendy Swallow of the Reno Friends meeting said, “The idea that revelation is ongoing rather than set in stone by a creed or biblical text is fundamental to the Quakers’ understanding of God.”  According to the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting:  “Continuing Revelation means that the Holy Spirit’s creative capacity among us did not end with the the first generation of Apostles at Pentecost. The Spirit continues to speak and reveal God’s insight and wisdom to us if we are willing to listen. While God is ‘unchanging’, our understanding of God’s wisdom is not.”  I urge you to put today’s message in the Light and go from there. For me, what I have to say changed everything, everything.

Colossians 1: 17 Before anything was created, He existed and He holds all things in unity.

Ephesians 1: 4 Before the world was made, He chose us, chose us in Christ.

Wait a minute.  I was taught that everything was going along fine, then Adam and Eve botch it.  God says, “Dang it.  I was sitting here all chill and now I have to fix their mess.  Someone has to pay.  Got it!  I will become incarnate, be crucified, problem solved!”  If that is true, why did Christ exist before Adam and Eve?  Was Christ always a part of God’s plan and not a reaction to the fall?

Jesus died for our sins.  This is my interpretation of that statement. You commit a murder.  There is a trial and you are sentenced to death.  At the last moment, the judge’s son takes your place.  Here is another way I look at it.  We sin.  We screw up.  We do bad stuff.  God is offended and demands retribution.  Someone worthy has to pay.  A human is not worthy because humans are so inferior to God.  An angel wouldn’t work because it is pure spirit. No, the victim has to be a combination of the divine and the human.  God is so upset that the victim needs to really suffer.  The incarnation happens.  The victim is God’s son.  Jesus is crucified. God can now accept and love us.

The theological term is substitutionary atonement.  It was put forth by Anselm of Canterbury in 1094 in his work Cur Deus Homo (“Why was God a man?”)  It holds that Jesus redeemed humanity through making satisfaction for humankind’s disobedience through his own obedience. It has since been traditionally taught in most of Christianity. Since one of God’s characteristics is justice, affronts to that justice must be atoned for. It is thus connected with the legal concept of balancing out an injustice.  Anselm’s theory was a precursor to the innovations of later theologians like John Calvin, who introduced the idea of Christ suffering the Father’s just punishment as a vicarious substitute.  To me it is ironic.  Protestants took a bad Catholic idea, made it worse, handed it back to the Catholics who embraced it.

Me: It says, “One of God’s characteristics is justice, affronts to that justice must be atoned for.”  Why? Why does God have to be like us?  Can’t God’s sense of justice be different than ours?  You could really offend me and I could say, “It is OK.  I am letting go of it.”  If I can do that, why can’t God?

If you follow Anselm’s logic the only important part of Jesus’s life were the last three days.  You could even say the last three hours.  The Apostle’s creed says. “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”

It says born of the Virgin Mary, COMMA, suffered under Pontius Pilate.  I repeat, “born of the Virgin Mary COMMA, suffered under Pontius Pilate.” It is ironically called the “great comma.” Everything Jesus did and taught, everything that happened between being born of the virgin Mary and suffering under Pontius Pilate, the world’s greatest life is reduced to a comma.

What follows is by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan.  It mentions Catholic stuff a lot.  For good or bad, Catholicism preceded, and has had an influence on, all other Christian denominations.

In the thirteenth century, the Franciscans and the Dominicans were the Catholic Church’s debating society, as it were. The Franciscans invariably took opposing positions in the great debates in the universities of Paris, Cologne, Bologna, and Oxford. Both opinions usually passed the tests of orthodoxy, although one was preferred. The Franciscans often ended up presenting the minority position in those days. I share this bit of history to show that my understanding of the atonement theory is not heretical or new, but has very traditional and orthodox foundations.  The alternative theory was never rejected.  It just wasn’t taught.

Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans agreed with the mainline position that some kind of debt had to be paid for human salvation. Many scriptures and the Jewish temple metaphors of sacrifice, price, propitiation, debt, and atonement do give this impression.

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 (Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109). Me:  Wait a minute.  So it hasn’t always been interpreted the way it is now?  It changed?  Interesting.

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 the “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 God’s own children – a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive parent were already far too programmed to believe. 

Duns Scotus firmly believed that God’s perfect freedom had to be maintained at all costs. If God “needed” or demanded a blood sacrifice to love God’s own creation, then God was not freely loving us. Once you say it, its inherent absurdity is obvious! 

ME: If to be loved you have to do x, y or z then it is not love. It is a transaction.  Do this to get that.  Love is not quid pro quo.  True love is totally unconditional.

Back to Rohr: If God is not violent, punishing, torturing, or vindictive, then our excuse for the same is forever taken away from us. This is no small point! And, of course, if God is punitive and torturing, then we have full modeling and permission to do the same. Does this need much proof at this point in Christian history?

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. Changing the starting point changes the trajectory!

Me: My simplistic theology for “Cur Deus Homo?”  is as follows: “Why did God become human? When God created us he was immediately head over heels in love with us and wanted to be with us in the most intimate way possible, in the flesh.  You want to be with the ones you love.  We also had a lot of warped ideas about God. Gpd wanted to show us what God was really like. Why the crucifixion?  Jesus showed us how to deal with evil without becoming it or resorting to violence, and Jesus is in solidarity with all of his children that have so grievously suffered over the centuries.  No one in pain and sorrow can say to Christ, “You don’t know what it is like.”  God is not exempt from human suffering and if humanity is forgiven for all that was done to Jesus, then there is nothing we can do to each other that cannot be forgiven by God and us.  Christ redeemed us, but not as a sacrifice.  St. Athanasius (298), “God in Christ became the bearer of flesh for a time so that humanity could become the bearer of Spirit forever.”

I found the following online: It was in the tiny community of West Nickle Mines that a man stormed into a one-room schoolhouse and shot 10 young girls, killing five. He then killed himself. In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.  The killer was Charles Roberts. Roberts’ family spokesman said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them.   Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.*

According to Substitutionary Atonement God can’t be like the Amish.  God has to fit into our box of judgement, justice and retribution.  Someone has to punished.  Justice demands it. 

But in Luke 23:34  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  He didn’t say forgive them if they come crawling on their knees begging for forgiveness.  He didn’t say someone has to pay.  God’s mercy, love and forgiveness are unconditional.  Forgive seventy times seven times. 

Ps 145:8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities. 

Am I telling you that you are wrong if you believe in the god of Substitutionary Atonement?  No.  Am I encouraging you to consider an alternative that is just as biblical and orthodox?  Yes. I hope you will read through Rohr’s sections slowly and prayerfully and also the referenced scripture verses.

Today in the Catholic Church God is the God of Substitutionary Atonement.  Period.  Catholic Sunday service is the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” Few know there is an orthodox alternative.

I feared the God of Substitutionary Atonement, but I could never love that god.  That God is vindictive, punishing and cruel.  What kind of parent would need the death of his son to be appeased? 

The God of At One Ment.  That God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  That God is like his son, Jesus the Christ. I hope to love both with all my heart.

*https//lancasterpa.com/amish/amish-forgiveness/

This message was given to Spokane Friends during Sunday morning worship on May 1, 2022.

References: Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, Convergent Books, 2021 (available at Auntie’s)

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1 Response to Substitutional Atonement by John Kinney

  1. Love this. Where and when are your Spokane valley meetings?

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