Theory of Atonement: Satisfaction

atonement6Throughout this Good Friday we are looking at the various theories of the atonement or explanations of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  This is the third post today, and in this one we turn to the theory of Satisfaction.

Throughout Church history Christians have meditated upon Jesus’ cross, and inevitably asked the question, “What did Jesus accomplish on the cross?”  The bible uses a number of metaphors to describe the work of Jesus on the cross, and throughout its history the Church emphasized particular metaphors over others, depending upon the different historical and cultural contexts of the Church.  The Church’s contextual contemplation of Jesus’ suffering led to different explanations as to what Jesus accomplished by his death on the cross.  These different answers became the various theories of the atonement we know, study and often ignore today, and the most prominent theory from the Medieval Church was the theory of Satisfaction.

For the first 1,000 years of Church history the Ransom theory, with multiple variations, reigned supreme in the imagination of the Church.  However, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109) wrote Cur Deus Homo (Why the God Man?’), and it forever changed the Church’s imagination regarding the biblical metaphors for the work of Jesus the Christ.  Anselm utterly rejected the prevailing notion that the devil had some sort of right over humanity that only a ransom could extinguish.  Against the Ransom theory, he argued that the devil was clearly guilty of an injustice in humanity’s fall, and he could have no right to anything but punishment.

Anselm started off with a different set of questions than the ancient Church did. As the title of his book suggests, he was explaining the necessity of the Incarnation and the phenomenon of Jesus as the God-Man.  According to Anslem, God’s honor and glory were at stake due the rebellion in the realm, and this was the central problem of sin and evil.  He believed that humans could not render to God (satisfaction) more than what was due to him.  This was a significant problem because the satisfaction due to God was greater than what all created beings are capable of paying.  Humanity could only do what was already required of them.

This being the case, God had to make satisfaction for himself. But, if God made satisfaction for himself how could it avail for humans?  Anslem suggested that it would not, and satisfaction had to be made by a human. Quite the conundrum.  This problem begged for the solution found on in the Incarnation.  Only a being that was both fully God and fully man could satisfy God and give him the honor that is due him.

As Nic Don noted in a comment on this blog, Anselm was not attempting to craft an entirely new theory of atonement unrelated to the Recapitulation theory, but Anselm was contextualizing Recapitulation theory to his own age.  As such, the Satisfaction theory still views the whole life of Jesus, the Incarnation, as central to the atonement.  Because man sinned, man’s death is owed to God, but as Anselm wrote in Book One, Dialogue Nine of Cur Deus Homo,

Anselm.. God did not, therefore, compel Christ to die; but he suffered death of his own will, not yielding up his life as an act of obedience, but on account of his obedience in maintaining holiness; for he held out so firmly in this obedience that he met death on account of it. It may, indeed be said, that the Father commanded him to die, when he enjoined that upon him on account of which he met death. It was in this sense, then, that “as the Father gave him the commandment, so he did, and the cup which He gave to him, he drank; and he was made obedient to the Father, even unto death;” and thus “he learned obedience from the things which he suffered,” that is, how far obedience should be maintained.

Anselm regarded human sin as defrauding God of the honour he is due. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of obedience within a whole life lived unto obedience, gives God great honor. As Jesus’ death on the cross was more obedience and honor to God than he owed, Jesus the Christ manufactured a surplus of merit that was accounted to humanity’s deficit. Hence Christ’s death is substitutionary in this sense: he pays the honour instead of us. But that substitution is the honor we owed to God, and it was not our penalty owed to God.  You can see the Medieval Church’s teaching regarding Christ’s meritorious works for us coming into play in Anselm’s take on the atonement.  Much later Thomas Aquinas’ expression of this doctrine would become the official teaching of the Church until the Reformation.

The strength of this theory is its emphasis on the whole life of Jesus (the Incarnation) as relevant for salvation.  Also, Satisfactions highlights the substitutionary nature of Christ’s work so often mentioned in the Second Testament.  As other theories previously mentioned, this theory suffers not in what is affirms but in what is might deny if held exclusively or primarily.  It also loses power as a metaphor in our contemporary culture since we are a law driven culture and not an honor/shame culture.

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