Atonement and a Trinitarian Metaphysic of Love

Hans Boersma

The most central way of exploring the mystery of redemption in the early church was by drawing typological lines from Adam to Christ. Drawing on passages such as Rom 5:12-21 and 1 Cor 15:45-49, the second-century Church Father, Irenaeus, referred to this as the principle of recapitulation. Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, recapitulated all of Adamic existence. Where the first Adam failed in the face of temptation, the second Adam withstood the devil’s attack and so gained the victory. The immortal, eternal Word of God took on human mortal flesh, faithfully retraced the human story, and by doing so, restored all of human life.

St. Irenaeus puts it this way: “This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up [recapitulate] all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God” [Demonstration §6].

This passage, though it precedes Nicea by about 150 years, nonetheless has a distinctly Trinitarian pattern. The church’s “rule of faith” has three elements: one God and Father, the Logos of God, and the Holy Spirit. It is within this trinitarian structure that Irenaeus locates the recapitulation of human existence by the eternal Son of God. The church’s rule of faith locates the passion of our savior, the recapitulation of Adam’s race, squarely within the loving embrace of the triune God.

The trinitarian backdrop to the recapitulation narrative is of great significance in the light of contemporary critiques of traditional atonement theology. These objections against the Christian doctrine of redemption tend to focus on the violence of the cross. How could the Father allow, perhaps even instigate or inflict, such violence against his innocent Son? Since all traditional atonement models—Christus Victor, satisfaction, and moral influence—hold that the cross is the outcome of divine purpose, contemporary attempts to remove divine violence from our interpretation of the cross tend to object not just to one but to each of the traditional models. The result is a focus on the life of Christ as an example for us to follow, while the cross gets reduced to the tragic and inevitable outcome of such a faithfully lived life. Redemption is thus located in the life of the believer or the church instead of in the Paschal mystery accomplished in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. For an example, as well as a helpful overview of many such accounts of redemption, I would recommend J.D. Weaver’s book, The Nonviolent Atonement (Eerdmans, 2001).

One way to counter such objections—the approach I have taken in my recent book, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross (Baker Academic, 2004)—is to focus on the human nature of Jesus and to explain why it is that the Son of God had to be truly human, and why it is that God used the suffering of the human Jesus to deal with law, sin, and death. The result is, naturally, a focus on God saying “no” to sin; on God drawing the necessary boundaries against the power of evil; on God’s wrath against sin; on God punishing human transgression of his will. There is a sense in which this emphasis is right. But it also has its limits: boundaries in and of themselves are not enough. Punishment in and of itself is meaningless. And anger and wrath by themselves turn demonic. We need to remember that in God they are always the outcome of and the instrument toward something much greater: “God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Any talk about redemption ought to be an exploration of the mystery of the love of the triune God in and through the cross of Christ.

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88), the great Catholic theologian, comments that it is in Christ “that God breaks forever all the ‘wisdom’ of the world by the ‘folly’ of his love which chooses human beings without reason, by his entering into the chaos of the history of humanity, by his bearing the guilt of his lost and fallen creatures. This incomprehensible love of the God who acts in the event of Christ raises him far above all the incomprehensibilities of philosophical notions of God ….” Even when we encounter love in our world, explains Balthasar, we are unable to define it. Divine love, therefore, is utterly incomprehensible. “Where it is genuine it transcends in its sovereign freedom every why and wherefore. It has its necessity only in itself. It can be encompassed by no concept. Even more, the ground of the absolute divine love outstrips immeasurably all human thought” (The Von Balthasar Reader [Crossroad Herder, 1982] 186). What this implies is that the church’s rule of faith—the doctrine of the Trinity—ought to be the starting-point, the guide, and the end of a true theology of redemption.

It is precisely the bracketing, and at times the denial, of trinitarian theology that renders the objections to the cross as divine violence persuasive. When a narrative approach does not receive metaphysical support by means of trinitarian theology, it is hard to see how the cross is not an instance of divine child abuse. What this means is that objections to traditional atonement models as sanctioning divine (and human) violence tend to go hand in hand with objections to classical trinitarian thought. The formulas of Nicene-Chalcedonian christology, Weaver insists, “assume Greek philosophical categories and a world picture of a hierarchical universe” (Nonviolent Atonement, 92). The “abstract categories” of “humanity” and “God” have allowed the church “to accommodate the sword and violence.” Only if we take the narrative of Jesus’ life as key will we end up rejecting violence, insists Weaver. There is nothing either in Nicea (trinitarian theology) or in Chalcedon (two-natures theology) that helps us ethically to take a non-violent stance. As a result, Nicea and Chalcedon provide an “inadequate foundation for a Christology that is cognizant of Jesus’ rejection of the sword” (96).

What is particularly striking about Irenaeus’ approach is that for all his emphasis on the biblical drama and the historical narrative, he is at pains to ground this story—not in human rationality, to be sure, but in a theological metaphysic. That metaphysic is one that looks remarkably trinitarian. It is also a theology in which the incarnation is an expression of the very heart of God. God’s eternal plan of the incarnation provides the model, as it were, for his creation of human beings. The Word of God is the eternal template for the creation of human beings. That eternal template only gets an imperfect and initial embodiment in the creation of Adam and Eve, and gets its full realization in the incarnation of the eternal Word of God. Thus, the one who retraces Adam’s existence is the eternal Word of God become flesh. If we bracket Nicea and Chalcedon, if we focus only on the human being, Jesus, it becomes hard, if not impossible, to avoid the conclusion: this is divine child abuse—an angry father punishing an innocent child. That conclusion makes sense once we have decided to focus only on the here and now, only on what happens in to the historical Jesus undergoing human suffering as part of a this-worldly narrative.

But what happens when we open our horizons and adore the trinitarian mystery? Then we see the eternal Logos in loving obedience to the Father taking on human flesh, and as the second person of the Trinity in human form retracing the story that we messed up. Nobody wants to worship a divine child abuser. That is exactly why the Christian tradition has always maintained the necessity of a trinitarian metaphysic, which allows us to see the eternal bond of love as the origin of God himself taking on human suffering and death.

This principle, that the eternal plan of the triune God is to “produce a community of union between God and man,” as Irenaeus puts it, is one that we find reflected in each of the main branches of traditional atonement theology. Each of these models goes back to the principle of recapitulation which, in turn, is grounded in a trinitarian metaphysic. St. Irenaeus links the recapitulation of the eternal Logos with the Christus Victor model, which looks to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as constituting victory over sin, Satan, and death: “[Christ] has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam …” (Against Heresies V.21.1). Christ has gained the victory. “How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions,” Jesus asked the Pharisees in Matt 12:29, “unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.” Irenaeus interprets this to mean that if Satan is the strong man, Christ has come and tied him up. He has defeated Satan and set the captives free (V.21.3).

How is it that Christ ties up the strong man? What does the battle with Satan, sin, and death, look like? This question brings us to the satisfaction and the moral influence models. When the charge of “violent atonement models” is brought up, it is often particularly the Anselmian satisfaction model (along with the later Calvinist modification of penal substitution) that is looked at with suspicion. This model emphasizes satisfaction of divine wrath, payment of debt, sacrifice for sin, and judicial vicarious punishment, with Christ taking the place of the sinner. How can such a model possibly be an expression of love? Surely, this is a tit-for-tat kind of theology or, putting it in a slightly more sophisticated manner, an economic exchange model. To be sure, it is important to remember that the satisfaction model is not meant to serve on its own. It is part of a much greater and more encompassing mystery.

When evangelical theologians acknowledge the reality of God’s wrath or the necessity of divine punishment, they do need to remember that God’s wrath and punishment are not ultimate categories, but are realities that result from the much deeper reality of God’s love. That said, both “economic exchange” language (debt, purchase, price) and “economy of law” language (curse, wrath, punishment) have obvious biblical backing: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Cor 6:19). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). It is true, of course, that exchange economies can be selfishly capitalistic and that a focus on our juridical obligations to God can result in a de-personalizing of that relationship. Nonetheless, God’s relationship with us is not one-sided. It is not just about God giving himself to us. Relationships are always exchange relationships, because it is love that makes the world go ‘round. It is only when we commodify or juridicize these relationships, that we have a problem.

Exemplarist or moral influence theories of atonement, usually traced back to Abelard (1079-1142), have often been critiqued for their emphasis on the humanity of Christ and for reducing Christ to a mere example to be followed by individual believers. These are indeed legitimate risks of moral influence theories, as the history of the nineteenth-century Liberal school of theology illustrates. The moral influence tradition always runs the risk of anthropocentrism. Attention can easily be diverted from Christ to ourselves. Then, indeed, we may question: Are we not simply valorizing suffering, violence, and abuse, telling the victim that they should imitate the suffering Jesus? When we see in Christ’s suffering the obedient love of the eternal Son of God, however, then to share in his suffering means to be taken up into a divine company—into the ecclesia, the body of Christ here on earth. Then we are, as Balthasar puts it, co-crucified, along with Christ (Mysterium Paschale [Eerdmans, 1993] 134-36). Then we say with St. Paul that we “want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:11; cf. Rom 8:17).

Atonement expresses the mystery of trinitarian love. Balthasar insists that God himself entered into our world and into our suffering, even while conveying his wrath and punishment in the cross. Redemption, explains Balthasar, is truly the act of God’s Son as “God-man”: “Who, apart from him would have the ‘power to lay down (his) life, and power to take it again’ (John 10, 18)? Who would have the power to die ‘not for the nation only’ (which the martyr in his selflessness could also do) but also to ‘gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad’ (John 11, 52), and so to found the true church of God?” (138) Only when the eternal Word of God enters into our lives, into our temptations, and even into our death, can we be saved into the church and into the presence of God, maintains Balthasar. And it is clear why. If we focus only on the human representative suffering of Jesus, we lose sight of the mystery of triune love that underlies and enters into the redemptive suffering of the Word of God. If we have a human Jesus only, contemporary critiques of atonement theology would have a degree of validity. A purely historical Jesus enduring human suffering is, therefore, worse than meaningless. A trinitarian metaphysic is essential if we do not want to lose sight of the eternal love that enters into the suffering of the cross.

Posted Nov 01, 2006