Diognetus on Christ’s Atonement (Or, a Rather Reformed Father)

christ pantokratorThe Epistle to Diognetus is a brief, but powerful theological treasure from the early Christian Fathers. In one brief chapter the anonymous Disciple answers the question, “Why was the Son sent so late?” with a condensed account of Christ’s work of salvation on our behalf. I present it here without much comment except to say, despite the allegedly vast differences between Patristic and Reformation theologies of salvation, if I didn’t know better you could have told me Calvin or Luther wrote this:

As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able.

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal.

For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food.

–The Epistle to Diognetes, Chapter IX.—Why the Son was sent so late.

You can read the whole epistle here.

Soli Deo Gloria

11 thoughts on “Diognetus on Christ’s Atonement (Or, a Rather Reformed Father)

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  2. The Epistle of Diognetus is a great second century letter! Thanks for sharing. It’s always great to read the Fathers.

    There is much that we could compare in Diognetus that is reflected in Calvin & Luther regarding atonement. There are themes of ransom, of liberation, and exchange that surface in both Calvin & Luther. There is a substantial element that I see absent in Diognetus that IS reflected in Calvin regarding atonement. That is, I see in Diognetus an absence of retributive logic. Colin Gunton’s comments of the above quoted passage that “”[This is not] some grim balancing of accounts, but rejoicing in a liberation. The Son of God has given himself to be where we are so that we might be where he is, participants in the life of God.” (Gunton, Actuality of Atonement, p. 140.)

    Diognetus is adamant that, “Violence does not belong to God” 7:4. I doubt we could say the same of Calvin’s theory of atonement. As Belousek comments, “There is explicit divine violence in Calvin’s theory, for God the Father punishes God the Son.” “In Calvin’s thinking, Christ sacrifices himself by undergoing [violent] punishment from God in place of humanity, thereby satisfying God’s law and saving humanity from God’s punishment. While in Anselm’s theory,[and necessarily those before him] sacrifice averts punishment, in Calvin’s theory, sacrifice is punishment.” (Darrin W. Snyder Belousek , Atonement, Justice, and Peace)

    • Already responded on facebook, but I’m posting here for readers:

      Paul, first, thanks for the comments.

      Next, on Gunton, nobody in Calvin’s wing would ever talk about a mere ‘balancing of accounts.’ It’s not merely that, but we do want to say that any outstanding balances have been taken care of don’t we?

      Beyond that, I don’t mind admitting that there is ‘violence’ of a form in God’s actions. It’s fully consistent with God’s judgment and activity all throughout the Scripture in both testaments. Retribution as the action of God is explicitly in Scripture in passages far too numerous to count. In fact, the only pacifist logic I find in Scripture is not that of “God is never retributive, so we must not be” but rather “God alone has the right to repay, so leave it to him.” So Paul:

      “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”” (Romans 12:19)

      He quotes from Deuteronomy showing a unity of identity, character, and action between the OT and NT, even if there is a difference in covenantal administration between the two.

      Insofar as Diognetus’ understanding of the God who has not violence in him departs from this, then I would not follow him given that he would be departing from Scripture.

      Still, on Diognetus, he does talk about ultimate ends in terms of judgment, punishment, etc.:

      ” then shall you both love and admire those that suffer punishment because they will not deny God; then shall you condemn the deceit and error of the world when you shall know what it is to live truly in heaven, when you shall despise that which is here esteemed to be death, when you shall fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end that are committed to it. Then shall you admire those who for righteousness’ sake endure the fire that is but for a moment, and shall count them happy when you shall know [the nature of] that fire.”

      He here compares enduring the temporary fire of martyrdom for faith in God, to the fire of condemnation reserved for those who will not do so. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.iii.ii.x.html

      So, ya, I wouldn’t be too quick to rule out any idea of violence or retribution from Diognetus’ thought despite Belousek or Gunton.

      • Derek, thanks for the reply! I appreciate your interaction. 🙂

        RE: Gunton, balances etc…Yes, I have no problem saying Christ has paid my debt in a ransom sense, or as in Anselm, who suggest that satisfaction by Christ’s obedience has released us from punishment. (I take issue with Calvin’s unique position of that the only satisfaction that could be offered to outraged justice was punishment.) I am also more than comfortable with saying no debt remains, in the sense that Christ has blown apart the economy of indebtedness. Paul himself speaks of the accusing record itself being destroyed on the Cross. (cf. Col 2:14) Which is to say WAY MORE than a simple quid pro quo, tit for tat, eye for eye, dollar for dollar type payment.

        RE: Violence. There is much that could be said about God’s judgement, wrath, final judgement in relation to violence. I doubt we have the time nor the space to adequately discuss this, but I will try a “short reply”. 😉

        For starters, can we really say that the God presented in the Scriptures is in fact retributive? I often see within the Psalms the absence of the quid pro quo type Deity. “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”(Ps 86:15). The cry of “How long Oh Lord?” seems to crop up too often for me to sit comfortably on the notion that God is actively seeking violence against my persecutors. Now to be clear, I am not disagreeing that God judges or that the result of the judgement may even result in supposed violent action. However, I am not always convinced that it is in fact YHWH directly inflicting such violence.

        I take the many examples within both testaments as clouded to the actual question of Divine violence. There are plenty of examples within Scripture of what appears to be a Zeus-like lightning-bolt of violence, but upon a closer reading of the text, we are within our reasonable rights to question if this is the full picture.

        A few examples:

        Exodus 12:29 ” At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt”
        It seems pretty straight forward… YHWH is a violent deity. BUT WAIT: a few verses earlier it is explained exactly how God is going to release judgement. “he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.” (v23)

        Jeremiah 13:4 “I will smash them one against the other, fathers and sons alike, declares the LORD. I will allow no pity or mercy or compassion to keep me from destroying them.’
        Okay, clearly the text says here that YHWH, in first person, is going to come down and open a can of whoop ass. Right? But wait: When the LORD judges Israel he hands them over to the consequences of their sins, which in this case is exile from the land. “This is what the LORD says: I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will burn it down.” (Jer 34:2)

        Numbers 16:35 “And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.”
        Again the text appears to say that the LORD is not just punch you in the face violent, but flame thrower your existence away type violent. And there is nothing in the immediate context that would refute this interpretation. It is not until we arrive at Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 that the responsible Biblical reader needs to question this assumption. “and were killed by the destroying angel.” (v10) Wait. Why would Paul make such a crucial error when citing Korah’s rebellion?

        Greg Boyd comments on this, “A hint in a possible direction is found in the fact that Paul taught that these and other rebels were “killed by the destroying angel” (1 Cor. 10:10, emphasis added). This suggests that the fire that the author of Numbers believed came from God actually came from the malevolent spirit agent who would later be identified as Satan (Rev. 9:11). This shift from attributing violent actions to God to attributing them to Satan or other evil spirit agents can be historically explained as a by-product of the evolving theology of ancient Jews around the time of Christ. For a variety of reasons, in Jewish writings of this period we find an increased emphasis on the absolute transcendence and perfection of God. As a corollary to this, we find scribes and scholars increasingly exploring ways of distancing God from activities that were now deemed “beneath” God, including violence. Many activities that were once ascribed directly to God were now ascribed to good and evil intermediary angels.”

        Elsewhere, I’ve heard Boyd talk of God’s judgments as a “punitive withdrawal”, that is God withdrawing his protective presence and allowing the worse to occur. This of course only really makes sense if one is inclined to embrace Boyd’s cosmic conflict view.

        Boyd is not alone in question the supposed violent nature of God’s judgements. For instance the following excerpt from Dr. Andrew Gabriel discussing the Ananias and Sapphira incident (Acts 5) with respect to God’s judgement:

        “With respect to the incident with Ananias and Sapphira, Wallace incorrectly supposes that the Spirit essentially kills them when he writes that “the text points to the Spirit’s violent complicity with the apostles in bringing about the sudden death of the couple.”65 In actuality, the text does not state that the Spirit plays a role in their deaths, but only that they have lied to and tested the Spirit (Acts 5:3, 9). In contrast to Wallace’s conclusion, it would be better to conclude that Ananias and Sapphira died because of the withdrawal and absence of the power of the Spirit who “gives life” (John 6:63; Rom 8:2; cf. Ps 104:29–30). This is, then, not at an act of violence in any usual sense of the term.”

        So…I wouldn’t be so quick to conclude that God’s judgements or even final judgement -of which there are a multitude of diverse views- would necessarily entail a retributive violent action from God per say. It’s just as likely that Diognetus believed that the “eternal fire” could be conceived within a non retributive model. (For example, some forms of the doctrine of conditionalism.) It’s not clear in the quoted passage. Nor was a unified theory of final judgement clear in the Patristics. (c.f. Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Basil the Great, Augustine)

        I doubt what I’ve shared is convincing to you, but I appreciate your interaction.

        A concluding question: Do you see the Cross as the violence of God the Father towards God the Son?

      • Hey Paul, thanks for the comment.

        1. One of the main criticism of Anselm’s framing is that he made it about the settlement of a personal injury instead of seeing it within the broader framework of the covenant justice of God. Calvin recentered the issue on the reality of biblical law, justice, and so forth. Anselmian accounts run the danger of saying that Christ paid God off, while more penal accounts say that justice was actually served. This is a thoroughly Biblical theme across the Torah to the Propehts who present God’s judgment as punitive through and through. You can only get around this through some serious gymnastics (esp. in chapter after chapter of Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc). Also, this isn’t unique to Calvin speaking historically. Beyond that, I’m not talking about a simple quid pro quo. In a paper a while back I wrote this

        On the flipside, a fully-Trinitarian emphasis also shatters any idea that Christ’s penal death was simply a strict act of retributive justice whose sole aim was to satisfy God’s wrath or a strict, economic tit for tat exchange of punishment for sin. God could have had that by simply leaving us to ourselves in our sin so that they might pay out their just wages, death. (Rom. 6:23a) Instead God’s atoning act through the Cross transcends strict retributive exchange, not by ignoring, but by fulfilling the claims of justice and pushing past them to the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:23b) God did not simply want to deal with sin, he wanted to save sinners. God did not only want to be vindicated as just, but instead wanted to be both “just and the justifier of one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:26) Wrath is dealt with to be sure, but it is dealt with sin in Christ in order to clear the path for the gift of the Spirit which enables us to live new, reconciled lives now which will issue in the final total restoration of our selves through the gift of Resurrection. “God pours himself out for us, not in an economic exchange, but in an excess of justice and love.” The gift of God far outweighs the trespass of man. (Rom. 5:16) The penal, retributive justice of God has a more-than-retributive goal; it aims at the “restoration of community and eternal peace” with God and others. This happens through the gift of life in the Spirit which is peace. (Romans. 8:6) Thus the retributive justice of God has a restorative goal which transcends strict, economic justice through his gift-giving grace which comes out only when we see its Triune goal: the gift of the Spirit.

        2. It’s kind of funny you appeal to the “slow to anger” text in the Psalms. In fact, the Psalmist is quoting the much earlier passage in which YHWH reveals his character as ““The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7keeping steadfast love for thousands,a forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:6-7) God clearly says he does not clear the guilty and the he punishes sin. This is not a question in the Scriptures.

        As for the various statements below, I think you’re trying to make a point that really doesn’t hold. Traditionally theologians have held the fact that God’s causal agency is effective at a different ontological level. So, most of those texts clearly speak of God punishing, but then either show that it is through the agency of an angel, a human agent, or through the removal of his direct causal influence. Still, in all of those cases, they in no way imply that God isn’t punishing them. The fact that it’s by the hands of the Babylonians does not change the fact that the Exile is the Lord’s judgment that he threatened them with back in Deuteronomy. The consequences are the ones that God himself decreed. You can’t remove him from the equation here. Also, with Exodus, the destroyer who destroys is still the Lord’s destroyer at his prerogative, administering the judgment that he desires, and it is to the Lord that ultimate responsibility is assigned. What’s more, Paul doesn’t make an error in citing an angel with respect to Korah, because though he attributes the activity to a destroying angel, he doesn’t thereby conclude that this violent act isn’t God’s will. It plainly is according to the narrative as well as Paul’s logic.

        I’ve talked about this here:
        https://derekzrishmawy.com/2014/03/26/the-logic-of-exile-as-judgment-or-looking-to-the-cross-through-israel/
        This is a general problem with Boyd, et al’s metaphysic which imagines God as a being among other beings, essentially playing on the same playing field as we do. He rejects the notion of multiple intentionality at different levels of an event, which I’ve talked about here:

        https://derekzrishmawy.com/2013/06/11/job-providence-and-multiple-intentionality/
        And here:

        http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/god-play-soccer-with-you
        Also, conversation-tip: I’m not talking about a Zeus-like God. That’s the kind of rhetoric anti-PSA types use that really don’t help the discussion. I’m talking about the God who we see in Scripture over and over again present himself as Merciful Redeemer and Just Judge.

        Finally, ya, I’m not convinced, but thanks for being a good sport here.

  3. Hey Derek and Paul, thanks for the discussion. I am grateful people for the contemplation on violence and the understanding of Christian tradition concerning atonement. It’s refreshing.

    I wonder if either of you have read the work of Walter Wink, Rene Girard, and James Alison? Wink offers a helpful (I think) analysis of the mythology of violence in Babylon and how the Hebrew Scriptures respond to the redemptive violence explicit in narratives of Marduk and other Near-East gods. Terence Fretheim’s “The Suffering of God” and Brueggeman’s “An Unsettling God” offer a perspective on violence and Hebrew images of God that is very helpful to understanding Jesus.

    My difficulty with traditional Reformed penal-substitionary atonement: The Father and Christ in the traditional narrative of Reformed theology participate in the scapegoating of sin in an affirmation of violence. Rather than seeing the trial and crucifixion as the event in which the Christ reveals the scapegoating mechanism in the powers that be/mimetic desire for violence in the mob by becoming an innocent victim (the gospels clearly reiterate Christ’s innocence) who forgives those participating in the systemic injustice (Father forgive them they do not know what they do), Calvin and Luther see the trial and crucifixion as both human agency AND Divine agency actively participating in violence in order to satisfy the justice of God. Luther and Calvin don’t see the Christ revealing systemic violence upon an innocent victim, they instead see the Christ performing/participating as a sacrificial scapegoat in order for God to forgive sin once and for all.

    I find it incredibly difficult not to see the Christ’s life as complete non-violent resistance to the system of violence and injustice and therefore revelation to the nature of God as non-violent. The apocalyptic and prophetic imagination that informs Jesus and the NT writers seems to be lost in Calvin and Luther’s penal-substitution theory of atonement. Without language of powers and systemic injustice being challenged directly in the trial and crucifixion we are left with what I believe is a dis-embodied, abstract notion of forgiveness. One of the assumptions that is central to Lutheran theology is the scholastic concept of God as immutable, unchanging. If our concept of God is fixed, not subject to transformation and transfiguration through human experience, then I think necessarily we will find violence as an expression of the divine will. This gets to Reformed theology’s assumption of the nature of Scripture and inspiration. I’ve wondered whether traditional reformed theology understood Scripture to be analogous to the incarnation of Christ, that is, its divine and human qualities are experienced and formed together, or if Scripture is subject to an “objective” criteria like infallibility. If Scripture cannot contradict itself, and I don’t mean what we categorize as “human qualities/aspects” but the divine qualities (like YHWH’s instructions for war/the divinely-supported violence vs. the non-violence of the prophets/Sermon on the Mount), then I wonder how atonement can’t be more of the same redemptive violence we see in Babylonian mythology. History of Biblical literature undeniably reveals the meshing of different mythological traditions in the apocalyptic genre of the Bible. Is the atonement to be understood outside the context of apocalyptic?

    If we are willing to concede that the apocalyptic genre and prophetic tradition informed Jesus’ ministry and teaching, then we have to consider the possibility that Jesus challenges elements of his very own Hebrew mythological tradition. If we consider various images of God in the OT and compare the covenant-exile-prophetic traditions with the Gospel narratives, I don’t understand how the Sermon on the Mount can be abstracted from the conversation of atonement.
    I have also wondered why Reformed theology has little emphasis on the mystical tradition of Christianity. I discovered practices of non-violence through other traditions in the Church. I never heard growing up in a Reformed Baptist church anything about centering prayer, meditation, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and especially nothing about other atonement images/theories. The irony of course with an abstracted and fragmented history of the Church is that Luther and Calvin both were very informed about the Catholic Church, in fact Luther’s theology was heavily informed by Catholic convictions even until his death. But I have wondered if Luther’s scholastic tradition and anti-Semitic attitude prevented him from considering the non-violence of the early Church pre-Constantine and from seeing the OT from a different perspective.

    In short, I think it’s of utmost importance to the discussion of atonement to consider the history of atonement in other religions and most especially in Babylonian mythology because I believe the non-violence that Jesus lived and taught directly challenged the worldview of Rome, Babylon, and yes, even the 1st century Jews.

    • Hey, thanks for the comment. Permit me to be as brief as possible in my reply as I’ve got some other writing to do. So, here goes:

      1. Yes, I’ve read Wink. While interesting, I remain unconvinced of his overall thesis. It’s too much of a demythologizing project and it’s suffered some sharp, but fair criticism at the hands of Clinton Arnold, Marva Dawn, Greg Boyd, and others. That said, I do think there is a large place for dealing with Christus Victor and apocalyptic themes. I don’t know what your exposure to classic Reformed theology has been, but most accounts have a place for Christ’s defeat of the powers and principalities. My own MA thesis focused on this issue in Col. 2:14-15. The two themes are quite complementary when taken together. I can find you scores of Reformed treatments that deal with elements other than the penal substitutionary one. (Incidentally, that’s true of a couple of the practices you’ve mentioned. They might not have been at that one Reformed Baptist church you were at, but be careful not to extrapolate your limited experiences with the Reformed tradition to the whole thing. It’s wide and broad.)

      2. On the scapegoat thing. Ya, Girard’s account is focused on violence to a distorting degree. He comes up with his anthropological theory of the scapegoat, fixates on violence as the great evil, and then imposes his reading on the Scriptures in such a way that he can’t deal with large portions of the text except to reject them as false or distorting. This is an unacceptably Neo-Marcionite approach for me. We get a Jesus who, unlike the presentation we have in the Gospels, is now exposing much of the OT revelation as either false, or a big setup to be demolished, instead of recapitulated and fulfilled as we see in the theology of Paul, Hebrews, etc.

      I’m also a incredulous that it’s only until the 1970s when a French anthropologist stumbled on this theology that these things could have “been hidden” from the theology of Church, both East and West. To me, Girard can, at most, offer interesting insights to be incorporated along with (and subsumed under) other, fuller atonement accounts.

      What’s more, his account doesn’t actually deal with the main problem in the scripture which is that of sin, guilt, and death. Instead, we have this cathartic process in which we see the violent system exposed. Somehow seeing Jesus suffer the violence of the system opens our eyes and…what? How does that deal with my guilt or atone for sin? It simply can’t.

      On Girard, I’d suggest Boersma, Sherman, Volf, and Horton, all of whom have irenic, but damning criticisms.

      Here’s a post related to the subject:
      https://derekzrishmawy.com/2014/07/20/giving-jesus-credit-where-credit-is-due-or-soteriological-maximalism-atonement-accounts/

      3. Also, as for the “disembodied” forgiveness you speak of? I can’t see it. All I see is the broken body of Christ whose blood was shed 2000 years ago on a Roman Cross in fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel. Christ himself is our peace and it is only by union with him that we can participate in the blessing of the covenant, because he has taken all of our curse upon himself as our covenant head. What’s more, we participate in his life through the resurrection of his body, so that what he achieves is ours by virtue of union with him. The idea that Calvin, or Luther, or Reformed theology give us an “abstract” notion of salvation is, to be quite honest, an unfair canard lodged against them that doesn’t really do the work of dealing with the best accounts. Heck, it was Reformed theology that put the biblical narrative and notion of covenant right back at the forefront of the theological conversation.

      Finally, I think a lot of this comes down to the fact that we have very different approaches to Scripture and theology. It appears you’ve got a prior hermeneutical system (Girard, Wink, demythologizing) that Scripture is then squeezed through. I mean, at the exegetical level, this can’t make sense out of all of the verses except to write a bunch of them off. It’s a process I don’t see ending well, and it’s inconsistent with a proper theology of the Word, the tradition, and so forth. As for our ideas of God being mediated and transformed through human experience, where does that end? Why your experience here and now and not the experience of the New Testament writers, or the Old Testament writers which every NT writer, including Jesus himself affirmed? Or why not my current experiences and understanding which see divine justice necessitating divine action against the violent? (And while we’re on the subject, where are we getting our notion of violence? It’s such a nebulous term). Are we to appeal to the Bible as forming our intuitions? Well then which parts? The parts that fit your grid, or my grid? Or how about all of it?…You see where this goes?

      Alright, I’ve spent way too long on this. Also, sorry if I’ve been snippy. I try not to be, but I haven’t eaten lunch yet so…ya. 🙂

      Have a good one. Also, not sure if i’ll respond to any comments after this. I’ve really spent far too much time on it already.

      Best,
      D

      • In Exclusion and Embrace, Volf gives his thesis on his understanding of the Divine’s experience of violence and justice on pages302-304, but I want to focus on one section that I think includes major themes/assumptions of his thesis:

        “The close association between human nonviolence and the affirmation of God’s vengeance in the New Testament is telling. The suffering Messiah and the Rider on the white horse do indeed belong together, but not in the way Deleuze maintained. They are not accomplices in spilling blood, but partners in promoting nonviolence. Without entrusting oneself to the God who judges justly, it will hardly be possible to follow the crucified Messiah and refuse to retaliate when abused. The certainty of God’s just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but a necessary correlate of human nonviolence. Since the search for truth and the practice of justice cannot be given up, the only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment.”
        -302

        I have a lot of difficulty with the assumption that the concept of “God’s vengeance” justifies projection and transfer of our violence onto God in order to pursue non-violence towards our enemies and ourselves. I have never personally experienced peace in my daily meditation and prayer work to continually forgive those who have abused while also thinking of God as in any way violent. The beginning of my own awakening to a path of recovery and healing from trauma began when I considered the possibility that my concept of God was a projection of my childhood/teen experience of violence; adopting a concept of God as eternally loving and non-violent enabled me to begin seeing the humanity and divinity of those who have wounded me deeply. My concept of God does therefore include deep pathos and suffering, ranging from the depths of rage to the depths of despair as we see in the Bible. But to assume God’s will has ever been one of vengeful violence/punitive/retributive justice is a step in the direction of self-abuse and rehearsing hatred towards those who have hurt me.

        James Alison is helpful here: ““Nothing that is dependent on vengeance can be called reconciliation.”

        My concept and experience of God has not yet reached the point where the Christian tradition of the Trinity is meaningful/practical to me, but I am aware that Moltmann and Jungel have written extensively on the relationship between the Trinity and a theologica crucis. I am confused as to how the economy of the Trinity can include vengeance, and how the experience of Jesus’ suffering could be somehow compartmentalized in some fashion where the Father and Holy Spirit are not also suffering in agony with the Son, if indeed Jesus was and is One with the Father and the Spirit.The practices of meditation, centering prayer, forgiveness, reconciliation and confession that challenge us to live non-violently cannot enable us to become aware of/accept/and respond to our own inner violence if our concept of God includes vengeful admission of violence.
        And this is where Calvin and Luther’s theology becomes dis-embodied to me: When experiencing or re-experiencing bodily trauma, destructive emotions, and sleep deprivation, it is immensely unrealistic to think anyone would be helped by a concept of God that is vengeful and participatory in violent judgment. Have you ever worked with addicts? Have you ever spoken with someone who was abused? Try offering them Calvin and Luther’s concept of a vengeful God as an explanation of their suffering and see how that goes. I doubt anyone has ever experience healing and ability to live with destructive emotions/tension in their body while also believing God will exact violent punishment on anyone in the eschaton. Again, this is where for me theology and experience need to be reciprocal/mutually formative.

        I think our concept of God has never been fixed, if we are honest with ourselves. I doubt you were born and aware of when you were a child or teenager, (though you are very intelligent and possibly read Reformed theology early on) any concepts of God, let alone concepts that referred you to experiences and memories and images that became increasingly sensible/meaningful to you.
        Our experience of God and concepts of God are not mutually exclusive, and they are inextricably progressive/transformative because we experience life in and through the body. If we assume Calvin and Luther have more precedence/legitimacy than anyone else, we are becoming dangerously I think drawn into the trap of elitism and egoism. There is clearly a vast array of understandings and concepts concerning God and the experience of violence. If you are willing to listen to only a select few voices and lives, that is your decision.
        I am not rejecting the witness of the OT and NT writers, nor the lives and convictions of all of those who have lived before me. I personally find the Church Fathers and Mothers wonderful and helpful to my own understanding. I however don’t limit my concept of the Kingdom of God to the Church (it is but one priestly community in it) and the concepts/traditions/paradigms of the West, nor do I limit the capacity of the Spirit to continually deepen our understanding of God through all things (including other faith traditions).

        If Origen, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm and many others drew off Aristotle and Plato, (even to the degree of some considering Aristotle a prophet), why is the Buddha and Hinduism not given an ear by the Church? You do realize Girard is a Catholic and maintains the Catholic creeds (which include complete affirmation of the OT?) His thesis and work on violence, scapegoating and mimetic desire is a scientific hypothesis, not law, something he has reiterated publicly many times. After reading Dostoyevsky, he became a Catholic. Please do your research and don’t make blanket statements and sweeping statements, as if Girard himself was self-proclaiming a “new revelation” and rejecting the witness of the OT.

        You sound to be over-simplifying the very complex work of Wink and Girard. Their understanding of personal violence and systemic violence informed their notions of guilt, shame, and bodily awareness, too. Your own internal violence and self-rejection is meant to come to your conscious awareness in the exegesis of Christ’s trial and crucifixion as the enaction of the scapegoat mechanism, because we don’t want to acknowledge/embrace and respond to our own internal violence.

        I still contend that Luther and Calvin’s understanding of salvation, in borrowing concepts and assumptions from Aristotle/the scholastic tradition, renders the conversation very abstract. Girard and Wink are attempting to make intelligible the understanding of the 1st century Jews/worldview to our audience, and translate their understanding of the powers/principalities to our own post-modern understanding of power structures. Is it fair to say that Calvin and Luther have vastly different assumptions/concepts of power and systemic injustice than we do today? Multi-national corporations did not exist then, though you could make an argument of parallels in the international trade/slave system. Our globalized world requires people to translate the language of the OT and NT, and to offer in our worldview an understanding of their worldview.
        How much are we willing to concede that Luther and Calvin’s worldview and assumptions are representative of their time?

        Your understanding of salvation is informed heavily by two white, European men from the 16th century. I am simply wondering if perhaps you are willing to consider the voices/convictions of other traditions?

        Frederick Herzog’s Justice Church and Bonhoeffer’s scathing critique of Lutheran theology in his Ethics essays offer you alternatives of understanding the atonement through just the eyes of Luther and Calvin. Herzog’s treatment of the development of Lutheran theology and its understanding of the state that preceded the rise of Hitler offers a very clear set of questions for any atonement paradigm rooted in Divine vengeance:

        How are we to understand Divine vengeance (borrowing your paradigm) if the Church is responsible/complicit with the Holocaust?

        Do theologies that are developed primarily out of oppressed populations (Liberation theology in the South American and African contexts) offer a legitimate alternative from Calvin and Luther’s understanding of salvation?

        I want to end on a note concerning the mediation of concepts of God through out experiences:

        My personal experience of God is never purely “individual”, a myth that we hear/find in certain aspects of American culture. My experience of God is always mediated. The Church community is the community I choose to remain accountable and faithful to for practice and understanding. It is however also my understanding of Scripture that it is comprised of various histories, traditions, and concepts. I need people like Girard and Wink and women and folks from other ethnic/national backgrounds to inform my understanding/experience of God, otherwise I become irresponsible in the task of understanding and loving my neighbor. If authentic mediation is only possible with select few people, then I am not sure how we could ever discover a non-violent understanding of each other.

        Sincerely,
        David

  4. This is beautiful, just beautiful. Thanks for bringing attention to this amazing text. I had no idea that something like this existed in the Church Fathers. This brings Paul’s letters to Romans into new perspective… and Luther too. 😉

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