On the “Legal Influence” of the Latin West (A thought on culture and atonement)

iustitiaI wanted to follow up that last post on Anselm and the culturally-situated nature of our atonement accounts. As mentioned, a frequent objection is that his framing is rooted in feudal conceptions of Lord and vassal relationships, and the place of honor within them, which were quite different from other social arrangements throughout history.

A similar sort argument is often lodged against the Western tradition in general. Depending on the subject, it is charged that the Latin tradition has always tended towards a more forensic, legal conception of the salvation, the relationship between God and man, etc. Instead of blaming feudal social arrangements, here we meet the claim that the Roman legal tradition exerted undue force, through say, Tertullian, Ambrose, or that perennial (because undeniably influential) whipping boy, Augustine.

Sometimes this is done with an eye towards promoting a superior Eastern account of deification. Or it is used by contemporary theologians to try to supplant the account with some proposal of their own, more attuned to the cultural needs of the current moment. Because, you know, moderns have no concept of guilt and such.

Now, as Sonderegger demonstrated in that last post, simply noting that a point is contextually-rooted, or more appealing to someone in a different cultural context, does not mean it is not translatable or valid in our own.

But let’s go even further. Conceding that Anselm was influenced by feudalism, and the West in general by Latin legal tradition, isn’t it just possible that was a good thing at points? Isn’t it just possible that these cultural influences were not hindrances but providential helps in aiding the church recognize real truths within Scripture that, say, a more Eastern perspective focused on gnosis and ontology might tend to gloss over? Or from which our contemporary culture, possibly over-prone to therapeutic denials of guilt, might want to avert its gaze?

I mean, think about the narrative of Scripture. God is presented as Lord, king, and judge of the earth. He gives Israel a Law-covenant to order their relationship summed up in the 10 Commandments. This covenant is a legal-relational reality which, beyond cultic elements, has large sections of material concerned with the organization of Israel as a people, the administration of justice, courts, and so forth. Indeed, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy have large chapters which include blessings and curses based on the legal-relational matter of obedience and fidelity God as the covenant-Lord.

We could press further, consider how much of the prophetic material presupposes this legal orientation. Israel is condemned on the basis of her violation of the Law of the Lord. Yes, it is a relational reality. But it is also one ordered by Law and prosecuted accordingly. Indeed, OT scholars will tell you that some prophets even modeled key prophecies on the legal form of a law-suit, a rib. 

In my devotional reading of Ezekiel this morning, I was struck by this passage:

Now the end is upon you, and I will send my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare you, nor will I have pity, but I will punish you for your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 7:3-4)

The Lord God, the Judge of Israel, will punish her for her sins “according to your ways.” Why? For her abominations, both criminal and cultic. And in so doing, “you will know that I am the Lord.” God, apparently, is concerned with his Name being known in Israel and the world as a God who is just, who does not let oppression reign in his kingdom unchecked forever. Witness the confluence of themes of legality, honor, and the matter of punishment in this prophecy.

Clearly this is not all that could be said about Scripture, both Old and New (it would take little effort to find the NT riddled with legal terminology and conceptions), nor about the realities relevant to our reflection on atonement. Nor does it justify every move made by Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, or any other Western theologian who has made matters of honor, justice, and legal satisfaction central to their account of atonement.

Nonetheless, it should give pause to those of us tempted to appeal to neat “just-so” stories about cultural influence, which often amounts to no more than a sophisticated form of the genetic fallacy. The question can never merely be a matter of whether Calvin’s legal background pushed him towards a legal understanding of atonement. The question is whether that legal background blinded or enlightened him to something in the text.

What’s more, the question can never merely be whether our own culture resonates or connects with some theme or metaphor in the same way Anselm’s did. The question is whether there is Scriptural reason to hold on to that theme despite its counter-cultural intuition. While I have become skeptical over the years that our culture really has fully abandoned a sense of guilt, even if it had, that would not erase the fact that Scripture testifies to the problem of guilt, nor that it needs to make it into our proclamation.

Indeed, that’s why it is such a good thing to read widely in theology across time, space, and culture. It keeps us from being blinkered and beholden to our own.

Soli Deo Gloria

“feudalism, run riot in the field of doctrine”? Sonderegger on Anselm and the Debt of Sin

companion to atonement

“Perhaps no other theologian was so honored in his day and rebuked in ours as St. Anselm of Canterbury.”

So opens Katherine Sonderegger’s essay, “Anselmian Atonement” in the new T&T Clark Companion to Atonement. There are many reasons for this disparity in evaluation, of course, but at the heart of it is the split between what Sonderegger dubs the “Theological Anselm” (the dry, cold, logician consumed with merciless ruminations on divine justice and honor known in modern, theological texts) and the “Historical Anselm” (the humane, prayerful, passionate churchman known to medievalists).

Despite the vast advances in historical scholarship helping us understand the latter, the former portrait lives on, dominating the discussion, and spoiling our view of the doctor and his work, especially with respect to atonement. Sonderegger’s own exposition aims to bring a sort of reconciliation between the two, showing a coherence between the two portraits which corrects the distortion. And she does so magnificently. At least to my sympathetic, non-specialist’s eye.

A bit of her exposition I found particularly helpful came in her treatment of one of Anselm’s central claims: to sin is an offense against God’s honor. From there the logic runs that since God is infinite, an offense against his infinite honor is proportionately infinite as well. In which case, only an infinite gift or an infinite punishment will do to atone for it. This basic argument passed into the theological tradition and has been a mainstay ever since.

Now, there are at least two main objections that may be lodged against it: first, that is is culturally limited, and second that it is simply wrong. Sonderegger takes them in turn.

First is the common argument that all of this is a cultural imposition of Germanic feudalism upon the Gospel:

…to our modern ears all this sounds like so much feudalism, run riot in the field of doctrine. To be sure, “honor,” especially as it is to person and office, belongs squarely in imperial, monarchical societies. But we need not reduce theological idiom to the culture out of which it springs. Indeed, our very ability to learn from the doctors of the church rests on a non-reductive account of theological discourse…

Could we not say, in more modern idiom, that certain acts take on a measure of harm or cruelty or folly in proportion to the significance and intimacy of the person wronged?…Consider the long overdue phone call to a neighbor and to one’s mother…The intuition may be argued against on certain abstract principles, but it is the rare conscientious son or daughter, I would wager, who would treat the slight of a missed telephone call as “all the same: between the neighbor and the mother. Our intuitions are strongly formed, I would say, by ties of loyalty, intimacy, and obligation; and to our flourishing. The salience of the person—her irreplaceable significance in our lives—weighs heavily in our moral reasoning. When we object—“You did that to your own mother?”—we replicate the form of Anselm’s claim that sin is principally a wrong against the Person and Honor of God. (182)

In response to the cultural objection, Sonderegger tells us we can’t be blinkered historicists. Yes, culture impacts our theological discourse, but it is not an imaginative or conceptual prison out of which we cannot escape. Sonderegger’s intellectual sympathy translating medieval concerns into modern ones in a way is an outstanding example of that. (As a side-note, though: Mary Douglas has suggested that the best analogy for Leviticus’s theology of “atoning” for the altar is, in fact, Medieval honor societies.)

But the second half of the quote begins to answer the second objection, which is to simply to challenge Anselm’s formula as straightforwardly false. I have to confess, the “infinite honor of the person” to the “infinite offense” formula was not always appealing to me. Considering the unique relation in which one stands to a parent or some other beloved highlights the propriety of a proportionate reckoning of offense against persons.

Your neighbor is a person worthy of respect, kindness, and so forth; there is a real obligation. Your mother, though? She gave birth to you. Fed you. Cleaned you. Nurtured you. Your obligation to her as a person outstrips your debt to your neighbor inestimably. How much more, then, your obligation to God your Maker, who created you and sustains your very being with a loving intimacy that is sui generis? Such an obligation must be absolute.

Sonderegger elaborates on this point:

Such a “personal calculation” remains notoriously difficult to fix. Anselm wisely refrains from offering a mechanism for weighing such loving fealty. Rather he appeals once again to our intuitions. When we fervently admit—“we would do anything for her!”—we do not offer an enumerated list of the tasks we would undertake for the beloved, nor do we aim to express the conviction that fifteen acts of love would be far more acceptable than twelve. We intend something far more tangible, earthy, and global than all that. Our deeds carry our heart: that is closer to the calculus here. The Good who is God outweighs infinite worlds of worlds: indeed, outstrips the good of saving them. God’s Goodness is Infinite, then—“positive Infinite,” in later scholastic terms. But unlike the negative form, the positive calculus remains ineffable. It is just who God is, what I mean by the very word “God,” that He is beyond any creaturely worth. Always he is greater: from this worshipping impulse springs the Name of God evoked in the Proslogion, “That than which none greater can be conceived.” (183)

This quote highlights something else we need consider. When thinking of the weight of the offense of sin against God, we can’t limit it merely to his “irreplaceable significance” to our lives in terms of his creative provision. There is also the simple beauty of God’s being in himself.

Return back to the analogy of an offense against your mother. It’s not just that she’s your mother who has done all of these wonderful things—it is the recognition that she herself, in her person beyond her relationship to you, is simply wonderful, who deservedly provokes a response of “loving fealty.” In that sense, it’s not just a matter of saying, “you did that to your own mother?”, in a generalizable sense of “we all owe our mothers a debt,” but that your own mother in particular is wonderful in a way demands a universal respect.

I’ll leave things here for now, but this is just one small sample of the way Sonderegger’s essay is a model of sympathetic exposition and the possibilities of an atonement theology which retrieves the insights past teachers without merely repeating them.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Best Apologetics Is Good Systematics

o'donovanYesterday’s post on the shape of atonement doctrine raised the issue of how the wrong sort of apologetic mindset when it comes to preaching and forming doctrine can distort our understanding of how and why we believe what we do.

After the fact, I recalled some comments by Oliver O’Donovan about how to think about apologetics as a form of Christian thinking. He has been situating his own project and notes that in the contemporary context (2005), one of the secondary values of engaging political theology is for its apologetic value. Given the loss of intelligibility of political institutions and practices, the fact that Christian political reasoning can shed light on these matters in a way secular philosophies no longer could might prove attractive to nonbelievers.

In that context, O’Donovan issues a corrective explanation of just what does and does not separate apologetics from other modes of theology:

Now, apologetics is not a distinct genre of religious thinking. There are no apologetic reasons and arguments that do not belong in the ordered exposition of Christian belief traditionally known as “doctrine.” The only satisfactory reason to believe is the reason of belief. If I could think out for myself a total and rationally coherent account of all my beliefs, I would have found all the reasons I knew for anyone else to believe as I believed. If I were then to urge some other reasons for believing, it would have to be a pseudo-reason that I did not myself believe, and I would be a charlatan.

Apologetics is, on the other hand, a distinct genre of exposition. For dialogue’s sake I may organize my account of my beliefs in relation to somebody else’s doubts or counter-arguments. The rational equilibrium always remains the same: a reason for an unbeliever not to be swayed by an argument against belief is at the same time a reason for a believer not to be swayed by it. Yet different trains of theological thought may acquire greater or lesser apologetic weight circumstantially, as the crises or doubts of the culture may dictate at any moment.

The Ways of Judgment (xiii)

Another way of putting this is to say that your apologetic theology should just be your systematic theology arranged in a different order, so that its inherent logic and justification is more clearly defensible against contemporary attacks (or attractive to the current moment). But it’s not a different theology, or your theology plus extra reasons to believe. It is the same truth with the same justifications, not ones we’ve simply adopted for their usefulness in the moment.

I’ll simply add that O’Donovan’s clarification is well-made as this is where the danger of the apologetic endeavor looms large for confessional theology.

Without a sense of your theology as, in a sense, prior to your apologetics, it becomes ever more tempting to succumb to the pressure of presenting a doctrine “defensible” at the bar of whatever is currently passing itself off as universal human reason (which is the liberal theological impulse). There is a shift in balance from presenting Christian truth in a way that is more accessible to the current moment, to deciding what Christian truth is on the basis of its acceptability to the current moment.

But when the Lord tells Ezekiel to preach, “Thus says the Lord God”, he tells him to do it, “whether they hear or refuse to hear” (Ezek. 3:11). Why? Because the the Word of the Lord is the Word of the Lord whether we hear it or not.

Putting things more positively, when I was younger, I was concerned with theological issues more as apologetic issues, and so my dives into systematic theology were usually aimed at answering some objection. As time progressed, I realized that some of the most satisfying apologetic answers I found were found by pursuing a solid grasp of systematics in itself. Most of my apologetic encounters ended up being a clarification of basic misunderstandings of Christian doctrine anyways.

Of course, as I continued to study, it became clear that some of the best systematics come, not from trying to figure out which doctrine is most defensible to the day’s most aggressive skeptics, but from striving to discern as best as possible the coherence, beauty, and truth of God’s Word in its own positive right. In other words, the best apologetics is just a good systematics.

Soli Deo Gloria

Johnson on the Proper Shape of Atonement Doctrine

companion to atonement

With his various works on the subject, especially his Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, Adam Johnson has become something of a go-to guru on the subject matter. Editing the recent T&T Clark Companion to Atonement cements the deal. While I plan on reviewing it more fully later on, I wanted to briefly draw attention to his valuable programmatic comments on the nature of atonement doctrine in his introductory essay in the volume:

The goal of this doctrine is to understand and expound: the sanctified intellect’s joyful act of worship, as the church and its members seek to understand the God who revealed himself in his saving act, by means of God’s chosen witness to that act, Holy Scripture. Developing this doctrine is thus first and foremost an act of submission, of learning, recognizing, and understanding the witness we have received, for its origin lies in the decision and act of God, who does not merely seek to save his creatures, but to be known and worshipped by them as he is, as the Savior.

Only in a secondary and derivative way does the doctrine of the atonement dwell upon and respond to the challenges and heresies of its day. Biblical, theological, philosophical, religious, ethical, and other critiques have their vital role to play in the development and formation of doctrine (not least holding it accountable to its true vocation). But as the church’s calling and freedom to develop doctrine stems from the being and act of God, such critiques and questions play at most a significant ministerial role in holding the church accountable to its primary calling: joyful and rigorous reflection upon and development of the scriptural testimony to the saving work of the Lord Jesus. This is all the more true, given that the church’s primary end endures beyond all conflict and error, joining the angels in their never-ending privilege of worship, singing “blessed is the lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5:12) in ever new stanzas and choruses (Ps. 96:11).

–“Atonement: The Shape and State of the Doctrine”, 1-2

If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know that I have spent a fair amount of time (more than I like really) engaged in theological polemic surrounding the atonement. Indeed, polemic writing seems to be the most common mode of discourse on the matter both online and in academic circles. And there’s really nothing surprising about that. The cross of Christ has always presented itself as a stone of stumbling offense to the heart and mind (1 Cor. 1-2). And we should always be prepared to grapple at that level.

Still, Johnson rightly reminds us that polemical engagement is not the point of reflection on Christ’s work. The point is proclamation leading to doxological expression; preaching that produces praise. Forgetting this can lead to important distortions in both our spirituality and in the doctrine itself.

When it comes to the doctrine, preoccupation with polemics can lead you to get a misshapen sense of the whole. For instance, being entirely fixated on rightly defending penal substitution (which I do frequently), can tend to push you to ignore the many other facets of Christ’s work which the New Testament expounds. Or, flipping it around, a desire to recover neglected aspects can lead you to unnecessarily downplay those you think get too much attention.

This is where Johnson’s emphasis on rigorous reflection and attention to the witness of Scripture is vital. When we’re attending to the text carefully, we allow the Word to exert a pressure on our sense of the whole in proportion to its own testimony. We learn to emphasize what God emphasizes through his prophets and apostles, and how to relate the parts to the whole in the way he has inspired them.

And this must be true in our preaching as well. Preaching must include apologetics and polemics at times. If you’re going to reach the world, you must be dealing with the world’s arguments. All the same, the priority must be to preach the truth of Christ’s work in the text and order our polemics and apologetics to that end.

Soli Deo Gloria

No “Mere” Anthropomorphism

damascusOne of the perennial problems for a theology that is trying to speak of God on the basis of God’s word is wrestling with the sense of the Bible’s anthropomorphic language. The Biblical authors have no problem speaking of God in very human terms, attributing to God emotions, activities, and even body parts, in ways that seem somewhat inappropriate if taken as straightforward descriptions of the transcendent and infinite Creator of material and temporal reality.

John of Damascus broaches the question and quickly forwards a classic solution in On the Orthodox Faith, Book 1, chapter 11, stating:

Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognise that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless.

The Damascene is very clear, then, that while many Biblical idioms seem to imply that God has a body, these are symbolic representations which God has taken to himself in order to reveal himself in ways that are more suited to our finite understanding. God is simple, without composition and bodily shape. As Jesus testifies in John, “God is spirit” (John 4:24).

But the question remains, if this language is symbolic, what is it symbolic of? The point of noticing that language is symbolic, or not straightforward, or “literal”, is not to deny it has cognitive content, or real revelatory value. It is only to point out that it is revealing and referring in a unique, accommodated way.

Thankfully, John goes on to explain just what he means through several examples that I think are worth quoting at length:

Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty.

By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously.

God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste.

And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance.

And God’s countenance is the demonstration and manifestation of Himself through His works, for our manifestation is through the countenance.

And God’s hands mean the effectual nature of His energy, for it is with our own hands that we accomplish our most useful and valuable work.

And His right hand is His aid in prosperity, for it is the right hand that we also use when making anything of beautiful shape or of great value, or where much strength is required. His handling is His power of accurate discrimination and exaction, even in the minutest and most secret details, for those whom we have handled cannot conceal from us aught within themselves.

His feet and walk are His advent and presence, either for the purpose of bringing succour to the needy, or vengeance against enemies, or to perform any other action, for it is by using our feet that we come to arrive at any place.

His oath is the unchangeableness of His counsel, for it is by oath that we confirm our compacts with one another.

His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat.

His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own.

This passage is illuminating for a variety to reasons.

First, I must stress again that John is not denying that these accommodated terms have any content to them. Many modern critics like to attack more classical approaches to predication, accommodation, and analogical language for God as robbing us of knowledge of God. For if this language is “merely” anthropomorphic or anthropopathic, then it’s not really God’s self-communication.

But John is not saying they are mere anthropomorphisms, as if the choice were anthropomorphic language or truly revelatory language. No, in each case, the Biblical idiom is communicating truth about God’s ways and works with us by way of the accommodated language. In God’s hands, anthropomorphisms *are* revelation. Nor are the meanings provided bizarre, foreign to the idiom itself, or very difficult to grasp once we have had our attention drawn to them. The point, though, is that if we don’t eventually recognize these are accommodations, we will end up thinking about God in ways that he has explicitly forbidden us from doing elsewhere in Scripture.

Second, and this follows from the last point, John’s little interpretive cheat-sheet is meant as an aid for reading and understanding Scripture. Theology is not meant correct the text, but is an aid meant to return us to the text, able to read it more competently, with less confusion and difficulty. Instead of getting caught up on how big God’s hands are, we can marvel at his works of power. Instead of wondering about God’s sense of smell, we can read the text in order to discern how we may please him. Instead of worrying about reconciling God’s immutability and impassibility with portraits of God which depict him “getting angry”, we should read Scripture and understand what sort of evil he has eternally set himself in opposition to and flee it.

Finally, John even has an answer to the contemporary charge that this approach to the Biblical language is insufficiently “Christocentric.” The idea here is that if Jesus is God, the fullest revelation of God, then we shouldn’t worry about “Greek” axioms like impassibility and so forth. Jesus shows us what God is like and so if Jesus experiences these things, then we should be fine attributing these qualities straightforwardly to God. To do otherwise is to subject God to Greek abstraction, or not to sufficiently evangelize our metaphysics.

Reading the Damascene, we see there is more than one way to be Christocentric. For John, to be properly Christocentric, one must be Chalcedonian:

And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions.

Note, then, there is one place where descriptions which were anthropomorphic, symbolic language become straightforward description: the life of Jesus, the Godman. Or, as John puts it, in “the bodily sojourn of the God-Word.”

But the Damascene does not want us to miss that while Jesus is the Eternal Word who reveals the divine character and power, he is revealing them under the conditions of human fleshly existence. The glory of the incarnation is that the Son makes what is ours his own—body and soul—even though such things are foreign to the divine life. Jesus does not come to reveal a God who is already embodied, already in anguish and pain, but one who freely adopted these things for us and for our salvation.

And it is just so that John of Damascus’s understanding is Christocentric, but properly Chalcedonian, the union of the divine and human natures occurring unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably. (This, by the way, leads later on to the very careful and necessary discussions on the communication of idioms.)

More could be said, but it’s worth reflecting on the fact that John’s Chalcedonian Christocentrism is not without a certain historic depth. One might look at this and begin to suspect one of the reasons for the anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament, alongside declarations of his absoluteness, would be to prepare Israel for the reality of God become flesh. The God who for our sake has always adopted a human language which falls far short of his glory, adopts human life for our sake in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria