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

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

  1. Pingback: A Riposte to Derek Rishmawy’s Post: Handling Legal Matters | The Evangelical Calvinist
  2. This post has really made my day. I left the Reformed tradition a few years ago, and very much regretted it. As I am clawing my way back, I have found few balanced resources that I enjoyed reading. Today I found your blog, and it is a balm for my weary soul. Thanks!

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