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

Atoning for the Altar? Medieval Honor Culture and Leviticus

One of the oddest puzzles in the Law comes in the Day of Atonement ceremonies outlined in Leviticus 16. On this great and holy day, the sins of Israel accumulated throughout the year were cleansed and atoned for in the sacrifices offered up by the high priest in the Holy of Holies. There are a progressive series of sacrifices to be offered up for the high priest, his family, Israel as a whole, the mercy seat, the Tabernacle, and even the altar:

Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses…Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel. (Lev. 16:16, 18-19)

This may initially strike some of us as peculiar. We typically would think that persons needed to have their sins cleansed and expiated and taken away. But the Holy Place and the altar itself have committed no sins–they are inanimate objects–so why should they need atonement?

leviticus as lit pictureJewish scholar Jacob Milgrom has forwarded an influential theory about the contagion of impurity and sin that causes the uncleannesses of the people to sort of pile up throughout the year around the Holy places of the Tabernacle. Sin is brought in regularly and it also penetrates through, polluting the Holy places rendering it in need of cleansing if God is going to dwell in blessing with his people.

In her work Leviticus as Literature, Mary Douglas finds Milgrom’s work helpful, but she says it’s too materialist in its discussion the accumulation of sin and uncleanness. Instead, she draws some comparative work between the logic of impurity in Leviticus and the discourse of honor in European cultures connected to the virtue of women or the honor of a knight (146).

She notes that the Bible itself presupposes a patronal structure where the client is concerned for the honor of the patron. God is the covenant Lord who has brought separated Israel out from the nations and made it his own people (Ex. 19; Deut. 7:6-10)–they are holy to him.

Defilement as a violation of holiness is a particularly apt expression for an attack on the honour of God perceived as a feudal Lord. The word for holy has the sense of ‘consecrated’, ‘pledged’, ‘betrothed’, as ‘sacrosanct’ in modern English, something forbidden to others, not to be encroached upon, diluted, or attacked. (147)

The Lord has saved Israel into a special relationship of dependence, loyalty, and love. This means they are to be obedient to him and keeping from insulting his honor and glory.

“This power also protects his people or his things and places, and to insult any of them is an insult to his honour.”

Douglas sees this as key to understanding the logic of the defilement of the altar:

In the courts of chivalry a warrior would recognize that his armour is dishonoured if he himself is impeached: as well as his children, and father and mother, his helmet, his coat of arms, his house, all are tainted and made worthless by the contagious dishonour. Blood washes off the major taint, a noble gift cancels a minor fault. In the same way, bringing uncleanness into the Lord God’s sanctuary makes it impure since the place shares in the insult to God. (148)

Of course, I’m obviously delighted to see a 21st century, anthropologist partially vindicate St. Anselm’s appeal to the logic of feudal honor codes to explain atonement. But beyond that, I find the analogy intrinsically persuasive. There is a clear logic of moral identification at work throughout Scripture such that an attack on God’s things is an attack on God and vice versa.

Leviticus is different than many other books–even from it’s closest kin, Deuteronomy and Numbers–but it is not utterly divorced from their moral, covenantal universe. Cleansing the altar, then, is another way of recognizing and reinforcing the holiness, majesty, and glory of the God who has chosen to dwell with Israel.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anselm: “Taste the Goodness of Your Redeemer”

christ-on-the-cross-1587Anselm of Canterbury is credited with having invented with what is called the “satisfaction” theory of atonement in his classic work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). In a severely condensed nutshell, humanity sins against its Creator, incurring an infinite debt of sin, having slighted the infinitely worthy Triune God’s honor and marring the beauty and order of his universe. This moral debt is owed to God and yet is unpayable twice over, not only because the debt is infinite, but because humanity has wounded itself and is now no longer even able to render the obedience it still owes, much less the outstanding debt. And yet, humanity is the one who owes the debt and so is the only one who ought to pay it.

God, though, being faithful to his creation and to his purposes for the good of his humanity aims to reconcile humanity to himself. To do so, the Son comes, assumes our human nature alongside his divine nature, lives a perfect life, dies a death he does not owe, and in virtue of his infinite goodness, offers it up as a good exceeding every debt in order to settle the debt of sin. He can do this on our behalf because he is true man. But the offering of this man can cover our debt because it is also the humble offering of the infinite God.

Now, there are a number of objections that have been lodged against it over the years–some of them which I myself share. One which I think has been quite unfair, though, is that Anselm’s logical presentation is of a “rationalist” sort, with one of the implications being that it’s connected to a rather cold sort of faith, narrowly concerned with ledgers and miserliness. That it’s the kind of faith that cuts the nerve of piety and true spiritual vitality.

I think it’s unfair because, first, it ignores the way the form of Anselm’s argument–the dialogue–shapes the presentation. Second, it ignores the deep beauty and grace which shapes his other works, many of which are written in the form of prayers to God, or spoken to the Christian soul.

We were given one such work in my seminar on atonement at Trinity, “A Meditation on Human Redemption” and I thought it worth sharing an excerpt we read in class the other day:

O Christian soul, soul raised up from grievous death, soul redeemed and freed by the blood of God from wretched bondage: arouse your mind, remember your resurrection, contemplate your redemption and liberation. Consider anew where and what the strength of your salvation is, spend time in meditating upon this strength, delight in reflecting upon it. Shake off your disinclination, constrain yourself, strive with your mind toward this end. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be aflame with love for your Savior, chew His words as a honey-comb, suck out their flavor, which is sweeter than honey, swallow their health-giving sweetness. Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Rejoice in chewing, be glad in sucking, delight in swallowing.

Where, then, and what is the strength and might of your salvation? Assuredly, Christ has resurrected you. That Good Samaritan has healed you, that Good Friend has redeemed and freed you by sacrificing His own soul life. Yes, it was Christ. Therefore, the strength of Christ is the strength of your salvation. Where is the strength of Christ? Surely horns are in His hands; there His strength is hidden. Strength is indeed in His hands because His hands were nailed to the arms of the cross. But what strength can there be in such weakness, what majesty in such humiliation, what worthy of reverence in such contempt? But surely because it is disguised in weakness it is something hidden, because veiled in humiliation it is something concealed, because covered with contempt it is something inaccessible. O hidden might! A man appended to a cross suspends the eternal death impending over the human race; a man fastened to a cross unfastens a world affixed to endless death! O concealed power! A man condemned with thieves saves men condemned with demons; a man stretched out on a cross draws all things unto Himself! O unseen strength! One soul yielded up in the torment [of crucifixion] draws countless souls from the torments of Hell; a man undergoes bodily death and abolishes spiritual death!

It’s been a while since I’ve read something that thick with spiritual vitality. The doctrinal content is rich, but this is not the language of detached doctrinal discussion, but that of prayer, praise, and adoration.

What’s funny, though, is that he continues from there in a similar mode of prayerful reasoning, to work through much of the same logic of salvation as he outlines in Cur Deus Homo. For example:

For the life of that man Jesus is more precious than everything that is not God, and it surpasses every debt owed by sinners as satisfaction. For if putting Him to death [is a sin which] surpasses the multitude and magnitude of all conceivable sins which are not against the person of God, clearly His life is a good greater than the evil of all those sins which are not against the person of God. To honor the Father, that man Jesus – who was not obliged to die, because not a sinner freely gave something of His own when He permitted His life to be taken from Him for the sake of justice. He permitted this in order to show to all others by example that they ought not to forsake the justice of God even because of death, which inevitably they are obliged to undergo at some time or other; for He who was not obliged to undergo death and who, having kept justice, could have avoided death, freely and for the sake of justice endured death, which was inflicted upon Him. Thus, in that man human nature freely and out of no obligation gave to God something its own, so that it might redeem itself in others in whom it did not have what it, as a result of indebtedness, was required to pay.

This same “logic” of satisfaction is what leads Anselm to comfort the believer with the beauty of their redemption given in Christ. No dry, detached piety here, but rich, spiritual truth.

I’ve nothing more to say except to close with one more excerpt which I hope encourages and comforts you today:

Behold, O Christian soul, this is the strength of your salvation, this is what has made possible your freedom, this is the cost of your redemption. You were in bondage, but through the cross you have been redeemed. You were a servant, but through the cross you have been set free. You are an exile who in this manner has been led back home, someone lost who has been found, someone dead who has been revived. O man, let your heart feed upon these thoughts. Let it chew continually upon them, let it suck upon them and swallow them whenever your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. In this life make these thoughts your daily bread, your nourishment, your provision. For through these thoughts and only through them will you remain in Christ and Christ in you; and only through them will your joy be full in the life to come.

Soli Deo Gloria