The centrality of Christ’s death on the cross has influenced everything we believe as Christians. Make no mistake about this simple fact. Even our language is influenced, giving us words like “crucial,” which literally means “pertaining to the cross.” When we say something is crucial we are making the point that this is central to our belief, argument or practice. Evangelicals have rightly argued that the cross is central. The debate is not here but rather about a point of interpretation.
One of the most famous proponents of evangelical theology about the atonement was the late Australian scholar Leon Morris. (I had the privilege of taking a class under Dr. Morris at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the 1970s.) In an article on the atonement Morris said, “The atonement is critical; it is the most central doctrine of Christianity” (New Dictionary of Theology. InterVarsity Press, 1988, 54). He goes on to say this does not mean “other doctrines may be neglected” (54). My question is simple – “Is the atonement, defined very particularly as “a payment that satisfies the wrath of God,” central to Christianity?
Note what I am not questioning before you conclude that I am a heretic. First, the need for atonement is not denied at all. We are sinners and our inability to deal with our sin required God’s action in Christ’s death to save us. Second, I am not denying God’s holiness or our sinfulness. God’s love and mercy were always necessary since the fall and will remain so until the age, and work, of redemption is complete. The Old Testament reveals a complicated system of sacrifices which God gave to Israel to atone for their sin. But what can be too easily missed is underscored by the late Leon Morris himself when he concludes: “The sacrifices availed because God chose that they should. It is the love of God, and not the blood of goats and calves, that puts sin away” (New Dictionary of Theology, 55). Note very carefully what one of the leading scholars in this debate said about the sacrificial system itself: “It is the love of God . . . that puts sin away.”
In the early Christian church there was an emphasis on the historical fact that Christ saves us, especially through his incarnation. But there was very little emphasis, for many centuries, upon “how” Christ saved us by his death. Many early theologians believed sinners perished because they belonged to Satan. Christ’s death defeated Satan’s hold over sinners by going down to hell to loose the prisoners and set all captive sinners free. God gave Christ as a ransom for sinners to release them from the dominion of Satan. On the third day Christ arose triumphant and Satan was left with none of his original prisoners nor the ransom price of Christ’s death. This view was rather quickly distorted. Morris rightly says, “[At times] it bordered on the grotesque and the view faded in the light of better ways of looking at what Christ did. But in modern times Gustaf Aulén has revived the “Christus Victor” (New Dictionary of Theology, 56) in his teaching. Aulén rightly stresses that the death of Christ won the victory over the forces of evil. Morris helpfully adds, “A place must surely be found for this in any adequate theory of atonement” (56).
It wasn’t until the eleventh century, through the teaching of Anselm (1033-1109), that a theory of satisfaction was worked out in terms of the modern teaching about the atonement that most evangelicals accept on face value as the explicit and only (?) teaching about Christ’s death in the New Testament.
Anselm’s view of the atonement is commonly called “the satisfaction theory of the atonement.” It was formulated in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. ‘Why the God-Man?’).
Anselm undertook to explain the rational necessity of the Christian mystery of the atonement. His argument is that only a human being can make recompense for human sin against God. But no human person can make such recompense since it requires God to satisfy God’s holy and high demands. Thus atonement is only possible for Jesus Christ, the Son, who is both God and man. The atonement is thus brought about by Christ’s death, which is of infinite value. It seems to me that the critical point in Anselm’s interpretation of the atonement is this – divine justice and divine mercy are shown to be entirely, and infinitely, compatible.
According to this view, sin incurs a debt to a just God, a debt that must be paid. Thus, no sin, according to Anselm, can be forgiven without satisfaction. However, the incurred debt is something far greater than a human being is capable of paying. The only way in which the satisfaction could be made─that humans could be set free from their sin─was by the coming of a Redeemer who is both God and man. He had to be sinless, thus without any sin debt. His death is greater than all the sins of all humanity. His death makes a superabundant satisfaction to the divine justice.
Make no mistake about it this debate about the modern hymn, “In Christ Alone,” is rooted in ideas that are expressed in Anselm’s philosophical, scholastic theology from the Middle Ages. If Anselm is right about why Christ had to die then the words, “the wrath of God is satisfied” are sound. Rev. John Thweatt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pell City, Alabama, says he cannot understand why anyone would want to change the lyrics to the song to say: “the love of God was magnified.” (This was the change proposed by the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song.) Thweatt said fellow Alabama Baptist Bob Terry, the editor of the Alabama Baptist, “opened up Pandora’s box” when he wrote an editorial that was sympathetic to the Presbyterian Committee’s view. Terry had written in the Alabama Baptist, “Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm him down” (quote by USA Today).
A friend sent me the link to Terry’s original post, and his comments since that post became viral on the Internet, yesterday. Here is the link.