The theory of atonement is often summed up as this Christian mantra that “Jesus died for our sins.” But how did we get to this sound bite? And is it really sound theology? On the theory of atonement, Johnson writes “scripture offers multiple ways of speaking about salvation and diverse ways of interpreting the cross that do not lead into this cul-de-sac” (dead end of circular thinking) . . . “up to the middle ages no one way predominated . . . There was never an early council defining the terms in which Christ’s redeeming work had to be understood.” (Johnson, xii)
Johnson later restates Joseph Ratzinger’s comment that “western Christendom . . . takes for granted that Christ had to die on the cross in order to make good the infinite offense that had been committed and, in this way, to restore the order that had been violated.” (Johnson, xiii) Ratzinger is a critic of atonement theory which is significant for people of today as he is Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict’s argument is that Anselm’s theory divides the work of Jesus and the person of Jesus as he says that man can “offend infinitely” but “he cannot produce infinite reparation.” He talks about the call to live for others for “which man confidentially lets himself fall, ceases to cling to himself and ventures on the leap away from himself into the infinite, the leap through which alone he can come to himself . . . Anselm distorts the perspectives and with it’s rigid logic can make the image of God appear in a sinister light.” (Ratzinger, 233.) So why do we cling to this theory?
In order to examine atonement or satisfaction theology, we need to understand the source, the well-spring, the person who wrote the theory. What kind of person was he? What went on in his life that led to his interpretation? Was he a person with perspective, able to rise out of the paradigm that he lived in? Was he trapped in relationships where he sought status or domination? How did he behave when given choices? Can we see where his heart was? Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033/4–1109) wrote Cur Deus Homo, “Why God was a Man.” This written piece lays out the logic of atonement theology. Cur Deus Homo was written from 1095 to 1098 once Anselm was already archbishop of Canterbury but after he had left to be Pope Urban’s personal assistant.
What was going on in Anselm’s world at this time? In 1095, Pope Urban called the Council of Clermont in which he called upon Christians to “take up the way of the Lord” and “prepare to suffer much”, as he assured them of their place in heaven if they fought in the first wave of Christian Crusades against the Muslims who were moving into Christian areas, taking over the churches, and killing Christians. (Southern (1963)) Pope Urban needed willing soldiers and because then Bishop Anselm was a savvy politician who had honed his skills of manipulation on the many boys that were sent to learn at the Abbey of Bec., (Rambler, 366–367) Anselm wrote a simple argument for simple people to take into battle with them. The basic argument is that “Jesus died for your sins” meaning nothing you can do will atone for your sins; later reinforced was the concept that only Jesus and the Pope (or priests), by way of Jesus, can forgive you. Whatever you do in Jesus’ name, you will be forgiven. Its not a personal journey of salvation for you, now kill those Muslims and feel no guilt because you are doing this for God. Pope Urban may have thought his message of needing soldiers for the Lord was enough because it would have been easy for people of the feudal times to understand as the feudal society is a military hierarchy where a lord, person who owned the lands that a peasant lived and worked on, offers fighters land to be in charge of in exchange for a military service. However, in 1095, after Urban made his “just war” announcement, I image that there was a lot of resistance to actually doing the killing, even “Holy” reasons, as to follow what Jesus truly teaches is to follow a path of peace. Anselm’s book with the theology of satisfaction was completed in 1098, a couple years after Pope Urban’s plea for soldiers. Anselm’s logical argument of guilt-free forgiveness is easy to sell to Christian soldiers who are reluctant to kill due to consequences for their immortal souls. With the publication of Cur Deus Homo, there is no reason not to obey the hierarchy in the name of God.
Anselm is heralded as a saint and doctor of the church, not for his heart but for his loyalty to Urban and his overwhelming impact on gathering soldiers to actually kill in God’s name for the church. There are many works on the weakness of Anselm’s logic behind his theory, but there aren’t many people that view it from the standpoint of it being an outright manipulation of a populace. This sacrilegious guidance is the groundwork of “just war” thinking and it is a part of our Roman Catholic legacy. At this time, a fallible Pope wanted to protect Christians and church holdings, property. He used the thoughts of the day to color his judgment and, at a minimum, approved weak theology because of a mentality of “the end justifies the means.” This is not a sentiment that comes from Jesus’ teachings, but from a Feudal world view, supported by a spiritual gaslighting. This is the view of God and Christianity that white Europeans arose from as this view devoured generations of souls. Judging the past is not the point. Understanding the past is crucial so that we can evolve.
So, what does an evolution of the theology of the cross look like and how does it compare to atonement theology? What it looks like is Elizabeth Johnson, not being satisfied with a single pat explanation of a view of Jesus’ journey. It looks like a journey to her heart, a study of scripture, and a merging of her journey with the Holy Spirit; it looks like a book, in the same format as Anselm’s, however this time, with another perspective. In Creation and the Cross, Johnson outlines a theory of accompaniment to reflect another view of Christ and the cross using the same format as Anslem which is that of a conversation between a student and a teacher.
A theology of accompaniment begins with the premise that we come to this plane of existence as “good.” Many authors quote the bible in several places, but here I will choose the beginning:
“Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31 NIV)
We are born into a world that has a particular view about society and life, as in my above example of feudalism. It’s really hard for us to get out of the mindset that we are immersed in from birth by our life’s experiences. So, what does God do to help us evolve? God sends her angels in the form of people that we encounter to walk with us. (Note here, that I am using female pronouns to shift us out of our own world views, please don’t let it distract you, its to make a point.) Let’s look at the Bible again:
20 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. 21 Pay attention to [her]and listen to what [s]he says. Do not rebel against [her]; [s]he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in [her]. 22 If you listen carefully to what [s]he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. 23 My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. “ (Exodus 23:20-23)
There are many examples of God sending angels. I will refrain from any analysis of what this passage means other than to exemplify that there are angles among us. Angels come in all forms: helpful neighbors, friends, skilled healers, pastors, everyone. When we help others, it is the Holy Spirit in action. Jesus came here to remind us of this. He went along doing right, and even in his death stayed true to God. Accompanying each other is a way of being in the world with each other; a Way of accompaniment that Jesus modeled for us.
Matthew Fox has a wonderful comparative chart that details the contrast between the two theologies. Looking at one significant difference, pretty much sums it all up: In his chart of atonement theology, he has “my religion is the only way to God” verses of accompaniment theology “deep ecumenism.” It is quite obvious from this one example that Jesus’s teachings are not found in atonement theology, nor in its author.
Fox, Matthew, Original Blessing, TarcherPerigee, 1983
Johnson, Elizabeth, Creation and the Cross, Orbus Books, 2018
“Reviews: St. Gregory and St. Anselm: Saint Anselme de Cantorbery. Tableau de la vie monastique, et de la lutte du pouvoir spirituel avec le pouvoir temporel au onzième siècle. Par M.C. de Remusat. Didier, Paris, 1853”, The Rambler, A Catholic Journal and Review, Vol. XII, No. 71 & 72, London: Levey, Robson, & Franklyn for Burns & Lambert, 1853, pp. 360–374, 480–499
Ratzinger, Joseph, Introduction to Christianity, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990/2004
Southern, Richard W., Saint Anselm and His Biographer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963