I am teaching a course on salvation this fall–Soteriology is the technical theological term–and we’re having such great conversations. On Monday, we discussed the classic text “Cur Deus Homo”–“Why God Became Human,” by Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm’s theory of atonement–variously called penal substitution, blood sacrifice, and satisfaction–has been extraordinarily influential on the Western Church, including Luther, so even though the text is dense and challenging, it was important for the students to read it for themselves.
His argument can be summarized (basically) as follows:
1. An orderly, rational God creates a perfectly ordered, structured universe, including a free humanity
2. Humans disobey God (and succumb to the devil’s temptation) and commit sin
3. This creates a stain on God’s honor, and rends the fabric of creation
4. Humans cannot be saved in this state of sin, which would thwart God’s plan for humanity
5. God cannot simply forgive the sin, because this would leave God’s honor tarnished, and the perfect weave of creation marred
6. Therefore, humans must make satisfaction to God (and repay this debt they owe to God) for their sin
7. However, humans have nothing with which to make this satisfaction, since everything they are and everything they do is already owed to God–there is nothing “extra” to offer
8. Moreover, because the offense was against the divine, the sastisfaction must also be of divine worth
9. Therefore, the incarnation is necessary–that is, a fully divine, fully human being is necessary–because in no other way could humanity’s salvation be secured. In the incarnation, Jesus is able to make satisfaction to God on behalf of humanity (thanks to his human nature); and thanks to his divine nature, the sacrifice is of immeasurable worth and able to pay the debt and adequately compensate God for the offense.
This is called “penal substitution” because Jesus takes upon himself the penalty/punishment we deserve, blood sacrifice because it is Jesus’ willing sacrificial death that saves us, and satisfaction because Jesus’ death makes satisfaction to God for the dishonor of humanity’s sin.
So, as I said, the conversation was rich, with thoughtful critiques being raised against this theory (Does God demand a sacrifice? What difference does Jesus’ life make in this model? What difference does this make in our relationship to God now.), and also some good attempts to update this model for a contemporary (read–non-feudal) context, describing how this reflects God’s love for us, and how it works gratitude in us.
All this theological conversation and engagement is critical, because, as Pope Francis said in his America interview, “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” If the church can’t articulate that message in a way that people understand, that speaks to them in a way that is meaningful and transformative, we aren’t sharing our greatest treasure. And it doesn’t matter what else we get right if we get the core wrong.
So, we seek to do that each week, as we come together and ask what it means, really, that Jesus saves, and how we can communicate that in the best, most compelling and most joyful way. Do I love my job? Who wouldn’t?!