Discussing Derivatives of Anselmnian Atonement

In the next section of The Nonviolent Atonement, author J. Denny Weaver delves into conversation with those who maintain some degree of the Anselmnian/satisfaction/substitutionary theory of the atonement. There were some really interesting things to come out of this section, summarized below but, as always, in far greater detail in the book.

Reframing and Redefining

The first section of conversations revolve around attempts to reframe or completely redefine themes of satisfaction atonement. For example, many acknowledge the critiques of feminist and womanist theologians that it comes across as divine child abuse, and they therefore focus on how God is in Jesus, suffering with us and not some angry Father in the distance doling out the punishment. Unfortunately, though, most of those discussed in this section do still hold to some concept that it was God’s character which demanded the violence, thereby not escaping the problem, just pushing it to the side.

They also typically moved away from the punishment/wrath language of Calvin and Luther and closer to the divine justice and honour language of Anselm, which makes it a little less emotionally damaging but I’m not sure it actually makes the problems any less real, again just pushing to the side instead.

The most frustrating element of this approach is in its dismissal of liberation theologies as just exaggerating. This is a standard problem where white male Europeans/Americans think that they get to dictate the baseline of theology over everybody else, simply dismissing the concerns of other voices. They generally are completely failing to actually address any of those concerns and just try to put them out of the way, shoving those vitally important voices to the side with them. But I strongly believe that those concerns are not simply exaggerations: at the least they are the logical following to conclusions that weren’t intended and at the most it is an essential calling out of a theology which has resulted in a variety of non-Christ-like activity by the Church.

Allowing God’s Violence

The next line of defense for the Anselmnian view moves the conversation a level farther back and questions whether violence is always a negative. This blog has talked about that idea in a variety of ways so you know my position is clearly the same as Weaver’s: Jesus was pretty blatantly opposed to violence, even when it would have been justified in freeing his people from a terrible regime, and if Jesus is the full revelation of God, how can we claim that God is ever violent or that violence is ever good?

Of course they aren’t suggesting that God is regularly violent. There are some popular-level pastors who think and teach that, but Weaver wisely doesn’t even bother engaging with such a ridiculous and harmful line of thought. Some of them agree with Weaver that disciples of Jesus should never be violent, arguing that God’s one-time violence did what was needed and so we do not need to carry out similar violence. Others think that there is room for some violence when it is the last and best solution to a problem, essentially applying Just War Theory to atonement by saying that even though God’s character isn’t fundamentally violent it was necessary in this case.

It’s a common line of thought. It just seems contrary to the ultimate revelation of God in the nonviolent Jesus and introduces the paradox of why God requires a violent solution in the first place if he is not fundamentally violent. Proponents of the satisfaction motif seemed to offer nothing to answer these problems.

Claiming Tradition

Lastly, some simply say that they trust tradition so that is why they don’t want to challenge Anselmnian atonement. But which tradition are they trusting? Not the earliest church which seemed to believe something like narrative Christus Victor. Not the medieval church who believed in the cosmic Christus Victor model. Not the Eastern Church which never embraced satisfaction motifs. Not those traditions that followed Abelard moreso than Anselm and Calvin. Typically they mean that they followed Calvin’s tradition, but here’s your challenging thought of the day: what if Calvin had followed tradition, too? Basically that whole Reformed movement wouldn’t have happened and they would still be Catholic. Clearly there are situations where it is best to challenge your traditions, not for the sake of challenging it but for the sake of best aligning yourself with the heart of Jesus.

In the final section, I’ll look at Weaver’s dialogue with a variety of theologians who have developed theories similar to his narrative Christus Victor, including people like Thomas Finger, Brian McLaren, and Greg Boyd.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.