November 26, 2007


A certain strand of Evangelicals lay claim to a particular doctrine of the Atonement as if it were the only explanation for the phenomenon of salvation. At our last General Convention this emerged in a strangely-worded resolution that was rejected — not because the Episcopal Church rejects the doctrine of the Atonement, but on the contrary, because we are, as a church, loath to pin its undeniable efficacy to one particular theological explanation.

My thinking on this endlessly rich subject has some sympathy with a number of the various propositions — including the substitutionary one dear to Evangelicals. I am also in sympathy with them in placing the crux (pun intended) of the act of salvation at the cross — although I take the wider view that this is the climax and not the entire drama.

For anyone interested in a reflection that represents my thinking, not as a theological tract, but in a more discursive form, I commend the sermon I preached yesterday at my parish, The King and His Cross. As I say, it is a sermon, not a treatise. But I hope that in it I make my general position clear: that I see the Atonement as effecting a real change in the universe through the exercise of a faculty that exists in the universe only by the grace of God, and which, in itself, reflects and literally embodies the nature of God.

Tobias Haller BSG


Derek the Ænglican said...

I've always thought this a suitably Anglican way to think of things--I wonder if the Evangelicals have a problem with it....:

Almighty God, who hast given thy only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavor ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(Collect for Proper 15)

Anonymous said...

This is not a discussion limited to TEC!

At its triennial General Synod in October '07, the Anglican Church of Australia debated the following motion and, in the end, decided not to put it to the vote. A procedural motion not to put the question was hotly debated, but carried.

"Synod humbly acknowledges that in the determined love of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, died for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, bearing our guilt in our place, enabling our redemption from the slavery and curse of sin, our total forgiveness, no debt owing, freely given but obtained at great cost, a righteousness from God, not our own, peace with God, reconciled to him, no longer his enemies, our adoption as his children, and our salvation from the coming wrath on the Day of the Lord acknowledging that no one metaphor, model or analogy exhausts or fully contains the mystery of God’s action in Christ and gives heartfelt thanks to Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, for his overwhelming grace, love and mercy."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Derek,
I love that collect, but have to say that I find the "exemplary" aspect of the Atonement to be the least powerful aspect. That Jesus is "an example of holy living" is no doubt true -- but so are the saints. There is certainly an element of the Atonement at work here, but I see in this more our response to salvation than salvation itself.

Dear Brian,
Thanks for that Australian resolution. I would have had no problem in voting for it, though it is to my mind redundant to affirm such basic truths in legislative assemblies! (Part of the reason for the downfall of our own D058 in 2006.) A larger part of the downfall of the American version was the strange language of the third resolve: "Resolved, That we affirm that in Christ there is both the substitutionary essence of the Cross and the manifestation of God's unlimited and unending love for all persons;" -- it simply wasn't clear what "substitutionary essense of the Cross" meant; and if it meant one model, it wasn't in our wish to affirm that single model.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your thoughts about self-determination and power. It seems to me that too often the substitutionary theory of atonement is all about God punishing God's Son in our place. When I was in seminary that gave rise to complaints about "cosmic child abuse." But Christ's self-determination is much more consistent with our understanding of Incarnation. We claim that jesus was fully human and fully divine. That would mean that the crucifixion was God's self-offering, which is neither punishment nor abuse. What parent would not gladly die in the place of his or her child, if that would somehow save the child? We have examples of it in every culture, throughout history and throughout literature. In this aspect of atonement (and I agree that it is only one piece) we need to remember that we are the son or daughter for whom God has offered Godself.

Vicki McGrath

June Butler said...

Tobias, thanks for the link to your sermon. I read them on my own sometimes and always enjoy them.

I'm attempting to work out my theology of atonement - with help, of course. The concept of an angry God who must be placated by the sacrifice of his only Son is not one that I can reconcile with the idea of a loving God.

I'm searching for a workable (for me) theology outside the owing ransom to an angry God idea. I lean a bit more towards Derek's exemplary life, in that I believe that we are saved by Jesus' Incarnation, his holy life, his teaching, and the culmination of it all in his self-determination to offer himself on the cross, followed by his Resurrection.

In other words, we are by saved Jesus' whole life, beginning with his emptying himself to become one of us and completed with his Resurrection. I'm taking baby steps here, and maybe what I say is a terrible heresy. I can't get clear on the substitution part of the picture. Why does there have to be a substitution? Can't God forgive sins without a substitutionary victim?

God forgave sins in the Old Testament. Jesus forgave sins during his lifetime. Perhaps, I'm taking the thread too far off message with my ramblings. If I am, I'm sorry for that.

Derek the Ænglican said...

Well, I've never really liked Abelard from the beginning. I'd much rather read the Gospel of Nicodemus than Sic et Non... ;-)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Vicki, that's exactly the distinction I'm seeing -- between sacrificing others (always bad) and offering oneself to save someone else (always good!) (Just watching the latest Babylon 5 (The Lost Tales) reminded me of the good ethical work that underpins Mr. Straczynski's writing.)

Grandmere Mimi, you have summed up my broader and inclusive thinking on this very well -- salvation is in the mind of God from the beginning, and worked out through all of those statges. At some point I will post my more systematic thinking on this subject...

Derek, I had a belated thought on the subway which reminded me why I think the "exemplary" needs to be understood in its broadest sense. That is in the difference between a symbol and a sacrament. The life of Christ is more than a symbol or a role model, but an actual efficacious change in human nature itself, that touches all human beings as they participate in that divine life. So I can embrace the exemplary aspect if understood in a sacramental sense.

Anonymous said...

It has always seemed to me (well, not 'always'!) that the essence of human sinfulness is fear - our natural self-preservation instinct and fear of death leads us to put ourselves first, always. I see in Jesus God's coming to us to tell us to stop living like animals and trust God with our 'selves' so that we can love others as much as ourselves. Thus, Jesus - the fully human man - trusts the Father, is obedient to his will, lives an 'other-centered' life (vs self-centered), loves and lives sacrificially. Jesus trusts the Father even through death - and this trust is vindicated in the resurrection. Jesus, in living obediently and trustingly truly is the first born of the New Humanity. Thus, if we believe that death has been conquered on the cross, we can begin to live with less fear and we will sin less. We will be able to love others as much as ourselves, and the self-preservation instinct can begin to fade away. The cross is an instrument for the death of the human Jesus - I cannot find any particular meaning for it as such. What reconciles us to God is God himself showing us that we can trust him and learn to live without fear.

Anonymous said...

It is an interesting development, and I think part of it hangs on the global success of the protestant inclination to think of salvation as a one-to-one arrangement, a kind of direct wire between me and God, rather than the (far more) ancient understanding of the "commonality" and "communality" of salvation. As my revered rector used to say, "There is only one thing a Christian can do alone -- and that is to be damned!"

But broadly across the denominational spectrum, the idea that religion/salvation is a private matter has gained tremendous impetus. I'd be willing to bet that if you stopped 100 American Christians on the street and asked them if religion was a private matter between a person and her/his God, 97 of them would agree.

So salvation is a tidal wave, not a water-spout. Thank God we reverted to the ancient "WE believe..." in the creed.

One other way to say it:" Jesus did not die for ME, Jesus died for US!" And "substitutionary atonement" doesn't work so smoothly when one speaks of a salvation community, the "plebs sancta dei".

John D Bassett said...


Would you consider podcasting? I'd love to listen to your sermons on my endless urban dog walks. You always have such interesting things to say.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr Craig,
Yes, that's what I'm trying to get at -- that liberation from fear and transferring it into love. I think you are right about the cross, too -- it is an instrument but not the focus. That's why I had trouble with the wording of resolution D058 -- it is not the cross that saves, but Christ!

Fr JJ,
I think you are spot on as they say across the briney. The focus on "personal salvation" as opposed to the cosmic action of the Son of God, reconciling not just individuals but "the whole world" by his blood, is a much grander notion than the more limited personal issue. After all, we say "our" Father in heaven -- not "me and my God."

I've thought of doing a podcast, but keep forgetting to bring my palm pilot with its handy recorder function into the pulpit. A number of my parishioners have suggested this... so maybe it's time to jot down a reminder note to myself!

June Butler said...

John, I can vouch for the excellence of Tobias' delivery of his sermons. You know he was an actor in another life.

A podcast of the sermons is an excellent idea, Tobias.

WSJM said...

A superb sermon, Tobias. Many thanks.

A line that occurs to me when the subject of the substitutionary theory of the atonement comes up is one that I recall from John Austin Baker's _The Foolishness of God_ -- the immediate context, as I recall, was the doctine of the incarnation, but it is certainly pertinent to the atonement. He said something to the effect, "Given the cost that had to be paid for the redemption of humankind, God did not send somebody else."

(I don't seem to have the book any more, and maybe never did -- I might have read a borrowed copy. I need to track down a used copy somewhere.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Fr Bill, for your kind words, and for the wonderful quote from Baker. I'm also very fond of this from William Law, Second Dialogue in The Spirit of Love:

The innocent Christ did not suffer, to quiet an angry Deity, but merely as cooperating, assisting and uniting with that love of God, which desired our salvation. That he did not suffer in our place or stead, but only on our account, which is quite a different matter. And to say, that he suffered in our place or stead, is as absurd, as contrary to Scripture, as to say, that he rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven in our place and stead, that we might be excused from it. For his sufferings, death, resurrection and ascension, are all of them equally on our account, for our sake, for our good and benefit, but none of them possible to be in our stead.

KJ said...

Thanks so much for the post and sermon.

Having grown up in Evangelical Land, I am most familiar with substitutionary atonement, but am very much at peace hearing and absorbing the views of others and resting in yet another mystery.

Wasn't it CS Lewis who suggested that if a given view of atonement did not work for one, "Drop it"?

Paul said...

I am heartened to see posts on the issue of atonement that do not rely on child-abuse models and visions of God so at odds with the Collect for Ash Wednesday ("you hate nothing that you have made").

Thank you for this and your many thoughtful posts. I just typed briefly behind your back, so letting you know now that I have named you for the Emmanuel Award. Not one of your regular commenters but a regular reader. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why Derek brings Abelard into it, except that perhaps he is confused.

1: Sic et Non is a list of quotations for use in citation. To cite it as somehow typical of Abelard is bizarre. It is rather like thinking looking at my appointment book and treating it as a typical example of my writing!

2: Abelard's supposed "exemplarism" is hardly what most people mistakenly think it is.

3: Abelard taught something much more like this: God loves us, so very much that he gave his Son for us. How exactly that works is entirely unsaid by Abelard, though that he believes it is clear. Some think that he was in agreement with Anselm even, but he doesn't really say so. But the key for Abelard is: how is it that I can come to have true love for God?

For Abelard does not think you can love someone just by squinting hard and resolving to. Love includes an affective tie, and while it is important to choose to love, we just don't have the power over our own affect (A affect, not E effect) to that degree. We cannot just love without having a reason to love; that's the kind of creatures we are.

But we look at Jesus on the cross, knowing that God has done this thing for us at such cost, and we love in return. Our love is thus made possible because we see God's love in action towards us, and we see that most fully and especially on the cross. ("We love because he first loved us," donchaknow.)

And now Abelard points out that this love is itself constitutive of atonement, for if we are united to God in bonds of perfect mutual love, the work of atonement is done.

All this rests, of course, on the prior conviction that there is something objectively happening on the cross, that it is not merely an example to us (or it would be unclear why we would interpret it as an act of love), but it does not require an elaborate explanation of what that objective transaction is.

Tobias, this also perhaps addresses your point that the saints are also examples of godly life. Yes, but the Abelardian point is that the cross is not just an example of "godly life", but an example of God's love toward us, and indeed a singular one.