Pilgrims from Paradise:
Last time, I pointed out that there are a growing number of folks in the Western Christian traditions who have become disturbed about various aspects of the teachings of Augustine, traditions which have been handed down and accepted by so many Christians for so many centuries, and they are endeavoring to get back before Augustine, to discover Christianity as it was before it became wedded with this Platonic philosophical influence that Augustine brings to Christianity.
But I said as we ended, that even when I talk to these folks, I still hear much within their basic views of salvation and their basic understanding of the Christian faith which still smacks of Augustine and the philosophical Christian tradition.
I said I was going to point out three ways in which I see this occurring and I would like to do that today. First, I want to just briefly outline each of these remnants of philosophical Christianity, and then we will spend a great deal of time over several episodes, investigating each of these in greater detail.
First of all, many of those who want to escape Augustine still hold to theories of salvation which focus on God’s need to satisfy something within Himself. For them, as for Augustine, the essential dynamic in salvation remains punishment, or the avoidance of it.
The problem with these theories is that they are, if I may be permitted a fancy word, anthropomorphic. That is, they see God through human eyes. They interpret him as a being with very human attitudes. When we become comfortable with relating to God through human reason and philosophy, it is really no surprise that we end up applying human passions, like the need for retribution, and protecting personal honor, to God. This is also why the Eastern image of a loving God who saves us for our sakes, not His, is difficult for anyone still entrenched in these views of salvation to grasp.
Secondly, even when Western believers insist that their God is one of absolute intimate love, the God revealed in their theology and practice, is not. Even in the wake of Christ’s saving work on our behalf, God’s moral perfection and orderly beauty keep Him distant from us. The great gulf of being, if you would, that stretches out between us, thwarts our attempts at genuine interpersonal intimacy with Him. As one tired and disillusioned 40-year veteran of evangelical Christianity lamented to me recently, with tears, “It is as if God stands out there saying, I dare you to try to really know Me.”
This relationship with God is, once again, a natural byproduct of a philosophical approach, as opposed to an experiential and mystical approach to Christian faith. That the West struggles with a far-removed philosophical God is evidenced in the way Western Christians talk about him. It is also revealed in the West’s reliance on reason, imagination, and emotion, as keys to an experience of the divine.
But even if a Western believer abandons punishment-based salvation theories and sees that he or she needs a more genuine, intimate experience with God, than rationalism and/or emotionalism can afford, he or she discovers a third obstacle presented by the Western philosophical Christian legacy. This one is probably the most subtle, and the hardest to surmount. It is simply the fact that faith, as Western believers know it, is a purely personal matter.
In the West, it is taken as part and parcel of Christian faith that each person is free to decide what he or she believes about God. We are all free to determine how we will worship and serve Him. This Western individualism stands in stark contrast with the organic communal Christianity of the early church and the Christian East. In that tradition, one bows to the collective, experienced-based authority of the Body of Christ in all matters of belief and practice.
When one clearly recognizes God’s ultimate desire for us, and understands the nature of the Church correctly, one realizes that it is impossible to fulfill this centrally vital face of Christian life within the shattered world of Western denominationalism.
Now, let us begin to examine each of these three points in greater detail. One way or another, the Christian West’s dominant views of salvation reflect a God, who, as an essential aspect of His nature, must punish His human creatures for their moral imperfections, and for the affront their sin presents to His holiness.
But many people, Christians and interested non-Christians alike, question how such an intrinsic compulsion to punish can be central to the nature of the God who is love (1 John 4:8). Especially, how can such a self-satisfying behavior be attributed to the One who commands us to repay the evil done to us with good (Romans 12:12), or who teaches us to bless those who curse us, and who calls us to do good to those who hate us (Matthew 5:34)?
I think back to my days as a pastoral counselor, and I wonder what sort of reputation I would have developed, if it had been my practice to instruct husbands and wives, “If you really love your spouse and want to treat them in a Godly manner, then you must never fail to punish them whenever they do you wrong.”
Obviously, relationships require that we sometimes correct one another. We need to point out the wrongs that we do to each other and then deal with them. But correction is an altogether different matter than punishment. It is a process we enter into together for the sake of healing and restoring our relationships, not something that we do to satisfy a personal need for retribution.
God has instructed us to take no thought of the wrongs done to us, and never to seek personal satisfaction by punishing others. How, then, can the Christian West see God as One who is above His own commandments? A God, who, when it comes to Himself, must punishes affronts to His honor and holiness.
Anselm, the 11th century Arch-Bishop of Canterbury, and author of the widely accepted satisfaction theory of salvation, has an answer. In his famous dialogue, “Cur Deus Homo,” or “Why God Became Man,” Anselm’s interlocutor, Boso, makes the very observation we are considering here. When God commands us, he says, in every case, to forgive those who trespass against us, it seems inconsistent to enjoin a thing upon us, which it is not proper to do, Himself—exactly the same issue we are talking about here, but to this, Anselm replies, “There is no inconsistency in God’s commanding us not to take upon ourselves what belongs to Him alone, for to execute vengeance belongs to none but Him, who is Lord of all (Cur Deus Homo, Section 12).”
According to Anselm, what does Jesus mean when he commands us, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you (Matthew 5:44)?”
According to Anselm, he, in effect, must mean that the Father expects us to behave this way, even though He cannot, for the Father is rightly compelled by His very nature to punish His enemies, to take away the life of those who hate Him, and withhold love from those who spite Him.
And yet, that is not, at all, the rationale Jesus offers when He explains why it is that we must return good to those who do us evil. It is not the reason why, as St. Paul teaches, we are to keep no record of wrongs done to us (1 Corinthians 5). No, according to our Lord, we must act this way in order to be considered bona fide children of our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:44).
For you see, this is precisely what the Father does. It is this sort of behavior, the Lord Jesus tells us, that makes Him perfect (Matthew 5:48)—a God who selflessly gives Himself to his fallen creatures in other-directed love. This is a God whom repentant sinners may approach with great boldness.
The Father is, from start to finish, bent upon our transformation, not our punishment. He wants to convert us into people with whom He may joyously dance. This love, not some relentless commitment to order-restoring retribution, is what makes God perfect.
This is not the God revealed in the dominant Western concepts of salvation. I have already mentioned Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement. Traditional Roman Catholic theology leans heavily on Anselm’s views. According to Anselm, Christ dies to restore God’s honor—honor which humanity’s sin had wounded. In order for human beings to escape punishment for this offense, sufficient restitution must be offered. Fortunately for us, the honor done to God by the incarnate Christ’s obedient death, is enough to cover the dishonor we have done to Him.
The Protestant reformers transformed this satisfaction doctrine into something called the penal substitution theory. In this view, Christ’s death still satisfies something God needs, but in this case, it is His need for retributive justice, rather than the restoration of His honor. As our substitute, Christ takes upon Himself the punishment that the righteous God must mete out upon every human sinner.
Unlike their Eastern counterparts who see Christ’s works as a therapeutic act of healing death and sin, Western Christians, by and large, understand Christ’s activity as legal in nature. God either sues us for defamation, as in Anselm, or hauls us into criminal court for our offenses, as in penal substitution. Christ comes either to make good on the damages, or to suffer the demands of divine justice. One way or another, He comes to pay for sin, not to heal it.
One does not need to look to Eastern Orthodox teachers to find ample criticism of these classic Western views of salvation. And we will talk about some of those next time.