August 4, 2008 Length: 12:22
In this segment, Matthew outlines the "ransom theory" of salvation subscribed to by the early Church.
Last time, I outlined the basic punishment-based theories of salvation, which are dominant in the Western tradition. We talked about Anselm’s satisfaction theory, and the Reformers’ penal substitution theory. When we ended, I said that there are a number of criticisms of these theories, and some of them come from people within the Western tradition.
In fact, in recent years, more and more Western theologians, Roman Catholics, traditional Protestants, and Evangeligals, have come to seriously question aspects of these theories. These teachers agree that there is little in the scriptures, or in the history of the Church, to commend them.
On the other hand, these doctrines do, clearly reflect the political and social climates of the ages that produced them, which is the very ground out of which philosophical speculation commonly grows, and of course, what we have been talking about all along here, is the influence of philosophical principles and philosophical ways of thinking on Western Christian theology.
To begin with, it is common knowledge among scholars of all denominations, that the early Church, just like the Orthodox Church which preserves its heritage, subscribed neither to the satisfaction theory, nor to the substitution theory. It held to what is commonly called, the ransom therapy of atonement.
In the gospels, Jesus Christ calls himself, our ransom (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). St. Paul tells St. Timothy that the Lord gave Himself, a ransom, for all (1 Timothy 2;6). A ransom, of course, is a payment made to someone to effect the release of a captive. Somehow, then, the life, and more particularly, the death, of Jesus Christ, must represent a payment to someone, or something. The question is, to whom, or to what?
The answer sometimes given to that, is that it is a ransom paid to the devil, but that is a bit misleading. After all, the devil has never owned us, or possessed any legitimate claim to authority over us. Even as unrepentant sinners, we belong entirely to our Creator. On the other hand, the devil has exerted a terrible power over humankind. There is a weapon which has been at his disposal, and he has readily employed it, to hold us captive in darkness. That instrument of bondage is death.
As we read in Hebrews 2:14-15, “In as much, then, as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He, Himself, likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” It is the dark, unknown of death, you see, that drives the unregenerate to devote their lives to sin.
Separated from God, without the knowledge and hope of heaven, it is natural for us to give ourselves to the most selfish and licentious pursuits. Satan fortifies this inclination by keeping the spectre of death ever before us. He reminds us that one day we shall descend into nothingness. The fear of that eternal emptiness drives us to selfishly grab whatever we can, and all that we can, right here and now. The result is that the gulf between God and us becomes immeasurably wide. We find ourselves lost in the dark halls of death and festering sin. There is no way to escape. No way to rise to that exalted place with God which we were created to inhabit.
In the Orthodox/early Church understanding, it is death which is our captor. Thus, it is to death, not to the devil who makes us of its might, that Christ pays the ransom of His own death. St. Athanasius puts it so well, and so succinctly: “He, that is, Christ, surrendered His body to death instead of all. This He did out of shear love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished, because having fulfilled in His body that for which It was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men (On the Incarnation, Chapter 2, Section 8).”
There nothing in this ancient Christian perspective, which implies that God has some intrinsic need to restore his personal honor, or that there is some requisite punishment he must levy against us for our sakes. So, from whence do theologies like Anselm’s satisfaction theory, or the substitution theory of the Reformers, arise? It seems to me, as well as to many other observers, that these theories reflect a willingness within men’s hearts, to adapt the truths of Christianity, rather than to whole-heartedly and devotedly preserve the faith as it was committed to the Church by the apostles and handed down across the generations through the holy bishops of the faith.
This occurs when human philosophical principles and human philosophical thought, as opposed to the corporate sacramental and ascetic experience of the Body of Christ, become the acceptable definers of doctrine and practice. Such is the legacy that the West inherits from Augustine and his successor.
As I said early on, the goal of philosophy is to paint a picture of reality that connects all aspects of our lives—our mental experience, our social experience, our ethical experience, and our scientific experience, of the physical world. Philosophy seeks to join all of these together into one, coherent, comprehensive tapestry. The problem in the Christian West has been the tendency to see our life with God as just one more element to be worked into that picture. As a result, all those other factors—the social, the ethical, and the scientific, have been allowed to blend with, and exert their influence on, the Western understanding of Christianity.
Consider Anselm’s satisfaction theory. It is easy, judging by the numerous scholars who have made this connection, to see the definite parallel between Anselm’s vision of a God whose honor must be preserved by His creatures, and the feudal social system of his 11th century Europe. God becomes the Lord of the manor, and we are the serfs. In salvation, sinners face the same dilemma as subjects trying to get back into the good graces of a feudal Lord whom they have slighted.
When it comes to the Reformers’ penal substitution theory, I think J. I. Packer is absolutely right. The renowned evangelical Anglican theologian points out, in his words, “Much of the more formative and influential discussing of penal substitution was done in the 17th century, at a time when Protestant exegesis of scripture was colored by an uncriticized and, indeed, unrecognized natural theology of law (What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution, section 4).
The Reformers and their successors may have rebelled against the Latin Catholic tradition, but they fully embraced that freedom, to philosophically interpret the faith which they inherited from Rome. Seeking the essential goal of philosophy, that is, of coherent and integrated understanding of human experience based in reason, they merged their theology with their developing art of jurisprudence. Current legal concepts and terminology were incorporated into their understanding of salvation. And so, justification, sanctification, imputation—all these biblical salvific terms take on courtroom definitions in the penal substitution explanation. But they do not have to be defined that way. In fact, those raised on the substitution theory find it quite surprising, and hard to grasp, that in the ransom theory of the early Church, these words actually describe interpersonal experiences with the living God.
The satisfaction and penal substitution theories are late-comers. Even those who hold them admit this. What is more, many also admit that these theologies reflect more philosophical influence than biblical evidence. But to me, the greatest indicator that legal or punishment-based theories of salvation are inconsistent with Christianity, is simply, the history of God’s dealings with sinful humanity. There is nothing in the scriptural reference of God’s actions toward us to suggest that He has this incredible need to restore His tarnished honor, or exact punitive justice on us. And we will talk about that next time.