Several weeks ago, I posted some reflections on the meaning of Good Friday. In this post, I suggested that the "goodness" of Christ's death (which is commemorated on this day) is not located within the violence of the cross, but rather in the ultimate victory which Christ acheived over the powers of human sinfulness and hatred even in the face of the collected history and force of evil which was gathered therein against him. That Christ did not capitulate to the cycles of human violence and sinfulness, but rather resisted them even to the point of death, I argued, is truly where the "goodness" of this day is located.

Although there were some very generous comments left, other readers were not impressed. Two in particular argued that I had "missed the point," the "point" being that the violence enacted upon the cross against Christ was not borne out of human sinfulness and hatred, but rather had its primal origin in the very ontology of God.

This kind of thinking very much in keeping with Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory which, in a nutshell, locates the crisis of atonement in the satisfaction of divine wrath through the punishment of sin. This theory suggests that in some form of substitution, God punished Christ on the cross, thereby satisfying the divine wrath against the sins of sinful humanity (within Reformed thought, more partciulalrly those who God has eternally decreed should be saved). So then, it was this primal act of divine violence against Christ which was the "point" that I appartently missed in my reflections.

In response to my detractors, I must ask: How does the alleged "point" that I missed matter within atonement theology?

In my opinion, for an theory of atonement to attain philosophical meaningfulness, it must ultimately answer the primal question of atonement (duh…): how is the problem of human enmity against God and the attending relational separation resolved? As the fundamental presupposition of atonement is that humanity has a problem that needs to be resolved whereby they might be reconciled to God, atonement theology answers (or should…) how this is accomplished.

Historically, views of atonement have tended to place the problem within humanity–after all, it is humanity that has sinned; therefore, the impetus of atonement is what must change within humanity that the problem of sinfulness and separation from God might be overcome. The answer has come in many forms—ransom, rescue, recreation, restoration, recapitulation, ad infinitum. However, despite the interesting variance in form, the common, unfying thread in them all has revolved around ontological change within humanity. That is, as sinfulness has fundamentally altered the very nature of humanity and its relationship to God, so the answer is for the remedying of this depravity–this privation–so that humanity can be restored to the fulness of ontology and proper relationship with God.

A perfect example would be Athanasius' emphasis upon the Incarnation as atoning. Athanasius advocated that humanity, in its sinfulness, has lost the knowledge of God, has been deprived of the fulness of the imago dei, and is hurtling toward dissolution and non-being in its corruptible state. Christ's incarnation–the union of the human and divine–is the means of overcoming this deficiency. Harkening to the recapitulation motifs inherent to the theological tradition of the early church, Athanasius notes that Christ, as the God-human, overcomes where Adam (humanity) has failed. As the divine is joined in the humanity of Christ, the benefits of Christ's perfection are now re-available to humanity. Because of the immanence of the divine in humanity in the person of Christ, the knowledge of God is once again restored to humanity; humanity is recreated in the imago dei; and humanity is now no longer a necessary slave to the unrelenting hastening of non-existence and corruptibility which is apropos to sinful humanity.

Many, many more examples could be noted; however, Athanasius' thought is a prime example of the modus operandi of ancient views of atonement. The beginning premise is the problem of humanity's sinfulness, and the attendant solution of atonement is what God does to "remake" humanity that it might once again be reconciled to the Godhead.

What is supremely interesting to me in this discussion is how far PSA theory diverges from this overwhelmingly consensual theological framework of atonement within historical theology. Rather than beginning with the problem of human sinfulness per se, the beginning "crisis" of atonement in PSA theory is divine wrath against sin. Therefore, PSA theory necessarily places the impetus of atonement in the satisfaction of divine wrath. This is logical in itself, for if the problem of atonement is postulated to be the wrath of God, the obvious answer will follow this lines of how divine anger and blood-thirst is to be assuaged.

However, it is this very "logical coherence" that precludes PSA theory from attaining to philosophical tenability. This is a necessary conclusion, for if the criterion for a philosophically consistent theory of atonement is one which deals perspicuosly and directly with the problem of human sinfulness in relation to God, PSA theory does not come near fulfilling the same.

As I noted before, PSA theory begins with the assumption that the problem of atonement is assuaging God's wrath and blood-thirst against sin. Immediately, the theory excludes questions of what must be done within humanity that they might be reconciled to God. Rather, the issue is shifted to God, and the severing of divine-human relations is pushed completely out of the sphere of atonement theology proper. More suspiciously, however, is the way in which PSA theory makes the "change" that must occur for atonement to be realized incumbent upon God, not humanity. As noted before, ancient atonement theology proceeded to describe the change which must occur within humanity for atonement to be realized. As Athanasius' example illustrates, the solution is the recreation of humanity, the restoration of the imago dei, etc. However, within PSA theory, the answer of atonement does not engage a change within humanity whatsoever, ontological or otherwise. Rather, as the beginning problem is located within the divine psychology, the only change that occurs in atonement is in relation to God's view of humanity.

The cross, then, in such a framework, is seen as a means by which a change is effected within the very will and being of God. The cross, according to PSA theory, illustrates that God will and can only forgive if God's mind is changed about what God desires to do to humanity because of its sin. The logic of PSA theory, then, is that Christ's death on the cross is somehow sufficient to produce a change in God's will and psychology whereby God is persuaded to not do that which God was otherwise will-ing to do. Or in another way, by virtue of the brute fact of Christ's death, God has now the motivation (or compulsion) to do that which God was not otherwise able to do, or not will-ing to do.

Now let us grant that these conclusions are somehow philosophically consistent. Notice what has happened: in the entire discussion of atonement, humanity has been entirely left out. As the crux of atonement, in PSA theory, is the alteration of the divine will and psychology, the entire drama of atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation plays out wiithin the divine community. At no point in this entire "exchange" is humanity significantly intersected. Rather, the agent of change is exclusively God, for it is God whose will is altered by the death of Christ to become will-ing to do that which God was otherwise not will-ing to do.

In the final analysis, humanity remains en
rely unchang
ed. The problem of human sinfulness is not actually dealt with, as the cross only appeases divine wrath, a mere massaging of God's mind about what God intends to do to sinners (rather than actually changing the sinners). Sinners are still wrapped up in slavery to cycles of violence and enmity towards God–only God is no longer lusting for blood because of this. Sinners are still privated of good, hurtling towards non-existence–only God is now willing to overlook this, pretending (by virtue of Christ's death) that they are not. The imago dei is still diminished within the ontology of humanity—only God is now convinced that it is not.

Much more could be said about this, of course, but what has been briefly examined above is sufficient to defend the thesis that PSA theory is not philosophically tenable as a theory of atonement precisely because it does not begin with, nor finally provide a solution to the primal problem of human sinfulness. Rather, in the grandest display of philosophical deflection, PSA theory reduces the atonement to a curious fit of divine neurosis, advocating unwittingly that the atonement is ultimately the resolving drama of divine psychological vacillation wherein God is finally reconciled to Godself regarding God's understanding and lack of clarity regarding human sinfulness.