In this dissertation, I develop and defend a revised satisfaction account of the Christian doctrine of atonement based primarily on the thought of St. Anselm of Canterbury. The project thus has both a historical and a normative dimension, since I offer an interpretation of Anselm, and then derive from it an account of the atonement as a candidate for how Christians ought to think about and understand what God has accomplished in Christ on our behalf.
I begin, in Chapter 2, by examining the most common way of framing the doctrine of atonement today, which I call the “atonement theory paradigm”—a paradigm into which Anselm is supposed to fit neatly. The atonement theory paradigm assumes that a set of traditional concepts applied to Christ’s work stand for theories of atonement which are fundamentally alternatives to one another. According to this paradigm, at a face-value reading, either Christ saves by defeating oppressive forces and liberating us from them (Christus Victor), or he saves us by offering himself to the Father as a perfect sacrifice, or he saves us by providing a saving teaching and example of the proper love of God (moral exemplar), etc. What follows from this is that one either has to select one such theory or else interpret them more loosely and metaphorically, holding them together without integrating them into a unified view. I argue that neither of these approaches is ideal from the perspective of Christian theology; all things being equal, it would be preferable to hold together such deeply-entrenched theological claims with their full force. Thankfully, they do not actually contradict one another in any obvious way.
In Chapter 3, I proceed to develop a detailed interpretation of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo which understands him not to be presenting an alternative theory to other supposed theories of atonement but to be identifying an underlying logic according to which all of the main traditional ways of talking Christ’s work can be understood as fitting and necessary. That is, I argue that Anselm does not fit the atonement theory paradigm, and that he presents us with a way of understanding Christ’s work that avoids the weaknesses of that paradigm. Attending to the details of Anselm’s text, as well as to several of his earlier treatises, it becomes apparent that many prominent criticisms of his theology of atonement hinge on fitting it into the atonement theory paradigm, and hence my reinterpretation helps to show where such critiques miss the mark.
Moving from there, in Chapter 4 I develop a revised satisfaction account that moves beyond a reproduction of Anselm. I do this by attending to another medieval theologian who made use of Anselm’s concept of satisfaction, namely St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas differs from Anselm on some important points, including especially the question of whether God made use of the means of satisfaction to bring about the salvation of human persons by necessity, or as a contingent choice from among other genuine alternatives. Thomas also provides a helpful elaboration to Anselm, since his account of Christ’s Passion in the Summa Theologiae is more systematic and comprehensive than Anselm’s treatise. Thomas thus helps to show more clearly than Anselm that satisfaction is compatible with other atonement concepts. Finally, Thomas’s concept of friendship with God, and his connection of satisfaction with the maintenance of such friendship (through the sacrament of penance) helps to make it more clear than it is in Cur Deus Homo how a satisfaction account of atonement relates to the spiritual life of a Christian striving to grow in holiness and in the love of God. By considering these differences and elaborations, I arrive at a revised satisfaction account that is based on Anselm but has a greater breadth than one could get from Anselm’s text by itself.
Finally, with this revised account of the atonement in hand, in Chapter 5, I consider one prominent form of critique normally applied to satisfaction accounts by contemporary theologians. According to many feminist, womanist, and other liberationist thinkers, accounts like the one I develop here are harmful to oppressed persons, such as those undergoing spousal abuse, because they provide a motive for thinking that passively accepting such suffering is Christ-like. I examine how the inference involved in this critique works, and then argue that if we attend to the details of our satisfaction account, we can see that it does not hold.
On this account of satisfaction, God does not value suffering for its own sake, but only for the sake of some good end, ultimately justice. On the contrary, our account suggests that whenever possible those who perpetrate injustice ought to try to make satisfaction, and that the satisfaction assigned ought to be of the sort which would teach wrongdoers to will what they ought to will towards the ones wronged. I consider two cases to elucidate this response: the case of spousal abuse, and the case of calls for reparations for slavery in the United States. In both cases, I argue that the logic of the satisfaction account developed here runs in the opposite way to that supposed by the critique, since it would entail that is either necessary or extremely fitting according to justice for the wrongdoers to perform an act of satisfaction rather than be forgiven without satisfaction.
Graduate Program in Religious Studies
William J. Abraham
Bruce D. Marshall
Paul J. Griffiths
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Mahfood, David M., "Christus Satisfactor: An Anselmian Approach to the Doctrine of Atonement" (2017). Religious Studies Theses and Dissertations. 1.
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