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  • Writer's pictureRev. Morgan Byars

Jesus as Our Satisfaction (Lenten Series Part 3)

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

If it be necessary, therefore, as it appears, that the heavenly kingdom be made up of men, and this cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it. – Anselm, Cur Deus Homo Book II, Ch. 6

Gotta love these outdated English translations of medieval authors making things as confusing as possible for us. Not to worry though, we’ll take some time to break down what Anselm’s talking about. And they’re certainly worth spending some time on, for these words from Anselm form the basis of two very closely related atonement theories that have greatly influences our theology even to this day: satisfaction theory and penal substitutionary atonement.

If you recall last week’s post, you may remember that ransom theory posited that Jesus is offered as a ransom for us to free us from bondage to the forces of sin, death, and Satan. This theory was popular for much of Church history including when Anselm was around in the 11th century. Anselm, though, had a problem with this. He thought it was improper to say that God had to grapple with Satan in order to rescue us. It’s basically the theological equivalent of the phrase “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” If God is all-powerful, after all, then why did God have to negotiate with some other being?[1] The fact remains, however, that we need saving. So to see what we need saving from, Anselm looked to the issue of God’s honor. Satisfaction theory therefore goes like this: God has been wronged by our sin and God’s honor has been insulted. Because God’s honor is infinite and demands an infinite debt, we can’t pay it. But since humanity wronged God, a human should satisfy that debt. Therefore, since “none but God” can make the payment “and none but man ought to pay it, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.” In other words, God becomes human in the person of Jesus and satisfies the debt as both God and man. Jesus reconciles us to God and pays the debt our sin incurred against God.

That’s satisfaction theory in a nutshell. But what does that have to do with penal substitutionary atonement? Let’s jump ahead 500 years after Anselm to the Reformation. By the time of the Reformation the concept of honor was not as prevalent. Honor was an integral part of feudal society in Anselm’s day, but a feudal contract between liege and vassal, and the honor of maintaining such a contract, was not the primary way of organizing society anymore. During the Reformation, therefore, satisfaction theory morphed into what we call penal substitutionary atonement. The primary way of understanding salvation turned into this: Jesus is punished (penal) for our sins in our place (substitution) to satisfy God’s justice so that we may be reconciled to God (atonement). The idea that Jesus reconciled us to God by satisfying a debt remained the same, but the nature of the debt changed. It went from being a debt owed to God’s honor to a debt owed to God’s justice.

Like ransom theory, this model emphasizes some parts of salvation well and neglects others. It does uplift the issue of our sin and God’s justice, reminding us that we are all implicated in the world’s brokenness and that God is indeed deeply concerned and angered by such sin. When we get angry at injustices and the way people mistreat one another, we glimpse what it is like for God to be angered by our sin. And indeed, to be in restored relationship with God is a crucial part of salvation. God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ” so that we may be in restored relationship, and this is good news (2 Cor. 5:18)! This theory can, however, neglect the way that salvation mends our relationships with each other.

If we only understand salvation as mending the relationship between ourselves and God, we have little to say about our relationships with one another. Anselm’s view of salvation, if taken in isolation, creates an overly “vertical” orientation of salvation, with little to say about what we’re supposed to do about injustices and broken relationships amongst ourselves. We must also remember the “horizontal element” of salvation, namely that God has come to mend our relationships with one another (Eph. 2:11-20). Many theologians have noted the ways that the Church has sometimes been slow to respond to societal issues. For example, Nancy Pineda-Madrid, in her book Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez, has noted how Anselm’s atonement theology led to a largely neglectful Church in the face of a string of murders against women in Juarez. We too may note in our own contexts how the Church has oftentimes been slow to respond to pressing issues of our time, instead preferring to face inward and focus on personal piety. Prayer, personal piety, and devotion to God – all of which are good and amazing things – are not the only things we are called to in our restored lives. We are also called to do works of justice and mercy, to challenge systems of oppression, to love our neighbors, and to usher in the kingdom of God on earth here and now. Keeping that in mind, we will look at another medieval atonement theory next week that has had a comeback in the last several decades: moral exemplar theory.

[1] It is partially for this reason that modern conceptions of ransom theory focus more on the abstracted forces that enslave us such as sin and death. But that’s a blog series for another time!

* Cover Photo: The Crucifixion of Jesus by Kim Ki-Chang, 1950s

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