Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Work of the Redeemer


All orthodox Christians agree that the Trinity and the Incarnation are mysteries. But in what sense ought we to speak of the third great doctrine of the Faith, the Atonement, as a mystery? The following is an argument for limiting our speech about the Atonement to the proper mode of theological discourse: analogical.

What makes the Trinity and the Incarnation mysteries? A theological mystery is any supernatural “thing” whose essence is incomprehensible to us, indefinable by us and ineffable through us. The divine nature and the personal distinctions within that nature are the most excellent instance of supernatural mystery according to Christianity. The Divine Persons, in the manner in which each subsists in one essence, are mysterious. We can speech analogically or metaphorically, but never univocally or literally about them. Similarly, the Word-Incarnate is a mystery. Not only is the divine nature of the Word incomprehensible, but so is the manner of its union with the humanity of the Word. Thus the essence of the subsistence of the Word – while perfect with respect to human and divine form – is a mystery.

These mysteries, despite the character of incomprehensibility, are revealed to us. They are the objects of contemplation. They are the principle subjects of Christian teaching. Therefore, we are free to devoutly explore, as far as possible, their intelligibility. And yet, they will always remain mysteries.

When we consider the work of the Redeemer, particularly the Atonement, we must decide whether it, like the aforementioned dogmas, is a mystery. Some Christian traditions espouse clear and distinct ideas about the nature of the Atonement. This approach to the work of the Redeemer aims at uniting all its various parts into a single central concept: generally one form of “satisfaction” or another.[1] But is this theologically sound? Is this consistent with the mysterious character of the other major Christian dogmas? It seems not, for the following reasons.

(1) The principle of the work of objective[2] redemption, i.e. the Atonement, is Christ. But Christ is a divine-human agent. Thus the principle of the work of redemption is divine-human.

(2) The union of the divine and the human in Christ is, as we have seen, a mystery. But things operate according to their essence. Therefore, the work of Christ is, like his nature, mysterious.

The first effect of this argument is to show that there can be no more than an analogical description or descriptions of the nature of the Atonement. What “exactly” the nature of the work of the Redeemer is, we cannot know or say. We can, however, approach this mystery through the various scriptural motifs of redemption, victory, and salvation. And yet each of them (whether forensic, martial, or medicinal), while expressing indirectly something true about the work of the Redeemer, fails to define it.

A related effect of this argument is to refute a priori any soteriology that employs univocal terms and arguments.

The final effect of this argument is to re-place the Atonement beside the other great mysteries of Christianity, namely the Trinity and the Incarnation, and thereby reunite them.

[1] This is not to overlook the radical difference between the earlier (Anselmian) and the later (Lutheran) versions of the satisfaction theory.

[2] As distinct from subjective appropriation of redemption.

3 comments:

dmartin said...

I think that this is interesting. It has been very easy to think of the Trinity or the Incarnation as a mystery because so much of these dogmas are not comprehendable. But the atonement is explained more. We get to have a glimpse behind the curtain a little bit more, so it leads us to believe that we can understand it fully. The Atonement is not as simple as it is made to be. If it is just a one for one transfer, then I think we understand most of it... but if it is more than that, we have a lot to contemplate.

Thomas said...

I think trite little metaphors, which you often hear in certain circles, such as the "wire transfer" explanation, are about as false as mathematical representations of the Trinity: 1x1x1.

There is no reason to see the forensic metaphor as more essential than the military or the medicinal one if we are dealing with a mystery.

In truth, you could say that the essence of the Atonement - its central act - is Christ himself being God and man, whereas his other operations are manifold and answer to different aspects of the human condition.

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