Law-Breaking and …?

This series exploring different biblical metaphors for sin and salvation would be incomplete without looking at the understanding of sin that most readily comes to mind for most of us: sin as infraction, rule-breaking or trespass. This approach understands sin as crossing agreed-upon boundaries. What makes this image interesting theologically is that it doesn’t have an obvious positive counterpart that might offer a solution to the problem of sin. Whereas the ‘solution’ to blindness is clearly sight, and the ‘answer’ to bondage is obviously freedom, the question of law-breaking is far more complicated. These two characteristics — its popularity, to the point of exclusion of all the other images in some quarters, and its lack of an obvious solution — mean that we need to pay special attention to how the image of sin as infraction has been used and ensure we are using it well. To this end, I’ll be breaking my examination of this motif into several parts. Today, I’m going to look at the history of how it has been understood, with particular emphasis on the development of the ‘satisfaction’ and ‘penal substitution’ models of the atonement in the West. The second part on Sunday will study a specific text from Hebrews that has been used both to support and challenge these dominant views. Next week I will look at what the Scriptures really say about sacrifice and its relationship to Jesus’ death. And finally, this mini-series on the image of sin as law-breaking will explore what its solution might really be.

Understanding sin as breaking a rule comes naturally to us. The Bible is full of divine commandments and covenants, which list rights and responsibilities for both God and the people with whom God is covenanting. This culminated with the Law of Moses, which established the ways the people of Israel were to live. Without law, or covenant, it’s difficult to understand what sin might be; after all, how can we know all is not right in the world without knowing what ‘right’ looks like? (This is probably what Paul was trying to say when he wrote “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3.20).)

If we think of human relationships, the most obvious solution to infraction is restoration or repair: If I break your window, justice looks like me fixing your window. This kind of restorative justice is a sensible approach but quickly gets muddied with things that are not easily fixed or quantified. How do you “restore” a broken arm? How do you “fix” an insult? These questions become even more difficult to answer if the ‘injured party’ is understood to be God rather than a neighbour. The question of how to fit God into restorative justice was at the heart of the so-called Satisfaction model of understanding the work of Jesus, which was developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury at the end of the 11th century. This model imagines God as a feudal lord with authority over the world. Sin robs the Lord of his due honour, which must be ‘satisfied’. Since God, as an infinite being, is due infinite honour, humanity is unable to offer the satisfaction required. In Anselm’s view, the only way this could be remedied would be for an infinite being to repay the debt of honour on humanity’s behalf. Hence the Incarnation, and ultimately the crucifixion. As a man, Jesus was able to offer a sacrifice on humanity’s behalf; as God, his sacrifice was sufficient to satisfy humanity’s debt to God’s honour.

This perspective shifted how Christians interpreted the more traditional bondage and debt images. There had always been discomfort with the idea that anything was owed to Satan, as the traditional ransom motif seemed to suggest. Anselm’s feudal analogy resolved this problem by suggesting that the ransom is paid not to Satan, but to God the Father. This is a huge shift, as it set up God, and not Satan (or ‘death’ or sin itself), as the barrier to salvation. That is to say, now the fundamental problem is not conceived of as being trapped by sin or as being impaired or disabled in some way, but as falling short of God’s demands. While God is also the solution to the problem in this view, it still created a division within how Christians in the West understood God; God’s justice is essentially at war with God’s love. An additional consequence of this shift is that now sin was almost entirely understood to be a dynamic between us and God; the fact that it plays out in day-to-day human interactions with very real and human consequences fell out of the dominant theological metaphor.

This is even more apparent in the subsequent ways this image was developed in the West, specifically in St. Thomas Aquinas and the theologians of the Reformation. Whereas Anselm understood the issue of justice in terms of restorative justice — the debt of honour needs to be satisfied — Aquinas moved it into the territory of retributive justice: humanity must be punished for its sins, to an equal measure of the pleasure derived from those sins. We are able to do this for our individual sins through acts of penance, but original sin — the Western Christian idea that we are damned from conception by virtue of Adam’s rebellion against God — remains untouched. Humanity is unable to take on enough punishment to compensate for original sin, and so God steps in by sending Jesus, who, as God-and-human, is able to do so on our behalf. The Swiss Reformer John Calvin pushed this theology even further. Believing in what he called “total depravity” — that humanity is so inherently sinful that we are unable to do anything good — Calvin insisted that we are all under a death penalty before God. As Romans 6.23 ‘plainly’ says, “The wages of sin is death.” God is first and foremost just and holy. And God’s justice means that God cannot abide or ignore sin. We have marred creation and must suffer for it. Again, this conflict between God’s justice and love is resolved by the incarnation and sacrificial death of Jesus, who suffers on our behalf.

Notice the steady progression here. From the Church Fathers to Anselm there was a shift from Christ as our champion ransoming us from a spiritual enemy to Christ paying a debt of honour to God. From Anselm to Aquinas the debt of honour needing to be paid becomes a debt of merit needing to be made up through punishment. And now from Aquinas to Calvin, satisfaction as a form of penance becomes a satisfaction of divine wrath.

In some combination or another, these are the ideas which have shaped the past thousand years of Western Christianity. Sin is a legal infraction which must either be mitigated through a restoration of honour (Anselm) or through punishment (Aquinas and the Reformers). There are many passages in the Scriptures which have been used to support these ideas. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 has been a key Hebrew Bible text for this, with its image of God’s Servant, who was “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” This text is alluded to in the New Testament in the First Letter of Peter:

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (2.23f)

One of the primary New Testament texts used to support this idea is Romans 3.23-26, which reads:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus

These texts use sacrificial language to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death. The logic is that just as the Old Testament sacrifices of rams and goats acted as substitutes for the human lives owed to God, so too does Jesus’s sacrifice substitute for our own. And this has been the dominant way this language has been understood in Western Christianity for the past thousand years.

In recent decades, these substitutionary theories have come under increasing scrutiny. For many — particularly those in strongly Protestant contexts — the very idea of questioning them is tantamount to blasphemy. But there are many compelling reasons to question these historical views of Jesus’ death and the meaning of sacrifice. Here are just a few:

  • As mentioned above, they create an internal division within God, with God’s justice at odds with God’s love.
  • They make divine violence a condition of our forgiveness and salvation. This opens Christianity up to the very real charge of being grounded in an act of child abuse: the Father takes his wrath out on the Son.
  • There is no indication in the Scriptures that God is unable to forgive sins; in the Gospels, John’s baptism was a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’, ritual sacrificial imagery is absent from how Jesus talks about his coming death, and Jesus ties our forgiveness by God only to our forgiveness of others, without any reference to restitution.
  • By focusing so intently on Jesus’ death, these theories minimize the importance of his life and, perhaps more importantly, the resurrection, which has always been the centre of Christian proclamation.
  • They suggest a very different understanding of God, sin, and salvation from other common metaphors biblical metaphors.
  • They misunderstand the nature of sacrifice in the Jewish Law and therefore the way the New Testament used sacrificial language for Jesus.

While all of these considerations deserve significant thought, because this series is talking about different metaphors for sin and salvation, the last two of these are the most relevant for us here. The past few posts have explored the bigger picture presented by other biblical metaphors for sin and salvation. Now, the next few posts will look at the last criticism of satisfaction and substitution models: The Law and the Prophets offer up sacrifice as a solution (of sorts) to the problem of sin, and the New Testament applies this language to Jesus’ death. The question is, though, are we understanding this sacrificial language correctly? This is a huge question, which I hope I can at least start to flesh out in the following posts.

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