“On the Doctrine of Atonement” by Robert W. Jenson

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to “On the Doctrine of Atonement” by Robert W. Jenson

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This is another essay that I have had sitting in my computer that is not readily available on the web. Robert Jenson is one of the most interesting and creative theologians in the U.S. I probably have learned more about which the right kinds of theological questions to ask than from anyone else I have read or studied under. He has a way of critically penetrating to the heart of the theological matter. The past few years I have had to retreat from a few of Jenson’s more provocative proposals, but that’s okay. He is technically a Protestant, but he’s unlike any “Protestant” theologian you have ever read. Call him “eclectic catholic.” He is the author of a two volume Systematic Theology (both volumes of which are available in paperback). Unlike, say, Karl Barth or Karl Rahner, Jenson’s work has not generated a “school” or a community of disciples. He is simultaneously too idiosyncratic and too catholic for that. He remains one of my all-time favorite theologians.


  2. PJ says:

    RE: Anselm

    It seems to me that Cur Deus Homo was written with a very special motive: to demonstrate to Jews and Muslims that the crucifixion isn’t totally senseless — a tragic and meaningless execution without any grand meaning. He wished to demonstrate that it has a sort of “divine logic.” The thesis was an exercise in economic speculation. But then it was blown utterly out of proportion and made by some the very centerpiece of Christian theology. Did Anselm ever imagine that the argument he presents in Cur Deus Homo would be taken as a full account of the Christian evangel? I doubt it. I really doubt it.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      We Jews and Muslims St Anselm’s audience? Hmmm. I have to wonder about that, PJ. I don’t suppose Cur Deus Homo was a bestseller down at the local Jewish and Muslim bookstores. 😉 But clearly it was read, and appropriated, by Catholic bishops and theologians.

      In any case, whether Anselm intended his statement to be a full account of the gospel we cannot know. The fact remains that the doctrine of satisfaction, followed by penal substitution in Protestantism, became the central way of construing salvation in the Western Church. Now there may be ways of rendering satisfaction in a satisfactory way (e.g., if satisfaction is understood as “restoring in the sinner what sin has damaged” [Eleonore Stump]); but I do not believe there is any way to render penal substitution in a manner that is acceptable to the gospel, as comprehended by the Eastern Church.


      • PJ says:

        Obviously it wasn’t intended for the heathen masses, but rather for intellectuals and religious leaders, who may very well have read it.

        Note Boso’s closing remark: “All things which you have said seem to me reasonable and incontrovertible. And by the solution of the single question proposed do I see the truth of all that is contained in the Old and New Testament. For, in proving that God became man by necessity, leaving out what was taken from the Bible, viz., the remarks on the persons of the Trinity, and on Adam, you convince both Jews and Pagans by the mere force of reason. And the God-man himself originates the New Testament and approves the Old. And, as we must acknowledge him to be true, so no one can dissent from anything contained in these books.”

        Apparetly, one of Anselm’s favorite students engaged in religious debate with Jews. Some speculate this was written — at least in part — as a help to this friend and pupil.

        “But clearly it was read, and appropriated, by Catholic bishops and theologians.”

        Not to mention Orthodox theologians:

        The commission of sin involves injury to God Himself… there is need of virtue great than is found in man to be able to cancel the indictment. For the lowest it is particularly easy to commit an injury against Him who is greatest. Yet it is impossible for him to compensate for this insolence by any honour… He, then, who seeks to cancel the indictment against himself must restore the honour to Him who has been insulted and pay more than he owes, partly by way of restitution, partly by adding compensation…. [Jesus] alone, then, was able to render all the honour that is due to that Father and make satisfaction for that which had been taken away. The former he achieved by His life, the latter by His death. The death which He died upon the cross to the Father’s glory He brought to outweigh the injury which we had committed; in addition He most abundantly made amends for the debt of honour which we owed for our sins” (Nicholas Cabasilas, Life in Christ).


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thanks, PJ, for bringing St Nicholas into the conversation. Fr Patrick Reardon has suggested that Cabasilas read Anselm and appropriated his understanding of satisfaction and atonement from him.

        I remain skeptical, PJ, of the suggestion that Jews and Muslims were Anselm’s primary audience, though he no doubt intended his apologetic reflections as an answer to Jewish and Islamic criticisms.

        In any case, the question of the viability of Anselm’s theory remains. We might put to it the two Jensonian questions: (1) Does it locate the Cross within the biblical story, or does it abstract from the story? (2) Does it make sense of or is it fulfilled in or does it even need the resurrection of Christ? As a preacher, I can’t even imagine preaching anything like St Anselm’s theory from the pulpit today, though no doubt it made sense to medieval audiences.


      • PJ says:

        But that’s my point: I don’t think Anselm intended the thesis presented in Cur Deus Homo to be the single, all-encompassing “theory” of the Cross. Maybe I’m wrong. But I just don’t see how that could be the case, given the absence of the resurrection, as Jenson rightly points out. It seems to have been wrenched out of context and blow out of proportion, in that satisfaction — one facet of the diamond of the Cross — was made the only criterion for evaluating and understanding the atonement. That said, I do think satisfaction and substitution are legitimate motifs of the atonement. I find them present both in Scripture and Tradition.

        Of course, I’d take Dei Incarnatione over Cur Deus Homo any day of the week.


      • PJ says:

        “As a preacher, I can’t even imagine preaching anything like St Anselm’s theory from the pulpit today, though no doubt it made sense to medieval audiences.”

        You may be right, but this doesn’t really address its veracity. Indeed, I find the fact that it made sense to the medievals a mark in its favor, given the sad state of the modern mind. 😉


      • Mark Armitage says:

        St Nicodemus the Hagiorite is another Orthodox theologian who uses clearly Anselmian language. George Metallinos argues that Nicodemus doesn’t mean the same by this language as Anselm means. I tend to think that we should extend the same charity to Anselm and suppose that Anselm didn’t understand his own Anselmian soteriology in the way in which Catholic and Protestant scholasticism later understood it. But however one understands it, it seems, at best, to be a model of salvation that needs to be handled with extreme caution.

        Met. Kallistos suggests four criteria for evaluating theories of atonement, and, unless it is advocated in a highly nuanced form, the Anselmian model seems to fail the first three of these texts:
        Does it envisage a change in God or in us? Does it separate Christ from the Father? Does it isolate the cross from the Incarnation and the Resurrection? Does it presuppose an objective or a subjective understanding of Christ’s work?


  3. Nicole says:

    This was interesting, although I have to admit, I found it difficult to understand fully.


  4. Rhonda says:

    I think Jenson is more than a bit short-sighted in his focus such as in his comments about the Creed, which I think he is misrepresenting its purpose as if it has always been understood to be presenting linear time events.The purpose of the creed(s) over the millennia was to present the basics of correct belief (in this case Trinitarian belief), not the entirety of belief nor a historical timeline of belief. Personally, he is grasping for imaginary straws here in an attempt to substantiate his perspective. He greatly weakens his argument IMO.

    I also think that he is extremely short-sighted & dismissive regards the East. I find this very ironic given his ending “solution” of Liturgy! My guess is that he has read far too many of the spiritual writings intended for monastics in their monastic setting & too few of the theological writings of the Church. Sadly, Jenson by being so dismissive has failed to realize the synergy of the creeds, doctrine & liturgy within the Eastern Faith…i.e. the living Tradition. I also wonder if he is part of the growing movement among many Protestants to incorporate many aspects/forms of the ancient Christian Faith. I have heard of several evangelical churches re-instituting confession in somewhat silly inane ways, but also in some very untoward ways that resulted in abuse of the parishioners by pastors. There is a relatively-local independent group close to me that has a form of “church/pastoral authority” that would make most RC & EO scream for defrocking.due to the extortion, manipulation & abuse.

    However, he is spot-on regards the emphasis of the Crucifixion without incorporating the Resurrection. I would add that he also needs to consider incorporating the Incarnation (meaning all of Christ’s life, not just the event of His Nativity) as well. I have heard even preachers state that Christ had to become incarnate so that He could be crucified & we know this because He was resurrected as proof that He was not just another Jewish martyr by the hand of the Romans. Ignored is the significance of Christ’s Baptism [Theophany (EO) / Epiphany (RC)] & Transfiguration for our salvation. The miracles of Christ become just things He did to prove He was divine (at best) or that He was a prophet/healer/teacher of God (at worst) rather than proofs of His absolute life-giving power over creation, sin & death. Thus, in the main Protestant perspective the Incarnation & Resurrection are only of secondary importance in order to give credence to the bloody penal substitionary atoning sacrifice of the Crucifixion required to soothe anger & restore honor of an offended god.


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Rhonda, Jenson is known for the brevity of his written theological argumentation. Hence I can understand why one might feel that in his lecture he has not dealt adequately with ____. The lecture makes a lot more sense if one is acquainted with Jenson’s work.

    You have zeroed in on one possible weakness in Jenson’s argument: is it the case that the Church Fathers, at least practically speaking, divorced Jesus and the cross from the history of Israel? The first thing that needs to be said is that Jenson has read deeply in the Church Fathers (Eastern and Western), and he has done so in the original languages. He’s also read a lot of the secondary literature. But I suspect that his reading has been restricted to the literature that focuses on trinitarian and christological concerns, which is to be expected given his own theological work. So the first question that arises, at least in my own mind, is how Israel was interpreted by the Fathers in, say, their homiletical and exegetical writings, writings that Jens may well not have read or at least not a whole lot. Given my ignorance, I cannot even offer an opinion. So the first question I want to ask is: what did the Church Fathers say and preach about Israel’s role in the history of salvation?

    Jenson identifies two obvious omissions: the absence of Israel in the various creeds of the Church and the absence of Israel in the various anaphoras of the Church. This absence does pose a problem–particularly the latter. The eucharistic prayer is the great and central statement of the Church’s faith; but where is Israel, where is the Exodus, where is Torah, etc.? How is the absence of Israel in creed and anaphora to be explained? If I recall correctly, the Old Testament was not included in the Sunday lectionary readings in either the Latin or Eastern Church. One might respond that the absence is compensated by the reading of the Old Testament in the daily offices and in perhaps the Church’s hymnody and iconology. I’d love to see this documented.

    I doubt Jenson knows a great deal about contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy in its contemporary expression, though he has certainly read the writings of key 20th century Orthodox theologians. I seriously doubt, though, that he has read any of the ascetical literature, whether ancient or modern.


    • Rhonda says:

      You note quite rightly that I am not familiar with Jenson’s other works, nor most Protestants for that matter. In the Presbyterian tradition of my youth theological reading was not encouraged outside of the Scriptures, unless of course it was written by Billy Graham whose writings I did not like much to the chagrin of my mother & pastors. Also the era in which I was raised (sans computers much less internet), small local library with no ILL system (even where I live today I do not have access to a public library!) & the poverty I was raised in did not provide the ability or opportunity to access to vast resources. In many ways since becoming Orthodox & now being in better financial straits, I have tried to play catch-up as I deal with the non-Orthodox. Usually, though when I do read something outside of the Orthodox Tradition, I seldom finish the work as I tend to end up irritated by much of the shallowness & tepidness…little else theologically can compare to the beauty, integration & completeness of Orthodox theology in synergy with Orthodox life. We can explain the Mystery of Faith so that even young children can understand, but yet it is a Mystery no adult will ever comprehend. I guess I just like Orthodoxy 😉


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Rhonda, your “aww shucks” routine doesn’t have me fooled one second! 🙂 I know you have read and wrestled with a fair mount of Zizoulas, for example, and he’s not easy!

        But I believe that all of the major Christian traditions enjoy theological strengths and depth, though often in different areas. I have learned my faith from too many non-Orthodox sources to be dismissive of those sources. Hence I agree with Zizioulas that Orthodox theology in the 21st century has to be ecumenical, i.e., in creative and productive theological conversation and dialogue with Catholic and Protestant theologians and biblical scholars. Not to be in such a conversation can only result in impoverishment. That was one of the strengths of the Parisian school in the 20th century. It’s also a strength of Zizioulas. IMHO. See, e.g., Paul Gavrilyuk, “The Orthodox Renaissance.”

        But this doesn’t mean that you should be spending time reading Catholic and Protestant theologians. We only have so much time and energy available to us. We have to pick and choose. That’s one reason I have decided to devote the bulk of my theological reading on the 4th & 5th century Church Fathers. There’s so much to learn. Yet one day I hope to tackle the entirety of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theo-Drama, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for years.


  6. Rhonda says:

    Fr. Aidan,

    Haven’t found an Orthodox priest yet that I can fool about my red-neck ways 😛 And yes, I truly am a red-neck from the sticks of rural MO living in the sticks of rural IL.

    Yes, Met. Ziz is right up there on my favorites list (have 4-5 of his works on my shelf & 3-4 on my Amazon wish list) …& to wrestle with his thought is simultaneously torture & pleasure…torture to comprehend only a paragraph, at times a mere sentence, & pleasure when you do! The man is an absolute sheer genius! I would love to meet him in person someday…not likely, but still…

    I too fully agree that Orthodoxy has to be ecumenical (in the sense you defined) in our current time, especially given our distinctly minority numbers here in the US where there are almost as many varied Protestant groups as there are Orthodox faithful! I am trying…really…I am 🙂 This is actually the main reason I frequent your blog so that I might, at least in small chunks, get my perspective & understanding broadened without threatening my checkbook. While I love nothing more than an excuse (good/bad is irrelevant) to buy yet another book, it is easier on hubby’s temperament & our marriage when I don’t…

    Another author I like is Christos Yannaris. His Freedom of Morality I were allowed to draw up a required reading list for the Orthodox would surely be on it. Perhaps I could “aww shucks” my way into getting you to do a blog article or 2 (or a series) about that work?


Comments are closed.