Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Problems with the Gift/Satisfaction theory

The Gift / Satisfaction theory of the atonement that I explained here, is an interesting theory of atonement. It fits well with the culture of the time. We know Jews at this time understood some deaths in this manner (the Maccabean Martyrs), and the language they use about these deaths is very very similar to the language used about Jesus in the New Testament. It also explains the use of generic phrases such as "Christ died for our sins". Three highly competent scholars I am aware of think it is taught by Paul.

Yet I have two issues with it that I just can't get my head around. They just don't make any sense to me, and I just can't understand how they could ever make sense. Both come back to the close link between Jesus and God.

1. Giving a gift to yourself makes no sense. It just doesn't. Sure the concept of splashing out as a reward for your hard work makes sense. But no one expends a great deal of effort simply to gift themselves that effort. If Jesus is in any way God's agent, the idea that he gifted his faithful life to God strikes me as plain nonsensical. It would be fine if he was human and not 'working for' God. But I just can't make sense of the idea of God trying to give a gift to himself. It seems to me that an extremely exceptionally 'low' view of Jesus' divinity is required to make any sense at all of this idea.

2. Why the need for God to give himself 'satisfaction' or a gift? If God wants to be kind, he doesn't need to give himself a gift imploring himself to be kind. To make this work, some reason has to be concocted about God not being able to do what he wants to do until he has given himself a gift to make him want to do it more. Alternatively we could say that God wants to not be wrathful and yet is obligated to be, and so has Jesus achieve satisfaction in order to get out of his obligation that he does not desire to fulfill. That was the line Anselm took. But that idea just doesn't make sense in our culture at all. And I think Anselm was scraping the barrel with this one and that it didn't make much sense in his own culture or the biblical authors' culture either.

So, in short, the gift theory is all very well and has potential. Yet it seems to demand either a fairly extreme disconnection between God and Jesus, or an implausible account of the necessities that God works under. So I can't really get my head around it as a model despite the benefits I can see in it.

So readers! What am I missing? This one has me stumped.


Blogger Peter Kirk said...

It would be fine if he was human and not 'working for' God. ... It seems to me that an extremely exceptionally 'low' view of Jesus' divinity is required to make any sense at all of this idea.

It is hardly "an extremely exceptionally 'low' view of Jesus' divinity" to believe that he was human as well as divine, for this is orthodox Trinitarian teaching. Within this framework we can understand how a representative human being can present the satisfaction to God, and this is the role which Jesus is playing on the cross. Jesus' humanity is not cancelled out by the fact that he was serving God, even by the teaching that he also had a divine nature. This, I think, answers your first objection, for me as a Trinitarian believer.

But I don't see an easy answer to your second objection. I made much the same point here, where I pointed out that it is sub-Christian to hold that God is subject to an impersonal moral force. I was relating this mainly to PSA. But the same objection seems to apply to the satisfaction model, which was in fact the context for my "moral order of the universe" quote.

Blogger Andrew said...

I think Jesus being human as well as divine doesn't help. What is required is a serious disconnect between the will of Jesus and the will of God. eg imagine Jesus was an angel, who upon seeing God's wrathfulness toward humanity, decided out of his own love for humanity to satisfy God's wrath. That would make sense. What makes the whole thing problematic is the connection between Jesus and God - God willing himself to offer satisfaction to himself.

Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I see your problem, Andrew, but I think it comes because you are making too close a connection between the persons of the Trinity. Now I agree that in western theology there probably is such a close connection that the will of Jesus and the will of God are seen to be identical. But this is not the biblical view, nor I understand that of much eastern theology, which sees more of a disconnect between the will of Jesus and the will of the Father. As I see it, these are separate wills, although acting in agreement. On this basis Jesus is a separate person, not an angel, who decided to satisfy God's wrath. He did not make this decision in isolation, but because he knew it was the will of the Father, and when his own will was faltering in Gethsemane he prayed "not what I will, but what you will" (Mark 14:36). Maybe this picture is not 100% orthodox Trinitarian. But could it meet your objection?


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