At-one-ment, Not Atonement — Center for Action and Contemplation

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At-one-ment, Not Atonement

Alternative Orthodoxy

At-one-ment, Not Atonement

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Franciscan view of atonement theory is a prime example of our alternative orthodoxy. The Franciscan School was dissatisfied with the popular theological idea that Jesus came to Earth as a necessary sacrifice to appease an angry God. As human consciousness advances, more and more people cannot believe that God would demand Jesus’ blood as payment for our sins. It seems to be inevitable that our old logic needs to break up before we can begin to grow up.

The most common reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”—either to pay a debt to the devil (generally believed in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century and holding sway for most of the second millennium). But even in the 13th century, Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) agreed with neither of these understandings.

Duns Scotus was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, and blood sacrifice, which was understandably used by the Gospel writers and by Paul. Instead, he was inspired by the cosmic hymns in the first chapters of Colossians and Ephesians and the Prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18). While the Church has never rejected the Franciscan position, it has remained a minority view.

The terrible and un-critiqued premise of many “substitutionary atonement theories” is that God demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to “atone” for our sin-drenched humanity. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and accept God’s own children! These theories are based on retributive justice rather than the restorative justice that the prophets and Jesus taught.

For Duns Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere Plan B or mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness; Jesus’ birth, life, and death had to be Plan A, the proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made” (Ephesians 1:4). Our sin could not possibly be the motive for the incarnation! Only perfect love and divine self-revelation could inspire God to come in human form. God never merely reacts, but supremely and freely acts—out of love.

Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God! God is not someone to be afraid of but is the Ground of Being and on our side. [1]

The Franciscan minority position, our alternative orthodoxy, is basically saying that no atonement is necessary. Some call it “at-one-ment” instead of atonement. There is no bill to be paid; there is simply a union to be named. Jesus didn’t come to solve a problem; he came to reveal the true nature of God as Love.


[1] This is one of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Seven Themes of an Alternative Orthodoxy. Join the CONSPIRE 2020 webcast to learn more about this and other themes:

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Returning to Essentials: Teaching an Alternative Orthodoxy, disc 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015), CD, MP3 download;

Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 183-188;

Richard Rohr with Tim Scorer, Embracing an Alternative Orthodoxy: Richard Rohr on the Legacy of St. Francis, session 1 (Morehouse Education Resources: 2014), Participants’ Workbook and DVD.

Image credit: St. Francis of Assisi (detail), Jusepe de Ribera, 1642, El Escorial.

Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Francis loved God above all and wanted to imitate Jesus in very practical ways. Action and lifestyle mattered much more to him than mentally believing dogmatic or moral positions to be true or false. Francis directly said to the first friars, “You only know as much as you do!” —Richard Rohr
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