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Center for Action and Contemplation

Substitutionary Atonement

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Salvation as At-One-Ment

Substitutionary Atonement
Sunday, July 23, 2017

This week we will look more closely at some Christian beliefs that have caused a great deal of damage, namely substitutionary atonement “theories.” These views have dominated Christianity over the past century, but it wasn’t always that way. Theologian Marcus Borg (1942-2015) points out that the substitutionary understanding of Jesus’ death “was not central in the first thousand years of Christianity.” [1] Borg explains:

[The] first systematic articulation of the cross as “payment for sin” happened just over nine hundred years ago in 1098 in St. Anselm’s treatise Cur Deus Homo? [Why Did God Become Human?] Anselm’s purpose was to provide a rational argument for the necessity of the incarnation and death of Jesus.

He did so with a cultural model drawn from his time and place: the relationship of a medieval lord to his peasants. If a peasant disobeyed the lord, could the lord simply forgive if he wanted to? No. Because that might imply that disobedience didn’t matter that much. Instead, compensation must be made. Nothing less than the honor and order of the lord were at stake.

Anselm then applied that model to our relationship with God. We have been disobedient and deserve to be punished. And yet God loves us and wants to forgive us. But the price of sin must be paid. Jesus as a human being who was also divine and thus perfect and without sin did that. [2]

Unfortunately, this became the primary lens through which the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament were read. The substitutionary atonement “theory” (and that’s all it is) implies that the Eternal Christ’s epiphany in Jesus is a mere afterthought when the first plan did not work out.

While animals were sacrificed in the Judaic temple, Marcus Borg argues that this “was not about payment for sin” but “making something sacred by giving it as a gift to God”; sacrifices were about “thanksgiving, petition, purification, and reconciliation,” not substitution. [3] The temple metaphors of atonement, satisfaction, ransom, “paying the price,” and “opening the gates,” are just that—metaphors of transformation and transitioning. Too many theologians understood these in a transactional way instead of a transformational way.

Why would God need a “blood sacrifice” before God could love what God had created? Is God that needy, unloving, rule-bound, and unforgiving? Once you say it, you see it creates a nonsensical theological notion that is very hard to defend. What would God ask of me if God demands violent blood sacrifice from God’s only Son? A violent theory of redemption legitimated punitive and violent problem solving all the way down—from papacy to parenting. If God uses and needs violence to attain God’s purposes, maybe Jesus did not really mean what he said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5): “Blessed are the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers.”

Gateway to Silence:
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.

[1] Marcus Borg, “Christianity Divided by the Cross,” October 25, 2013,
[2] Ibid.
[3] Borg, “The Real Meanings of the Cross,” October 28, 2013,

Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture As Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2007), 202.

A note on the term “substitionary atonement”:
​The phrase “substitutionary atonement” is generally used in this week’s meditations to indicate the most current iteration of the theory. Throughout Christian history, there have been multiple theories of substitutionary atonement. One of the earliest, the ransom theory, originated with Origen and the early church. Closely related to this was the Christus Victor theory. The ransom view of atonement was the dominant theory until the publication of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) at the end of the 11th century. Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement then became dominant until the Reformed position introduced penal substitution in the 16th century. This new view of substitutionary atonement emphasized punishment over satisfaction and paralleled criminal law. Today, the phrase “substitutionary atonement” is often (correctly or incorrectly) used to refer to the penal theory of atonement. This series touches the surface of 2,000 years of complex theological process.

Image credit: The Yellow Christ (detail), Paul Gauguin, 1889, Albright–Knox Art Gallery
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