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Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses three developments in European that had a profound effect on the Christian concept of atonement, the first of which is the enormous impact of the Enlightenment, in particular the so-called ‘anthropocentric turn’. This turn included a new confidence in the powers of human reasoning, unaided by revelation or traditional theological confessions, to discern the nature of God and the universe. The second development is that of a series of powerful reductive critiques of religion, including of atonement. The third has been closely linked with the first: sustained critiques of substitution and satisfaction-based models of the atonement (including retributive, sacrificial, and forensic models). The concluding section offers a brief overview of trends in constructive accounts of the atonement from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including classic accounts by Schleiermacher and Barth, and the non-satisfaction-oriented alternatives that have been rehabilitated in light of the larger developments.

Keywords: Enlightenment, human reasoning, religion, atonement theology, Karl Barth, Friedrich Schleiermacher

The modern period has witnessed major shifts in the doctrine of the atonement in Europe and beyond, largely through the impact of ideas generated in disciplines outside of theology. These shifts stand in tension with the persistence of more traditional models among broad swaths of Christians.

In Christian theology, atonement refers to a fundamental reconciliation between God, humanity, and the world. This reconciliation is set in motion and achieved by God in Jesus Christ, through his incarnation, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection, though different models of atonement emphasize different aspects. Doctrines of the atonement presuppose that evil, sin, and the ‘brokenness’ of the world have created a rift of some kind between God and his creatures, and that the coming and work of Christ serve to resolve this rift. Atonement is the particular mechanism or process by which this reconciliation occurs. Traditionally, reconciliation has meant salvation and eternal life for those reconciled, though more recent approaches have also emphasized its immanent aspects, in addressing contemporary social, political, and cultural concerns, as well as its cosmic implications for the whole of creation, rather than for particular individuals and groups only.

Developments in European thought in recent centuries have had a profound effect on the Christian concept of atonement. First, there has been the enormous impact of the Enlightenment, in particular what Charles Taylor has called its ‘anthropocentric turn’ (Taylor 2007: 221). This ‘turn’ included a new confidence in the powers of human reasoning, unaided by revelation or traditional theological confessions, to discern the nature of God and the universe. This went together with a profound questioning of the traditional views of humanity as tainted by original sin that had long undergirded the doctrine of the atonement.

Second, following the lead of Ludwig Feuerbach, a series of powerful reductive critiques of religion, including of atonement, were developed. These provided alternative explanations for religion as an artefact of human culture rather than of divine revelation. Significantly, several of these non-religious accounts of the world—most (p. 634) saliently that of psychologist Sigmund Freud—have led to alternative therapies for approaching many of the human problems traditionally addressed by atonement theology—the experience of guilt, in particular, but also anxiety, depression, and feelings of meaninglessness. This has further undermined some of the traditional force of the doctrine.

A third development has been closely intertwined with the first: sustained critiques of substitution and satisfaction-based models of the atonement (including retributive, sacrificial, and forensic models). Models of this type had come to the fore with Anselm in the eleventh century, were developed further by Aquinas, and became even more important as a result of the Reformation. By the seventeenth century in various forms they had become the dominant approach in European theology. Different thinkers in recent centuries have attacked such models as variously incoherent, primitive, immoral, unnecessary, and even as actively destructive of human flourishing.

In what follows, these three developments will be examined. While not exhaustive, together they provide a useful map of the doctrine over the past two centuries and beyond. This is particularly the case in the Protestant tradition, where atonement discussion has been most vigorous and most fraught. Each of these themes has retained a remarkable degree of interest and impact even after more than two centuries of discussion; they are selected here not least for their continuing relevance. Although there have been a number of important ‘intra-Christian’ debates on the atonement in recent centuries, the focus here will be on the ways in which developments outside of the Christian tradition have made an impact on thinking about the atonement.

A critical and often overlooked theme will emerge along the way: the unexpected persistence of the Protestant-Pietist synthesis in atonement theology, from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first, particularly outside of the halls of the academy.

A concluding section will offer a brief overview of trends in constructive accounts of the atonement from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including classic accounts by Schleiermacher and Barth, and the non-satisfaction-oriented alternatives that have been rehabilitated in light of the larger developments.

I. Background: The Dominance of Satisfaction Theories

The story of the atonement in Europe since 1800 is the continuation of a story that begins several centuries earlier, and it cannot be properly understood without this background. In Roman Catholic theology in this period, the dominant model remained that of Thomas Aquinas, who built on Anselm’s non-penal satisfaction model as the mechanism for the removal of original sin, and further connected it to a soteriology of sacramental participation. In Protestant theology, the story begins with the consolidation and narrowing of the doctrine of justification by faith in the generations after Luther’s death. As his (p. 635) thought developed, Philipp Melanchthon began to express justification increasingly through the lens of a single overriding metaphor: the forensic image of the law court. In this account, the mechanism of Christian salvation is above all one of God, in a sort of divine ‘courtroom’, passing judgement over sinful humanity. Christ, who is sinless, steps in, as a substitute, to be judged in place of the sinner. This substitution is understood primarily in terms of the satisfaction of God’s justice through a transfer of merit: ‘Christ’s merits are given to us so that we might be reckoned righteous by our trust in the merits of Christ when we believe in him, as though we had merits of our own’ (Melanchthon 2000 [1531]: 240). The result is that a person’s sin is forgiven and the way to eternal life is opened.

The period after the death of the first generation Reformers, the age of Protestant Orthodoxy, continued for the most part in Melanchthon’s forensic direction, with further emphasis on the ‘penal’ aspect of the atonement, which was an important theme in Calvin’s account of the work of Christ. The argument behind the penal model is that because God is just and cannot but uphold his justice, a consequence of breaking divine law is that there is a punishment that must be meted out. Christ’s death on the cross, then, is understood above all to be taking on the punishment sinners deserve rather than simply making a more general satisfaction to God on their behalf, as would be the case in Anselm or Aquinas. The focus in this the period is on what is happening coram deo, ‘before God’—on the divine process by which God saves a particular person instead of judging them for their sin. This type of model is known as an ‘objective’ account of the atonement, in which what is decisive is the change in God and his view of particular people, rather than a change or transformation taking place in the person themselves, as it would be in a ‘subjective’ account.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the doctrine of the atonement had undergone an important further development. Starting in the Lutheran churches in the 1620s, there was an increasing reaction against the ‘coldness’ of Protestant Orthodoxy, particularly its perceived focus on the minutiae of correct doctrine at the expense of a lived Christian spirituality. The emphasis on what is happening coram deo was found to come at the expense of experiencing salvation in one’s inner self and in the world, and to be abstract and cut off from living religion. To be converted, for a Pietist, is not merely for an abstract change of status before God to take place, but also to be filled with feelings of joy and freedom and a renewed sense of purpose. The Pietist impulse, then, was to restore to importance the ‘subjective’ aspect of the atonement—what it means for individuals in their day-to-day lives and practices.

Pietism spread rapidly, producing the culture of revivals and awakenings that characterized much of eighteenth century Christianity in Europe and beyond. For all its focus on individual piety, however, Pietism, and its Anglophone heir, Methodism, still affirmed, in its broad contours, the judicial and substitutionary model of the atonement worked out in Protestant orthodoxy. Salvation was still by faith, and Jesus’ death on the cross remained the sole and necessary mechanism by which sins could be forgiven, God’s favour restored, and the door to eternal life opened. Even as (p. 636) many Pietists began to emphasize the role of free will in accepting or rejecting salvation, and became more optimistic about sanctification, the atonement model at work remained in key respects that of the older Protestantism—and indeed, in so far as it was satisfaction-based, of the Catholic tradition since Anselm.

By the start of the eighteenth century, an important synthesis had been achieved in the doctrine of the atonement, between the substitutionary and forensic model of confessional Protestantism and the subjective, personalist orientation of Pietism. It is a synthesis to which more recent accounts of the atonement, especially those that criticize forensic models as a ‘legal fiction’ that fails to take adequate account of the subjective side, have often failed to do justice. The synthesis is illustrated in two of the most influential conversion narratives in an era famous for such narratives, those of August Hermann Francke (1663–1727), a key early Pietist leader, social activist, and theologian, and John Wesley (1703–91), the founder of Methodism. Because this synthesis is the foil for so many later developments, and especially critiques, it is worth looking at them more closely.

The Protestant-Pietist Synthesis on the Atonement

According to his widely read Autobiography of 1690, as a young man Francke ‘fell into unrest and doubt’, became increasingly convinced of a ‘deep corruption’ in his inner self, and began to feel ‘constricted’ in his internal ‘state’, ‘as one who is in a deep quagmire’ (Francke 1983 [1690]: 101, 104). His inner emotional turmoil and despondence, which lasted for some months, was closely bound up with a sense of sinfulness: ‘And there my whole life and everything which I had done, said, and thought was presented before me as sin and a great abomination before God’. The ‘chief source’ of the problem, he came to believe, was not individual ‘sins’ but a very specific and fundamental sin: ‘unbelief or mere false belief’ (Francke 1983 [1690]: 103). Eventually, he ‘went once more upon [his] knees’ and ‘cried to God’.

[God] immediately heard me. My doubt vanished as quickly as one turns one’s hand; I was assured in my heart of the grace of God in Christ Jesus and I knew God not only as God but as my Father. All sadness and unrest of my heart was taken away at once, and I was immediately overwhelmed as with a stream of joy so that with full joy I praised and gave honor to God who had shown me such great grace. I arose a completely different person from the one who had knelt down.… (Francke 1983 [1690]: 105)

Here we have the Protestant-Pietist synthesis on the atonement. Personal feelings of doubt, depression, anxiety, inner unrest, and rootlessness are understood to be closely connected to a sense of sin and guilt before God. A deeply emotional and individual conversion experience takes place which removes the negative affect and replaces it with powerful feelings of joy and purpose. The mechanism behind this event—described by Francke as the encounter of a disbelieving sinner with a gracious God who (p. 637) accepts him nevertheless—is the forgiveness of sins through the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Importantly, however, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness coram deo, and the non-imputation of sin, are utterly connected with particular inner feelings and a sensation of personal transformation at a particular time and place in Francke’s life. Accompanying the ‘forensic’ event there is a concrete affective change: the eclipse of feelings of ‘sadness and unrest’ by an inner joy and the transformation of his desires and ambitions (Francke 1983 [1690]: 106). The experience was felt to have lifelong power: ‘From this time on, my Christianity had a place to stand’ (Francke 1983 [1690]: 106).

The same synthesis is illustrated in the most famous and influential Pietist conversion narrative of all, that of John Wesley at Aldersgate in 1738:

About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Wesley 1987 [1738]: 34–5)

Wesley, too, takes for granted that the ‘objective’ element in atonement—the taking away of sin and sins, and salvation from the law of sin and death—is inseparable from the ‘subjective’ element—from the bodily and spiritual sensation, at ‘about a quarter before nine’, of his heart being strangely warmed.

The story of the atonement after 1690 is in an important sense the story of how the synthesis illustrated by Francke and Wesley came to be critiqued and undermined. At the same time, versions of their approach have demonstrated remarkable resilience in global Christianity, through to the twenty-first century, both in the confessional positions of many major denominations and in the continued success of evangelical and Pentecostal Christian expressions. This is due not least to the fact that their synthesis in fact succeeded remarkably well, in the initial experience, in holding together ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ elements—in convincingly connecting the mechanism of atonement coram deo with particular day-to-day emotional states and desires. It is not the only approach in the Christian tradition to be successful at this connection, and it has a number of weaknesses, as we shall see. But the vehemence of reactions against substitutionary and forensic models over the centuries has often obscured recognition of their sheer effectiveness in a wide variety of contexts and over many centuries.

II. Reason and the ‘Anthropocentric Shift’

At the same time as Francke was having his conversion experience, other thinkers in Europe were beginning to come to quite different conclusions about salvation, human nature, and the traditional theological confessions. Charles Taylor describes ‘a striking anthropocentric shift’ that occurs ‘around the turn of the seventeenth/eighteenth (p. 638) centuries’, as a consequence of various aspects of Enlightenment thought as well as the increasing explanatory power of science. In Taylor’s view, this anthropocentric shift has several features, ‘each one reducing the role and place of the transcendent’ in favour of a greater role for humanity (Taylor 2007: 222).

The first shift, in Taylor’s account, is the increasing sense that God’s purpose for humanity and creation is nothing more than the flourishing of humanity on earth—a ‘new ethic of purely immanent human good’ (Taylor 2007: 263). The second is ‘the eclipse of grace’. As he describes it, ‘The order God had designed was there for all to see. By reason and discipline, humans could rise to the challenge and realize it’ (Taylor 2007: 222). No further divine help is needed for humanity to thrive—God-given reason and innate human powers were for the first time seen as adequate to the task. Implicit here is a decline in belief in the innate fallenness of humanity—what Christian tradition in the west had called original sin. A third change is that ‘the sense of mystery’ in the universe ‘fades’ (Taylor 2007: 223). This shift is supported and catalysed by the scientific breakthroughs of the seventeenth century, above all the enormous power of Newtonian science to explain the motions and energies of the natural world with mathematical precision.

The broad accuracy of this characterization as it relates to theology is evident from the profusion of texts and thinkers in this period, both Deist and more traditional or orthodox Christian, who seek to identify a ‘natural’ religion that, while not necessarily at odds with Christianity, can be deduced by reason and empirical observation alone, without the aid of divine revelation. Examples include John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity in 1695, John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious in 1696, and Matthew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as the Creation in 1730 (Byrne 1996: 105–13). For Deists, reason is simply more true and reliable than the revelation-based alternative, and less subject to the sort of confessional disputes that had torn Europe apart in the Thirty Years’ War earlier in the century. For more traditional Christian thinkers like Samuel Clarke (1675–1729), the argument from ‘natural’ religion had apologetic value in an age of Enlightenment: if the existence of God and other key tenets of Christianity could be deduced without recourse to revelation, this could be seen as a powerful argument in favour of the truth of the religion as a whole (Buckley 1987: 33, 73–7, 193). That is, truths discovered by reason could be seen as complementary to Christian orthodoxy and revelation rather than as competitive with them.

In Britain, one of the most important early Deist documents appeared in 1690, the same year as Francke’s Autobiography: Charles Blount’s controversial edited collection, The Oracles of Reason. Here Blount (together with the anonymous contributor ‘A. W.’) voices two of the chief arguments against traditional Christian conceptions of the atonement, both in the name of ‘Reason’. The first is against ‘Original Sin, which I must ingenuously confess was ever a difficult Pill with me to swallow, my Reason stopping it in my Throat, and not having Faith enough to wash it down’ (Blount 1995 [1690]: 12). The fundamental issue with original sin, for Blount, is the sheer injustice of God condemning all of humanity on the basis of the sin of one particular ancestor: ‘’tis altogether inconsistent with God’s Attributes of Mercy and Justice, to punish all (p. 639) Mankind for one single Person’s sin, which we could no ways prevent or hinder…For how can another’s sin, wherein we have no hand, be imputed to us?’ (Blount 1995 [1690]: 14–15). Without the support of revelation, the doctrine of original sin must be evaluated on its own terms. Under the light of reason alone, the doctrine comes across to Blount as arbitrary and unfair, and cannot be consistent with a God of love and mercy.

The second problem with the traditional view of the atonement raised in The Oracles of Reason is related: that it is neither just nor fair for God to require infinite punishment or satisfaction from a finite creature. As ‘A.W.’ puts it, ‘infinite Justice cannot be extended on a finite Creature infinitely, without a Contradiction to infinite Mercy’; otherwise, God’s mercy would be less extensive than his justice. In other words, despite the claim of traditional Protestant and Catholic views to resolve, in the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, the competing demands of justice and love in God, they in fact prioritize justice over love. Blount goes one step further in his influential ‘Summary Account of the Deists Religion’, anticipating many later critiques of atonement theology: for the propitiation of human sin, he argues, no ‘Mediator’ is necessary, ‘Misericordia dei being sufficiens justitiae suae’ (God’s compassion being sufficient for his justice). Why should God’s mercy not trump his justice? Indeed, might not the glory and power of divine justice be that it consists in the triumph of grace precisely over merely human, quid pro quo conceptions? While the first critique, of original sin, would apply to a variety of traditional Christian concepts of atonement in the Latin west, this latter is targeted more at penal and forensic models in particular.

It is important to recognize that at this early stage the Deist critiques of original sin and of propitiatory sacrifice as means of securing forgiveness do not yet arise from a general optimism about humanity and its capacities per se. Indeed, Blount viewed most Christians in his day as naïve about human nature and blind to their own hypocrisy (Redwood 1974: 493). What is new is the degree of trust specifically in the powers of human reason—which for Blount largely means simple logic shorn of dogmatic assumptions—to gain access to the truth of world and of God without divine aid. Revelation, which to many seemed since the Reformation to have produced little more than confessional squabbling and bloodshed, needed to be held to account to an alternative authority. In the seventeenth century, reason had begun to demonstrate extraordinary promise both for explaining the workings of the natural world and for providing new, more peaceful bases for human political community. Blount’s primary difficulty with the concepts of original sin and vicarious satisfaction, then, was not the Christian idea that people are sinners; it was that in his view these concepts did not make sense. Before long, however, the optimism about one particular human faculty—reason—waxed for many European thinkers into an optimism about human capacities more broadly, and for many the doctrine of original sin increasingly lost plausibility.

(p. 640) III. Reductive Interpretations of the Atonement

A heightened view of reason soon led to a new sort of critique of atonement: the reductive interpretation. Particularly problematic for traditional Christian doctrines in the long term has been the capacity for reason and scientific enquiry to provide persuasive alternative explanations for why human beings believe in God, and for the genesis and continuing appeal of particular Christian doctrines, including not least the concepts of alienation from God and its resolution through Christ.

Ludwig Feuerbach

The figure that towers over reductive accounts of religion is the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72). Although he was not the first European thinker to offer an alternative explanation for Christian belief (Buckley 1987: 291–6), Feuerbach provided the most influential theory, upon which later reductive accounts, such as those of Marx and Freud, were in different measures to rely. In the first instance, Feuerbach was not as concerned with atonement as he was with belief in God in general (especially in Christianity), but his powerful idea contained the seed of what remain perhaps the most effective critiques of traditional atonement theories.

Feuerbach’s claim in The Essence of Christianity is that ‘the true sense of Theology is Anthropology’ (Feuerbach 1957 [1854]: p. xxxvii). Put a different way, ‘The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of individual man, made objective—i.e., contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being’ (Feuerbach 1957 [1854]: 14). The classic word for what Feuerbach is describing is projection. Humanity, in his view, has taken its own sense of self, stripped it of limitations and defects, and projected it out into the world. So attractive and fundamentally true does this picture feel, that we begin to worship it as a divine ‘object’, forgetting its source as an idealized version of our selves. In a significant sense Feuerbach actually affirms the projection, believing it to be a critical motor behind human achievement and aspiration. But he simultaneously reduces it to something within ourselves: ‘this transcendentalism is an illusion’ (Feuerbach 1957 [1854]: 16). There is not actually a living, independent divine agent ‘out there’. Traditional religion, especially Christianity, is the victim of an innocent misunderstanding, a false attribution of metaphysical, extra-human reality to our own inner yearnings, hopes, and possibilities. ‘[M]etaphysics is resolvable into psychology’ (Feuerbach 1957 [1854]: 40).

The implications for the doctrine of the atonement become clearer later in the book, where Feuerbach anticipates Freud in key respects. ‘God’, he claims, ‘is the Love that (p. 641) satisfies our wishes, our emotional wants; he is himself the realized wish of the heart, the wish exalted to the certainty of its fulfillment, of its reality’ (Feuerbach 1957 [1854]: 121). Our emotional needs and wants presuppose the idea of their satisfaction. If we are lonely, we can postulate, and hope for, companionship and love. If we are troubled or anxious, we can postulate lasting inner peace. God, for Feuerbach, is therefore more specifically the perfect form of these goods—peace, joy, fellowship, wholeness, love—projected into an enduring divine agent.

The Protestant-Pietist synthesis on the atonement is particularly vulnerable to this sort of critical interpretation. As we have seen above, Francke, in his ‘deep quagmire’ of ‘unrest and doubt’, wished to find peace and certainty, and relief from a potent inner suffering. He felt himself to find it in God, above all in a powerful conviction that his sins were forgiven through Christ. But what if this God, and this mechanism for the forgiveness of sins, were merely his own ‘emotional wants…exalted to the certainty of [their] fulfilment, of [their] reality’? What if his cry on his knees to God was merely ‘the wish of the heart expressed with confidence of its fulfilment’ (Feuerbach 1957 [1854]: 122), and therefore the ‘help [lay] in the prayer itself’ (Feuerbach 1957 [1854]: 124), rather than in any divine agent? Feuerbach’s approach takes what happened to Francke and offers a plausible alternative explanation. Pietist reference to God and to the atonement need not be anything more than a symbolic structure that makes sense of, and helps induce, a profound moment of psychological healing. The ‘objective’ element in the atonement here, God’s forgiveness of sin, is a disguise or costume for a purely ‘subjective’ phenomenon.

Feuerbach opened the door for a wide variety of reductive interpretations of religion over the next century and a half. Karl Marx (1818–83) explained religion in economic terms, as a tool in class warfare between the weak and the powerful, ‘the opiate of the masses’. Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) in his opus The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life interpreted and explained religion in terms of his new science of sociology—a ritualized product of human social needs. Charles Darwin’s (1809–82) great insight into the development of life led eventually to accounts of religion as a byproduct of human development and evolution (e.g. Boyer 2001). But for atonement theology, perhaps the most significant figure among the reductive interpreters was Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), founder of psychotherapy and of the modern academic discipline of psychology. Freud’s special significance here is due to his extended engagement with the psychology of guilt.

Sigmund Freud

Writing over half a century after Feuerbach, Freud, too, viewed religion as an understandable but ultimately problematic projection. ‘Religious ideas’, in Freud’s view, ‘are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind’. In particular, ‘the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for (p. 642) protection…provided by the father…Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life’ (Freud, 1961c [1927]: 38–9). God is a deep unconscious desire for a protective parental figure, projected into the sky.

With regard to the atonement it is not the critique of religion as illusion, which we have already seen in Feuerbach, which is of greatest interest. It is rather Freud’s general psycho-dynamic theory, with its explanations for the phenomenon of human guilt and for the existence of the ‘conscience’. The ability to make sense of and to resolve guilt feelings has long been one of the great strengths of Christian atonement theologies, whether the resolution took place through penitential practices such as confession, through the inner ‘experiences’ of divine forgiveness reported by Protestants and Pietists, or in various other ways. The forgiveness of sins and a consequent feeling of inner relief and freedom is also an important biblical theme, particularly in the New Testament (e.g. Ps. 51, 130:3–4; Matt. 26:27–8; Acts 13:37–9; Eph. 1:7; etc.). Crucially, Freud’s theory provided him with tools for developing a therapeutic method that not only explained, but could actually address and potentially ease the symptoms of guilt without any reference to religion, atonement, sin, blood, or forgiveness. In so far as atonement theory had always included what could be called a ‘therapeutic’ component, Freud set the stage for sophisticated alternative therapies for the same human problems.

In The Ego and the Id, the last of his major theoretical works, Freud describes the ‘the ego-ideal’ or ‘super-ego’, one of the three main divisions of the mind. The super-ego is the inner moral voice or conscience, which derives from an ‘introjected’ voice of parents and their authority. As Freud puts it, ‘this ego-ideal or super-ego [is] the representative of our relation to our parents. When we were little children we knew these higher natures, we admired and feared them; and later we took them into ourselves’ (Freud 1961b [1923]: 26). The super-ego is strengthened and maintained later in life by ‘teachers and others in authority; their injunctions and prohibitions remain powerful in the ego ideal and continue, in the form of conscience, to exercise moral censorship’ (Freud 1961b [1923]: 27). It is the inner voice that says ‘You ought to be like this (like your father)’ as well as ‘You may not be like this (like your father)’ (Freud 1957 [1923]: 24). Here then, is the psychological origin of guilt feelings: we often fail to live up to the standards set by the super-ego, and when this happens ‘The tension between the demands of conscience and the actual performances of the ego is experienced as a sense of guilt’ (Freud 1957 [1923]: 27).

It is difficult to understate the significance of guilt in Freud’s theory. The thesis of perhaps his best-known work, Civilization and Its Discontents, is that ‘the sense of guilt [is] the most important problem in the development of civilization and…that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt’ (Freud 1957 [1930]: 97). Furthermore, through its role as the source of the inner concept of a judging authority and the consequent experience of guilt feelings, the super-ego ‘contains the germ from which all religions have evolved’ (Freud 1957 [1923]: 27). Religions ‘claim to redeem mankind from this sense of guilt, which they call sin’, and ‘in Christianity…this redemption is achieved… (p. 643) by the sacrificial death of a single person, who in this manner takes upon himself a guilt that is common to everyone’ (Freud 1961a [1930]: 99).

Freud’s psycho-analytic method prescribes various therapeutic tools for resolving pathologies, increasing happiness, and opposing the super-ego to ‘lower its demands’ (Freud 1961 [1930]: 108) (i.e. to minimize the debilitating experience of guilt feelings). As psychological science advanced in the twentieth century, the number of psychologists who adhered to Freud’s particular therapeutic methods dwindled in the face of more developed and data-supported theories and methods. But the basic idea of guilt as a fundamentally immanent, psychological phenomenon, ‘curable’ to a significant degree through cutting-edge psychological therapies, has persisted.

Once again, Francke’s conversion narrative is illustrative here. A psychotherapist in the early twenty-first century might propose that his ‘doubt and unrest’ could have been explained instead through attachment theory and current understanding of clinical depression, and could have been eased through, for example, a regime of cognitive behavioural or mindfulness therapy, or anti-depressant medication. Likewise, in the wake of Freud the possibility is opened for interpreting Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, in which ‘an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin’, as nothing more divine than a psychological coming to terms with the ‘introjected’ voice of a judgmental father figure.

The consequences for guilt and forgiveness-oriented doctrines of the atonement are substantial. Western Christians have long sought and found peace and new beginnings in the vicarious sacrifice of Christ. Although traditional Christianity has never viewed the atonement as simply reducible to its immanent, therapeutic outworkings and consequences, neither has it tended to thrive when completely divorced from them. The more powerful psychological explanations and therapies have become, the more difficulties have been raised for upholding theories of the atonement and rendering them plausible as answers to particular human emotional and psychological problems. Even F. W. Dillistone’s classic, generous study of the diversity of models of the atonement, The Christian Understanding of Atonement, grounds itself first and foremost in the doctrine’s possibilities for resolving particular modern human problems and pathologies, namely, ‘Alienation’ and ‘Estrangement’ (Dillistone 1984: 2), and therefore remains part of the long tradition of viewing the implications of atonement to a significant degree in therapeutic terms.

What is the consequence for traditional views of the atonement when many people begin to find psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals to be more effective solutions to debilitating feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression, or alienation from society—the problems to which the atonement traditionally has provided robust and compelling answers? What is the role for talk of reconciliation between God and his creatures when the creatures no longer feel as strong a need for reconciliation, or when they can explain their feelings of alienation adequately without reference to God?

One answer is to point out that this view does not really take seriously the self-reporting of the many Christians down the centuries who have had experiences like Francke’s. Another is to view the situation as part of a wider wake-up call to theories of (p. 644) atonement that emphasize the themes of guilt and judgement, and an impulse to retrieve alternative models from the long Christian tradition. It is to some of the primary critiques of substitutionary and sacrificial models, and the alternative soteriologies proposed in their place, that we now turn.

IV. Modern Critiques of Traditional Theories

Although classic Roman Catholic and Protestant accounts of the atonement have important differences, over which there has often been intense debate, some of the most fundamental features are shared. Protestant and Catholic accounts have tended to follow a broadly Anselmian pattern which (a) views Christ as standing in some sense in the place of sinners in the eyes of God, as a substitute, and (b) sees the brutal death of Jesus on the cross as having been necessary for the salvation of believers. Both also affirm in different ways the potentially ‘therapeutic’ character of atonement theology and its apparatus in the sense discussed in the previous section, as well as the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Just how much they do share has been illustrated in the past two centuries by the fact that many of the strongest critiques of atonement theology that have developed apply more or less to classic positions in both traditions.

The Moral Critique Revisited

In the nineteenth century, two influential American thinkers continued along lines we have seen above in Blount and his fellow Deists. Both William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), the leading light of the early Unitarian movement, and Horace Bushnell (1802–76), a founder of American religious liberalism, put forth criticism of substitution and satisfaction-based atonement theories, with enormous impact on American religious life, especially in predominately Calvinist New England. Like Blount, they found views based on the need to appease God through the suffering and sacrifice of Christ to be both morally repugnant and philosophically questionable. In Bushnell’s words, what is at work on the cross cannot be ‘a literal substitution of places, by which Christ becomes a sinner for sinners’, for ‘That is a kind of substitution that offends every strongest sentiment of our nature’, and ‘all God’s moral sentiments would be revolted by that’ (Bushnell 1984 [1849, 1866]: 141).

Although his particular target is a Calvinist concept of penal substitution, the way Bushnell reinterprets the meaning of the term ‘sacrifice’ shows that his difficulty is really with any notion at all of God requiring satisfaction as a result of the sin of human beings. ‘It is not that the suffering [of Christ on the cross] appeases God, but that it (p. 645) expresses God—displays, in open history, the unconquerable love of God’s Heart’ (Bushnell 1984 [1849, 1866]: 132). Bushnell’s view is best described as a mystical approach to a ‘moral’ theory of the atonement, by which the crucifixion ‘expresses’ God’s love for sinners and for the world and the power of this expression is seen as transformative. What is ‘expressed’, however, is not so much an idea—the concept that God must love humanity if he was willing to die to show it—as a sensual and deeply attractive divine reality. As he puts it, ‘when God appears in His beauty, loving and lovely, the good, the glory, the sunlight of soul, the affections, previously dead, awake into life and joyful play, and…an exulting spirit of liberty’ (Bushnell 1984 [1849, 1866]: 130).

What separates Bushnell’s arguments from those of a Deist like Blount, and shows him to be a thoroughly nineteenth-century figure, is his trust more in an inner human moral ‘sentiment’ (which in this instance secures the moral case against substitution) than in the capacities of reason per se. Indeed, his Romantic inclinations cause him to question the adequacy of any particular rational statement of a doctrine:

[N]o dogmatic statement can adequately represent [Christ’s] work; for the matter of it does not lie in formulas of reason, and cannot be comprehended in them. It is more a poem than a treatise…It addresses the understanding, in great part, through the feeling or sensibility. (Bushnell 1984 [1849, 1866]: 127)

On this last point, Bushnell was ahead of his time. For him, the multiple biblical metaphors for atonement and salvation are all attempting to communicate something that goes beyond any one metaphor or any particular doctrinal formulation. Initially unpopular, this is a view that found increasing traction in Christian theology by the end of the twentieth century (e.g. Gunton 1998). Additionally, Bushnell’s sheer moral revolt against the implications of overdetermined satisfaction and retributive theories prefigured more specific and explicit worries in the following century, about the violence of the cross and its implicit affirmation of suffering.

Girard and Structural Violence

Few thinkers have drawn more attention to the violence inherent in concepts of sacrifice and atonement than René Girard (b. 1923). Girard’s work uses a mix of anthropological, literary, and cultural analysis to identify an ancient human pattern of using ‘sacrifice’ as a means for redirecting violent impulses that threaten society onto a particular, representative object. In engaging in sacrificial ritual, ‘society is seeking to deflect upon a relatively indifferent victim, a “sacrificeable” victim, the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, the people it most desires to protect’ (Girard 1977: 4). In this way ‘the sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence’ (8) and to ‘prevent conflicts from erupting’ (14). Both (p. 646) religion and the concept of ‘the sacred’ are understood to be originally and fundamentally tied up with the management of violence in society (Girard 1977: 31). A particular controlled act of violence—a sacrifice—grounds and expends a society’s violent energy, at least temporarily, and so preserves order.

In Christianity, for Girard, the violence inherent in sacrifice and in ‘the sacred’ is exposed and brought to an end. Jesus’ teaching (in particular the command to love enemies) ‘shows us a God who is alien to all violence and who wishes in consequence to abandon violence’ (Girard 1987: 183). The crucifixion, too, should be understood not as an instance of sacrifice, as it has often been viewed, but as the end of it. The words from the cross ‘My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?’ are words of ‘anguished impotence and final surrender’. They ‘make quite clear that we are dealing with something entirely different from the sacred. Here life does not come directly out of the violence, as in primitive religions’ (Girard 1987: 231). In the Girardian model, sacrificial theories of the atonement uphold the economy of violence rather than exposing and ending it, and in this they tragically misunderstand Jesus’ intentions. Following this approach, Timothy Gorringe has even contended that there is a structural connection between ‘satisfaction theory’, criminal law, and publicly legitimated violent penal practice in Europe from the eleventh to the nineteenth century (Gorringe 1996: 12).

Stephen Finlan argues that even Girard’s position may fail fully to escape the violent cycle of sacrifice and scapegoating, because Girard ‘has God making use’ (if only to reveal the truth that violence is a dead end) of at least one ‘act of violence’, ‘that against Jesus’ (Finlan 2005: 93). Building on arguments from historical criticism, psychology and anthropology, as well as theology, Finlan’s polemical approach sums up many threads of atonement critique over the past two centuries. He argues that the sacrificial and scapegoat metaphors that appear in a number of biblical texts are both harmful and manipulative. They promote ‘primitive’ ideas: ‘that innocent blood purifies, or that God is moved by our ritual actions, or that the killing of Jesus was accepted as a payment for sins, apparently arranged by God’. Finlan asks, ‘Why could God not open up the way to salvation without a blood-rite? Is this not based on primitive beliefs about the polluting effect of sin and the magical cleansing power of lifeblood?’ (Finlan 2005: 107) In the Middle Ages such beliefs worked themselves out in ‘manipulative’ strategies of ‘punishment and pain’, ‘penances, self-flagellations,…and other attempts at negotiation with God’. Protestantism was no better: ‘The intense Reformation focus on guilt followed by undeserved rescue from destruction leave a powerful and painful psychological legacy.’ The consequence of belief in satisfaction and sacrifice for sin is a cruel ‘pattern of shame, release, and submissive gratitude’ (Finlan 2005: 82). After extended consideration of the biblical material, Finlan concludes that ‘To really understand Christ’s life mission it is necessary to discard sacrificial thinking’ (Finlan 2005: 112)—although he admits that atonement doctrine in some form is critical in a range of biblical texts (Finlan 2005: 120). In line with many late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century thinkers, he proposes that (p. 647) Christian theology should build its soteriology on the incarnation and participation in Christ, not on the atonement.

To return again to our touchstone for modern theories of atonement, in Finlan’s approach Francke’s fall into despair and doubt could be interpreted as itself the product of Christian social pressures, doctrines, and symbol structures, including especially satisfaction theories. Raised a Christian, Francke does report that he felt his greatest sin of all to be lack of faith (Francke 1983: 103–4)—a sin that makes little sense outside of a prior religious framework. It is perhaps not a great stretch, then, to see Francke’s experience as more the result of socialization into a ‘pattern of shame, release and submissive gratitude’, through a ‘manipulative’ account of the atonement, than of a genuine divine experience. For Finlan, Pietist atonement theology actually created and exacerbated the very problems it claimed to solve.

Feminism and Non-Redemptive Suffering

In the twentieth century, the feminist movement inspired related concerns about traditional atonement theologies. Drawing on powerful accounts of the ways in which the less powerful and the voiceless are actively and also structurally oppressed in societies, including not least the oppression of women by cultures of patriarchy, the target here has been the implicit affirmation of suffering and victimhood implicit in classical Christian views of the crucifixion. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker summarize the view in no uncertain terms:

Christianity has been a primary—in many women's lives, the primary, force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. (Brown and Parker 1989: 2)

Although ‘there is no classical theory of the atonement that questions the necessity of Jesus’ suffering’ (Brown and Parker 1989: 4), it is the satisfaction approach that is the worst offender, its legacy nothing more than the ‘sanctioning of suffering’ (Brown and Parker 1989: 8). For Brown and Parker, ‘Suffering is never redemptive, and…cannot be redeemed’ (Brown and Parker 1989: 27), and Christian theories that argue otherwise are perverse. The traditional concept of God the Father deliberately sending his Son to die for the world’s sin is morally revolting—‘Divine child abuse’ (Brown and Parker 1989: 2). As it currently exists, ‘Christianity is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering…We must do away with the atonement, this idea of a blood sin upon the whole human race which can be washed away only by the blood of the lamb. This bloodthirsty God is the God of the patriarchy’ (Brown and Parker 1989: 26). For Brown and Parker, it is only when the cross is understood exclusively as a tragedy, which ‘eternally remains and is eternally mourned’ (Brown and Parker 1989: 27) that anything positive might be rescued from the Christian tradition.

(p. 648) V. Trends in Modern Constructive Accounts

Few Christian doctrines have inspired either as much anger or as much thoughtful critique in recent centuries as satisfaction and substitution-based theories of the atonement. As we have seen, a great many tools have been brought to bear in analysing and criticizing such doctrines, with many of the most insightful having sources outside of the Christian tradition, in psychology, philosophy, and critical and political theory (especially about structures of power). But the story has not all been negative. Modern developments have also stimulated a number of positive proposals on salvation and atonement. Two of the most formidable are those of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth.

Schleiermacher and Barth: Two Ways of Being Modern

Friedrich Schleiermacher’s influential approach in The Christian Faith is similar to Bushnell’s, which it influenced. He accepts to a significant degree the rational and moral arguments that substitution and satisfaction do not necessarily make philosophical sense, and that some of the assumptions they traditionally make, like the necessity of divine punishment, are morally unacceptable (Schleiermacher 1999 [1830]: 460). Basing his exposition of the topic ‘entirely on the inner experience of the believer’ (Schleiermacher 1999 [1830]: 428), Schleiermacher is critical of any approach to redemption or reconciliation that is not dependent on natural and historical mediation of Christ’s ‘God-consciousness’ and ‘unclouded blessedness’ through the community of believers in time. Traditional satisfaction views depend instead, he argues, on Christ’s ‘immediate influence upon the individual’, which in his view amounts to ‘magic’ and ‘divine arbitrariness’ (Schleiermacher 1999 [1830]: 435). Additionally, unlike his own approach, such views are psychologically and pastorally inadequate to relieve the burdened conscience:

In no less magical a way is the forgiveness of sins achieved, if the consciousness of deserving punishment is supposed to cease because the punishment has been borne by another. That in this way the expectation of punishment might be taken away is conceivable…[But] the consciousness of deserving punishment would still remain. (Schleiermacher 1999 [1830]: 435)

Schleiermacher’s approach is sophisticated and complex, and not easily reducible to a particular position within the tradition. At the same time, he clearly disagrees with any view that conceives of the saving influence of Christ as supernaturally leaping over the course of time instead of being mediated naturally through it, and he unquestionably has moral difficulties with substitution and with the concept of necessary divine (p. 649) punishment. On the other hand, he also finds a constructive place for various satisfaction-oriented terms (‘vicarious’, ‘satisfaction’, ‘High Priest’, ‘representative’, etc. (Schleiermacher 1999 [1830]: 451, 460–3) ), but only after redefining them substantially. The weight in his approach falls ultimately on the experienced transformation of believers through the historically-mediated influence of Christ, but it does so in a way that is richer and more multivalent than a simple ‘moral influence’ theory.

Karl Barth takes a very different approach to reconciliation, and his, too, defies over-simple critique. Barth draws particularly on Protestant forensic and substitutionary traditions, even as he reinterprets them. On the one hand, Barth’s approach in Church Dogmatics does affirm the ideas that sin deserves God’s wrath, that human guilt in God’s eyes is real, that the wrath must be in some way appeased or redirected, and that Christ is the one who accomplishes this. ‘[T]he rejected man, who alone and truly takes and bears and bears away the wrath of God is called Jesus Christ’ (Barth 1957: 348–9). His fundamental commitment to the Bible as a source for theology rules out the possibility of rejecting sacrifice or substitution as illogical, immoral, or irredeemably violent concepts. At the same time, Barth rigorously unites God’s being and his action, with the result (among others) that the incarnation is made necessary to his system more naturally and organically than in many Protestant accounts. Likewise, Barth’s organizes his treatment in such a way that the resurrection, ‘the great verdict of God’ (Barth 1956: 309) is if anything even more significant than the crucifixion itself, correcting a commonly criticized tendency in satisfaction and substitution-oriented models.

Barth’s approach is intricate and multifaceted, encompassing discussions from across Church Dogmatics. In what is arguably the climactic section for the whole doctrine, Barth focuses not on substitution or satisfaction but on Jesus as ‘Victor’ over ‘the surrounding world of darkness’ (Barth 1961: 168, 180)—an image that is intentionally dynamic rather than static and cosmic rather than individualistic. Furthermore, in addition to substitution, the bearing of wrath, and the concept of victory, Barth’s account makes extensive use of many further categories and metaphors from the Bible and the history of the Church, including covenant theology, the doctrine of election, various aspects of Christology, and eschatology.

If in the context of atonement theology we take ‘modern’ to mean engaging seriously with the problems posed by moral, philosophical, and reductive critiques in recent centuries, then Schleiermacher and Barth represent two different ways of being modern. Schleiermacher provides a robust account that avoids many of the problems of rational coherence and violence raised before and after him by thinkers like Blount, Girard, and feminist critics. But he does so largely at the expense of traditional—and, to some degree, biblical—concepts that view Jesus’ death on the cross as a divine response to divine wrath. Although Schleiermacher does make a case for the significance of the cross, in the end ‘The climax of [Jesus’] suffering…was sympathy with misery’ (Schleiermacher 1999: 436). It is Jesus’ ‘God-consciousness’ and his ‘unclouded blessedness’ that are salvific; the cross is a consequence of these, but, it is not strictly necessary to them. A critique is that this cannot be completely squared with the language of atonement as vicarious sacrifice that, while by no means the only biblical conception of (p. 650) salvation, is nevertheless ‘central to the Pauline tradition, to First Peter, Hebrews, First John, and Revelation’ (Finlan: 2005: 120), as well as the cultic and ransom imagery that appears in the gospels. For a scriptural religious tradition, this is a serious price to pay.

Barth’s approach is ‘modern’ in a rather different way. He is much more aware than Schleiermacher of the key problem with ‘subjective’ accounts: that in anchoring the atonement to its subjective effects such models are vulnerable to being interpreted as finally reducible to those effects, and therefore as not actually theological but psychological or sociological. His concept of revelation can be seen as a sophisticated defensive strategy for outmaneuvering reductive critiques. But even Barth’s approach does not completely succeed in this regard. Despite his protests to the contrary, his strategy can tend towards a dangerous sort of conceptual abstraction. While Schleiermacher learns about God’s involvement in the world by drawing quite explicitly on Christian experience, in time, through a concrete chain of believers going back to the historical Christ, Barth is more conceptual, inferring about Christian experience from the revelation of Jesus Christ, who is for him always the ‘true man’ and therefore the only meaningful index of what it means to be human (§43 and §44 in CD III/2 (Barth 1960) ). Barth’s ceaseless reorientation of theology to his concept of ‘Jesus Christ’ risks making the latter a kind of ‘object’ in Feuerbach’s sense—a theological cipher on which to project whatever your system needs it to be. An important question to be asked, then, is whether in certain respects even Barth’s achievement might be, in Feuerbach’s terms, a ‘metaphysics’ that is in part ‘resolvable into psychology’.

Retrieving Alternative Models of Salvation

Two further plausible candidates have been discussed in recent years as alternatives to substitutionary and judicial approaches. In his classic early twentieth-century work Christus Victor, Gustaf Aulén proposes the retrieval of a third approach to the atonement (contrasted with ‘satisfaction’ and ‘moral’ models). This ‘Christus Victor’ model emphasizes biblical imagery of salvation as the ‘victory’ of Jesus over the many powers that oppose God, including sin, death, and the devil, and understands the cross as a key battleground in this victory. Aulén argues that this model in various forms was the dominant one in the patristic period, and that ‘satisfaction’ models should therefore be viewed as an innovation rather than as the traditional view (Aulén 2010: 6). Although his book overstates its historical case, there is no question that the ‘victor’ model has strong biblical and patristic support, at the very least as one of several key New Testament metaphors, and it has had a wide influence.

This model became all the more significant in the wake of the rise of Pentecostalism in global Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with its emphasis on physical healing and its serious consideration of supernatural powers and principalities as day-to-day forces in the world. Most Pentecostals and charismatics hold, either formally or informally, to a two-pronged soteriology that places emphasis both on the (p. 651) forgiveness of sins (satisfaction) and on the ‘continuous’ (Aulén 2010: 5) and eschatologically-grounded power of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, for victory over sin, sickness, and forces of supernatural evil.

The second development to note is the return to prominence of models that understand salvation as incorporation, through Christ, into the triune divine life, through a process described variously as ‘participation’, ‘union with Christ’, or, drawing on the Orthodox tradition, theosis or divinization. These approaches have a clear biblical pedigree, often overlooked in a Protestant-dominated European biblical studies tradition. They also overcome, it is argued, a number of the problems associated with forensic and substitutionary models, particularly the classic ‘intra-Christian’ critique that judicial models constitute a ‘legal fiction’, and the perennial challenge in Protestant theology in rendering a fully plausible account of sanctification in light of a radical concept of justification. Paul Fiddes has argued that, by the first decade of the twenty-first century, such models had taken ‘a central place in all modern systematic theology’, both eastern and western (Fiddes 2007: 176), and become the new baseline for accounts of salvation, at least in academic theology.

A particular strength of such models is their ecumenical character in a period exhausted by long-dominant Protestant forensic categories. Participation is an old theme in Catholic and Orthodox accounts of salvation, but can also be construed, it is argued, in a more or less ‘Augustinian’ fashion accessible to traditional Protestant concerns over semi-Pelagianism and the misleading connotations of terms like ‘deification’. They also map particularly well on to catholic-oriented sacramentologies. At the same time, Andrew Louth has pointed out that the versions of theosis taken on by ecumenical Protestants are often somewhat anaemic and vague: true theosis in the Orthodox tradition is at one level ‘something beyond our human powers’, but ‘on the other hand…involves the most profound commitment of human powers; it is not a change in which we will be passively put right…[I]t is a change that requires our utmost cooperation, that calls for truly ascetic struggle’ (Louth 2007: 37).

The trend towards soteriologies of participation and divinization has often been beset by failures to define exactly what is meant by such wide-ranging terms (Hallonsten 2007: 281, 286). If they are to continue to prove productive in the long term for modern Christian atonement discussion, proponents will need to address more concretely their own ‘Feuerbach’ problem: that their vague and highly metaphysical character may make such approaches as vulnerable to reductive psychological critique as substitutionary and sacrificial models.

VI. Conclusion

Some observations can be made at this stage about the story of the atonement and modern European thought, and the ongoing creative tension it illustrates between the ancient Christian tradition and the insights of intellectual inquiry outside of it.

(p. 652) The first is to underline the substantial divide between much academic theology and the beliefs and practices of the world’s lay Christians. It is remarkable that a huge number of the world’s Christians, particularly in Protestant and charismatic traditions, continue to recognize themselves far more in the experiences of Francke and Wesley from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries than in the accounts provided by mainstream academic theology, where there has long been widespread discomfort with retributive and forensic models.

The new wrinkle in the twenty-first century is that the majority of the world’s Christians now live outside of Europe and the west, in areas where theological education is often still in its infancy. It is to be hoped that these new Christian expressions—in China, Africa, Latin America, and in charismatic and Pentecostal churches the world over—will contribute creatively to understanding of the atonement. But it may be that in the near term the shift of Christianity’s centre of gravity away from Europe will only further widen the academic/lay divide.

The second observation has to do with the old problem of connecting the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’ in soteriology. This issue has been put on a new and stimulating, but also potentially explosive footing through the increasing sophistication of reductive and scientific accounts of religion. This is particularly true for the ‘subjective’ side of soteriology, with its therapeutic engagement with problems like guilt feelings, depression, and isolation from communities.

Catholic and Orthodox traditions have tended in their different ways to bridge the objective/subjective divide by emphasizing Christian practice (prayer, the sacraments, penitential and mystical practices, spiritual disciplines). This in turn is anchored in a powerful but flexible—even underdetermined—soteriological apparatus of participation and theosis. Their real success here helps explain recent Protestant renewal of interest in these themes.

Protestant traditions are often thought to be less successful at aligning what is happening coram deo and coram hominibus. As we have seen, this is only partly true—preaching of judicial models of the atonement in fact often maps quite closely to particular affective and embodied experiences, however temporary. The reason for Protestantism’s reputation in this area has in part to do with the failure of the traditional categories to do full justice to the very experiences that gave rise to them. Dualisms like justification/sanctification and faith/works have proven somewhat limited in capturing the full range of what is happening in an experience like Francke’s—or, indeed, Luther’s. They need to be supplemented through further work on theological categories that can mediate between them, such as the doctrine of the Holy Spirit or the role of the affections in theological anthropology.

The increasing success of reductive interpretations raises new versions of old questions. Perhaps the most interesting is whether and to what degree it is possible to describe the ‘subjective’ consequences, whether of ‘participation’ or ‘union with Christ’ or ‘conversion experiences’, in terms of contemporary psychology or biology or neuroscience. Is it that particular emotions or emotional patterns are being changed? Are unhealthy childhood attachment schemas being refocused? Are cognitive (p. 653) structures and patterns being rewired, as they might be in cognitive behavioural therapy? Or, as in the Lutheran tradition, is very little long-term change in fact taking place after all? Finally, and crucially, to what degree and in what way are there metaphysical realities here that cannot be completely mapped in psychological or neuroscientific terms? What of the fact that reductive interpretations of experiences are almost never convincing to those actually experiencing them? If it does not wish to concede the field completely to Feuerbach, atonement theology will need to continue to provide constructive answers to these questions.



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                                          —— (1987). Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. (London: Athlone Press).Find this resource:

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                                                  Louth, Andrew (2007). ‘The Place of Theosis in Orthodox Theology’, in Christensen and Wittung (eds), Partakers of the Divine Nature. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 32–44.Find this resource:

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                                                            Wesley, John (1987). The Journal of John Wesley: A Selection, ed. Elisabeth Jay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).Find this resource:

                                                              Suggested Reading

                                                              Aulén (2010 [1931]).

                                                              Balthasar, Hans Urs von (1990). Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).Find this resource:

                                                                Barth (1956).

                                                                Boyer (2001).

                                                                Christensen, Michael J. and Wittung, Jeffery A. (eds) (2007). Partakers of the Divine Nature. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic).Find this resource:

                                                                  Davidson, Ivor J. and Rae, Murray A. (eds) (2011). God of Salvation: Soteriology in Theological Perspective. (Farnham: Ashgate).Find this resource:

                                                                    Davis, Stephen T., Kendall, Daniel, and O’Collins, Gerald (eds) (2004). The Redemption: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Christ as Redeemer. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).Find this resource:

                                                                      Dillistone (1984).

                                                                      Feuerbach (1957 [1854]).

                                                                      Finlan (2005).

                                                                      Weber, Otto (1983). ‘Reconciliation’, Foundations of Dogmatics, vol. 2. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 177–226.Find this resource: