Atonement, part 3: Satisfaction Theory

“Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back.” Everyone always forgets the second half of that little rhyme. Unfortunately, the Satisfaction theory of atonement, developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, has nothing to do with this type of satisfaction. Unconcerned with curious kittens (or their mittens) Anselm instead thoroughly disliked Origen’s theory of Ransom. Anselm raised many of the questions I raised in my previous post: How can God owe anything to Satan? Why should the Son be forced to pay that ransom? etc. Dissatisfied (malcontent, maybe?) with Origen’s system, Anselm decided to improve upon it with his own ideas of how God and man became reconciled (if you’d like to read his own words, they can be found in the book Cur Deus Homo). 

Satisfaction theory is firmly rooted in a Medieval context. Essentially, God represents a feudal overlord and we are his vassals. Humans, like vassals, owe God a debt of honor. Yet when they sin, they fail to pay that debt, and, according to Anselm, create an infinite imbalance in the morality of the world (this is because an evil action perpetrated against an eternal being results in infinite evil). For God to ignore human sin would allow that imbalance to continue, which would be neither just nor loving, since the imbalance effects the whole of the natural world. But because God is infinite, finite human beings cannot restore the balance or offer God ‘satisfaction,’ in the medieval sense.

A medieval example to help clarify: A serf goes hunting in the royal forest  and deers to kill a king’s dare (Robin Hood: Men in Tights reference. Great movie. Watch it.). The king demands what the medieval world called satisfaction, which was essentially a restoration of honor. The serf must present that satisfaction in the form of animals or crops from his own farm, perhaps a monetary fee, conscripted service in the military, the loss of a limb, etc. The object is not so much a literal repayment, but the restoring of honor by suffering in some fashion.Unfortunately, because God is not a finite feudal lord, finite payments like animals, money, or military service do not give him satisfaction.

So, we are presented with a dilemma. There exists a debt that man must pay, but cannot, one that only God can dismiss, but cannot. Therefore, in Anselm’s system, God condescends to the level of humanity in the Incarnation. The Second Person of the Trinity becomes human to pay the debt and offer God satisfaction. In Christ, man and God become one, and the death of an (infinite) man is able to satisfy the broken honor of an infinite God. Thus, in the death of Christ, the honor that was due God is paid in full by one who is both infinite God and finite man. Problem solved, right? God has his honor, humans are debt-free, and, as an added bonus, Jesus rises from the dead three days later (Anselm isn’t really clear on why, nor does it matter terribly in his system).

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And Anselm does correct some of the major flaws in Origen’s system. In the first place, it removes Satan from the equation. Satan is no longer a legitimate property owner that must legally be compensated for his property: humanity. God is no longer a trickster (though he does bend the rules a bit), and the whole divine system is no longer operating by the Devil’s rules. So, a definite improvement, right?

Well, Anselm has a few kinks in his system that he needs to work out. First and foremost is the problem of efficacy, a problem which Origen likewise failed to avoid. The issue is this: how does Christ satisfy God for honor not yet taken? Surely, as God continues to incur negative honor from his subjects, He must be satisfied again. How does the one satisfactory act become sufficient for all time? Intricately linked with this idea is the question of universal salvation. If Christ satisfied God, why does Hell continue to exist? If the debt of honor is paid by the God-man, why do men continue to go to Hell? Why do only those who acknowledge the satisfaction enjoy heaven? Is it possible that Christ only satisfies God in regards to some men? But this is impossible, as we know that God’s broken honor is infinite.

Also, by Anselm’s logic, a finite evil committed against God results in an infinite breach of honor. By the same logic, a finite act of good done for or toward God should result in infinite good, but we know that only God can do infinite good. The internal logic of the whole system is flawed.

More than flawed, the whole system is located in an antique context that makes no sense in the modern world. Medievals had whipping boys and seconds. People could, and often did, suffer in the place of another in order to repay the debt of honor demanded by a superior. This is not so in our modern world. In the first place, the infringing of honor is not treated so highly. One who demands satisfaction is seen as foolish. Instead, our focus is on justice. Likewise, the actions of an individual are theirs alone, and for another to suffer in their place strikes one as horribly unjust. Unfortunately for Anselm, Satisfaction theory fails to communicate outside of a medieval world.

Moreover, there exists the question of substitution. Now, Anselm makes it clear that Christ is not punished instead of us, but rather suffers for us. And yet the Church has taught (and Protestants continue to teach, as far as I know) that the individual is responsible for his or her own sin. I cannot ask for forgiveness for the sins of another, nor can I suffer for their sins. But apparently God, in the person of Christ, can somehow become responsible for the sins of all humanity. How can one man (even as God) represent and atone for all of humanity? This would be like a random stranger walking into a courtroom and offering to serve the sentence of the accused, even unto death. This is an alien concept to us. Worse, it is an unjust concept. Criminals are allowed to go free while innocent men die. Like Origen, Anselm requires no ontological change. He deals with the attitude of God, but not the attitude of the men and women who actually need the changing.

But the worst (and scariest) function of the Satisfaction theory is the image that it paints of God. In Anselm’s understanding, God is so concerned with his own honor that he demands that satisfaction be made. He is so obsessed with it that he is willing to sacrifice his only son to achieve it. Like Origen, Anselm has failed to make atonement about humans. Instead, it is again a divine power-play, with the Son restoring the father’s honor, which happens to mean that humans get to go to heaven. It’s at best impersonal and at worst terribly blood-thirsty. What kind of God demands the death of an innocent person to assuage his own damaged honor? This is not a God I want to worship and love.

After Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas tried to modify the system, and his teachings remain the standard basis for a Catholic understanding of atonement even today. Essentially, Aquinas modifies Satisfaction theory by saying that Christ did not pay a debt of honor, but rather suffered a punishment, as punishment is an efficacious and appropriate response to sin. Christ’s death satisfied the penalty imposed not by honor, but by sin. And in his Passion, Christ gives to God more than is required to atone for the whole of humanity. And, according to Aquinas, this grace is available to Christians via the Sacraments.

But Aquinas has his own share of problems. He does not explain how one can suffer for the sins of another (and indeed, appears not to limit the concept to the relationship between Christ and humanity, possibly suggesting that fellow humans may suffer for the sins of another). The whole system, though modified, is still fraught with the perils of Anselm’s original. Again, there is the question of temporal efficacy and the issue of continued judgment. And again, there is a God who demands the punishment of an innocent individual. Aquinas dances far too close to a penal model for my tastes, and continues with the inconsistencies of the original Satisfactory system.

Again, this post appears to end on a depressing note, and for this I’m sorry. And yet, I think we can take comfort in the fact that the Church was moving forward. Anselm saw the flaws in the previous system and worked to change them. I find that incredibly inspiring, and the task of a true theologian. Unfortunately, Anselm suffered from some of the same problems as Origen, and added some new problems to the mix. Thankfully, the Church continued to grow, continued to deal with the problems presented by the past. Next week, we’ll look at the next step in the growing understanding of Atonement: Moral Influence Theory.


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