Friday, March 11, 2011

Joseph Ratzinger Re-Thinks Anselm's Theology of Redemption

To most of us, Lent, as entering into the Cross of Christ, takes the appearance of a “mechanism of injured and restored right.” We are the protagonists making compensation to God for the debit of our sins and the Cross is a credit. It is a case of God giving us a credit that we can use in making reparation. It becomes a problem of divine justice and we as protagonists making retribution. The problem is that "it still is all about us."

Consider the following of then-Joseph Ratzinger:

“Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) had been concerned to deduce the work of Christ by a train of necessary reasons (rationibus necessariis) and thus to show irrefutably that this work had to happen in the precise way in which it in fact did. His argument may be roughly summarized like this: by man’s sin, which was aimed against God, the order of justice was infinitely damaged and God infinitely offended. Behind this is the idea that the measure of the offence is determined by the status of the offended party; if I offend a beggar the consequences are not the same as they would be if I offended a head of state. The importance of the offence varies according to the addressee. Since God is infinite the offence to him implicit in humanity’s sin is also infinitely important. The right thus damaged must be restored, because God is a God order and justice; indeed, he is justice itself. But the measure of the offence demands infinite reparation, which man is not capable of making. He can offend infinitely – his capacity extends that far – but he cannot produce an infinite reparation; what he, as a finite being, gives will always be only finite. His powers of destruction extend further than his capacity to reconstruct. Thus between all the reparations that man may attempt and the greatness of his guilt there remains an infinite gulf which he can never bridge. Any gesture of expiation can only demonstrate his powerlessness to close the infinite gulf which he himself opened up.

“Is order to be destroyed for ever, then, and man to remain eternally imprisoned in the abyss of his guilt? At this point Anselm hits on the figure of Christ. His answer runs thus: God himself removes the injustice; not (as he could) by a simple amnesty, which cannot after all overcome from inside what has happened, but by the infinite Being’s himself becoming man and then as a man – who thus belongs to the race of the offenders yet possesses the power, denied to man, of infinite reparation – making the required expiation. Thus the redemption takes place entirely through grace and at the same time entirely as restoration of the right. Anselm thought he had thereby given a compelling answer to the difficult question of `Cur Deus homo,’ the wherefore of the incarnation and the cross. His view has put a decisive stamp on the second millennium of Western Christendom, which takes it for granted that Christ had to die on the cross in order to make good the infinite offence which had been committed and in this way to restore the damaged order of things.

“Now it cannot be denied that this theory takes account of crucial biblical and human perceptions; anyone who studies it with a little patience will have no difficulty in seeing this. To that extent it will always command respect as an attempt to synthesize the individual elements in the biblical evidence in one great all0embracing system. Is not hard to see that in spite of all the philosophical and juridical terminology employed, the guiding thread remains that truth which the Bible expresses in the little word `For,’ in which it makes clear that we as men live not only directly from God but from one another, and in the last analysis from the One who lived for all. And who could fail to see that thus in the schematization of the `satisfaction’ theory the breath of the biblical idea of election remains clear, the idea that makes election not a privilege of the elected but the call to live for others? It is the call to that `For’ in which man confidently lets himself fall, ceases to cling to himself and ventures on the leap away from himself into the infinite, the leap through which alone he can come to himself. But even if all this is admitted it cannot be denied on the other hand that the perfectly logical divine-cum-human legal system erected by Anselm distorts the perspectives and with its rigid logic can make the image of God appear in a sinister light. We shall have to go into this in detail when we come to talk about the meaning of the cross. For the time being it will suffice to say that things immediately look different when, in place of the division of Jesus into work and person, it becomes clear that with Jesus Christ it is not a question of a piece of work separate from himself, of a feat which God must demand because he himself is under and an obligation to the concept of order; that with him it is not a question… of having, but of being human. And how different things look further on when one picks up the Pauline key, which teaches us to understand Christ as the `last man (’έσχατος Άδάμ: 1 Cor. 15, 45) - the final man, who takes man into his future, which consists of his being not just man but one with God.”

The Cross and Atonement: The New (intrinsic) Priesthood of Jesus Christ.

“What position is really occupied by the cross within faith in Jesus as the Christ… As we have already established, the universal Christian consciousness in this matter is extensively influenced by a much coarsened version of St. Anselm’s theology of atonement, the main lines of which we have considered in another context. To many Christians, and especially to those who only know the faith from a fair distance, it looks as if the cross is to be understood as part of a mechanism of injured and restored right. It is the form, so it seems, in which the infinitely offended righteousness of God was propitiated again by means of an infinite expiation. It thus appears to people as the expression of an attitude which insists on a precise balance between debit and credit; at the same time one gets the feeling that this balance is based on a fiction. One gives first secretly with the left hand what one takes back again ceremonially with the right. The `infinite expiation’ on which God seems to insist thus moves into a doubly sinister light. Many devotional texts actually force one to think that Christian faith in the cross visualizes a God whose unrelenting righteousness demanded a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own Son, sinister wrath makes the message of love incredible.

“This picture is as false as it is widespread. In the Bible the cross does not appear as part of a mechanism of injured right; on the contrary, in the Bible the cross is quite the reverse: it is the expression of the radical nature of the love which gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does, and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others. To anyone who looks more closely, the scriptural theology of the cross represents a real revolution as compared with the notions of expiation and redemption entertained by non-Christian religions, though it certainly cannot be denied that in the later Christian consciousness this revolution was largely neutralized and its whole scope seldom recognized. In other world religions expiation usually means the restoration of the damaged relationship with God by means of expiatory actions on the part of men. Almost all religions center round the problem of expiation; they arise out of man’s knowledge of his guilt before God and signify the attempt to remove this feeling of guilt, to surmount the guilt through conciliatory actions offered up to God. The expiatory activity by which men hope to conciliate the divinity and to put him in a gracious mood stands at the heart of the history of religion.

“In the New Testament the situation is almost completely reversed. It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him. He restores disturbed right on the initiative of his own power to love, by making unjust man just again, the dead living again, through his own creative mercy. His righteousness to grace; it is active righteousness, which sets crooked man right, that is, bends him straight, makes him right. Here we stand before the twist which Christianity put into the history of religion. The New Testament does not say that men conciliate God, as we really ought to expect, since after all it is they who have failed, not God. It says on the contrary that `God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5, 19). This is truly something new, something unheard of – the starting-point of Christian existence and the center of New Testament theology of the cross: God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled; he goes to meet them and reconciles them. Here we can see the true direction of the incarnation, of the Cross.

Accordingly, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It does not stand there as the work of expiation which mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s which gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship too, man’s whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction. Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called `Eucharistia,’ thanksgiving. In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man’s letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our resources – as if they were not his already! – but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as the only Lord. We worship him by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners, whereas in truth we can only exist at all in him and from him. Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would to have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him. Letting God act on us – that is Christian sacrifice.”

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity,” op. cit. 172-174.
[2] J. Ratzinger, “Introduction…” op. cit. 213-215.

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