Whether there was any other possible way of human deliverance besides the Passion of Christ?
…speaking simply and absolutely, it was possible for God to deliver mankind otherwise than by the Passion of Christ, because “no word shall be impossible with God”
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q. 46, A. 2
The Felix Culpa Tradition
It has been usual within Evangelicalism to virtually deduce the “necessity” of the atonement from a system of a priori premises. The premises will usually involve some form of “infinity” such as, sin incurs an infinite debt or punishment, no finite being or man can make an infinite restitution, therefore only the infinitely meritorous deeds of a God-man can satisfy the “infinite demerit” of sin. There is an almost mathematical simplicity to the argument, which is actually unsurprising since it was St Anselm who made popular the attempt to “deduce” the atonement in this matter from purely a priori principles, including the existence of God (the ontological argument).
Although St Thomas Aquinas would deny the absolute necessity of the atonement for our salvation, nevertheless he shares with St Anselm (and perhaps St Augustine), the premise that the incarnation and the atonement was essentially a response to sin. This is the felix culpa of St Augustine, the “happy fault” of Adam which lead to the great blessing of Christ’s incarnation.
The problem with this tradition is simply that sin becomes the controlling factor in salvation history, that somehow sin “forced” God’s hand into making the incarnation and atonement occur so that he can save mankind. To be sure, sin does have something to do with the Cross of Christ, but the question is whether or not God ordained it to occur so as to address sin, whether sin can actually twist the hand of God and nessasitate his actions. In a sense, God becomes as much a tragic figure in the tale of salvation history as does mankind, He had no choice in the matter if he wants to restore mankind to his love; he was literally forced by the “forces beyond” of sin to deliver his Son to be murdered so that he can be reconciled to mankind. He must bow before this eternal system of justice, debt replayment, restitution, retribution or whatever in order to win back his own creations.
It is a curious fact that most Evangelicals and Western Christians would generally balk at the “ransom theory of the atonement”, the theory that the death of Christ was paid to the devil who held sinful mankind “ransom”, this theory although popular in the early days of the church, virtually disappeared after St Anselm’s devasting and masterly critique in the 11th century. The intuition of course being that God cannot possibly be forced to pander to the demands of the devil. However C.S. Lewis in his Narnia series would actually revive the ransom theory when he speaks of the laws of the “Deep Magic” which required that payment for Edmund’s sin must be given to the White Witch, that is, payment was made to the devil. (And this is one additional reason why I dislike the theology/philosophy of C.S. Lewis!)
Whatever we may think of the propriety of Aslan’s life being given to the White Witch, and no doubt most of the more orthodox Evangelicals would not be comfortable with it, there has actually been very little attention given to the very idea of this “Deep Magic” itself which is supposedly embedded into creation. Even if this “Deep Magic” did not necessasitate the debt to be paid to the Witch but, say, to itself, which is the satisfaction/penal substitution theory of most Evanglicals/Catholics, there is still the issue of how God’s hand is still being twisted by these set of necessary laws embedded into the cosmos. If it is so unsavoury for God’s hand to be twisted by the devil to pay to him the ransom, why is it any less unsavoury for God’s hand to be twisted by these impersonal laws written literally into the heavens? Especially twisted to give in to sin’s demands? The Law does not by itself demand retribution. The two greatest commandments commands love towards God and our neighbours, but it does not by itself command or demand retribution or vengeance. It is ludicrous to think that God’s commandments to love necessitates retribution or punishment. It is sin itself that demands a victim, why should God comply? Is God not a free subject and agent? Is He Himself not infinitely transcendent and as such undefined, unrestrained and unbound by these rules? If he created the “rules of the game”, he can jolly undo it, just as Christ did away with an eye for an eye and commanded love thy enemies, etc. If punishment or retribution possess any merits, it has to be in aid of the good of the creature and in service of the ends of love and not for itself.
If one replies that these are God’s law and express or part of his character, nature or whatever, then God ceases to be an infinitely subjective, personal and free agent, but instead literally transforms into a blind and mechanical Nature with a capital N, especially in some horrible vulgar karmaic sense that every action must have “consequences”, like scientific laws with their “causes” and “effets”. The “laws” are part of God’s nature/character in the same way that to erupt and pour molten lava over the villages is a part of the volcanoe’s nature/character; the latter had no more “choice” over what constitutes it’s nature than does God have a choice over these “laws” which are supposedly encoded into himself to which he must bow before and mechanically conform out of necessity. Just as Mother Nature is impersonal and blind in its operation of the Laws of Nature, likewise is God as impersonal and blind in its mechanical operation and subjection to these “Laws” of his nature/character.
There is something rather fatalistic and tragic about this understanding of divine action, something close to our Chinese traditional culture of seeing all things as fixed and fated from all eternity and which we simply passively submit, “tianming” (天命) as we would say, fated, except in this case this “mandate” or decree even subjects God himself who has no choice in the matter. It is parallel to the Greek mythology of the three Fates or “Ananke” (Ἀνάγκη), the goddess of force, constrain or necessity. They are not “good” or “evil”, they have no “interest” in the world, Ananke simply is and gets to dictate all decisions and circumstance even that of the gods, as Simonides said, “Even the gods don’t fight against ananke.” And thus, even God cannot fight against his own “Deep Magic”, his own laws.
The incarnation, the atonement, the death of Christ, was one giant tragedy which was necessary for God to go through in order for him to restore his creations to his love, having no choice in the matter. Poor God, he can’t help it, he loves his creations and sin demands a payment, and has no choice but to pay up and submit himself to the law’s demands. Love ultimately becomes tragic, it itself is subject to sin’s demands, it is helplessly entangled and bound up to sin, it needs the great evil of Christ’s death in order to save his own creation, and so in an incoherent way, God needs an evil, the unjust death of Christ, to love his creations. But as Peter Abelard once pointed out,
If [the] sin of Adam was so great that it could be expiated only by the death of Christ, what expiation will avail for the act of murder committed against Christ, and for the many great crimes committed against him or his followers? How did the death of his innocent Son so please God the Father that through it he should be reconciled to us—to us who by our sinful acts have done the very things for which our innocent Lord was put to death?
Indeed, to argue that the atonement was “necessary” for God to restore his creatures into his love would be tantamount to arguing that the horrible sin and injustice of Christ’s death was necessary to expiate sin. As Abelard points out, if the sinful murder of Christ was necessary to expiate Adam’s sin, what atonement will avail to expiate this sinful murder? The incoherence is clear, the entire scheme leads to the contradiction that sin was necessary to get rid of sin!
John Duns Scotus and the Will to Love
I believe that the “Felix Culpa” view has been sufficiently criticised and therefore we shall simply move on to the alternative tradition of understanding the atonement, the tradition as championed by Franciscan tradition contra the Dominican-Augustinian tradition of St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas.
Before the Blessed Subtle Doctor formalise the Franciscan tradition on the atonement, various other Franciscan thinkers had already laid the foundations for an alternative way of thinking about the atonement. The Franciscans were appalled by the contradiction contained by the “Felix Culpa” formula, how could something so wonderful and divine like the incarnation have its “cause”, its foundation, its premise, upon sin? They were determined that the good and glorious things of God must have only one cause, one source, one reason, the Will of God.
Thus the early Franciscan thinkers located the reason and cause for the incarnation prior to the Fall, they rooted it in the Creative intention of God. Based on the “Cosmic Christ” passages such as Colossians 1:15-20, the Franciscans argued that it had been God’s intention all along to enter into the deepest of fellowship of love with his creatures and to become incarnate in the fullness of time; this was the crown and teleos of the creation, to be in full communion and union with their God. Thus, in answer to the counterfactual question as to whether or not the incarnation could have occured without the Fall, their answer is an unequivocal yes, because the will to become incarnate, to enter into the fellowship of love with his creatures, has been eternally rooted in the will of God from the beginning, and is not contingent upon or a response or reaction to sin.
The Fall of Adam and the entrance of sin into the world meant that God’s will and desire for fellowship with his creation would become a risky and dangerous affair. It has been God’s intention all along to enter into the most intimate bodily fellowship with this creation, but with sin in the world, God’s entering into our world means the risk of danger, the risk of getting harmed and suffering at the evil and wicked hands of his creations who now hates their God and their Lord.
However, the sin, the evil and the wickedness of mankind does not in the least deter God from his original intention to love, to enter into loving fellowship with mankind. With a sort of Nietzschean wilfulness, The Son of God was made flesh, knowing full well what his creations would do to him. He exercised perfect righteousness before God, he forgave sins, loved sinners and ate and fellowship with all man, knowing full well that such actions would provoke the wrath of his enemies, but still he was not willing to call his legion of angels to destroy his enemies, for he remembered God’s will and command that he should love his enemies as himself, not protect himself from them, and so he made himself vulnerable to them, he did not resist but suffered their anger, their wickedness and their evil, but suffered it, in perfect obedience to the will of God to love his enemies and to pray for them, which he did upon the Cross.
But even after we have done the worse to our Lord and God, deicide, yet he came back from the dead to speak peace to us and to continue to obey the Father’s command to love us. Our wickedness, our sin, our hatred and even death himself couldn’t stop the will of God to love. Crushing right through all these, the Lord burst the bounds of death, sin and condemnation and returned to confirm his words, his ministry, and his love. When he says that your sins are forgiven, his words will not become void simply because we hate him or put him to death, but he overcame our crimes against him and return back to confirm his word of forgiveness and love.
Thus, the Cross of Christ was not in the least necessary for God to love and forgive his creations, that is precisely what Christ did even before his death! God does not in the least need the Cross to love and forgive us, whether it is to pay the devil, the deep magic or some retributive system, that would be to make righteousness, love and restoration dependent upon sin and evil! But the Cross is our deed and our will alone, not God’s, and our sinful will and deeds are most certainly not “necessary”! To turn our sinfulness into necessity is to posulate some kind of necessary “evil principle” parallel to that of the infinite good or God, which is a form of Manichean dualism. The Cross is what happens when the pure holy forgiving love of God comes into contact with sinful and wicked man. The Cross is what happens when God loves his enemies. We cannot abide such free and divine love, we demand our rights, our laws, our “justice”, our order, etc, and seek not the “righteousness of God” which comes by faith alone and not by works.
We think this is ridiculous and nonsense, don’t we all love forgiveness and love? Why on earth would we reject such pure love? Like St Peter we declare, we would never betray you! Consider for example, a paedophile and rapists confesses his sin and repents, he seeks the forgiveness of his victims, his victims refuses and call out for vengeance, for retribution, for justice. Their rights have been violated, they have been wronged! A penance must be exacted! Then Christ comes along and speaks the word of forgiveness to the paedophile and rapists, and sternly warns the “victims” that if they do not forgive and love their enemies, neither will their Father in Heaven forgive them. What will their reaction be? Will we celebrate such love? Will we rejoice in such forgiveness? Or would we in furious outrage and anger call for the lynching of this despicable Christ for daring to forgive such “sinners” and daring to judge and condemn the “rightful” victims who “deserves” their rights and justice? The cock crows, we have just denied the Lord! The point can simply be generalised, would we like it when God has mercy upon our enemies, those who have wronged us, those who have violated all that we love and commands us to forgive those whom he has forgiven? I don’t think so!
But yet Christ loves even those who persecute him, who deny him, who sought his death. He refuses to abandon his creatures, he refuses to “save himself” and flee from his enemies or defend himself with his divine power. Instead he places himself entirely into their hands and into their wickedness and let them do their worse to him. This was the true “sacrifice” of Christ, it was not a sacrifice of death to appease God’s wrath or satisfy God’s demands for retribution or to pay the devil, it was a “sacrifice of righteousness”, the sacrifice of righteous obedience to the will and command of God, to love his enemies and his own creations, which obedience he submitted unto his death. It was this sacrifice of righteousness, this sacrifice of mercy, this sacrifice of love towards his enemies, which endured the sufferings and death of the Cross, wherein he prayed to his Father to forgive his persecutors, which the Father was pleased to accept, and in answer to the prayer of his Son made out of pure love and obedience, the Father does forgive us all the murderers of his Son.
Conclusion: Existentially Caught in the Act
Thus, Christ did not die to satisfy some eternal system or order of justice or rules, nor did God demand death in itself or some form of punishment, etc. He died because we hated him, we despised his mercy, his forgiveness and his rigtheousness, and ultimately, because we rejected and murdered him in both our hearts and in our deeds. (Matthew 25:40, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” and when we reject the messengers of Christ have we rejected Christ. Luke 10:16 “…the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”)
Sin is not some impersonal accounting number encoded somewhere far far away into the cosmos, into some abstract impersonal laws, some “deep magic”, some “wrath of God” accounting books in the heavens, or in some hyper-spiritualised and mythological devil’s domain. It is alive and active deep within our hearts, in our minds and in our souls. When the message of the Gospel comes, the Word of God reveals our sins, reveals our hatred of God, of his love, of his mercy, of his goodness and of his righteousness, we are existentially “caught in the act”, caught in the act of rejecting Christ, hating his love, his mercy and his goodness to others and especially to ourselves. His forgiveness is presumptuous! How dare he forgive us! We did nothing wrong! How dare he forgive our enemies! They must pay the price for their sins!
Yet this is the message of the Cross, Christ looks deeps into the our darkest hearts, bears upon his body our deepest wickedness, rejection and blasphemy, and looks to the heavens and prays, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. And it is this Word, this prayer made out of pure love and obedience, which defiantly triumphs over our sin, which is our salvation.
Is it necessary, an act in response to some external demand or eternalised system? No. But it is the Word of comfort, the Word of Joy and the Word of Peace, to us who suffer from the torments of sins, the despair of evil and the turbulance of disorder, it is the Word of healing to us who suffer from sin’s wounds. The Word of the Cross has as its only motive, its only meaning, it’s only cause, the Will of God, the Will of Love, to Love, and the Cross is the triumph of God’s will to love, over his enemies will to hate, that while we are still sinners, Christ died for us.
Thus in this message and in this Gospel, the love of God, and the will of God to love, is the controlling factor, sin does not get to twist the hands of God, God does not need the Cross to forgive or love his creations, he does not need wickedness, sin, or evil to love or forgive mankind, but rather, on this conception, it is the love of God, the will to forgive, which precisely triumphs over our wickedness, whose most powerful weapon, death, has been disarmed by Christ upon the Cross and at the Resurrection. It is the theology that the will to love is sovereign over all.