John and Richard part II: On the Atonement

I didn’t get the dishes finished last night. I finished listening to John Cleary interviewing Fr Richard Leonard sj, and then got hooked on listening to the wonderful Lanchashire accent of Professor Brian Cox (how does someone that young get to be a “professor”?) on ABC1’s “Wonders of the Universe” (you can still catch episodes 2 and 3 on iView; actually I have just looked up his wikipedia page, and now I am wondering how does someone only two years younger than me get to look THAT YOUNG??? Hair would have something to do with it, I guess…).

Anyway, I woke up in the wee hours of this morning (we are experiencing something of an “Indian Spring” here in Melbourne at the moment, it is quite mild outside here by the fire at 6am) with the idea of finishing my comments on the Sunday Nights interview with Fr Leonard.

After they had finished talking about prayer, the subject turned (as it always does in these kinds of discussions on theodicy as surely as night follows day) to the Atonement. Fr Leonard began by saying that there is “that verse” in the old Scandinavian Lutheran hymn “How Great thou art” that he can never sing. “Yes!”, I cried, “I know just the one – its the one that goes:

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze.”

I can’t stand that verse! It’s so vapid and soppy. Actually, just now taking a look at the Wikipedia page for this hymn, I note that this verse is in fact the work of one Stuart K. Hine, an English “missionary” to the Ukraine who translated a Russian version of the Swedish Hymn. Blame him, not the Lutherans.

But no! This wasn’t the verse to which Fr Leonard was referring. The verse was, in fact, another of Hine’s inventions, not in the Swedish original. The verse to which Fr Leonard so strongly objected was this one:

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

Fr Leonard completely rejected the atonement theology expressed in this verse. God didn’t send his Son to die for us, he said; rather the death of Jesus was the act of human beings (in particular the Romans), to which God’s act, God’s response and answer, was the Resurrection. He went on to say that he was more comfortable with the “Eastern” theology: Jesus didn’t die, he was killed (I don’t know how accurate that is to say that is the Orthodox understanding). In other words, don’t blame God for the death of Jesus – blame the Romans (shades of Monty Python?).

Now I am well aware of how common the revulsion is to the thought that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all”, but those are in fact the words of St Paul (Romans 8:32), not Stuart K. Hine or the Scandinavian Lutherans. The argument put forward by Fr Leonard suffers from the common failure of regarding God and his Son as different people, and not just distinct “persons” (the Father and the Son) of catholic Trinitarian theology. But, again, what seems to be lacking in this “critique” is a sensibility of the Scriptural way of speaking of the Paschal Mystery, which strongly suggests that the entire Paschal Mystery, both the Passion and the Resurrection, were a part of God’s will, God’s plan. Here one can mention not only

1) St Paul’s statement in his letter to the Romans in 8:32, but also:
2) John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”
3) Luke 2:42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” – indicating that Jesus himself was very conscious of the fact that his impending suffering was not only a human act, but ultimately the “will” of his Father
4) the use of the little word “must” (Gk: dei) used repeatedly by the Gospels (eg. Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22, and even John 3:14) to express the divine necessity of Jesus’ death

It is simply unfaithful to the Scriptures to present a picture of the Paschal Mystery whereby we separate the Passion of Jesus from his Resurrection and say that the former was the will and act of man alone, to which God “responded” with the latter.

In both the case in the last post, the case of prayer, and in this case, the discussion of the Atonement, I can sympathise with Fr Leonard for wanting some other kind of God than this God of Jesus Christ which is presented to us in the Scriptures – but ultimately that is the God we have to deal with, that is the God we struggle to make sense of in our puney theologies.

To turn back to the hymn “How Great Thou Art” (which, incidentally, we recently belted out at last week’s assembly of the Victorian Council of Churches at the Melbourne Salvation Army centre), perhaps we need someone who can read Swedish and give us the hymn closer to the original. The Wikipedia article on the hymn also gives an earlier, purportedly more accurate, translation, which does not include either the verse that I object to or the verse that Fr Leonard objects to.

When your voice speaks in rolls of thunder pealing,
Your lightning power bursts in bright surprise;
When cooling rain, your gentle love revealing,
Reflects your promise, arcing through the skies.

The Bible tells the story of your blessing
So freely shed upon all human life;
Your constant mercy, every care addressing,
relieving burdened souls from sin and strife.

And when at last, the clouds of doubt dispersing,
You will reveal what we but dimly see;
With trumpet call, our great rebirth announcing,
we shall rejoin you for eternity.

It also adds a translation of these two verses:

When burdens press, and seem beyond endurance,
Bowed down with grief, to Him I lift my face;
And then in love He brings me sweet assurance:
‘My child! for thee sufficient is my grace’.

O when I see ungrateful man defiling
This bounteous earth, God’s gifts so good and great;
In foolish pride, God’s holy Name reviling,
And yet, in grace, His wrath and judgment wait.

Perhaps if we were to sing the hymn with these verses, it is something that both Fr Leonard and I could join together happily in singing.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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6 Responses to John and Richard part II: On the Atonement

  1. Paul G says:

    Earlier this year, I listened to a talk by Fr Leonard and he used the same idea that Jesus didn’t die to atone for our sins, he was killed because of our sins, and the Resurrection is God’s answer to our sins.
    The occasion for this talk was a conference on school religious education, and Fr Leonard was giving the keynote.
    As you say, it is not up to us to invent God, but to listen to what he says in Scripture, but I think Fr Leonard’s idea is partly a response to the typical question in RE classes “why did Jesus have to die?” Fr Leonard’s reply seems more plausible and familiar to them.
    For what its worth, my view of theodicy is that we grow when we have battles to fight, and it also provides a way of proving our faithfulness. It is something like a marriage which is strengthened by fights and failures, followed by reconciliation.
    What would you recommend as an answer to the child’s question about why Jesus had to die?

    • Schütz says:

      Fr Leonard’s reply is certainly “plausible and familiar” – and I think it is important for us to remember that the Romans, not the Jews, killed Jesus. But the reply of who killed Jesus doesn’t quite go the full distance in answering the question of why or whether it was God’s will and intention that Jesus die in the first place. It does seem as if the various NT writers assume that it was – ie. that it wasn’t simply an accident nor a matter of human beings fowling up God’s plan, but that this was the “must” of the entire life and ministry of Jesus. Certainly the Gospels, by their very structure of Part A (Ministry of Jesus) and Part B (Passion of Jesus) and Epilogue (Resurrection of Jesus) seem to point in this direction.

      How to answer a child? Every Christian kid I know grows up learning that “Jesus died to save us from our sins” – a simple expression which needs a LOT of unpacking. The simple and usual way of explaining it is that because of our sin, we were all condemned to die, but instead of us dying, Jesus was willing to die in our place. If you use this explanation, you must include the Resurrection: because Jesus was the sinless, obedient Son of God, God raised him from the dead again. To quote the Preface for Easter (the old memorial acclamation): “Dying he destroyed our death, rising he restored our life.”

      But you might want to try a different tack, although for this you need to introduce the person of “the Evil One”. Satan wished to destroy us and all God’s creation by leading us into rebellion against God. The result was sin and death. God wanted to break the power of sin and death – and Satan – forever. But to do this, he didn’t use his mighty power, but used the “power” of weakness. He made himself vulnerable to the power of sin and death, and so set a trap for Satan. Satan thought he had won when he managed to get human beings to kill God’s Son, but in this way (as the Resurrection shows us beyond doubt) Jesus actually won eternal victory over death, sin, and – of course – Satan himself.

      I think that might be a way of approaching it that even Fr Leonard would agree with! It has a more satisfying narrative, anyway, one that has been put into film more than once, and it is even there in The Passion of the Christ – although I think it could have been done better.

      As for theodicy, ultimately I think that this is one that we all need to work out for ourselves. We also need to realise that although we might find a way of “understanding” this in our own experience, our personal insights are unlikely to be of assistance to someone else in their suffering (as the letters Fr Leonard and his mother received on the occasion of his sister’s accident show). Even our own “understanding” may be sorely tested, as C.S. Lewis found. He found little in what he himself had written in his book on pain helpful in his own experience when his wife died.

  2. Matthias says:

    The Cross was no accident , Christ died for the ungodly. It seems that fr leonard may be also using the moral theory of atonement,or rather resurrection ,that is also a feature of AnaBaptist theology

  3. PM says:

    At the risk of becoming the tame Thomist here, I would suggest a distinction. We can say that it was part of divine providence that the Christ should suffer without thereby saying that God directly willed the evil that it entailed – while God, as creator of all that is, is in some sense responsible for evil, that is not as a result of his directly willing it. Those who tortured and killed Jesus were exercising their human powers of free decision – which at the same time was part of divine providence. It was the price of living out the divine life in a fallen and sinful world – a price God was prepared to pay out of love.

    Here are some passages from ST I.II 22, on divine providence, which say it better than I can:

    ‘Two things belong to providence–namely, the type of the order of things foreordained towards an end; and the execution of this order, which is called government. As regards the first of these, God has immediate providence over everything, because He has in His intellect the types of everything, even the smallest; and whatsoever causes He assigns to certain effects, He gives them the power to produce those effects. Whence it must be that He has beforehand the type of those effects in His mind. As to the second, there are certain intermediaries of God’s providence; for He governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defect in His power, but by reason of the abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures. ‘

    ‘When it is said that God left man to himself, this does not mean that man is exempt from divine providence; but merely that he has not a prefixed operating force determined to only the one effect; as in the case of natural things, which are only acted upon as though directed by another towards an end; and do not act of themselves, as if they directed themselves towards an end, like rational creatures, through the possession of free will, by which these are able to take counsel and make a choice. Hence it is significantly said: “In the hand of his own counsel.” But since the very act of free will is traced to God as to a cause, it necessarily follows that everything happening from the exercise of free will must be subject to divine providence. For human providence is included under the providence of God, as a particular under a universal cause. God, however, extends His providence over the just in a certain more excellent way than over the wicked; inasmuch as He prevents anything happening which would impede their final salvation. For “to them that love God, all things work together unto good” (Romans 8:28). But from the fact that He does not restrain the wicked from the evil of sin, He is said to abandon them: not that He altogether withdraws His providence from them; otherwise they would return to nothing, if they were not preserved in existence by His providence. ‘

    ‘The mode both of necessity and of contingency falls under the foresight of God, who provides universally for all being; not under the foresight of causes that provide only for some particular order of things.’

  4. John Nolan says:

    I despair of the Jesuits these days (JP II gave up on them 30 years ago). In EP III of the NO mass it says “… et agnoscens Hostiam, cuius voluisti immolatione placari …”. You can’t get plainer than that. A splendid hymn, by the way.

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