Satisfactionism

by Clark Carlton

Starting from… a concrete and existential concept of sin, the Orthodox tradition has refused to confine the whole of man’s relationship with God within a juridical, legal framework; it has refused to see sin as the individual transgression of a given, impersonal code of behavior which simply produces psychological guilt. The God of the Church as known and proclaimed by Orthodox experience and tradition has never had anything to do with the Roman, juridical tradition, the God of Anselm and Abelard; He has never been thought of as a vengeful God who rules by fear, meting out punishments and torment for men(Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality, p. 35).

If you begin with the assumption that grace is created, and not the uncreated energy of God, then God and man must remain forever external to each other. This has tremendous consequences for how we view salvation. Salvation cannot be defined as union with God, but only in terms of a moral or legal relationship between man and God. This is precisely what happened in Western Christianity.

Satisfaction

The Scriptures present salvation as a multi-faceted reality. Many different metaphors and images are used to express different aspects of this mystery. In the Middle Ages, however, one theologian sought to reduce this multi-faceted reality to one fundamental idea that would express the very nature of salvation. The theologian was Anselm (A.D. 1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury. His view of salvation is known as the “satisfaction theory.” This theory has dominated all thought on the subject in the Christian West from his day until the present.

In Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), Anselm argued that by sinning, man had committed an offence against God. (Remember that in medieval Western Europe, crimes were not committed against the state, but against the person of the monarch.) This offence against God demanded “satisfaction” of God’s honor and justice:

The importance of a crime is measured in terms of the one against whom the crime is committed. Therefore, a crime against God, sin, is infinite in its import. But, on the other hand, only a human being can offer satisfaction for human sin. This is obviously impossible, for human beings are finite, and cannot offer the infinite satisfaction required by the majesty of God. For this reason, there is need for a divine-human, God incarnate, who through his suffering and death offers satisfaction for the sins of all humankind.

Now there is no reason to suppose that Anselm had anything but the best of intentions in promulgating this theory. Indeed, he was trying to be faithful to the definition of Chalcedon and the Orthodox affirmation that Christ is both God and man. In order to render satisfaction to God, Christ had to be man, because it was man that owed the debt to God. At the same time, He had to be God, because only a being equal to God would be worthy to render satisfaction to God. Intellectually, it is a very satisfying theory. But is it true?

Before we discuss the problems with this theory, we need to say a few words about its influence. Jaroslav Pelikan writes:

More than any other treatise between Augustine and the Reformation on any other doctrine of the Christian faith, Anselm’s essay has shaped the outlook not only of Roman Catholics, but of most Protestants, many of whom have paid him the ultimate compliment of not even recognizing that their version of the wisdom of the cross comes from him, but attributing it to the Bible itself(Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, pp. 106-107).

Justo Gonzáles agrees:

This view of the work of Christ, which was by no means the generally accepted one in earlier centuries, soon gained such credence that most Western Christians came to accept it as the only biblical one(Gonzáles, The Story of Christianity, pp. 314-315).

Not everyone who followed Anselm agreed with the details of his theory. One could stress one or more aspects of the theory more than others. Some emphasized that it was the divine sense of justice that needed to be satisfied. Others focused on the slight to God’s honor. Still others focused on the wrath of God that needed to be assuaged. Regardless of the points of emphasis, however, the basic outline of Anselm’s doctrine was accepted by almost everyone.

Although the Protestant Reformers rejected much of Roman Catholic teaching, they too accepted the Anselmian concept of satisfaction. Indeed, the main point of contention between Roman Catholics and Protestants was not over whether or not God’s justice, honor, or wrath needed to be satisfied, but whether man could add anything to that satisfaction in penance.

Let us jump forward a few centuries to our own day. The theory of satisfactionism lies behind the Gospel of salvation preached by Evangelical Protestants such as Billy Graham. Indeed there is a story told about Billy Graham that illustrates how the concept is understood and expressed by modern Evangelicals.

One day Billy Graham was late for a meeting and sped through a small town. The local police pulled him over and issued a ticket. Now the justice of the peace in the town was also the town barber. Mr. Graham was taken to the barbershop and presented to the barber/JOP. He informed Mr. Graham of the amount of the fine and then took that amount out of the shop cash register and paid the fine himself. This he did to illustrate the fact that Christ has paid humanity’s “fine” owed to the justice of God.

Although this story may strike us as being simplistic, we should not be so quick to dismiss the power of such stories. The doctrine of satisfaction has tremendous psychological attraction. There are very few people in the world who are not aware at least to some degree of their own shortcomings. Once a sense of psychological guilt is established, then the Good News is presented: Christ has already satisfied the Father’s justice, wrath, and wounded honor. All man needs to do is “accept” what Christ has done. Man is then freed from his guilt.

It is possible for someone to walk into a revival meeting or evangelistic “crusade” and, within an hour, be overcome with a sense of guilt before a just God and a few minutes later be relieved of that guilt through a cathartic act such as answering an “altar call.” From hell-bound sinner to eternally secure saint in less than sixty minutes! Psychologically, it is all very compelling. Theologically, however, it leads man away from the true God.

Dissatisfied

There are three (at least!) theological problems with the doctrine of satisfactionism. First, it is predicated on the assumption that God has human characteristics. Second, it makes sin to be God’s problem rather than man’s. Third, it turns salvation into something wholly external to man, leaving him essentially unchanged.

In chapter eight we said that a correct understanding of salvation must be based on the correct doctrines about God. One of those doctrines is that God does not change. Anger and pride are human emotions — and not the noblest ones at that! It is nothing short of blasphemous to base an understanding of salvation on the idea that God gets angry or has a brittle ego. Anselm’s god is not the God of the Church, but a medieval monarch projected into the heavens.

But what about all those Bible verses that mention the wrath of God? To this I reply, what about all those verses that mention God’s hands or ears? Why do we immediately recoil from thinking that God has physical body parts, yet have no trouble attributing human emotions to Him?

Let us consider anger for a moment. If we accept the notion that the sin of man angers God, then before man sinned, God was not angry. And, as the theory goes, after Christ’s satisfaction of the divine anger, God is no longer angry. There is no way around it: God changes and it is the action of man that causes the change.

Even if we throw out the notions of divine anger or wounded honor on the basis that they violate the most basic elements of Christian theology, what about the justice of God? God is just, and because He does not change, He cannot simply let man “off the hook.” Justice must be satisfied.

Reread the last two sentences carefully: God cannot let man off the hook because of justice. According to this view, God Himself is subject to some sort of cosmic justice. Justice is, in a sense, greater than God.

Even in medieval times theologians realized there was a problem with this. One solution was to invoke the sovereign will of God. Pelikan explains:

For if, as Anselm’s critics both ancient and modern have charged, he seemed to subject God to His own justice and law as though these were independent entities, the stress on the freedom of God now led to the principle: “The will of God is the norm and ground (regula et origo) of justice.” Hence a human act was intrinsically good not in and of itself, but only by virtue of its having been defined as good by the free and sovereign will of God… for God willed whatever He wanted to will, and both justice and mercy were names for the expression of that will as it was perceived (Pelikan, The Christian Tradition — A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma, pp. 25-26).

Unfortunately, this approach does not help matters much. Instead of making God subordinate to cosmic justice, it makes Him capricious. Could God have saved mankind some other way than by requiring the blood of His Son to be shed? Yes. He is God; He can do what He wants. Why did He not simply forgive man? He chose not to. According to Jonathan Edwards, the only reason God has not already thrown all sinners into hell is because of His “mere arbitrary will, an uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.”

Anselm, therefore, has succeeded in painting God into a corner. Either He changes, or He is subject to an eternal cosmic justice, or He is capricious. Such are the problems that arise when we attribute human characteristics to God. Hear again what God has to say on the subject:

For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts(Isaiah 55:8-9).

The second problem with satisfactionism is that it makes sin God’s problem rather than man’s. According to one version of the theory, the need for Christ to satisfy God’s justice came about as a result of the tension between God’s justice and His mercy. God wants to save man because He is merciful, but He cannot violate His own justice. Sin, therefore, is actually a problem for God. What is at issue here is not what sin actually does to humans, but the effect it has on God and His attitude toward man. Jonathan Edwards writes:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns like fire, He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours(Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God).

The whole plan of salvation reduces to nothing more than a fiction, an elaborate play whereby God can declare man to be justified irregardless of man’s actual state. In the Christian East, the dominant metaphors for understanding sin and salvation are sickness and health. Translating satisfactionism to a medical analogy demonstrates the absurdity of the theory: it is like saying that sickness affects the doctor rather than the patient and that the cure depends upon the doctor’s attitude toward the patient rather than the actual health of the patient.

This leads to the third problem with satisfactionism: salvation remains external to man, and, therefore, man remains fundamentally unchanged. To be sure, salvation removes man’s guilt, but what is guilt other than man’s moral standing before God? Yannaras writes,

But this justification of man purely through faith in the expiatory power of Christ’s death on the cross does not mean that his sins are blotted out, but merely that they are not charged to him. Man remains in essence sinful (Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality, p. 153)…

Throughout the entire process of salvation, God and man remain wholly extrinsic to one another. Man is in no sense changed or recreated, but merely declared “not guilty.” This is so because satisfactionism presupposes the same underlying principle as Nestorianism: that God and man cannot really be united on any level beyond that of moral obedience.

For Orthodoxy, however, the situation is quite the reverse. Fr. John Meyendorff writes:

The whole problem is not a juridical or utilitarian one — what is sufficient, and what is not — but rather a question of the original human destiny, which is to be with God and in God. This original human destiny has been restored in Christ, the New Adam… What He is by nature, we become by grace (Meyendorff, Catholicity and the Church, p. 53).

Orthodox Christianity, therefore, must reject the satisfaction theory of the atonement because it violates the most fundamental principles of Christian theology and because it leaves man fundamentally unchanged. For the Orthodox, to be saved is to be restored to true spiritual health. It is not God’s attitude towards man that needs to be changed, but rather man’s state.

“Satisfactionism” is chapter ten of The Life: The Orthodox Doctrine of Salvation by Clark Carlton

©1999, Regina Orthodox Press

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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  1. Holy smoke, that’s good! Thank you for letting me know about this book. It’s on my “to get” list!

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