Lent and Atonement Theories

As Holy Week progresses some blogs (Fr. Jake among others) are visiting the usual theologies of the atonement. Responses tend to fall along fairly predictable lines…

So–I’ll throw something completely different in the mix but in a similar vein: a thought about Lent. As you know, the First Sunday in Lent always features the Temptation account. Under the old system it was always Matt 4:1-11. Gregory’s sermon is a fascinating one. He skips his usual line-by-line approach, preferring instead a more thematic approach. What he does is to talk about the Fall in the Garden. Adam, he says, fell prey to three temptations and so humanity fell under the devil’s control. By way of contrast, Christ–the second Adam–was tempted not in a garden but in a wasteland. There he faced the same three tests but instead of being overcome, overcame. Christ in that exchange conquer the devil’s three greatest temptations by purely human means, preeminently in the correct and appropriate interpretation of Scripture.

By constructing his interpretation this way, Gregory shows the temptation episode to be one of Christ’s salvific acts. While it may not be atonement in the conventional sense, it certainly does cut to God’s victory over the devil and the liberation of humanity. Furthermore, it highlights the salvific acts that occurred throughout Christ’s life–not just at the end.

Think on these things, on the imitation of Christ and the cultivation of virtue in these final days before Triduum…

Update:  More people have jumped in on this conversation on other blogs. I just want to hold one minor thing up for our recollection… We’re the Episcopal Church, right? The one where it’s often said that we have no fixed theology, we just agree to worship with the same texts? Yeah, well, whenever things heat up between the substitutionary atonement and moral influence crowds, I like to remind them that there really is a classical Anglican position on this and here it is:

Almighty God, who has given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an ensample of godly life; Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That from the 1662 BCP, appointed for the Second Sunday of Easter. You’ll find in in the ’79 book at Proper 15…

9 thoughts on “Lent and Atonement Theories

  1. Lee

    Anselm talks about this too – he says that it’s fitting that Christ would accomplish salvation by resisting the devil’s temptations just as humanity was originally undone by succumbing to them.

  2. bls

    So that ties in nicely with the “ransom theory,” too, and Christ continuing to trick the Devil and gain advantage. And it takes His life, and not merely His death, into account in thinking about “Atonement.” That, to me, is a real shortcoming of much of what we do and talk about; I’ve always thought it crazy that the Creeds go from birth directly to death, as if nothing else had ever happened. But of course, people adore the person of Christ, not merely his sacrifice.

    I like it a lot. It’s interesting to think of some of the other appearances of Satan in the Gospels, too, and how they might fit in….

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    Precisely, bls. Gregory serves as a nice corrective to some modern assumptions about that text. You’ll notice the devil starts each temptation off with “If you are the Son of God…” Modern biblical scholars tend to read this from a psychologizing perspective, i.e., the devil is trying to get Jesus to doubt himself. Gregory reads it entirely differently. Rather, he sees the devil testing this weird guy who lives his life correctly and virtuously and fears he might be the savior. So, in effect, he’s trying to trick Jesus into doing divine. As Jesus counters him by merely “human” means, the devil continues in his ignorance…

    Yes, the Church’s theology of the Atonement really is more comprehensive of Christ’s birth, life, and death instead of just the last half day of his mortal (pre-resurrection) life but that’s all we seem to hear debated these days…

    As for the Creeds, as I’ve suggested before the “life” portion doesn’t appear because there weren’t any debates about it–it wasn’t a problematic issue like the ones the creeds specifically clarify.

    Lee–yep; Anselm’s quoting…

  4. bls

    You’re right about the Creeds, of course – but they do define (look out!) “orthodoxy.” And we don’t seem to know or hear much about this stuff you’re referring to here.

    So is the problem now that the Christian world views the faith as simply “settled law,” I wonder? Is that why we don’t hear much about these early things any longer – or is this the effect of the Reformation, and the fact that Protestantism tends to forget about anything prior to 1600?

    Or maybe it’s just doctrinal reactionarism? (Is that a word?) Is it because so many people have left the church now, and those who remain are trying to “lay down the law” as they see it?

    Maybe a combination of all of that?

  5. *Christopher


    I think the other problem is a memorialist tendency. That the Atonement is merely past and not present to us and that in the Spirit we are being swept up into Christ’s once-for-all work and undergoing conversion over a lifetime. Some theories of Atonement seem to to one degree or another as if this is of no consequence but it is if the Atonement really does, well, work.

    I would also point out some scholars are now rereading Anselm in light of Ransom and Christus Victor rather than as Substitution. Anselm’s work seems to be a summed up version of these as you hint at along with Lee.

  6. lutherpunk

    I think *C is right. A lot of people I encounter think of the Atonement as something that happened “back then”, and as long as we believe it happened, then all is ok.

    The call to conversion as a life-long process is much more difficult to communicate. Some of this is our Lutheran baggage courtesy of the dominant forensic justification model. It is difficult to get people to move beyond the idea that 1. I am guilty and deserve death, 2. Jesus paid that penalty for me on my behalf, 3. I have been declared not guilty, 4. Life is now a bowl of cherries.

  7. Lee

    Ah, the both/and approach…

    Of course, unpacking what “sacrifice for sin” means is where things get interesting, isn’t it?

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, Lee–on a couple of levels. Typically I believe when the BCP uses the language of “inestimable benefit” it occurs in a eucharistic context. Is this part of the “sacrifice for sin” too?

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