Avery Dulles (1918-2008) on Jesus' Atoning Death

Since this blog is back on the subject of why Jesus died, I thought it would be interesting to link to the views of the recently deceased Avery Dulles, a Roman Catholic cardinal described by John Hobbins as “an enthusiastic supporter of the Evangelical Catholic movement” (John’s link replaced by a more appropriate one). Michael Barber has posted an extract from Dulles’ writing which is of great relevance to the atonement debates on this blog and others.

Here is a large part of what Michael quotes from Dulles:

One person may represent another, but cannot substitute for that other except in a merely functional way. As Dorothee Sölle has brilliantly explained, substitution is the definitive exchange of reified objects, whereas representation is the provisional intervention of persons on behalf of other persons. To retain this distinction, it seems preferable to avoid speaking of “substitutionary atonement” in the case of Jesus Christ. Sölle herself proposes to speak rather of Christ the Representative…

Because there is no mechanical substitution of one person for another, the representative death of Christ does not automatically remit the guilt of sinners. The merits of Christ are not simply imputed to us by some kind of juridical fiction; rather we are truly and inwardly healed through the infusion of the grace that flows from him. We have to allow ourselves to be taken over by Christ as he stands in for us. This we do by appropriating Christ’s action on our behalf through free and personal acts of faith, hope, and loving obedience…

Does the vicarious nature of redemption mean that Jesus is punished in our place? Some authors, indulging in very powerful rhetoric, describe in lurid terms the way in which the wrath of the eternal Father was visited upon the guiltless Son, so that he felt rejected and even hated by God…

Against these views, I would insist that Jesus remained at all times the well-beloved Son, living in close communion with the Father through the incomparable grace that flooded his soul…

The advantages of the representational sacrifice theory, and the answers to the objections raised against it, may be clarified by a review of the alternative theories described at the opening of this paper. In some ways the sacrificial interpretation, as I have proposed it, resembles the first theory, that of penal substitution, but the differences are important. Both theories maintain that Jesus suffered terrible ordeals and thereby won for sinners a release from the pains they deserve. But the penal substitution theory makes it appear that God punishes the innocent in place of the guilty, thereby suggesting that God is unjust. The theory of representative headship, by contrast, looks upon Jesus as one who offered satisfaction, rather than endured punishment. These are true alternatives. As Anselm insisted, sin requires either punishment or satisfaction; satisfaction takes the place of punishment… Satisfaction is voluntarily given, whereas punishment must be coercively endured. Satisfaction, unlike punishment, can be offered by the innocent as well as by the guilty.

Punishment, as an act of justice, must be strictly proportioned to the offense, but satisfaction, as a work of love, may be superabundant. According to Thomas Aquinas, Christ “offered to God more than was required to compensate for the sin of all humanity.”

For more of this, read Michael’s post, or follow his link (which I have not done) to the whole of Dulles’ article.

What Dulles wrote seems to me to make a lot of sense. Penal substitution is sometimes seen as a mere variant of Anselm’s satisfaction model of the atonement. But Dulles makes it clear how different it is – or at least how different certain popular understandings of penal substitution are. And it is against these popular understandings that writers like Steve Chalke and Jeffrey John reacted so strongly.

But, to be fair, the position of the more careful proponents of penal substitutionary atonement, such as J.I. Packer, is not so different from that of Dulles. Packer writes:

The Trinitarian principle is that the three distinct persons within the divine unity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, always work inseparably together, as in creation, so in providence and in every aspect of the work of redemption. … It was with his own will and his own love mirroring the Father’s, therefore, that he took the place of human sinners exposed to divine judgment and laid down his life as a sacrifice for them, entering fully into the state and experience of death that was due to them. Then he rose from death to reign by the Father’s appointment in the kingdom of God.

I would be surprised if Dulles would have had serious disagreement with Packer’s article.

0 thoughts on “Avery Dulles (1918-2008) on Jesus' Atoning Death

  1. Peter,

    Very nice post. Anselm, Aquinas, Dulles, and Packer come out smelling like a rose.

    This is often how it is with Christian doctrine. In the hands of thoughtful people who know where to put the emphasis, said doctrine sings. Otherwise, it kills.

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