Mercy and Forgiveness — 2 (to be continued)

Before we look at the Resurrection gospels to which I referred yesterday, we need to take a brief look at the way in which the Church has developed her teaching about mercy and forgiveness, and St Anselm, whose feast we keep today, is necessarily important.

In Cur Deus Homo (‘Why God became Man’), Anselm articulated a theory that has been hugely influential in the Western Church. He asked himself the question, what  is the meaning and purpose of  the Crucifixion of Christ? The answer he gave was that human beings had sinned gravely and incurred a debt to God. Only a human being could recompense God for sin, but the insult to God was so great that no human being could actually do so, only one who was both God and man, himself completely sinless and therefore not in debt to God. Christ alone satisfies these conditions. Hence  we can speak of the Atonement, when Christ, as both God and man, paid the debt incurred by human beings and satisfied divine justice through his death on the Cross. The Crucifixion thus becomes a punishment for sin, our sin; and many theologians in the Reformed tradition have made this satisfaction theory of the Atonement a test of Christian orthodoxy, seeing Christ as a punitive substitute for us.

Philosophically speaking, Anselm’s argument is beautiful; theologically, it introduces one or two more doubtful elements. For a start, the idea of sin as a debt to God is rather less easy to reconcile with biblical notions of sin than may at first appear. We are indeed alienated from God by sin, which ruptures the relationship of love and trust to a greater or lesser degree. We profane the holiness of his great name by failing to live a holy life. If we stopped to consider that, would any of us ever sin? I rather doubt it. But we choose lesser ‘goods’, the satisfaction of some current desire and end up in some sense distant from God, conscious of an unfulfilled obligation which we describe as being in debt to God. Think about that seriously, and one can see that we have nothing we can call our own in the first place. If we owe everything to God, how can sin place us further in his debt? We tend to talk about our ‘fallen nature’ without really thinking what we mean by it: essentially something evil (i.e. opposed to God), or essentially something sick (i.e. in need of redemption)? Our answer may be significant.

Here it may be helpful to consider another way of regarding sin. Where we in the West tend to think of our fallen nature as intrinsically evil, our brethren in the East tend to think of it as intrinsically disordered, sick, something that needs to be restored to full health and vigour. Sin is missing the mark rather than incurring a debt. The Orthodox reject the idea that Christ died to satisfy divine justice as taught by Anselm, or as a punitive substitute as taught by the Reformers. Sin (separation from God, the source of all life) is its own punishment, capable of imprisoning the soul in an existence without life, without anything good, and without hope: hell, by any definition. The death of Christ on the Cross restores life and health to humanity, restores the relationship with God and indeed permits a new creation as the Church is born from the blood and water that flows from his side.

In practice, both views of sin and of the meaning of the Crucifixion can enlarge our understanding and sense of wonder and gratitude. The problem comes when we want to nail other people and demand of others our own concept of repentance and the satisfaction of our own ideas of justice! Tomorrow I hope to argue that we need to be much more circumspect in attributing to God ideas that are not his. Certainly, repentance, conversion, literally changing our course, is a necessary part of Christian living, but we need also to be aware of that unmerited gift of God’s grace that flows so freely upon us all. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke shows us the sinner being forgiven by his father before the words of sorrow and apology had fully fallen from his lips. It was enough that he had turned back to meet the overwhelming love that had watched and waited for him for many a long day. How many of us, deep down, hope that we shall be embraced with such a love when our own time comes?