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Locating Atonement in Dogmatic Theology with Aquinas and von Balthasar

Categories Theology

locating atonementThe doctrine of atonement has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. In this modern Quest for the Historic Atonement, some have called on the church to embrace a community of atonement theories; others have questioned whether God killing Jesus on the cross is “cosmic child abuse.”

A new edited volume by Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders, Locating Atonement, transcends these discussions about typology and combinations. Taking the conversation in a fresh, innovative direction, it asks:

How does the redemptive work of Christ relate to other load-bearing structures in dogmatic theology? (14)

The trajectory of this book is synthetic, in that it examines the relationship between this doctrine and other spheres of dogmatic theology. Two of the twelve essays engaging this question exemplify this approach.

In conversation with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s critique of Anselm’s satisfaction theory and Aquinas’s views of justice and creation, Matthew Levering shows a relationship between creation and atonement. Bruce McCormack taps the insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar to show how the death of Jesus relates to a range of doctrines.

Read our brief engagement below to see how this resource offers a compelling, exciting approach to atonement theory engagement specifically and theological engagement generally.

Levering on Aquinas, Atonement, and Creation

Levering believes an important connection exists between satisfactory atonement and creation:  “By perceiving the interpersonal web of justice that characterizes creation, we come to appreciate more fully Christ’s saving work as a restoration of justice…” (43)

And yet, some would disagree. Nicholas Wolterstorff has rejected Anselmian approaches to atonement that claim cross-shaped retributive justice, believing Jesus himself rejected such primitive ethics. In short, Wolterstorff argues Jesus rejected so-called “reciprocity codes” exemplified in the Torah, where justice was conceived in terms of reciprocity: those who harm will suffer harm. He offers Matthew 5:38–40 as an example.

Levering disagrees, and via Aquinas’s discussion of justice as a divine attribute of God and given to creation. “The question of whether reciprocal justice is inscribed in the created order depends in part upon whether there is justice in the Creator, since the perfections of creatures participate in a finite mode in the infinite perfections of God.” (55)

The kind of justice Aquinas has in mind is so-called distributive justice, meaning that "the order of the universe, which is seen both in effects of nature and in effects of will, shows forth the justice of God.” (Summa Theologica, I, q. 21, a. 1) This justice gives to each what each deserves, which for Aquinas is twofold: God owes humans flourishing; and, primarily, he owes himself his own goodness.

In giving creatures what he owes in distributive justice, God is primarily giving what he owes to himself as Creator…Indeed, precisely because creation is God’s gift, justice and juridicial categories are inseparable from the created order. (59–60)

Satisfactory atonement and creation, then, are connected: “In perfect self-giving love, God sends his Son to undergo freely the retributive punishment due to us so as to restore the order of justice between humans and God.” (67)

McCormick on von Balthasar, Atonement, and Eschatological Wrath

McCormack contends most Christians don’t know the “why” behind Jesus’ death. He suggests much of this confusion stems from our aversion to suggestions that God willed Jesus’ death. And yet, “The narrative structure of the Gospels is torn to shreds where it is not recognized that Jesus Christ came into the world to suffer and die.” (191) We have the voice of a Swiss theologian and Catholic priest to thank for this insight.

Leveraging the insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar, McCormack exploits the full meaning of divine judgment in connection with Jesus’ death. He observes that von Balthasar’s theology of the cross reflects a form of “forensic” Jewish apocalypticism.

For von Balthasar, what takes place on the cross of Christ is “a turning-point between the old aeon and the new.” (Mysterium Paschale, 56)—a turning which occurs with the outpouring of divine wrath on the Son of God made flesh. (204)

Von Balthasar’s insights into the Son’s experience preclude our modern anxieties and rationalizations of the cross. This experience climaxes “in the eschatological ‘trial’ of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane” when Jesus pleads with the Father to take away the “cup.” “Von Balthasar interprets the ‘cup’ as the chalice of ‘eschatological wrath’ referred to in the Old Testament and apocalyptic literature.” (204)

Neither von Balthasar nor McCormack will let us escape this fact: “the suffering endured by Christ was not just any suffering: it was suffering the eschatological wrath of God.” (204)


This brief engagement with Levering’s and McCormick’s synthetic approach to locating atonement within dogmatic theology exemplifies the unique contribution of Crisp’s and Sanders’s work.

I am sure you will appreciate the twelve essays that identify the theological implications of atonement in systematic theology. Engage Locating Atonement yourself, because what we think about this doctrine impacts how we think about other aspects of theology.

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