Atonement – August 1998

Question: “In what ways can Whitehead’s process philosophy assist process theologians to understand the doctrine of atonement?”

Publication Month: August 1998

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Sometimes by the atonement we mean any theory of the salvific work of Jesus. Sometimes we mean a rather specific theory, such as that of St. Anselm, about how Jesus’ death opened the way for God’s forgiveness of our sins. In the former sense, all Christians must have some idea of atonement. In the latter sense, there are other options.

As in so many instances, approaching question of how Jesus is Savior from a process perspective does not in itself pre-determine the answers. It does rule out a number of answers; and Anselm’s, taken narrowly, is one of those. Although process thought affirms that there are changes in God’s experience, it denies that God changes from unwillingness to forgive to willingness to do so as a result of an historical event. The particular way in which Anselm conceived the two natures of Jesus also seems incompatible with a process perspective.

Before Anselm the dominant theory was quite different. It located Jesus in the course of a cosmic struggle between God and Satan. In one of its versions it depicted Satan as holding sway over the world and God as seeking a just way of breaking that hold. By cloaking the Son in human form, God deceived the devil into seizing and killing him, thus freeing God justly to break Satan’s power over history.

The crudity of this story paved the way for its displacement by Anselm’s. But in its broader form of God’s struggle against the powers of evil in this world it is quite congenial to a process rendering. Of course, in process thought God struggles to bring what good can emerge in every event whatsoever, and the results play some role in all future events. But process thought does not suppose that all events have equal weight. Some obviously have vastly greater effects for good and evil than others. Christians thinking in process categories can reasonably assert that the Christ event is, of all events, at least for them, the one that contributes the most to our good. Unpacking how it does so is one good way of discussing the “atonement.”

The influence of the Christ event is present everywhere today whether it is recognized or not, for the working of a past event in the present does not depend on consciousness. Among those who recognize it, it has power even when this is not appreciated or trusted. But it is where people have faith in Christ that the power for good is greatest. We Christians also renew and deepen our relation to the event through preaching and sacrament and thus strengthen its efficacy in our lives.

A major element in the influence of the Christ event is the way it opens us to the present working of the Holy Spirit. It shapes our understanding of God so that we can trust God. It reduces our defensiveness by making us willing and able to acknowledge the reality of who we are. It makes us aware of the importance of being receptive to God’s empowering and directing presence. Thus it changes our relationship to God, not by changing God’s attitude toward us, but by opening us to gifts God has always wanted to give.

We can state this change in terms of the power of sin. We are all prone to be self-centered and defensive. We are also prone to give our loyalties to objects of limited worth, and develop hostility toward those who differ from us. Cumulatively these individual sinful characteristics generate “powers and principalities” that exercise enormous power in the world. We are largely shaped by these structures of society and by the ancient distortions they mediate to us.

This need not mean that we are all individually prone to physical violence, lying, or cruelty to the individuals with whom we deal. In such respects as these, some are, and others are not. But we are all members of communities whose collective behavior produces hideous exploitation of the poor throughout the world and in our own country renders many hopeless. We live in a racist society, which does not cease to be so because we individually disapprove. We could go on to tell of other principalities and powers to which we are bound.

Jesus was killed not so much by the individual sinfulness of particular people but by the principalities and powers of his time. But his life and death did, in some measure, break the control of those. His followers found that they could create communities that formed life in a different way, enabling them to distance themselves to some extent from the powers of evil in society. Even where outwardly they could be destroyed by those powers, inwardly they could maintain a measure of transcendence.

Of course, the story is complex and ambiguous. The church established to free us from the control of evil often itself became oppressive and unjust. Christians, moved by the freedom they gain by faith in Christ, have sometimes had to act against the visible church and found new communities to counter the principalities and powers. Nevertheless, it is possible to read history in terms of a victory “in principle” which we can continue to try to realize “in fact.”

I have accented the cosmic struggle and its historical outcome. But this same account can lead to speaking of personal forgiveness of personal sin in the relationship with God made possible by Jesus and our relationship to him. The intensely personal account more featured by Anselm is complementary to the more historical one that I have emphasized.