Review of Eleonore Stump, Atonement, in Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology, eds. Michael C. Rae and Oliver D. Crisp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 538 pgs.
David L. Allen
There is much to appreciate and affirm in Atonement. It is, at the very least, a valiant attempt at integrating philosophy and theology. Stump is to be commended for taking something seriously that cannot be taken too seriously. The issues here are titanic. She has engaged the topic with deep thought and reflection.
In Part 1 of my review I summarized Stump’s book chapter by chapter, noting she has hitched her theological wagon to Aquinas in hammering out her understanding of the atonement. Whether her dependence on Aquinas is ultimately successful or not in crafting her theory of the atonement, I leave for others to decide.
There are essentially two key aspects to the atonement according to Stump: satisfaction for sin and salvation for one’s present nature (justification and sanctification primarily through the sacraments). Regarding the former, she attempts to make the case that Jesus is not punished by the Father for humanity’s sin. Rather, his death is offered up as a sacrifice to the Father and the Father accepts that sacrifice as a sufficient satisfaction for humanity’s sin.
Stump raises the question of the mechanism of the atonement as a satisfaction for sin. Her “Marian” theory suggests that somehow the psyches of all humanity were united to Christ’s psyche on the cross. “At one and the same time Christ mind-reads the mental states found in all the evil human acts human beings have ever committed. Every vile, shocking, disgusting, revulsive psychic state accompanying every human evil act will be at once, miraculously, in the human psyche of Christ . . . without yielding an evil configuration in either Christ’s intellect or will.” (164) How is this “psyche imputation” to be distinguished from the traditional theological understanding and explication of imputation of sin in the Protestant or Catholic tradition? Another question, not to be pursued here, is whether or not Stump’s analysis falls prey by entailment to the Monophysite error—Christ’s divine nature blends with his human nature such that Jesus’s human psyche, while upon the cross, knows all of these particular things in all of their contexts.
In this second part of my review I will offer an evaluation and critique. I will proceed in three general categories: 1) Strengths, 2) Weaknesses, and 3) Problems. Space will not permit anything more than a cursory summary of strengths in section one. Much more could be said. I have chosen to devote more space to what I consider to be some serious shortcomings in the book.
Let me offer two additional caveats. I will not spend any time noting the obvious differences that evangelical Protestants have with Stump’s Catholic doctrine such as the nature of justification, sanctification, the sacraments as means of grace, etc., as these are well-known. Much more could be said here as well. Second, I will not spend time evaluating her comments on her second key aspect of atonement: the ongoing salvation of one’s present nature. Though this aspect of salvation is grounded in the atonement, it is not technically a part of the atonement but belongs to the broader theological category of Soteriology.
Among the strengths that could be listed, five stand out.
- Stump’s emphasis on God’s love as the primary motivating factor for the atonement rests on solid biblical and philosophical grounds. Like Aquinas, Stump want’s to emphasize the personal character of God’s relationship with humanity.
- Her desire to address not just the actual issue of atonement, but her attempt to connect with the atonement all the components of sin’s far-reaching effects such as alienation, guilt, shame, etc., is commendable and yields much fruit.
- The focus on our union with Christ at the cross and how that might be described and explained is valuable. Her incisive philosophical mind is evident when she talks about God’s presence to us in time, space, and personal empathy. There is much to reflect on here.
- Particularly helpful are her thoughts on how Christ’s human suffering (temptation and Gethsemane) connects with the cross and with those in union with Christ.
- Her emphasis on relating the atonement to the forward-looking sanctification of believers in the sense of fostering spiritual growth toward Christlikeness is also an important part of soteriology.
I shall delineate four major weaknesses.
- Early on, Stump informs us that her work “is an exercise in philosophical theology.” (3) When all is said and done, Stump’s book exhibits an overdependence on philosophy that comes at the expense of exegesis and biblical theology. It is more Stump the philosopher and less Stump the theologian. We are treated to lots of psychology and ethical theory (well and good in and of itself), but we essentially have to wait until the last chapter to find any real engagement with Scripture on the topic of atonement. When this engagement does come, it is thin. In fact, most theologians would conclude her treatment of texts of Scripture is simply inadequate. Of course, this is not totally surprising, given her caveats in the opening chapter on “Methodology, Problems, and Desiderata.”
- A second weakness is a lack of clarity with respect to Stump’s support of Exclusivism. She speaks about the problem of “Anonymous Christians” in such a way that almost assumes a form of inclusivism. (34) Nevertheless, later she writes:
“Rightly interpreted, Christ’s claim that no one comes to the Father but by Christ does not imply that all those who lack or reject Christian theological beliefs are excluded from salvation. And yet it does not follow that there are any people for whom Christ’s passion and death do not have an essential role in their union with God. Even if one accepts that there are people who find their way to the love of God without explicit or even tacit awareness of Christ’s passion and death, it can still be true that Christ is the way to union with God.” (286)
Here Stump seems to accept God has chosen the atonement as the means of salvation, therefore the death of Christ is conditionally necessary for the salvation of all people. However, how can this be squared with her statement that this “does not imply that all those who lack or reject Christian theological beliefs are excluded from salvation”? True, logically speaking her statement concerning necessary implication is valid. But the point is Scripture affirms that those who reject Christ are eternally lost. By “rejecting Christian theological beliefs” I presume Stump includes the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation as Scripture teaches. If one does not have faith in Christ, one cannot have the benefits of the atonement applied in salvation. More than the objective reality of atonement is needed for salvation to occur. Moreover, she accepts exclusivism without the “hateful implications” attached to it. (286) What exactly are these “hateful implications”?
- A third weakness is Stump’s misreading of Anselm with respect to the love of God as a key aspect of the atonement. Her basic starting point for understanding the atonement is “God is love.” Building on Aquinas’s understanding of divine love, she argues a case for the atonement that addresses human guilt, shame, suffering (our own and that which we cause to others), in short, everything that alienates us from God and from one another.
“God’s love . . . [is] maximally expressive of God’s nature and central to the atonement, and it takes God’s forgiveness to be God’s love in operation towards human beings suffering from guilt. . . . There is no human being, however steeped in evil, with whom God does not desire union, which is the true good for that human being. In a sense, all of this book is an explanation of the love of God.” (378)
One these grounds Stump rejects the Anselmian view which she thinks has little time for the love of God in its relentless pursuit of God’s justice. On the Anselmian view, God’s forgiveness and acceptance of reconciliation depends on Christ making satisfaction to God. (102) Stump much prefers the Thomistic view because on her reading of Aquinas, God always loves every human being. God also forgives every human wrongdoer. “Since forgiveness carries with it the desire for union, nothing else on the part of the wrongdoer is needed for God’s forgiveness and acceptance of reconciliation with sinful human beings, including even with those who are unrepentant.” (102)
For Stump, “so far from preserving the divine attributes of goodness, justice, and love, the Anselmian kind of interpretation is in fact incompatible with God’s love—and so also with God’s goodness and God’s justice.” (80) Stump attempts to make the case that God’s love, forgiveness, and reconciliation with sinners are not dependent on satisfaction being made to God by Christ on the cross. Rather, they stem from the very nature of God. (110–11)
According to Stump, “a careful consideration of God’s love rules out the Anselmian kind of interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement. The Anselmian interpretation of the atonement is unworkable, and there is no way of salvaging it. It has inextricably woven into it a denial of the love of God.” (112) Stump considers the love of God and penal substitution [hereafter PS] to be incompatible. “In my view, the most disadvantaged of the variants on the Anselmian interpretation is the penal substitution theory of the atonement.” (76) Not only is the Anselmian theory incomplete and inadequate, it is in her words, just plain “wrong.” (101) With respect to PS, she makes a number of injudicious comments which are out of step with her otherwise majoritarian theological equanimity.
This harsh judgment against Anselm and PS is unwarranted. True enough, Anselm focuses on matters of justice and honor, but not to the exclusion of the love of God.
Stump has little interaction with secondary literature on Anselm that emphasizes this point. For example, Fleming Rutledge’s magisterial work on the atonement, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015) has a significant chapter, “Anselm Reconsidered for Our Time,” which is not referenced at all by Stump (though she does quote Rutledge once, but from a different chapter). “In every facet of God’s action on the cross, Anselm teaches, divine love is at work,” says Rutledge. (The Crucifixion, 165) In fact, Rutledge’s treatment of Anselm is an excellent summary antidote to the spurious criticisms often leveled against him. (Rutledge, 146–66) It should be noted that Rutledge, like Stump, has “decisively rejected the popular understanding of Anselm as a proponent of penal suffering” (The Crucifixion, 165), though such rejection itself has been challenged frequently since the Reformation. (See, for example, George Sumner, “Why Anselm Still Matters,” Anglican Theological Review 95.1 [Winter 2013]: 25–35. Sumner frames Anselm along the lines of PS.)
Though probably published too late for Stump to include in her volume, in the same vein Katherine Sonderegger provides an alternative reading of Anselm that takes into account the love of God as well as the honor and justice of God. (Sonderegger, “Anselmian Atonement,” in T & T Clark Companion to Atonement, ed. Adam J. Johnson [London: Bloomsbury, 2017], 175–93. See also the recent treatment of Anselm in William Lane Craig, The Atonement, in Cambridge Elements: Elements in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Yuijin Nagasawa [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018], 32–35.)
- Akin to #3 above is Stump’s misreading of Aquinas on the issue of PS. Her interpretation of Aquinas finds no example of PS in his theology. But Aquinas has comments that seem to support PS.
He [Christ] willed actually to suffer that He might satisfy for our sins. He endured for us those sufferings which we deserved to suffer in consequence of the sin of our first parent. Of these the chief is death, to which all other human sufferings are ordered as to their final term. . . . Accordingly Christ willed to submit to death for our sins so that, in taking on Himself without any fault of His own the punishment charged against us, He might free us from the death to which we had been sentenced, in the way that anyone would be freed from a debt of penalty if another person undertook to pay the penalty for him. (Compendium Theologiae, 227)
Aquinas also stated:
…because to this end the Son of God, having assumed flesh, came into the world, viz. to satisfy for the sins of the human race; now one satisfies for the sins of another, when he takes upon himself the penalty (poena) due for the sin of the other [unus autem pro peccato alterius satisfacit, dum poenam pro peccato alterius debitam in se suscipit]; but bodily defects such as death, hunger, thirst, and so on are the penalty of sin, brought into the world by Adam, according to Rom. 5(:12); wherefore it was fitting in regard of the end of the Incarnation, that Christ should in our place assume penal characters of this kind, according to Isa. 53 (:4). (Summa III, q. 14, a. 1)
Two things are clearly asserted in this latter quotation: 1) universal atonement, 2) penal substitution. Aquinas saw no conflict between the two, unlike all who 1) reject universal atonement but accept penal substitution—high and hyper-Calvinists; 2) reject penal substitution and affirm universal atonement—Stump, et. al.
Stump emphasizes the difference between Anselm’s notion of God’s necessity in providing the atonement and Aquinas’s view that God could have chosen another way to solve the sin problem. But this is surely a distinction without much of a difference in the end. That Aquinas taught there was no necessity that God’s justice be satisfied in order for him to forgive sins (contra Anselm, as Stump points out) does not vitiate the fact that Aquinas also believed the atonement was a penal action that functioned to satisfy the justice of God. The atonement operated by the mode of satisfaction for sins according to Aquinas. Here Aquinas follows Anselm.
For Aquinas, it would seem satisfaction always contains something of a penal nature, even if it is not quite the same as punishment. I don’t see how Stump’s reading of Aquinas can actually extricate him from the problem of how an innocent person can suffer in place of the guilty. On any reading of Aquinas, it is at least clear that he affirms Christ suffers and dies in lieu of the punishment that sinners deserve. However the atonement is to be construed in terms of its nature, Christ’s death functions as a satisfaction that averts punishment of those who believe. How is this not some form of penal substitution? This would seem to be difficult for Stump to overcome.
Stump does not interact with much of the secondary literature that asserts Aquinas held to some form of PS. I shall list two examples among many that could be given. Missing in Stump’s volume is any reference R. S. Franks’s classic, The Work of Christ, originally published in 1918 and republished in 1962. Frank’s section on Aquinas is an excellent summary of his atonement theology. Franks demonstrates that Aquinas drew much from Anselm and taught a form of PS. (206–35)
Also absent is any reference to Adonis Vidu’s Atonement, Law, and Justice (2014). Vidu states: “Stump is entirely too categorical about the functionalism of punishment. . . . While Stump’s aim is not to argue against Aquinas holding to a theory of retributive justice, the clear presence of retributive elements demonstrates that it is quite difficult to create too much distance between Anselm and Aquinas.” (73) Both writers concur that something must occur on the divine side to redress the imbalance of justice caused by sin. Aquinas explicitly asserts that it is by means of punishment that the “balance of justice is restored.” (73) According to Vidu, Aquinas’s doctrine of atonement includes clear elements of penal substitution. (75)
I shall address what I consider to be the two most important problems in Stump’s work.
- How her view of atonement comports with key atonement texts in Scripture.
Stump chooses to address those texts that she deems most troublesome to her “Marian” theory of the atonement. These include 1) Old Testament texts concerning sacrifice, coupled with the New Testament book of Hebrews, 2) selected passages in Romans, and 3) Isaiah 53.
With regard to the biblical concept of sacrifice, Stump finds no elements of propitiation for sin but views sacrifice in the Old Testament “as that which alters something in the human person.” She appeals to Hebrews and its concept of sacrifice as confirmation of this reading. This is problematic prima facie and flies in the face of much of biblical scholarship.
Turning to Romans, in less than five pages, she suggests it is possible to argue reasonably that the Marian interpretation fits the most relevant texts. Stump admits that establishing this conclusion falls short of demonstrating that Romans supports the Marian interpretation. “It shows only that it is not obvious that the Epistle disconfirms the Marian interpretation.” (400) Given the stature of Romans in the New Testament concerning atonement theology, one wonders why Stump does not engage more here. Showing that the Marian interpretation is not ruled out by Romans is, to Stump, “a successful defense of that interpretation.” (404) Most will find this lack of engagement a serious deficiency.
Stump devotes five pages to Isaiah 53. She acknowledges that the text can be read in support of PS, but still thinks it fits better the Marian interpretation. In this section only one footnote occurs—a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The lack of robust interaction with the biblical texts in this final segment of the book is likely to be viewed as a serious shortcoming to many readers. If her assertion that PS is wrong is to be sustained, she must demonstrate how and where Scripture supports her case.
Scripture clearly asserts God the Father’s planning and involvement in the death of Christ on the cross and the Son’s obedience to this plan (Rom 8:32; Acts 2:23; Phil 2:8; Heb 5:8; John 10:18).
Scripture also clearly asserts that atonement (the shedding of blood) is absolutely necessary for sin to be taken away and forgiveness granted (Heb 9:22). Scripture clearly teaches the atonement actually did “do something” with respect to God (Rom 3:21-26 and 1 John 2:2). The New Testament places emphasis on the fact that the cross is the ground of God’s forgiveness of sins.
Finally, Scripture is clear that Christ died in some sense in the place of sinners. How can this be explained apart from some connection to PS? No matter how you slice it, Scripture boldly asserts an innocent person (Jesus) suffers in the place of those who deserve the suffering (sinners). Stump’s attempt to interpret (reinterpret?) key atonement texts in a way that circumvents notions of sin incurring God’s wrath and punishment, substitution of Christ on the cross in the place of the sinner, etc., seems thin and rings hollow.
This leads to the most serious problem with Stump’s book.
- The rejection of PS. What are the main reasons for Stump’s rejection of PS? Three are evident in the book. First, Stump collapses PS down to the nittiest grit and concludes there is no room for the love of God in it. “. . . I want to examine what I think is the central and irremediable problem with all variants of the Anselmian kind of interpretation. . . . the divine attribute of love.” (79) Stump evidently considers belief in PS philosophically naïve, if not philosophically absurd. One may quibble over certain nuances or excessive expressions of PS by its proponents that overemphasized justice and minimized love (and these have been addressed in the literature), but the fact remains that the essence of this view has strong biblical support coupled with a long theological heritage.
PS has in fact been taught since the days of the early Church Fathers. In 1931, Jean Rivière demonstrated that both the Latin and Greek Church Fathers utilized the concepts of sacrifice and penal substitution. (Jean Rivière, Le Dogme de la Rédemption: Étude Théologique, 3rd ed. [Paris: Librairie Victor LeCoffre J. Gabalda, 1931].) Garry Williams also demonstrated that PS was taught in the patristic era, and that Hugo Grotius even incorporated penal substitution in his Governmental theory of the atonement. (Williams, “A Critical Exposition of Hugo Grotius’s Doctrine of the Atonement in De satisfaction Christi,” [PhD diss., Univ. of Oxford, 1999], 59–61, 68–91, 102, 144–48, 244.)
Second, Stump rejects PS because she considers it unjust for the innocent Jesus to be punished in the place of guilty sinners. Stump argues that according to PS, “what God does to act compatibly with his goodness or justice is in fact to fail to punish the guilty or to exact the payment of the debt or the penance from those who owe it since sinful human beings do not get the punishment they deserve or pay the debt or penance they owe. . . . How is justice or goodness served by punishing a completely innocent person or exacting from him what he does not owe?” (24) Here is the crux of Stump’s discomfort with PSA.
Answering this criticism is one of the burdens of another analytical philosopher, William Lane Craig, in his new book The Atonement (2018). In short, there are three things to keep in mind in countering Stump’s objection. First and foremost, it is simply the testimony of Scripture that there is no injustice in God giving over Christ to suffer for the sins of others. Second, for those committed to biblical authority, it is presumptuous to put one’s own sense of justice over that of God’s. Cultural mores regarding the nature of justice must stand under Scripture’s jurisdiction, not the other way around. Third, even in the human sphere of jurisprudence, there are certain circumstances in which judges can transfer criminal punishment, and those circumstances apply to Jesus.
Stump’s critique is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of imputation of sin to Christ which in turn is based on (or leads to) a commercialistic interpretation of how atonement operates. This is evidenced by her employment of the double payment argument, to which we now turn.
Third, Stump rejects PS on the grounds of the double payment argument.
As regards consistency with other Christian doctrines, many (but not all) versions of the penal substitution theory maintain that Christ paid the penalty for all sin so that human beings do not have to do so. But it is a fundamental Christian doctrine that God justly condemns some people to everlasting punishment in hell. If Christ has paid the penalty for all sin, how is God just in demanding that some pay the penalty again? And, for the variant which supposes that Christ has paid the penalty for the sin of only some human beings, because God has arranged a pardon for only some human beings and not for all of them, then this variant is inconsistent with God’s justice in another way, since justice requires giving equal treatment to equal cases. (78)
The double payment argument states that if the ransom is paid, justice demands that those for whom it is paid must go free. It cannot be said to be paid for any who are not eventually freed. Or to put it another way, if God punished the sins of someone on the cross and then punished the sinner again in hell, this would be unjust on God’s part.
What is most surprising here is that the double payment argument is almost exclusively deployed by those among the Reformed who assert limited atonement over against universal atonement. To utilize the argument against PS is certainly a turning of the tables!
Stump apparently assumes the double payment argument to be valid, and in so doing unwittingly succumbs to a commercialistic understanding of the atonement. Here’s why. Allow me to explain by utilizing a section from my forthcoming book The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ (April 2019). By definition the double payment argument trades upon the notion that the imputation of sins to Christ can be quantified in some manner such that the death of Christ pays the debt of sin only for some people (the elect). The argument is based on a commercial understanding of the atonement. It fails to understand that the language of debt and ransom, when used of the atonement, is metaphorical and not literal. The argument assumes that if Christ died for someone, this is equivalent to saving that person. The mistake is viewing God as a creditor because sin is metaphorically described as a debt. Sin as debt is about obligation, not about the death of Christ being a payment to a creditor (God). In fact, nowhere in Scripture is God ever viewed as the “creditor” who is paid a debt via the death of Christ.
The blood of Christ is metaphorically or analogically compared to pecuniary (commercial) transactions in Scripture via the use of debt language such as “ransom,” “redemption,” or “purchase.” Such language is not meant to describe the actual mechanism of how atonement works. This is the mistake Stump appears to make. Christ’s blood is not a literal commercial commodity. Sin is a debt, but it is more than a debt—it is a crime against God’s law with moral implications. Criminal debt is not equivalent to commercial debt.
For example, suppose you and I are dining in a restaurant. When the bill arrives, I suddenly realize I have no money on me. In my embarrassing situation, you kindly agree to pay my bill. The restaurant owner does not care who pays the bill as long as the bill is paid. What I owed is settled because you paid my debt. This is an example of a commercial, pecuniary debt.
But suppose, when the bill arrives and I don’t have the money to pay my debt, after you pay the bill for both of us, I get mad, lose my mind, rob the restaurant of $500 in cash, and abscond into the night. You, in your kindness, pay back the $500 I stole to the restaurant owner. Later, when I am apprehended, am I free to go because you paid my debt? No! Criminal debt is not equivalent to commercial debt. Sin and its payment are not matters of commercial debt, but of moral/legal debt.
Let’s alter the scenario slightly. Suppose that after I steal the $500, you are suspected of the theft, charged, and serve six months jail time. Later, it is discovered that I actually committed the crime, and after being charged and found guilty, I am sent to jail to serve six months. I cannot say, “You can’t send me to jail, the debt has been paid! Someone else has paid for my crime!” No, criminal “debt” obligations do not work that way. Just because the debt has been paid by one who did not commit the crime, it does not follow that I am liberated from my criminal obligation before the law.
The atonement does not operate on a commercial basis such that the discharge of your sin debt ipso facto saves you. Jesus paid your sin-debt, but there is a condition for the benefit of that payment being applied to you: faith in Christ. All must still come to Christ in faith to receive the full discharge of their guilt.
Salvation was not purchased on the cross to be given to anyone absolutely, whether they believe or not, but only upon the exercise of faith. God has designed that salvation comes with a condition that must be fulfilled on the part of the one who receives salvation. It is no injustice if salvation is not given to anyone who fails to fulfill God’s condition, even though payment for their sins has been made. Here is the bottom line: if payment for sins has been made and one may obtain forgiveness on condition of faith in Christ and one does not fulfill the condition, there is no injustice with God if He extracts payment in the form of eternal suffering on the part of the sinner.
Stump simply doesn’t explore alternative explications of PS that include a robust grounding in the love of God, imputation as non-literal transference, the nature of retributive justice, etc., to her sharply defined choice between PS and “Marian” atonement.
The goal of dialogue is understanding so we can have either understood agreement or understood disagreement, as Mortimer Adler once put it. This is what helps us crystallize our differences. Between Stump’s understanding of the atonement and PS’s understanding of the atonement lies a yawning chasm. It all boils down to whether you can have sacrifice and satisfaction that is not substitution. If not, can you have substitution for sinners that is not in some way, shape, form, or fashion penal?
I cannot help but feel that in spite of Stump’s impressive grounding in philosophical theology, she has granted too much credence to the intellectual fashions of the 21st century’s aversion to PS.
Love is endemic to God’s nature. Wrath is a derivative aspect of God’s nature brought about as a result of sin—it is his holy love in response to sin. Love precedes wrath. Human sin is a violation of God’s law and is an affront to a holy God. Sin incurs God’s wrath, and God’s justice demands that sin be punished. God’s love for sinful humanity is the primary motivation for His provision of atonement as a means to reconcile fallen humanity with God. The love of God is center stage when it comes to the atonement, as John 3:16 and many other texts demonstrate. Penal substitution should focus first and foremost on the love of God. Christ stands in the sinner’s place as a vicarious substitution. The sins of humanity are imputed to Christ, and he bears them as our substitutionary sacrifice. In the atonement, the wrath of God is propitiated and sins are expiated. God is objectively reconciled to the world by means of this atonement (2 Cor 5:18–21). Subjective reconciliation between God and individuals occurs when one repents of sin and believes in Christ for salvation. God applies the atonement to all who meet his condition of salvation: repentance and faith.
There are two aspects of the atonement that are vital to me: its nature and extent. I have already argued at length that the extent of Christ’s atonement should be viewed as for the sins of all humanity (The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review [Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016]). In a soon to be released volume, The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019), I will argue that the nature of the atonement is foundationally and fundamentally substitutionary and penal, though not exclusively, so as not to neglect the multifaceted way in which Scripture presents the meaning of the cross of Christ.