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.

Part 1

David L. Allen

When it comes to the atonement of Christ, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Enter Eleonore Stump’s bold work; a welcome contribution by one of the foremost accomplished analytical philosophers in the Catholic tradition.

Anyone venturing into the deep waters and dark night of the cross must be worthy of her salt. Stump is up to the task. Her prolific pen has produced substantive works on Aquinas’s view on the atonement (Aquinas, 2003), theodicy (Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering, 2010), and The God of the Bible and the God of Philosophers: Aquinas Lecture, 2016, not to mention a raft of other articles and chapters that fill two pages of bibliography at the end of this latest tome. Stump proves her mettle once again as she attempts to tackle the difficult subject of the atonement.

Atonement is balanced, generally fair with opposing views, and often insightful. Her broad reading well beyond her field is evident in the footnotes and her writing is clear. Stump is not given to overreach or outlandish claims. She acknowledges that her work is but an “interpretation” and a “theory.” Although her rejection of penal substitution (hereafter PS) appears to be wholesale, even here she does not intentionally distort, manipulate, or come across with anger or indignation as some critics do. She desires to be a dialogue partner, and she mostly succeeds.

In Part 1 of this review, I shall focus on chapter summaries of the book. Part 2 will provide an evaluation and critique.

In chapter 1, Stump describes Atonement as “an exercise in philosophical theology” that attempts to test the coherence of theological theories concerning the atonement by analyzing and clarifying theological claims. Perhaps most surprising, her book suggests “a relatively novel interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement” which she hopes “makes better sense of the doctrine than other interpretations do.” (4–5)

Stump is not concerned with the origin or theological development of the doctrine of the atonement. Her focus is on its nature. She presupposes Aquinas’s theological worldview, including his theory of goodness, the nature of justice, love and forgiveness, and his understanding of the divine attributes. (12)

The sin problem has multiple components: human proneness to sin, sinful dispositions invariably actualized; guilt, shame, and other aspects that separate fallen humanity from God and one another. She views Christ’s atonement as the solution to these problems. (19)

Broadly speaking, Stump sees two kinds of interpretations of the atonement since the patristic period: 1) that which locates the obstacle to the solution in God; and 2) that which locates the obstacle in humanity. The first she dubs “Anselmian” as inclusive of Anselm’s Satisfaction theory of atonement revised by the Protestant Reformers Luther and Calvin and followed by many since. The emphasis here is on the cross as a payment for the penalty of sin. The second view she labels “Thomistic,” as articulated by Aquinas and the Catholic tradition. Humanity does not will what God wills, hence sin brings about distance between humanity and God. Justification and sanctification are viewed as processes with God giving the grace to heal the breach. Stump considers both views “incomplete” though the Thomistic view has more promise. (20–23)

Problems with the Anselmian view and its derivatives include:

1) They do not present God as foregoing anything owed him by human beings or omitting any of the punishment deserved by human beings. He allows none of the debt to go unpaid or guilt unpunished.

2) They appear to rely on justice, but actually “rest on a denial of justice.” “What justice or goodness is served by God’s inflicting someone else’s deserved suffering on an innocent person who does not deserve it or exacting payment of a moral debt from a person who does not owe it?” (24)

3) Christ does not undergo the “equivalent” suffering to human damnation.

4) The problem of application—since God did it all, why do humans have to do more? Why are not all humans saved? “On the Anselmian kind of interpretation, a human being needs to do something to apply the benefits of the atonement to himself. He needs to have faith, or appropriate Christ’s payment of the debt to himself in some other way. But why?” (25)

5) The forward-looking problem of human sin remains. Nothing alters the human proneness to sin after one believes the gospel. (25)

Stump acknowledges the “large literature” addressing these arguments against PS by its supporters, but only lists and discusses the arguments against the view.

Stump also finds problems with the Thomistic view, though to a much lesser degree:

1) She cites Aquinas as teaching that satisfaction is not necessary for God’s forgiveness, and that satisfaction is not necessary for saving human beings from sin. (28)

2) The chief weakness of the Thomistic view is it seems unable to connect this remedy with the atonement. Christ death seems to have no intrinsic role in the production of the good. (29–30) Stump continues:

So whereas it appears that the Anselmian kind of interpretation gives a central role to Christ’s passion and death but fails to connect this role in any full and satisfactory way to the solution for human sin, it appears that the Thomistic kind of interpretation highlights the solution for human sin but fails to connect it in any direct and satisfactory way to Christ’s passion and death. (31)

3) Neither view has a role for the life of Christ in salvation. Both views focus on the death of Christ. (34–35)

Stump lays out her roadmap for the book at the conclusion of chapter 1. Her discussion and theory of atonement rely on Thomistic moral psychology.

I will turn to the idea, common to all Anselmian kinds of interpretation, that Christ’s at onement [the way Stump renders the word “atonement” in the first chapter in an effort to draw attention to its broader meaning] is a necessary condition for God’s forgiveness and acceptance of reconciliation with sinful human beings. . . . I will argue that this idea is itself incompatible with the best account I know of God’s love, that given by Aquinas. On Aquinas’s account of love, Anselmian kinds of interpretation in fact imply that God is not loving. For that reason, I will argue, without a different and better account of God’s love than the Thomistic one—and I do not believe that there is a better one—Anselmian kinds of interpretation should be rejected. Contrary to their advertised intention, they do not work because they are inconsistent with God’s love and so also with God’s goodness. For this reason, they are unsalvageable. . . . In my view, the Thomistic kind of interpretation is preferable, and an acceptance of the basic lineaments of the Thomistic kind underlies the rest of the book. (36–37)

In chapter 2 Stump introduces the concepts of “guilt,” “shame,” and “satisfaction” and how these are treated in the Anselmian and Thomistic approaches. Aquinas’s view of ethics and value theory undergird this chapter. Love is foundational to Aquinas’s ethics and grounds Stump’s understanding of guilt and shame. She concludes the Anselmian approach gives short shrift to God’s love and therefore cannot adequately deal with the issues of guilt and shame.

In chapter 3 Stump weighs the Anselmian view of satisfaction and finds it wanting. For example, she states:

God’s forgiveness, like God’s love, is unilateral and unconditional. It does not depend on anything; rather, it is a function of God’s nature, which is perfectly good and therefore also perfectly loving. God’s love and forgiveness, and God’s acceptance of reconciliation with human wrongdoers, are there for every human person, even those who are unrepentant wrongdoers. And so the Anselmian kind of interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement, in all its variants, is wrong. (101)

She concludes the chapter tersely: “. . . 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)

In chapter 4 Stump moves to address the role of the cross and the issue of union between God and those who believe. In this chapter she is mainly concerned with the relation of the indwelling Holy Spirit to the death of Christ and its desired effect of union. (116)

Insightful thoughts on God’s presence with regard to time, space, personal presence, and empathy abound in this chapter. Later, in chapter 7, she addresses in more detail how the Holy Spirit indwells and effects union with Christ in the life of a believer, including justification, sanctification, and the role of grace and free will.

In chapter 5 Stump turns to consider Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross. In what is one of the most thoughtful and insightful chapters in the book, she proposes an explanation for the “real distance between Christ and God [at the cross] that assigns no culpability for the distance and no lack of love to either Christ or God.” (165) She says, “The point of Christ’s passion is to provide for human beings a metaphysical analogue of the union of the persons of the Trinity, in which each person is within the other.” (167)

Several times in this chapter Stump speaks of Christ “bearing human sin.” How does this occur? Stump explains:

When Christ is in mind-reading connection with all human beings, Christ has in his psyche a simulacrum of the stains of all the evil ever thought or done. In this way, he has the sins of human beings within himself. But he has this evil in his psyche off-line, as it were, that is, without the ordinarily associated evil states of intellect and will. Through mind-reading, then, Christ can have all human sin within himself on the cross without himself being sinful, that is, without having any morally evil beliefs or states of will of his own. (169)

Chapter 6 has all the feeling of an interlude or parenthesis. Here Stump contrasts two radically different understandings of the life of grace: Meister Eckhart and Thomas Aquinas, and once again it is Aquinas who wins the day.

Chapter 7 continues this vein and explores in detail Aquinas’s understanding of the psychic configuration of a person in grace and where and how the atonement fits in. Here Stump considers justification and sanctification in Aquinas. Justification begins the process of integration of the human psyche with God. Sanctification continues and completes it. In the moment of faith, the work of Christ on the cross is complemented, according to Stump. When a person surrenders in love to God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit completes Christ’s work. Union occurs in a mutual indwelling between the redeemed sinner and God.

In chapter 8 Stump treats us to an intricate theological analysis of the temptations of Christ at the beginning of his public ministry and the Gethsemane episode. There is much to chew on here. Her point is to demonstrate how it is that Christ in his human nature, via his choice of suffering and dependence upon God, provides for us the road to surrender.

The stories of the temptations of Christ show forcefully the way in which Christ’s suffering and death are connected to the processes of justification and sanctification that yield full union with God in the end. A person’s ceasing to resist the grace of God and surrendering to God’s love is the pinnacle on which, unsteadily, her salvation has to stand. If we focus on this crucial but necessary condition for salvation, then we can begin to see the reason for Christ’s choosing real suffering. (288)

Chapter 9 focuses on perseverance and the Eucharist in the life of the believer. Speaking of the process of salvation as being in three parts, Stump explains:

There is the difficult and delicate beginning of the process that depends ultimately on the human person in the process; once a person surrenders in love, then God infuses into her will the operative grace that brings her to justification. Then there is sanctification, the extended part of the process in which a person cooperates with God to bring about her increased closeness with God through integration in goodness. And then there is perseverance in sanctification. (335)

We must persevere in sanctification. There is no eternal security.

Chapter 10 begins the process of tying it all together. Here Stump attempts to demonstrate how her approach to the atonement solves what she considers to be the most important problem for any theory of the atonement—guilt and shame.

Chapter 11 serves as a conclusion to the book. Stump baptizes her theory of the atonement with the name “the Marian interpretation.”  Noting that there is “no shortage of Marys” in the New Testament, she states, “In varying ways, each of these Marys exemplifies the understanding of God’s love that is fundamental to the interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement that I have argued for in this book.” (378)

Stump considers she has one last task to accomplish in this final chapter: “an examination of the way in which the Marian interpretation fits with well-known biblical texts about the atonement of Christ, and especially those texts that seem to privilege the Anselmian kind of interpretation.” (381) Since it is not possible to consider all the biblical texts impinging on the atonement, she chooses to address “just a few of those that might be thought to be most troublesome for the Marian interpretation.” 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.

Stump understands the nature of sacrifice in the Old Testament as primarily that which alters something in the human person. She appeals to Hebrews and its concept of sacrifice as confirmation of this reading. The effects of the sacrifice mentioned in Hebrews are the intrinsic changes in the psyche of humans.

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)

Having demonstrated that she prefers Aquinas’s interpretation of Romans over that of Calvin, she concludes the Marian interpretation of the atonement is fully in accord with Romans. Showing that the Marian interpretation is not ruled out by Romans is, to Stump, “a successful defense of that interpretation.” (404)

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 a serious shortcoming to many readers.

Perhaps there is no better way to summarize Stump’s approach to the atonement than in these two paragraphs from her concluding chapter:

On the Marian interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement, in his passion and death, Christ provides unilaterally one part of what is needed for union between God and human beings; namely, the indwelling of human psyches in God; and he also provides the most promising means for the other part, namely, the surrender to God by human beings alienated from themselves and from God. In offering these things to all human beings, Christ makes satisfaction to human beings for the evil done to them by others; and this satisfaction of Christ’s can become vicarious satisfaction for those wrongdoers united to Christ in love. Consequently, by his passion and death, Christ can defeat the suffering of the victims of human evil and remedy the guilt and shame of the perpetrators of it.

On the Marian interpretation, there are no perplexing problems about God’s offering a present to God or God’s accepting with pleasure the present of his own crucifixion and death. On the Marian interpretation, Christ who is God suffers and dies in his human nature in order to bring human beings into a union of mutual indwelling with God. This return of estranged human persons to God is something that God would otherwise not have had; it is a gift given to God through Christ. And it is clear why this gift should be something of value for God. It is hard to imagine that there could be a better gift for God than the restoration to God of God’s beloved but alienated and self-destructive creatures. (397–98)


Coming soon: Part 2—Evaluation and Critique.