Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Christian Heritage - July 12 - We Love You with the Love You Yourself

"You speak to us, O God, through your Son in everything he did and said while on earth, even when he was taunted, spat upon, and struck, even when he was crucified and buried. You were appealing to us in your love and arousing our love for you. You knew, O God, the creator of our hearts, that you could not make them love you by constraint but only by appealing to them. You knew that constraint takes away freedom and where freedom is lacking there is no justice.

"You wanted us to love you because otherwise our salvation would not have been just, and we could not do so unless you made it possible.
Therefore, Lord, you loved us first, as your beloved apostle tells us, and you are always the first to love those who love you. For our part we love you with the love you yourself have given us. Your love is your goodness — and you are the supreme and ultimate goodness!"

William of Saint Thierry (AD 1085-1148), On the Contemplation of God 9-11: SC 61, 90-96

Notice William's clear reference to the idea of Christ's Passion as an act of divine "moral suasion." This latter theory of the Atonement has always been the ugly duckling in the theology of atonemnent. It's easy to imagine it as a newfangled pop-psych, self-help slant on salvation, as if, "God didn't really *do* anything for or to us; He just showed us love that is so inspiring to melt even the hardest hearts." But I think that undermines much of the depth this theory has to offer us in our lives under the Cross.

It's easy for our reading of the soteriology of the low Middle Ages to be clouded by Anselm's dominance in this field (i.e., from the tianitc influence of his Cur Deus Homo? [Why Did God Become Man?]). Anselm was certainly within his theological rights to emphasize the "feudal" dimensions of redemption as a recompense for lost honor and as an almost literal fiscal transaction. But in the East, not to mention the modern West, Anselm's "feudal" approach is often portrayed as crude, wooden and too impersonal. But this is an uncharitable over-simplification of Anselm's often very tender, very intimate, passionate theology of "feudal atonement." Further, he has good biblical support for the basic idea of transaction, even if the extremes of his view are harder for some people to swallow.

Obviously, his view is not the only view of redemption, now or in his own time. The soteriology of the Middle Ages is, I suppose like any age's, as rich and nuanced as the Bible itself on this matter. Just as Scripture tries to use human language to describe the "eucatastrophe" of the Incarnation (cf. J.R.R. Tolkien), grasping for clarity from a whole range of human experience, so too should we recognize the plurality of expression in historical theology. Such complexities bother some people. Frankly, though, I think it's beautiful that such strong, distinct views can co-exist and harmonize to convey (or border on conveying) the total breadth and depth of God's work in Christ. And, like a masterful symphony performance, if you listen to the music rather the instruments, all the complexity reduces and blends into a single, simple melody: life, love, beauty, hope.

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