Atonement, Law and Justice

Jordan Hillebert
adonis vidu.jpg
Adonis Vidu, Atonement, Law and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2014. $24.99/£15.99

Theology does not occur in a vacuum, we are constantly reminded. The Church's doctrines do not develop in isolation from the contingencies of the Church's history. That such claims are increasingly self-evident has not prevented a host of well-meaning (and perhaps not so well-meaning) theological practitioners from acting contrariwise--going about their work as if certain theological formulae simply emerged in their present shape from the pages of scripture and/or later conciliar theophanies. But good theology calls for good historiography--careful and judicious attention to the contexts and convictions that have informed the Church's theological judgments. In Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts, Adonis Vidu exercises such theological and historiographical virtues to good effect, offering a "critical reading" of the history of atonement theories by focusing in particular on their relation to regnant conceptions of law and justice. What emerges is both a helpful introduction to the history of atonement theology and, as we will see, a thoughtful proposal for understanding the atonement in the light of "the perfection of divine agency."

Before proceeding to a summary of the book's content, it is worth mentioning at the outset what Vidu's book is not. First, Atonement, Law, and Justice is not an exercise in "doctrinal criticism" whereby the Church's theological convictions are all but reduced to the interplay of otherwise atheological factors. It is one thing to say that atonement theories inevitably draw upon contemporary conceptions of law and justice. It is another thing to insist that atonement theologies simply represent (and thereby reinforce) a given juridico-political arrangement. For Vidu, it is safe to say, one cannot speak of atonement--to appropriate a popular saying of Barth--simply by speaking of law in a loud voice. Second, Vidu is not offering a corruption narrative of the variety made famous by Gustaf Aulén's Christus Victor. For Aulén, the history of atonement theology is in important respects the history of the eclipse of the biblical/patristic model of atonement by more juridically-inclined soteriologies (such as that advanced by Anselm in the eleventh century). Unlike Aulén, Vidu does not seek to defend some pristine theology of atonement from the corrupting influence of alien accounts of justice. To the contrary, Vidu is convinced that every theological description of Christ's atoning work emerges within a plausibility structure that is permeated throughout by assumptions concerning the nature of law and justice. Part of the burden of Vidu's book is precisely in naming such structures.   

In the first five chapters, Vidu provides an insightful survey of five important epochs in the history of atonement theology. In chapter one, Vidu focuses on patristic accounts of the atonement (most notably those of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine) against the backdrop of ancient Greco-Roman construals of law and justice. According to Vidu, none of the patristic authors devote the slightest attention to "the necessity of God's prosecuting his retributive justice as a condition of his forgiveness" (pp.1-2). However, in contradistinction to those (such as Nicholas Wolterstorff) who maintain that this emphasis on the gratuitousness of divine love constitutes a radical departure from Greco-Roman considerations of justice, Vidu insists, "The plausibility structure of ancient culture, within which the patristic writers operated, clearly contained the idea of gratuitous divine forgiveness" (p.3). 

In chapter two, Vidu locates the atonement theologies of Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas and Duns Scotus alongside what he refers to as the "legal revolutions" of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. According to Vidu, the majority of theologians in the Middle Ages "are united in their high evaluation of human laws as well as the divine law (lex divina), which provides the framework for divine-human relationships" (p.46). For such thinkers, the analogical relation between the divine and human realms provides the metaphysical warrant for considering law as "the context for any meaningful relationship, both among people and between people and God" (p.51). The obvious exception to this medieval consensus is Duns Scotus, whose voluntarism leads him to deny that God is under any legal jurisdiction in relation to his creatures. Thus, whereas Anselm insists that the divine law requires a just penalty or satisfaction for wrongdoings, Scotus is content to maintain that God simply elects to offer and accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as a suitable means of restoring fellowship between himself and humanity. 

In chapter three, Vidu treats the differences between Luther's and Calvin's doctrines of the atonement in relation to their divergent considerations of the law, and in chapter four, Vidu considers the atonement theologies of Kant, Schleiermacher and Ritschl in the light of the severance of morality from legality and the denigration of retributive understandings of justice in modernity. Finally, in chapter five, Vidu evaluates the contribution of postmodern critiques of law (à la Foucault, Derrida and Levinas) to the atonement theologies of René Girard, John Milbank and a number of feminist and postcolonial theologians. As Vidu argues, law is regarded in late modernity as inherently violent. Thus, "Since any legal system is necessarily violent, God cannot be thought as being complicit with law. The fundamental drive of postmodern atonement theories is that of critiquing the mechanism of law. Atonement is now understood as the very unmasking of violence of all kinds" (p.233). Vidu's chapter on postmodernity thus yields perhaps the greatest results from his interdisciplinary approach and serves as an interesting foil to his remarks on atonement in the Middle Ages. For if Medieval theologians risk conflating divine justice with a particular construal of positive law, the postmodern aversion to the law's inherent violence prevents these theologians from considering divine justice according to the logic of legality altogether. 

In the final chapter, Vidu shifts gears from the history of atonement theology to the development of his own constructive theological proposal. More specifically, Vidu argues for a nuanced understanding of the doctrine of penal substitution on the basis of the perfection of divine agency. By Vidu's estimation, attentiveness to the logic of divine simplicity--according to which the unity of divine action is grounded in the unity of the divine perfections--allows one to qualify the doctrine of penal substitution by removing certain caricatures (caricatures arising in particular from anthropomorphic assumptions about divine agency). As Vidu argues, God is always fully himself in each of his actions: "in any divine action all divine attributes are present as its ground" (p.256). Thus, just as the cross does not display divine justice to the exclusion of divine love, so the death of Jesus does not function as the causal condition whereby God is somehow moved from wrath to mercy. The atonement does not constitute a change in God, but rather a change in the creature and the creature's relation to God. The divine acts in the economy of redemption--the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ--belong together in the unity of the divine purpose(s) for creation.

As a theological textbook, there is much to commend in Vidu's Atonement, Law, and Justice. The sheer scope of Vidu's project and the care that he devotes to the particular contexts in which the differing theories of the atonement have emerged make it a valuable contribution to any syllabus on the doctrine of the atonement and/or the history of the development of Christian thought. Moreover, Vidu's constructive proposal in the closing chapter makes an important contribution to current debates surrounding the meaning and significance of the cross, reminding readers in particular of the extent to which any account of the nature of Christ's atoning work necessitates a host of more basic considerations of the nature of God. Finally, given the affinity among evangelicals for the doctrine of penal substitution and the growing unease among many with the doctrine of divine simplicity--an unease shared, for instance, by certain theologians indebted to the analytic theology of Alvin Plantinga--Vidu's project mounts a provocative challenge to those who insist upon maintaining the former while denying the latter. For all of these reasons and more, Atonement, Law, and Justice is well worth the read.

Jordan Hillebert is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the University of St Andrews. He is the editor and a contributing author to the forthcoming T&T Clark Companion to Henri de Lubac (T&T Clark, 2015)