Friday, October 12, 2007

The Satisfaction Model of Atonement

The Satisfaction model is often dismissed by many as being a poor-man's precursor to Penal Substitution. Yet the logic by which it works is quite different to Penal Substitution, and these two models are best not grouped together nor confused. The differences between Satisfaction and Penal Substitution are simple but profound. The Satisfaction model instead ought to be grouped under the broader category of a "Gift" theory of the atonement.

The Satisfaction model is based on principles and ideas that were definitely current in Biblical times. Such understandings could plausibly have been used by the early Christians to understand the atonement. This method of understanding Christ's work definitely was employed by various Christians from the fourth century AD onwards. I am as-yet-undecided about whether the earliest Christians did make use of this model of understanding Christ's death, but I am quite open to the possibility that they in theory could have. The evidence, so far as I have considered it, does not lean clearly in favor one way or the other regarding their use or disuse of the concepts involved in Satisfaction.

Satisfaction is a concept which is generally present in honour-shame societies. When one person or group offends publicly in some manner against another person or group, the offended party is obligated by the rules governing social interaction to respond vengefully ("wrath") in proportion to the offense, otherwise their reputation is damaged. Wrath did not necessarily imply any anger and was an obligatory public action rather than an emotion per se. People could be reluctant to be wrathful, or refrain from wrath if they chose even if they were extremely emotionally angry. It was possible to prevent, or mitigate such obligatory vengeance by the payment of a gift equivalent in value of the offense to the offended party. To understand this in modern day terms, it can be imagined that all offenses are equivalent to stealing a certain amount of money (honour) from the offended person, and thus the situation can be righted either by the person taking vengeful actions to steal that same amount back off you, or someone paying that person the required amount of money.

The gift that was given to remove offenses is called a "satisfaction" payment, because it "satisfies" the offended party, and resolves the situation peacefully. This was a standard practice in ancient society which took place regularly among humans and was believed to also take place between mankind and the gods. By far the commonest forms of sacrifices in the ancient world were thus understood to be gifts to the gods - either "satisfaction" payments to atone for transgressions and thus make atonement for offenses, or gifts that pushed your 'account' into the positives causing the gods to respond with blessings. The same social norms that demanded wrath when slighted demanded that positive favors and gifts be repaid in kind. (I will come back to this positive "gift" variation of satisfaction later, so keep it in mind) With such payments it is the monetary value of the gift that is most important, but the publicity of the payment is generally important too.

The difference between Penal Substitution and Satisfaction is quite well illustrated in the case of sacrifices. A sacrifice which worked by Penal Substitution (which, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single instance of in any culture) would be thought to supernaturally take onto itself the sins of the offender, and then in its death suffer the punishment deserved for those sins in place of the offender. Whereas a sacrifice that worked by Satisfaction would be a gift of something of value to the god or his earthly representatives in order to appease him. The gift itself could be grain or coin or meat or slaves or land, and if it was meat then the animal would be ritually killed and die a death no more supernatural than any other death (many ancient societies were inclined to see mystical power in all life-forces and thus the need for careful rituals to channel that life properly in death). The ancient world was a relatively coinless society, and meat was rare and very valuable and so was generally used for important sacrifices.

When Anselm popularized the Satisfaction model, he drew heavily on the parallels with his Feudal society and how satisfaction payments worked in it. His society was, in its honour-shame system, very similar to the society of biblical times and thus his model stands as a plausible way people in biblical times could have understood Jesus' atonement. The Maccabean Martyrs are a prime example of the Jews of Jesus' time understanding deaths in precisely this manner. This group of Jews were martyred for their zealous adherence to God's law and were seen as achieving satisfaction for the sins of the nation. Their own faithfulness to God and their endurance of suffering for the sake of doing his will was seen as "satisfying" the wrath of God that had been brought on by disobedient Israel. Equally present in the accounts of them is the 'gift' notion of their faithfulness to God earning a positive balance of divine favor toward them and thus divine obligation to respond to their prayers for Israel. (Satisfaction and gift notions go hand in hand in these accounts, and are essentially the same thing) The Jewish book of 4 Maccabees speaks of these martyrs "propitiating God" and becoming a "ransom" for the sin of the nation, since they provide in their faithful devotion to God a pleasing gift which satisfies him thus appeasing his wrath and paying for Israel to be ransomed. Thus the ideas of faithful martyrdoms "satisfying" God's wrath were definitely present in the Jewish culture of the time of Jesus. But whether any Christians in the New Testament or the next couple of centuries actually utilize these ideas is something I am currently quite uncertain about. It is not their primary understanding of the work of Christ, but it may (or may not) have a fair amount of significance for them. They do not clearly state that they saw Jesus in this manner, but some of their language could potentially be so interpreted.

Differences between the Penal Substitution and Satisfaction models in terms of what happened to Christ on the cross are fairly straight-forward. The Penal Substitutionary model claims that on the cross a supernatural event took place in which the sins and guilt of humans were transferred to Christ and there he suffered God's punishment on our behalf. In the Satisfaction model Christ's death is not supernatural and there is no transfer of sins. Rather his faithfulness to God's will to the point of death is regarded positively by God and as either making satisfaction for human transgression or as achieving a positive balance of divine favor which is then exercised toward Jesus and his followers (more of a "gift" model than what has been historically called "Satisfaction"). In neither version of the satisfaction model does God metaphysically need Jesus to die, but rather Jesus' death epitomizes his faithfulness to God and thus obliges a favorable divine response (according to the social norms of the day it would be extremely dishonorable for God to fail to respond favorably to such a display of faithfulness).

The Satisfaction model is quite interesting insofar as people who loathe the Penal Substitutionary model can happily embrace the Satisfaction model despite the great surface similarity of the models. Steve Chalke would be the most prominent example of this, as he thinks Penal Substitution is "cosmic child abuse" (since in it Jesus suffers the wrath of God) but seems to be quite happy with accepting the satisfaction model and saying Jesus propitiates the wrath of God etc. (This seems to have confused a lot of people who are scratching their heads about how he can reject Penal Substitution so vehemently and yet sign doctrinal statements intended by their authors to endorse Penal Substitution but which are sufficiently vague as to allow for Satisfaction instead) The two models explain a very similar data set but do so using very different mechanisms. The Satisfaction model avoids several of the problems that penal substitution seems to present - eg it doesn't involve the moral transfer of guilt, nor God punishing Jesus. The "gift" version of the Satisfaction theory is even more powerful in the sense that it can explain a very similar data set, but admits many more nuances than even straight "Satisfaction" does and avoids many of the pitfalls that the Satisfaction theory itself falls into. For example, David Brondos in his great little book Paul on the Cross (which I highly recommend as an insightful study of Paul's doctrine of atonement, even though I think he misses some of the most central ideas), totally rejects the literal Satisfaction model and yet advocates the "gift" model (among others) without apparently realizing the existence of any link between this and the Satisfaction model. (ie that the Satisfaction model is just a specialized version of the more general "gift" model)

It is my contention that the Satisfaction/Gift model do not get the air-time they deserve in popular Protestantism. The Satisfaction model is either imagined to be substantially identical to Penal Substitution, or dismissed out of hand as a feudalistic version of it. Yet this seems to me unwarranted. The mechanics of Satisfaction/Gift substantially differ to Penal Substitution, and it has greater explanatory power, far fewer ethical and logical problems, and a hugely better claim to be biblical. I think if many people were more knowledgeable about the Satisfaction/Gift model that they would realize that they "evidence" they see as being in the the Bible supporting Penal Substitution actually supports the Satisfacton/Gift model. Whether such evidence is in reality really there at all is something that I am totally and utterly unconvinced about one way or the other at this stage...


Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

Thanks for this post, but I would also, within the hnour and shame Feudal system, want to stress that, unlike penal substitution, satisfaction is fundamentally a relational rather than a transactional model.

Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, absolutely. The idea of giving a gift is a natural and fundamental part of interpersonal relationships. Obviously the giving of a gift and the response of the receive can be modeled as "transaction", and so it is a system that spans both the transactional and relational aspects.

Blogger Katherine said...

Interesting. Do you think this would imply that the satisfaction may not have been 'once and for all'? i.e. maybe, as in the case of the Maccabees, Jesus' gift of faithfulness-unto-death balanced the equation up to that point in history (perhaps for the Jewish people?) but shouldn't be understood as applying to all of humanity before and since. Thoughts?

Also I'm a little unsure whether you're saying 'here's what may have been going on in the minds of the early Christians, i.e. some stuff that will explain why certain terms are used in their writings', or 'here's a possible explanation of what actually happened, cosmically'. Maybe it's too hard to separate those two. But I guess what I'm asking is, if it's the former, and thus comes down to a culturally relevant metaphor... what is it a metaphor for? And thus, what part of it can be carried forward to a society that works differently?

Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, definitely in this sort of model Jesus' gift can be a non-infinite one. So yeah, definite possibilities exist to choose between regarding precisely what effect and scope the gift/satisfaction had.

I hadn't really thought to separate the minds of the early Christians from cosmic truth. In some ways, this system is difficult to translate, but in other ways not. We understand what it means to give a gift, and the concept of achieving reconciliation by the offering of a gift. Similarly we have the notions of restorative justices, and having to repay monies owed. Although we don't have the idea of honour, and so in our culture it's quite unclear why we would owe God a gift because of sin.


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