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Doctrine of the Atonement

And its Historical Evolution


Religion and Modern Culture





VICTOR LEULIETTE, B.-^s-L. (Paris), A.K.C.

or TH?

TY )







THE following treatise is an attempt at a
systematic application of the historical method
to the study of religious beliefs and doctrines,
in order to show, by a practical example, the
nature and fruitfulness of the method. The
author does not believe in spontaneous genera-
tion in the realm of thought any more than
in the domain of life. For the most recent
of harvests must yet have had a seed-time.
Men's ideas arise and are linked together just
like external events ; they advance now by
association and synthesis, now by contradic-
tion and analysis. This is especially true of
religious ideas. Nothing is more interesting
than to follow them through their meta-
morphoses ; nor could anything be more

8 Foreword

useful ; for to investigate the inevitable trans-
formations they undergo is the safest way to
criticise them objectively and scientifically.
That the forms assumed by the ideas which
prevail at the present time are immutable
and final, is far from being the author's belief.
These forms themselves are temporary. In
this chain of evolution each generation has
its part to perform both in thinking and in
acting. The important matter is that it
should contribute to both, while remaining
faithful to the divine law, the consciousness
of which it has achieved.

Nor is this scepticism, any more than what
was in the mind of Paul when he said that,
having become a man, he had put away
childish things ; adding, further, that his pre-
sent knowledge was imperfect and would be
done away when the time came for him to
know even as he had been known of God.
Yea, and for us, just as for Paul, these three
even now abide: faith in the Spirit which
never ceases to work with the spirits of men,

Foreword 9

hope in His Providence which overrules all
the changes of human history, and, above all,
love, which even in the things of time realizes
something of the eternal (1 Cor. xiii.).

PARIS, January 13, 1901.





I. The Narrative of the Fall of Adam, Genesis iii. 16
II. The Conception of Sacrifice . . . .21

III. The Ethical Doctrine of the Prophets . . 29

IV. The Gospel of Jesus 35

V. Pauline Theory of Redemption .... 42

VI. The Doctrine of the Epistle to the Hebrews . 48

VII. The Johannine Doctrine ..... 54


I. The Ideas of the Fathers Ransom paid to Satan 60

II. The Theory of Anselm 68

III. Socinian Criticism Overthrow of the Judicial

Theory of Satisfaction 83

IV. Modern Theories of the Death of Jesus . . 94






IN the Christian consciousness, the forgive-
ness of sins and the death of Christ are in-
timately and absolutely related. But when it
comes to defining the nature of the connection,
explanations differ, theories are found to be
contradictory, and the discussion commenced
nineteen centuries ago still goes on.

There are two opposite ways of under-
standing this connection : either the death of
Christ may be looked upon as the cause of the
forgiveness of sins, or else, by inverting the
terms, as the means and the consequence. In
the first case, it will be argued that the death
of the Innocent One caused God to forgive
the guilty, because satisfaction was made


14 The Atonement

to Divine justice. Here satisfaction is the
essential and all-important word. In the
second case, on the contrary, forgiveness is
the result of God's free and sovereign inter-
position. It is because God wills to forgive,
and because He is Love, that He sent His
Son into the world ; thus Christ's coming,
work, and death are only the means devised
in the plan of His Providence to realize in
humanity His work of mercy and salvation.
In a word, two main conceptions of Chris-
tianity are here in presence and in conflict.
The one starts from the forensic premiss of
the penal law : culpam pcena absolvit ; the
other, from the specifically Evangelical prin-
ciple of Love forgiving where there is repent-
ance and faith. The thought of Christians,
from the very first, has ever oscillated between
these two views. They have never succeeded
in reconciling them, because they are contra-
dictory, corresponding in fact to two stages in
the development of the religious and moral
consciousness. The first is to the second what

The Atonement 15

the spirit of Rabbinical legalism is to the
inspiration of Christ. It is the antithesis
between external social law and inner deep
moral life. Vaguely conscious of this opposi-
tion, theological speculation has been unable
to settle on any definitive formula. No
theory of Atonement has become an article
of faith in any Church. The doctrine is
always uncertain, and discussion remains open
and free.

It is not our intention in these pages to give
a detailed history of the doctrine of Atone-
ment, 1 but to inquire into the origin of the
conceptions which enter into it, to sketch the
important phases through which Christian
thought has passed, to set forth the tendency
of the evolution and the direction it is taking,
and to furnish at least a glimpse of the end it
must reach.

1 This history has been admirably written by C. BAUR, Die
Christliche Lehre von der Versoehnung in ihrer geschichtlichen
Entwickelung, 1838 ; by A. RITSCHL, Die Lehre von derRecht-
fertigung u. Versoehnung, 1870-74. Cf. also E. MENEGOZ,
The Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ch. vii., 1894.



/. The Narrative of the Fall of Adam,
Genesis Hi.

SINCE the Apostle Paul, in his famous
parallel between the two Adams, linked the
redemptive work of the second to the sin of
the first, the third chapter of Genesis has re-
mained the basis of the dogma of Redemption,
establishing its necessity and fixing its content.
Yet, the passage in Romans v. 12 stands
alone in the New Testament. There is noth-
ing in the preaching of Jesus and of the
ancient prophets to recall it, even in a slight
degree. Paul, a disciple of Gamaliel before
he became a follower of Christ, borrowed this
fine oratorical amplification from Rabbinical


Biblical Conceptions 17

speculation, 1 and whatever the authority
of the great Apostle, one may yet ask
whether it is possible for Christian thought to
remain eternally wedded to an idea the origin
of which is, after all, to be sought outside
the Bible, and which the author of the Epistle
to the Romans incidentally uses as an illus-
tration. Can the scheme which traditional
dogmatics has drawn from it, in order that
it might be made to include the dogma of
Redemption, still command the assent of our
mind and conscience ? For the Apostle Paul,
the Rabbis and their contemporaries, the old
narrative in Genesis stood for a positive histori-
cal fact ; is it the same for us ? It is well to
weigh the following considerations :

1st. The discovery of the cuneiform tablets
which formed the palatine library at Nineveh
has revealed the fact that the cosmogony of
Genesis is not original, but points to a
Hebrew compilation and edition of a primi-
tive Chaldean mythology. It is therefore

1 FERD. WEBER, Jiidische Theologie, 2nd edit., 1897.

1 8 The Atonement

impossible, unless one is willing to deceive
oneself, to ascribe the Biblical narratives as a
whole, up to the Deluge inclusively, to super-
natural revelation, and to see in them anything
but a succession of myths originating, like the
Hebrews themselves, in the valley of the
Tigris and Euphrates ;

2nd. The prolonged existence of prehistoric
man during the whole of the quaternary
period and perhaps beyond, the idea we
gather of his primitive condition here below
from the instruments, weapons, and meagre
industry, the remains of which he has almost
everywhere left behind him ; all that slow
and protracted development in a state of
infancy and barbarism is out of all proportion
and without any sort of connection with the
myth of Eden or of the Golden Age which
we find elsewhere. The positive view of the
actual appearance of humanity on our planet,
and of the humble and precarious existence
led by our ancestors for thousands and thou-
sands of years, has opened up horizons wholly

Biblical Conceptions 19

unsuspected hitherto, and has thus completely
renewed our conception of the history of
origins ;

3rd. Comparative anatomy, embryology,
and the history of the forms of life on the
earth make it impossible for us to doubt that
the higher animal species were the ancestors of
the human species, and that a bond of organic
filiation links mankind to the chain formed by
living creatures ;

4tth. The idea of a primitive state of per-
fection, justice, knowledge, felicity, and im-
mortality, into which man is said to have been
created immediately by God, is a poetic dream
or a fiction of abstract logic. This notion is
contradicted not only by every historical
analogy, but even by the narrative of Genesis

5th. The phenomena of generation and of
birth, of growth, decline, and finally death are
for physical organisms necessary phases of one
and the same vital development, and one is
not more accidental or supernatural than all

2o The Atonement

the rest. It is no longer possible, nowadays,
for a man of culture to hold that physical
death was introduced into the world, super-
naturally, in order to punish the sin of Adam.
Moreover, the words of Genesis, far from
presenting primitive man to us as actually or
potentially immortal, describes him as, from
his very origin and not on account of his sin,
subject to the law according to which " dust
shall return to dust " ;

6th. It may be argued that the myth
originally had a meaning and a purpose very
different from those discovered by the older
exegesis. The notion of a fall in the tra-
ditional sense and the doctrine of original
sin, transmitted with its guilt to the entire
race, are foreign to it. In eating of the
forbidden fruit, man was doubtless dis-
obedient ; but he none the less acquired
thereby the knowledge of good and evil,
which was an undoubted advance upon his
former state. Had he been able at the same
time to eat of the fruit of the tree of life,

Biblical Conceptions 21

he would have become immortal and as one
of the elohim. But the latter prevented him.
Hence the intermediary state in which man
found himself arrested, capable of knowledge
like the elohim, but subject to death just as
the animals, and condemned to lead a pre-
carious life, full of misery, strife, and labour.
The mythological drama of Genesis seems to
indicate the first awakening of the moral
consciousness with the feeling of the painful
contradictions which ever accompany it. It
cannot serve as an historical foundation for
the corresponding drama of Redemption.
The dogma of the Fall henceforth remains
unsubstantiated ; it must of necessity be
radically transformed and liberated from the
old mythological form, if it is not to be
stifled beneath it.

II. The Conception of Sacrifice

The second notion on which the dogma
rests, is the idea of a substitution of persons
in punishment, satisfactio vicaria : the victim

22 The Atonement

taking the place of the sinner, and representing
him in the endurance of the penalty for sin.
Such is, properly speaking, the doctrine of
expiation. It was thought possible to deduce
it from a kind of universal revelation, witnessed
to by the ritual of sacrifice, which everywhere
prevailed. But is that the real meaning of
primitive sacrifices and, in particular, of
Biblical sacrifices?

The pious Semite felt himself, before his
own particular Divinity, in the position of a
slave, ebed, before his master, and of a subject
before his king. That is why the word ebed
so frequently enters into the composition of
Semitic proper names. 1 It is this feeling of
absolute dependence or belonging which
characterizes the religion of the entire race,
and more specially of Israel. The worshipper,
therefore, acted towards his god as towards an
earthly master. It was not lawful to come
before him with empty hands (cf. Mai. i.
7-9). The offering which a person brought

1 Ebed melek, Abdiel, Obadiak, or in Arab., Abdallah, etc.

Biblical Conceptions 23

to the altar was the acknowledgment of this
sovereignty, a tribute and rightful homage.

But this political conception of sacrifice is,
however, not the primitive one. Numerous
traces in the Bible reveal a far more ancient
view : the god eats like men, he requires food,
and the sacrifice is at first an offering of
food. The prophets still call the altar "the
table of Yahveh," and what is offered, the
so-called meat of Yahveh (Ezech. xli. 22 ;
Mai. i. 12-14 ; Mich. vi. 6 ; Ps. 1. 12 and 13,
etc.). Later on, as a result of relative
spiritualization, men came to think that the
god fed on the odour of the burnt offering,
and that this odour was pleasing to him
(1 Sam. xx vi. 19 ; Gen. viii. 20 ; Ex. xxix. 18,
etc.). 1

The worshipper naturally chose for his
offering the choicest and best of his posses-
sions. Young fat animals with delicate and

1 From this old conception the Epistle to the Ephesians
(v. 2) draws a metaphor which it applies to the death of
Christ, 6v(TLav TOJ $eu> 6is

24 The Atonement

tender flesh were worth far more than the
fruits of the earth, and, of the animal itself,
the more savoury parts were also the special
portions set apart for the god. See with
what severity Malachi reproaches the Jews
of his time with offering upon the altar of
Yahveh their sick animals (Mai. i. 7-14), a
thing they would not dare to do to an earthly

There was yet another idea in primitive
sacrifices, that of communion, of a close bond,
and herein lay the significance of the blood.
When two individuals of a different race
wished to unite, each made a cut in the other
and sucked the other's blood. Henceforth
they were considered as of the same kin.
Every covenant had thus to be sealed in
blood. It was not otherwise with the
covenant made with the Divinity. It is the
blood that renders the covenant efficacious
and binding 1 (Ex. xxiv. 6-8).

The ritual of sacrifice contained in the first

1 Mark xiv. 24.

Biblical Conceptions 25

chapters of Leviticus was drawn up after
and during the period of the second Temple.
But the numerous developments dictated
by sacerdotal casuistry, and the carefully
regulated scale of compensation between the
gravity of the fault and the price of the
victim, can finally be traced down to the
primitive and quite simple ideas we have just
set forth. As to the notion of penal substi-
tution, of the exchange of the life and suffer-
ing of the victim for the life and suffering
of the guilty, it never once appears.

A few remarks will help to establish the
nature and significance of the rite of
propitiation :

1st. What propitiates God is the fact that
He receives something that is agreeable to Him.
One must flatter His tastes and please Him
by showing Him that, in order to obtain His
favour, one does not hesitate in bringing Him
of one's very best. The offeringblots out the sin
because it covers it ; God's eyes resting on the
gift, no longer behold the fault. So it comes

26 The Atonement

that each one offers what he has. If anyone
is too poor to bring even two young pigeons,
he shall bring for that wherein he hath sinned
a small measure of fine flour for atonement
(Lev. v. 11). It is evident that what Leviticus
understands by atonement is something quite
other than what the theology of the Church
means to-day. Since, in this sacrifice for sin,
the blood may be replaced by fine flour, it is
not doubtful that the blood was at first offered
to God not on account of the penal suffering
which it represented, but because, being the
life itself, it belonged by right to God, the
author of life, and must ever be given up to
Him (Lev. xvii. 11).

2nd. Blood is the sacred element above all
others, and as such possesses, in an eminent
degree, the power of purifying and removing
uncleanness. So blood is sprinkled not only
upon the worshipper, but also upon all the
objects that are to be consecrated to God
and presented pure before Him the altar,
the sacrificial instruments, the raiment, the

Biblical Conceptions 27

polluted house, the leper who is cured, etc.
(Lev. iv. 7, 17 ; xiv. 51, etc.). All this should
be called purification, not atonement. There
is no more atonement, properly so called, in
all these acts than there is in the Catholic
sacrament of baptism, in which the consecrated
water is supposed, by its own inherent power,
to wash away the original stain.

3rd. The act of laying the hand upon the
head of the intended victim is repeated in
every form of sacrifice (Lev. i. 4 ; iii. 2, 8,
13; iv. 4, 24, etc.). But this ritual act
symbolizes neither a substitution of persons,
nor the transfer of the sins of a man upon the
head of an animal. It merely signifies the act
of offering freely, the willing surrender of a
thing in one's possession, which one conse-
crates to God. The high-priest lays the sins
of the people upon the head of the goat for
Azazel, not only by a gesture of the hand,
but by a public confession and an express
declaration (Lev. xvi. 21). This goat is
henceforth unclean ; it can no longer be

28 The Atonement

offered to God ; it is sent away into the
wilderness in order that it may bear the
iniquities of the people. Azazel, to whom
the goat is devoted, can only be an evil god,
the adversary of Yahveh, a demon who makes
his abode in solitary places. On the contrary,
the goat set apart for Yahveh has no sin laid
upon him ; he is sacrificed as a holy victim,
and the propitiatory offering influences God,
not because the sin has been punished in the
victim, but because the latter, being of a fine
quality, has produced an agreeable impression
upon the one to whom it was offered.

4sth. From the old ideas and customs the
sacrificial code has drawn a complete system
of casuistry in which is carefully set forth
the value of the oblation corresponding to
each fault. But this very tariff proves that
the Levitical sacrifice belongs to quite a
different circle of ideas from that of legal

5th. Finally, it will be noticed that in the
Levitical ritual the question is not one of

Biblical Conceptions 29

every sin, but solely of sins of ignorance and
of unintentional sins. As to high-handed
and deliberate crimes, their authors are to be
-exterminated ; no atonement or satisfaction
is possible (Num. xv. 27-30).

In a word, the ideas of substitution and of
penal satisfaction are entirely absent from the
Biblical sacrifices. To make propitiation for
sin, is to cause God to become propitious ;
that is to say, to obtain His favour, and this
one obtains by offering Him savoury food or
other things of value. The prophets rose up
against this puerile and barbarous conception
of worship, this superstitious belief in the
value of sacrifice, and proclaimed the voice of

///. The Ethical Doctrine of the Prophets

This doctrine constitutes an enormous pro-
gress over the old sacerdotal theories. Two
elements compose and characterize it : a
moral element, justice founded on individual
responsibility and reduced to purity of heart

30 The Atonement

and uprightness of will ; and a religious
element, divine mercy requiring, in order to
be exercised, nothing but the repentance and
conversion of the sinner.

These two ideas, the very foundation of
the religion of the prophets, are strongly
expressed by Ezekiel (xviii. 14-24). The
son shall not die for the iniquity of his father.

.... The soul that sinneth, it shall die

If the wicked turn from all his sins that he
hath committed, and keep all my statutes,

he shall live and not die Have I any

pleasure in the death of the wicked ? saith
the Lord, and not rather that he should
return from his way and live? ....

Hence it is easy to see why the prophets
so strongly and ruthlessly attacked the super-
stitions and interested motives of those who
hoped to substitute offerings and sacrifices
for repentance, inward justice, purity of heart
and hand. " I am full, saith the Lord, of
the flesh of your rams and of the fat of your
bullocks ; I am weary of the blood of lambs

Biblical Conceptions 31

and of goats ; your incense is an abomination

unto me To what purpose are your

sacrifices ? . . . . Your hands are full of
blood. Wash you, make you clean. Put
away the evil of your doings from before my

eyes, cease to do evil Though your

sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as
snow . . . ." (Isaiah i. 10-20). All the
prophets gave expression to the same protest,
all denied the religious and moral value of
sacrifices, all absolutely rejected their objective
efficacy for atonement (Hosea v. 6, vi. 6 ;
Amos v. 21 ; Micah vi. 6-9 ; Jer. vi. 20 ;
Prov. xv. 8; Ps. xl. 6, 1. 8 and 21, etc.).

So pure and exalted is the prophets' idea
of righteousness that upon it they make
the entire destiny of individuals and nations
depend. Righteousness is the life of those
who practise it, just as sin is the death of
those who commit it. Yet this individualistic
conception of righteousness does not suffice
to account for the unmerited suffering of the
best and most righteous portion of the people.

32 The Atonement

The second Isaiah seems to have specially
meditated upon this painful problem, and he
has solved it by the creation of that sublime
conception of " the Servant of Yahveh "
suffering for the sins of his people. Already
in Genesis Abraham intercedes for the guilty
cities, and God acknowledges that the presence
of a handful of righteous men in Sodom and
Gomorrah would have sufficed to save them.

The second Isaiah goes farther in the same
direction. He beholds "the Servant of the
Lord," the faithful of Israel, to whom belong
the promises of the future, humbled, stricken,
involved in the present ruin of the whole
nation, suffering for crimes he has not com-
mitted, misfortunes he has not deserved, and
becoming by his patience and silent and con-
fident submission the cause of the entire
nation's return. 1 Will anyone talk, in this
connection, of expiation and of substitution
of the innocent for the guilty ? We will not
quarrel over words ; we will only draw atten-

1 Isaiah liii. Cf. Note I. p. 138.

Biblical Conceptions 33

tion to the fact that all these expressions
are only imagery and metaphor, as when we
say that a mother is punished for the sins of
her son, and that she redeems them by her
self-sacrifice. This is very different from the
idea of judicial substitution. We are here
in the presence of one of the great moral laws
of history, and one which is also the most
fruitful cause of the progress of the con-
science. No one can escape from the solidarity
of the organic group to which he belongs,
and the whole body suffers through the faults
or benefits by the virtues of the members
who compose it.

It is easy to see how admirably this way
of looking upon the passion of the righteous
under the old covenant, in other words, of
" the Servant of the Lord," suits the passion
and death of Christ. The Apostles were right
in applying it to Him. There was no
supernatural prediction, as they imagined,
but there is a profound analogy, and we
do not think that it is possible, evenjin our

34 The Atonement

day, better to appraise the life, sufferings,
and death of Jesus than by considering them
in this light.

If now we compare the axiom in Ezekiel,
establishing the principle of individual respon-
sibility, with the theory in Isaiah that the
righteous suffer for the guilty, we discover a
contradiction which will constitute, through-
out the ages, the chief difficulty of Christian
theodicy. But the problem cannot be solved
by the theory of judicial atonement ; it is one
which far transcends the sphere of law. We are
face to face with the mysterious ways of God.

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