Satisfaction, exchange, and our natural indebtedness to God


Anselm equates the impossibility of our satisfying God’s honor with our infinite guilt deriving from infinite offense. I hinted at a different take on this in the immediately preceding post, and here I’d like to expand upon that thought for a moment.

Anselm is surely right to say we are absolutely incapable of satisfying God’s honor and so obtaining the happiness we are created for. But Anselm grounds this inability in our having infinitely offended God. I’d like to suggest that this overlooks the truth that we are naturally unable to yield God the honor he is due and that our need for grace is absolute irrespective of offense and guilt. We are not infinitely indebted to God on account of our sin; we are infinitely indebted to him on account of our finitude. Our absolute ontological poverty and our infinite indebtedness to God (for grace to achieve our end in him) are one and the same reality. It is to our createdness or finitude, not to the dynamics of guilt, offense and punishment, where we must go to answer Anselm’s question ‘Cur Deus Home?’ (Why did God become man?). God becomes a man not primarily to save sinners but to perfect human beings as such. That we are fallen adds a dimension to the job-description of the Incarnate One, yes. His career must address human enslavement to sin and violence. But that is a contingent aspect of humanity’s natural infinite indebtedness to God.

Making this adjustment makes it possible to understand satisfaction in terms of the peaceful order of creation rather than in terms of guilt, punishment and violence. What “needs to be seen” regarding justice (to pick up Anselm’s concern) is thus not that the deserved punishment is seen to be borne. Even if it’s born by an innocent person who freely offers to bear the consequences for the guilty (as one Christian model has it), how many victims would feel justice was “seen to be done”? None that I can imagine.

Rutledge (in a passage that I want to believe doesn’t reflect the general aim of her overall argument) insists that ‘something is owed the victims’ of human violence and atrocity. But what notion of justice would be satisfied by an innocent person’s suffering what the guilty deserve even if the innocent person freely offered to suffer what the guilty deserve? Even Anselm admits that ‘it is not just for God to inflict misery upon the innocent’. So this can’t be what the Cross is about. But that Anselm construes the Incarnation in terms of satisfying an infinite indebtedness deriving from guilt and offense and not in terms of nature and finitude per se may subvert some of his own points; for though he grants that God does not inflict misery upon the innocent, he does suggest that satisfaction is met if an innocent person freely offers himself to suffer the misery deserved by the guilty. But does this really suffice? I don’t see that it does. Would the parents of a murdered child be satisfied that “justice was seen to be done” were they to see an innocent person freely take the electric chair in the place of their child’s murderer? I can’t imagine so. I fear that some insist on our natural moral intuitions (or ‘common human expectations’) about justice when it comes to establishing guilt and merit, but then abandon those intuitions when it comes to suffering the consequences.

What to do? Ground the infinite indebtedness of human beings to God in humanity’s natural state as created. We’re unable to honor God as he deserves, not on account of our sin as Anselm supposed, but on account of creaturely finitude as such. Sin will explain why we require Christ’s violent death (viz., because in our enslavement to violence we would not have it any other way), and it will enlighten us regarding the depths to which the Incarnate One is willing to humble himself in order to bear his (and our) humanity to God on our behalf (‘on our behalf’ reflecting the peaceful economy of creation’s natural need for God met by God, not a special dispensation called into being by our guilt) in a demonstration of love which violence killed but could destroy and which is thus capable of “putting right” (that is, “putting into right relationship”) victims and victimizers. But the bearing of our humanity by the grace of Incarnation to satisfy our indebtedness to God is entirely antecedent to any of the violent complications our sin introduces into an otherwise peaceful economy of exchange. There is indeed a real satisfaction and exchange to affirm, but it is not reducible to redemption from sin. Satisfaction and exchange are called into being peacefully by a good creation naturally indebted to God. They occur quite in spite of sin, not on account of it. What saves us from our enslavement to sin, then, is what God was always planning on doing for us regardless of sin.

6 comments on “Satisfaction, exchange, and our natural indebtedness to God

  1. shipwreck says:

    I’m an inquirer into Orthodoxy and this was very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom says:

    I just ran across a statement by Richard Viladesau in his book The Beauty of the Cross to the effect that Radulfus Ardens (died c. 1200, a French theologian and philosopher roughly contemporary with Anselm) did with “satisfaction” precisely what I suggest – namely, detach it from the Cross as the stage upon which guilt and offense are addressed and locate it within the natural and peaceful dependence of creation upon a more original divine intent to Incarnate. I’ll have to try to track Ardens down.


  3. Tom says:

    I gotta tell ya. More and more I’m really bothered by Western art that depicts God so anthropomorphically (male, aged, beard).


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