The Barthian distortions in Aulen’s atonement typology

I’m getting ready to write a couple pieces for a reference volume on atonement, and that has got me thinking once again about how profoundly strange Aulen’s Christus Victor is. On the one hand, it was an absolutely decisive intervention insofar as it demonstrated the variety of approaches to making sense of Christ’s saving work through history and drew much-needed attention to the patristic “ransom theory.” On the other hand, his argument is at times tendentious and willful. This is clearest above all in his insistence that the patristic view is to be recommended because its narrative is a completely one-sided exercise of divine sovereignty from beginning to end. In reality, the whole point of the theory according to basically all the patristic authors is that God doesn’t use unilateral violent means to save us but intervenes non-violently in order to undermine Satan’s rule from within — and when people start objecting to the theory, it’s precisely because it’s not unilateral enough and grants too much legitimacy to Satan.

There are other odd points as well, though. For instance, he faults Anselm for overemphasizing Christ’s humanity, hence undermining the axiomatically desirable divine unilaterality — when it seems to me that Anselm and the patristic theory are at one in equally emphasizing the importance of Christ’s humanity and divinity, which is on the face of it the most “orthodox” way of going about it. Further, he credits Abelard with inventing the “moral influence” theory, when I show in Politics of Redemption that Abelard does no such thing.

What is going on here? I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is the Barthian framework that Aulen is working with. He finds the ransom theory in Luther and in the New Testament, and hence it must be Protestant in the full Barthian sense — which means divine unilateralism, etc. The moral influence theory is obviously much more associated with Liberal Protestantism, but it’s not enough for it to be a modern innovation. Instead, his strategy on both Anselm and Abelard is to show that Roman Catholicism was secretly Liberal Protestantism the whole time. With Anselm, this works because he turns redemption into too much of a human achievement, and with Abelard it’s a matter of finding some Roman Catholic root for the modern Liberal Protestant theory.

Overall, I’d say Aulen’s book is a huge net gain for theology — his Barthian-Protestant bias was probably necessary to give him “eyes to see” the ransom theory to begin with, and he gathers a lot of helpful material that would be hard to track down otherwise. The only problem is that the very bias that allowed him to see the variety in the tradition also led him to misread his own evidence.

The Prince of This World: Thinking the Devil in Light of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[This paper was presented on Sunday, November 18, 2012, at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, under the auspices of the Theology and Continental Philosophy and Theology and Religious Reflection groups.]

The reader of the first three volumes of Agamben’s Homo Sacer series—the eponymous first volume, State of Exception, and Remnants of Auschwitz—could be forgiven for being skeptical. Though Agamben’s meditations on the question of sovereignty had an immediate purchase during the dark days of the Bush Administration, it could sometimes seem that he was guilty of stretching the concepts of the sovereign exception and bare life to the breaking point, forcing them to take on an explanatory burden they could not really bear. One could concede that when pushed to a certain extreme, the Western theologico-political machine breaks down into the confrontation of sovereign power and bare life, and perhaps even that the Western machine operates within the tension between the two—yet there is so much going on in that “between” that it seems impossible that it can all be accounted for in Agamben’s terms.

From this perspective, The Kingdom and the Glory represents a crucial turning point in Agamben’s project, deepening his account of Western theologico-political structures by beginning to work out how the logic of sovereignty is deployed and transformed in order to penetrate the fine-grained textures of everyday life. In place of the easily delimitable “state of exception” where the sovereign suspends the law in order to save it, we are directed toward the workaday realities of flexible management.

Though it is perhaps surprising that he derives this logic from the Christian theological tradition, it appears in retrospect that many of his key points were more or less hiding in plain sight. Continue reading “The Prince of This World: Thinking the Devil in Light of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

Peter Abelard: Not actually a radical?

You know the classic debate between Anselm and Abelard, which has become a proxy fight between conservatives and liberals? I don’t think said debate ever actually took place. That is to say, Abelard didn’t disagree with Anselm’s position, which quickly became something like theological “common sense,” in any real way. The locus classicus for the “moral influence” theory of the atonement, i.e., the passage from the Romans commentary translated in the Classics of Christian Literature volume A Scholastic Miscellaney, asks some tough questions of both the patristic and the Anselmic view of atonement — and indeed I think those questions are really interesting in their own terms — but Abelard winds up embracing essentially everything he questions, even though he’s not able to come up with a satisfying answer. (There’s even a place where he affirms that Christ frees us from the lordship of the devil!) The “moral influence” theory itself, which is really kind of a misleading name, seems to be kind of a supplement to help us understand God’s motivations in a way that goes beyond the rather cold and claustrophobic scheme Anselm sets up. Yet he really does wind up affirming everything elsewhere — the debt thing, the satisfaction offered by Christ, etc. And in fact, you kind of need that scheme to be in the background to make sense of why Christ’s death is supposed to be an illustration of love — after all, no one would think that a loved one just arbitrarily submitting to death would be the most loving possible thing to do; there would have to be a pretty compelling reason.

A similar pattern can be found in his long digression on original sin, after his commentary on the “first Adam/second Adam” scheme. Given his ethics, there is no possible way original sin can make sense for Abelard — particularly the damnation of infants. He asks some really challenging questions that seem really interesting to me in terms of showing his presuppositions, but then he winds up saying, “Oh well, God knows best! Who are we to judge?” Due to the tendency to read him as a proto-Enlightenment thinker, one is tempted to claim that this is kind of a backhanded sarcastic thing, but no: I’m pretty sure he actually does want to be in total conformity to what he takes to be orthodox, but is just being honest about where he can’t make it work in his own mind.

(Of course, the odds of one of the commenters here having read the entire Romans commentary, which as far as I can tell is not available in any modern language, are pretty slim — in fact, I’m only about two-thirds of the way through currently. I do seem to have gotten through the stuff most relevant to my project, but the only way to know for sure is to read the rest, sadly.)