Adonis Vidu: “Why I Wrote Atonement, Law, and Justice

Why I Wrote Atonement, Law, and Justice”
by, Adonis Vidu

Cover ArtAny textbook is written from a particular angle and with certain interests in mind. This one is no different. My starting point (in the order of research, so to speak) has been the observation that theologians writing on the atonement have been making certain assumptions about the concept of justice. While justice is not the only concept about which such writers were making assumptions, it is certainly a key presupposition. It would not be a stretch to say that debates about the atonement are, in fact, debates about the relationship between divine love and justice, which brought me to the hypothesis behind the book: What if the disagreement about the interpretation of the cross is partly driven by a disagreement over conceptions of justice?

I thus set out to propose a “critical reading” of atonement history, which traces its cross-fertilization with the history of conceptions and attitudes about law and justice. I suggest that we can better understand major historical positions on this doctrine by investigating their relationship to this dimension of their broader cultural setting.

The interdisciplinary nature of the project should be understood. This is neither a thorough history of atonement doctrine nor a complete exposition of atonement theologians. It is a critical questioning of the relationship between law, justice, and the divine forgiveness and love revealed in the ministry and passion of Jesus Christ. While I believe that this account illuminates both the individual contributions to and the historical progress of this doctrine, the focus is on the interlacing of theological and juridical assumptions.

The first five chapters of the book discuss five periods of the theology of the cross. The first looks at two important patristic theologies of the cross, that of Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine, against the backdrop of current thinking about law (Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, and Roman law). In the second chapter, I situate the thought of Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus in relation to the legal revolution taking place in the Europe of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The third chapter, on the Reformation, discusses the differences between Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines of the atonement, as well as their political and legal theologies. In the next chapter, I tackle modern theories of the cross, focusing respectively on Kant, Schleiermacher, and Ritschl. The modern separation between law and morality—its relaxation of the retributive demands of justice—is reflected in different ways in these authors. Finally, in the fifth chapter, I assess the influence of the contemporary deconstruction of law (Foucault, Levinas, Derrida) on a variety of recent theologies of the cross (Rene Girard, John Milbank, and postcolonial and feminist writers).

What is the moral of this “critical reading” of atonement history? By far the greatest takeaway for me has been the fact that debates about atonement are primarily disagreements about the nature of God. What each of these theologians is trying to do is intrepret the event of the cross and assign actions to various agents: What is Christ doing? How does he understand his own death? Does God (the Father) play any part in these events? Should the death of Jesus be exclusively ascribed to his Roman executioners? This is very clearly a debate over the agencies involved in the passion of Christ. However, in any court of law, any ascription of responsibility for an action needs to be grounded in an analysis of the character of the agent. To take the central example: Is God the sort of agent that might be capable of this kind of responsibility? Could the Father have demanded the death of his Son as a condition of his forgiveness? Considerations about the character of God (divine attributes) will weigh heavily in our interpretation of Easter events.

The final chapter of the book makes a constructive theological argument to the effect that, as we try to figure out God’s role at the cross, we must bear in mind “the perfection of divine agency.” I argue that the concept of divine simplicity qualifies the way in which we may speak about divine character and agency. Implicitly, simplicity qualifies the way we understand God as acting at the cross. In terms of divine character, God never enacts certain traits more than others in various actions. Thus, the language of propitiation does not describe a change in God (but rather in our relation to him), any more than there can be a “strife of attributes” in Godself. Simplicity also has the following implications for the structure of divine action itself: first, the unity of divine actions prevents us from saying that God has to punish Jesus as a causal condition or to be enabled to forgive us. Second, the idea of a direct punishment of the Son by the Father is implicitly foreclosed by the ancient principle of the inseparable works of the Trinity. Third, God is not “moved” from wrath to mercy. And finally, the crucifixion should not be separated from the resurrection, since these are not separable “parts” of God’s action.

Each of these implications, I believe, makes corrections to the otherwise important doctrine of penal substitution, which highlights a necessary (legal) dimension of the unified and simple Triune action.


Adonis ViduAdonis Vidu (PhD, University of Nottingham) is associate professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and is the author of several books, including Theology after Neo-Pragmatism. He previously taught at Emmanuel University and at the University of Bucharest in his home country of Romania.

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  1. Owen Vigeon says:

    I like the emphasis on keeping the resurrection together with the cross. I usually do this at Easter by reminding my hearers about sitting public examinations – say a degree paper – [in England typically 3 hours] . When you lay down your pen at the end you have already passed or failed. But you have to wait to the publication of the results before you know. In this parable the cross is the end of the exam [and examination it certainly was] and Easter morning the publication of Christ’s victory. If you wanted to extend the image you could suggest that Ascension/Pentecost is degree day when you go up to get the reward of your labours. Its not scriptural but I think people find it a helpful way of getting gospel story in perspective.