Of the many positive things one can say about the analytic philosopher and devout Catholic Eleonore Stump, this one stands out: She is no coward. During her career, Stump has tried valiantly to address the perennial problem of God’s goodness and omnipotence in the face of evil. And now she has published a book, Atonement, in which she dares to offer a new theory of this pivotal doctrine.
Not unlike professional climber Alex Honnold, who scaled 3,000 feet without ropes up the daunting face of California’s El Capitan rock formation, Stump is a person of uncommon skills (intellectual in this case). But unlike Honnold, she is glad to have a few ropes—especially those tethered to Thomas Aquinas—to help her grapple with daunting topics like theodicy and atonement.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to summarize her new view as we might with other atonement theories. For example, the ransom theory argues that Jesus’ death ransoms us from the hold of Satan. The exemplary theory saves us because we are moved by Christ’s sacrificial death to take up a life of sacrificial love. Penal substitution is about Christ paying the just penalty for our sins so that we might be united with him. And so forth.
Stump’s theory could be summarized like this: God is love from beginning to end. This, of course, sounds trite, but in her hands it is anything but. Using Aquinas as a guide to the meaning of divine love, she argues that her atonement theory deals not only with our guilt but also our shame. Not only our suffering but also the suffering our sin has inflicted on others. Not only our past sin but also our current and future sin. Not only our alienation from God but our alienation from others.
Stump puts it this way: “God’s love [is] maximally expressive of God’s nature and central to the atonement, and it takes God’s forgiveness to be God’s love in operation towards human beings suffering from guilt. . . . There is no human being, however steeped in evil, with whom God does not desire union, which is the true good for that human being. In a sense, all of this book is an explanation of the love of God.”
The Agony of the Cross
You might be tempted to ask, “Well, what is so new here?” The answer, of course, comes in the richness of Stump’s many detailed observations, and for that, one can only commit to reading her book in its entirety. Still, here is one example that gave me fresh insight: her discussion of Jesus’ cry of dereliction—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—along with his desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading with God to be spared.
Here’s the problem: Many mere mortals have managed to face death with more courage and equanimity than Jesus did—Stephen, for example, just months later. Jesus knew he would rise from the dead, so why all the anguish?
After a lengthy argument about what is required for Jesus, as fully human and fully divine, to read the minds of other human beings (not a simple problem to unwind philosophically), she says this about his ordeal on the cross:
At one and the same time Christ mind-reads the mental states found in all the evil human acts human beings have ever committed. Every vile, shocking, disgusting, revulsive psychic state accompanying every human evil act will be at once, miraculously, in the human psyche of Christ . . . without yielding an evil configuration in either Christ’s intellect or will.
Such psychic agony “would greatly eclipse all other human psychological suffering. . . . Flooded with such horror, Christ might well lose entirely his ability to find the mind of God the Father.” For me, this drives home the suffering of Christ, a suffering so comprehensively horrible that it surpasses even the physical abuse of crucifixion.
Unfortunately, there was one theme in the book so troubling that I had to work hard at engaging the rest charitably. I’m referring to the way Stump handles the atonement theory associated with Anselm—that the sinless Christ took sinful humanity’s place in bearing the just wrath of God. She acknowledges that her work is but an “interpretation” and a “theory,” and she quotes C. S. Lewis to that effect:
Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations of how it works. . . . We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary.
And so, as Lewis suggests, she permits us to discard her theory if we conclude that it isn’t helpful.
Unfortunately, she then proceeds as if alternative theories are not just incomplete or inadequate, but simply wrong (Anselm’s theory especially). Perhaps this is how analytic philosophy works, by completely clearing the field of all rivals before it can move on. If so, I guess I’m not a fan. Each atonement theory brings important dimensions into view, and each paints a picture we are wise to ponder and even pray through. I trust I’m not a mere relativist in saying that how and why the Atonement works is ultimately a mystery. But each theory gives us a glimpse, however inadequate, of the great love in, with, and under this mystery.
When it comes to Anselm’s atonement school, a favorite of Protestant theologians since the Reformation, Stump seems obtuse about the ways theologians actually work with his theory. Based on her premises, she says things like this: “On the Anselmian kind of interpretation, nothing about the passion and death of Christ alters the human proneness to sin.” Or this: “Past sin leaves a human person with shame over what he now is, namely, a person who has done such things. But having an innocent person suffer the penalty or pay the debt incurred by one’s own sin does not take away that shame. If anything, it seems to add to it.” Or this: “On the Anselmian kind of interpretation, a human being needs to do something to apply the benefits of the atonement to himself. He needs to have faith, or appropriate Christ’s payment of the debt to himself in some other way. But why?”
Stump fails to see that theologians in this tradition—like John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, T. F. Torrance, or J. I. Packer—have many substantive answers to such questions. But her most revealing critique, perhaps, is this:
According to interpretations of the Anselmian kind, what God does to act compatibly with his goodness or justice is in fact to fail to punish the guilty or to exact the payment of the debt or the penance from those who owe it since sinful human beings do not get the punishment they deserve or pay the debt or penance they owe. . . . How is justice or goodness served by punishing a completely innocent person or exacting from him what he does not owe?
This, I would venture, gets to the heart of Stump’s unease with penal substitution. To her, it doesn’t make philosophical sense. To be frank, it doesn’t make any “sense” to me either. But large swaths of Scripture assume that sin rightly incurs punishment—and that the innocent and clean can make things right for the defiled and guilty.
This is the kind of reality for which, in Pascal’s words, “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” Examples abound. Seeing a painting of the crucified Christ, Mahatma Gandhi remarked, “I saw there at once that nations like individuals could only be made through the agony of the cross and in no other way.” In a mysterious (and yes, very limited) way, the deaths of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were substitutionary. While their tormenters escaped punishment, they ended up dying unjustly—as sacrifices that worked toward healing both victims and oppressors. That’s one reason King’s death has often been called his “crucifixion.”
I don’t know why substitution works, but it plainly does, as all the Christ figures woven into our literature and movies can attest. No, it doesn’t make philosophical sense, but it makes a profound sort of human sense.
Wide and Long, High and Deep
In the end, Stump concludes that the God of Anselm is not finally a God of love, precisely because of Anselm’s emphasis on divine justice. I believe she fails to fully appreciate biblical themes like this: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph. 1:4–5). This suggests that God’s longing for justice in regard to sin might, at the same time, be driven by his love for us.
Yet it is difficult to be too critical of Stump, given how I admire the intellectual gifts and courage on display in this book. She is relentless in trying to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:18). May her tribe increase.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.
Have something to say about this topic? Let us know here.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingAfter Nashville, Moral Numbness Is Our EnemyShootings have become normal to the American public. But as Christians, we know better.
- From the MagazineWhy Does Creation Groan?Scripture and science suggest that animal suffering fits into a divine artistic story.
- RelatedJunia, the Female Apostle Imprisoned for the GospelWhat Scripture tells us about the story of this “outstanding” Jewish woman in chains.Português
- Editor's PickThis Palm Sunday, Ponder Donkeys, Not BranchesFor his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus picked a symbol of lowliness rather than military might.