Abelard rejected the idea that Christ died as a result of God’s vengeance for human disobedience. Abelard was horrified by the novel teaching of his fellow theologian, Anselm (1033–1109), who proposed that Jesus died to satisfy the divine justice of his Father, as a payment of a legal debt required as recompense for sin and to restore God’s honor. Abelard exclaimed: Indeed, how cruel and perverse it seems that [God] should require the blood of the innocent as the price of anything, or that it should in any way please Him that an innocent person should be slain—still less that God should hold the death of His Son in such acceptance that by it He should be reconciled with the whole world. Who, Abelard demanded, would forgive such a God for killing his own son?
Later theologians refer to Abelard’s idea as the moral influence theory of the cross, and it would eventually, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, shape liberal Christianity. The theory, however, was rejected by many of Abelard’s contemporaries. Anselm’s idea of blood sacrifice eventually won the day. Although some in the church attempted to have Abelard tried for heresy, the charges never stuck, and Abelard died in communion with the medieval church.
A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Bass, Diana Butler)
This is a continuation of my off and on again review of the book above. As I have mentioned before it was not until the 10th century that our current idea of atonement was solidified. The above quote gives some details about that. Anselm was one of the first theologians to suggest that Jesus dies to satisfy God’s wrath and distain for humanity. Abelard was one of the few who dared to question the concept. He was quite startled by this claim but since he was eventually on the losing side of this doctrine little is mentioned about him or this conflict in today’s churches.
The idea of sacrificial atonement as cited above has always troubled me but since it is so deeply embedded in much of current Christian theology I dared not think too hard about it or question it too vocally. To do so might have threatened my membership in the Lutheran denomination that I currently belonged. Now that I have declared my independence from that body I can ask questions like Abelard did centuries before me without a sense of retribution.
My major take from Jesus’ teaching is about a God of love, not one of vengeance. Jesus told us that the most important thing to take from his teachings was to love God as he loves us and to love each other. To me I see little space for a vengeful god in those words. Blood atonement simply makes no sense to me.
Abelard was more fortunate than many in the church who disagreed with beliefs that won out. Many were murdered as heretics and all their works burned. For that reason we will really never know the actual extent of disagreement in much of church history. As Mrs. Bass goes on to mention beginning with the twentieth century these questions have again risen with some seriousness. Thanks heavens for that.