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I Understand
Volume 6.1 / Atonement

Book Review



Book Author: Eleonore Stump
Publisher: Oxford: Oxford University, 2018. vii + 538 pages, $80.00, hardcover.
Reviewed by Tersur Aben; Plateau State, Nigeria

The Christian doctrine of atonement arouses much interest among theologians and philosophers of religion. In this book, Eleonore Stump adds a strong voice to the tapestry of interpretations. Although Stump criticizes Thomas Aquinas’ interpretation of the atonement because it does not account for shame, she still follows the Thomastic line of thinking for the most part. Stump says that a valid interpretation of the atonement must (1) address the forward element of sin (i.e., our disposition to sin) and the backward element of sin (i.e., our acquisition of guilt and shame), (2) establish a necessary connection between our sin and the passion and death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, and (3) present God as a loving person who seeks fellowship with human persons in spite of their sin.

Stump classifies the major interpretations of the atonement into three groups: (1) the Patristic interpretation, which views sin as a debt and claims that Jesus’ death was payment to God or to Satan, (2) the Anselmian interpretation (Stump includes Luther and Calvin’s interpretations here), which views sin as an offense to the honor or justice of God and claims that Jesus’ death satisfied or expiated the honor or justice of God, and (3) the Thomistic interpretation, which views sin as moral proneness of human persons to will evil and claims that Jesus’ death gave human persons power to will what God wills and so stand justified before God. Stump adds that the Thomistic interpretation of the atonement is better than the Anselmian (and Reformation) interpretation of the atonement because it proffered solutions to the forward elements of sin in human persons.

Then Stump criticizes the Thomistic interpretation. Regarding the removal of shame:

Worse yet, on the Thomistic kind of interpretation, Christ’s passion and death seem not only gratuitous but in fact inefficacious. On the Thomistic kind of interpretation, not only could the good in question apparently be gotten without Christ’s passion and death, but it seems that in fact it could not be gotten with Christ’s passion and death. That is, Christ’s passion and death seem to have no intrinsic role in the production of this good. (30)

Stump points to another important drawback of both the Anselmian and the Thomistic interpretations of the atonement: the failure to fully represent the Trinity. The Trinitarian understanding of God should have been at the fore of both interpretations. “But, on either the Anselmian or the Thomistic kind of interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement, there are no Trinitarian explanations of the doctrine of the atonement; and it is not easy to see how to add a Trinitarian element to either kind of interpretation” (34). Stump’s entire project is to rectify these two shortcomings.

To achieve this, Stump introduces the concept of love, which she regards as fundamental in our understanding and explication of the Christian doctrine of the atonement. Love has two streams: (1) the giving stream and (2) the forgiving stream. Using these two streams, Stump says that God showed his love to us by forgiving our past sins (including sin inherited from Adam) through the death of Jesus Christ. God showed his love to us by giving us new life through the Holy Spirit who then helps us to both overcome our shame and to will what God wills. The love of God treated the backward elements of sin in us, and it also treated the forward elements of sin through the inner working of the Holy spirit in us. Stump insists that just as darkness cannot drive away darkness only light can, so too punishment cannot drive away sin, only love can (cf. Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 2010). And the love of God consists in both the forgiveness of past sin and the giving of power to overcome future sin. 

In the first section of Atonement, Stump sets forth Aquinas’ moral psychology, which rests on the concepts of guilt and shame in sin. Sin induces Adam to will and act in ways that cause separation between Adam and God. This then makes Adam feel both guilty and ashamed.  “A guilty person,” Stump says, “anticipates anger on the part of real or imagined others, and so he is anxious about things others may reasonably want to impose on him that are punishments . . . and that are not for the good of one. His concern is therefore that real or imagined others will lack . . . the desire for the good for him” (193). Essentially, this means Adam believed that God is right to be angry at him and to punish him. While “a shamed person,” Stump says, “anticipates warranted rejection and abandonment on the part of real or imagined others, and so he is anxious about marginalization or isolation” (194). Essentially, that means Adam believed that God had the right to reject and abandon him.

Stump says that Anselm’s view can solve the problem of human guilt but it cannot solve the problem of human shame. This is because simply having Jesus Christ, an innocent person, suffer the penalty incurred by the sin of another person cannot take away shame. Indeed, Stump argues, “There is something painfully shameful about being responsible for the serious suffering of an innocent person, even if that suffering was voluntarily undertaken on one’s behalf” (127). In other words, on Anselm’s view, the atonement does not actually relieve Adam of his shame; rather it adds to it. But Stump does not say why a person should be ashamed if an innocent person would freely choose to suffer in his or her place. Many people who commit crimes but have an innocent person sentenced for their crime do not approach the bench and announce that they are so ashamed that an innocent person is about to be locked up instead of them. Why then should we be ashamed if, instead of God punishing us for our sin, Jesus Christ voluntarily stepped in and took that punishment for us?

Moreover, if Anselm could solve the backwards looking problem of sin, I do not see why he cannot solve the forwards looking problem of sin. In other words, I do not find the argument Stump has given compelling enough for me to reject the Anselmian (the Reformation) interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement. Aquinas’s conception of love is fundamental to Stump’s project, but there are other views about God’s love (e.g., Abelard’s and St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s) that might be compatible with the Anselmian view, and Stump does not refute them.

In the second section, Stump examines the nature of the renewed relationship between God and humanity. She explains obstacles to that union and how the atonement removed those obstacles. Chapters 4 and 7 present grace as the glue that binds God and humans. Drawing from contemporary neuroscience, Stump cashes out grace as the special act by which God indwells the human mind or psyche and the human mind indwells God in an intimate shared connection. Stump argues that this kind of union consists in a kind of mutual in-ness, which Jesus Christ exemplified in his nature (37). Chapter 5 explores Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” Stump denies that the cry of Jesus Christ was suggestive of God’s departure from him or of Christ’s alienation from God. Stump thinks that this commonly held view fails to comport with the love of God. Here, again, Stump relies heavily on the Thomistic account of God’s love, which she thinks rules out those interpretations of the cry of Jesus Christ. However, one can also argue that God’s resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave on the third day constitutes a tremendous demonstration of God’s love in answer to the cry of dereliction of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary (cf. Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God and Nicholas Walterstorff’s Lament for a Son). Stump defenestrates other orthodox accounts of God’s love, as well, that are consistent with the traditional Christian interpretation of Christ’s dereliction cry.

In the third section, Stump interprets Christ’s temptation in the wilderness to resolve the abovementioned problem with the Thomistic interpretation of the atonement. Stump admits that Jesus Christ could have obviated suffering if he had accepted either the first or third temptations. But Jesus Christ chose to suffer because it is the best way to get humans out of sin and suffering. Christ’s suffering is not only the best means to “melt . . . stony human hearts” (270), but it is also the necessary means by which to restore the loving fellowship between humans and God. The passion and death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, therefore, constituted the best means of reconciliation between humans and God.

In the final section, Stump insists that her interpretation of the atonement both resolved tensions in the Thomistic interpretation of the atonement and meets the two fundament challenges of sin, namely, guilt and shame. Stump says that shame is removed from us by the indwelling of Jesus Christ in us. Jesus Christ shares in our history of shame, and he impacts divine honor by making us participants in the honor of God. Similarly, Jesus Christ effaced our guilt and declares us just before God. The justification comes to us by the grace of God through the passion of Jesus Christ. As such, we are always conscious of what God went through to accord us his forgiveness for our backward elements of sin (guilt), and with the Holy Spirit at work in us, we do not want to go on sinning to again acquire shame for that.

I recommend Atonement to anyone interested in studying the doctrine of the atonement or to anyone who loves Christian theology as it is done in the analytic tradition. Stump’s writing is lucid and clear. Some may take exceptions to Stump’s bracketing of Luther and Calvin under Anselm, but I find it delightful that Stump (who is a committed Catholic) is reaching out to Reformers in a serious theological dialogue on the doctrine of atonement. This book, Atonement, is best suited for graduate-level or upper-division theology or philosophy of religion courses.

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