The debate between an ontological atonement and a forensic atonement will doubtless continue – they represent two very different world-views and understandings of our relationship with God. The details of that debate will likely be tedious for most people and seem like much ado about nothing. But since they are world-views, even people who have no position in the debate will have an inner sympathy with one or the other. They are part of the cultural air we breathe.
Is salvation a matter of choices, attitudes, relationships and debts? Is God extrinsic to us? Is our salvation about being considered righteous by God?
Or is our salvation a matter of our very being? Are we verging on non-existence? Is sin the result of a process of death and decay at work in us? Is righteousness an actual state of being?
I could press this distinction further – but I hope posing the questions in this manner frames things sufficiently.
I think that regardless of where you come down in this discussion, your default position will likely be forensic. Modern culture itself is forensic in nature. We think of ourselves and other people as utterly distinct individuals. Their actions may involve me if I react (psychological) or if they physically attack me, but we are essentially distinct. I might care about someone else, even love them, but my caring is an emotional state, able to motivate me to loving action, but is not itself an action. Relationships are social contracts. There are obligations to family, Church, state, etc., but these obligations are always a matter for negotiation. Traditions are simply old social contracts. These contracts are serious – we put a great deal of emotion and value on the contracts that “bind” us to other people. But the bond is legal.
The evolution of marriage in our present culture is only possible in a forensic culture (it may indeed have been inevitable). If relationships are essentially contractual (and not ontological), then relationships are only definitions. There is nothing inherent to a relationship that cannot be negotiated (if everyone involved agrees). Forensic Christians have been at a deep loss to explain why marriage cannot be extended beyond traditional gender bounds. The appeal to Divine Law (the trump card of forensic thought) simply holds no sway in an increasingly secular culture. Why should other people’s relationships have to conform to my religious beliefs, since my religious beliefs only represent a contract between myself and God?
That many people have a deep instinct that there is something wrong in all this carries no weight in the argument. “Feeling something is wrong” can be accounted for by appeals to prejudice and bias. As the culture’s forensic understanding evolves, it will easily (and soon) judge those who refuse to accept the new norm as evil people – much as we currently feel about racists. Forensically-based Christians will soon discover that the culture they helped create has changed and that they themselves will soon be accounted as evil. That many Protestant Christians have already made the evolutionary leap and accepted new contractual arrangements as acceptable is not surprising. Their numbers will be growing very quickly.
This cultural weakness of the forensic world-view is an illustration of but one of its many failures. Relationships are not contracts. That which unites human beings one to another is not choice, but being. We are ontologically related. What someone else does, and what I do, effects others whether I want it to or not – and on a level deeper than the events my actions set in motion.
St. Paul invokes something other than a forensic world-view when he cautions the Corinthians against sexual immorality:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him (1Co 6:15-17 NKJ).
A forensic approach would simply have made an appeal to the Law and said that fornication is contrary to the commandments. But Paul’s understanding is not forensic – he views human relationships as ontological – rooted in our being. Thus sex is not simply an action which it right or wrong, measured against an objective standard. Sex is physical union. There is a mystical and physical aspect to sexual relations that utterly transcends any notion of a contract. To engage sexually with a “harlot,” is to become “one flesh.” It violates marriage, not just because an agreement has been broken, but because the man is already united to his wife. More than this, since we have been united to Christ (and are thus one flesh with Christ), even an unmarried man is uniting himself to a harlot – and any Christian man is uniting Christ to the harlot.
This mechanism of union belongs to an ontological world-view. The forensic approach, which grounds human (and human/divine) relationships in psychology, law and contract, has something of a disembodied view of human beings. Bodies are things that we use – but we are essentially minds. It is therefore not surprising that the Christian sacraments are somewhat problematic for the forensic world-view. Strangely, Christ instituted these very material means by which Christians are called to relate to Him. Thus, even in systems that have a “high” view of the sacraments, their materiality is an “outward expression” of an “inner, spiritual” reality. The material cannot be seen as spiritual – not without great trouble.
But Christ does not shy away from the very materiality of the world (having Himself become material!). “Take! Eat! This is my Body! Take! Eat! This is my Blood!” And yet more graphically, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.” Material imagery applied to grace, holiness, righteousness, mercy, etc., are far closer representations of the true meaning of these spiritual terms than the relational images generated by the forensic model.
Thus, in Baptism we are clothed: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27 NKJ). St. Paul frequently tells his readers to “put on” something (breastplate of righteousness, the whole armor, love, etc.). The word literally means to “get dressed.” St. Paul can find no better language to describe the resurrection itself than “being clothed” (1Cor. 15). The Eastern Fathers saw in Adam and Eve’s being clothed in “tunics of skins” (Gen. 3:21) a provisional allowance of God for a humanity that had lost its true garment: light.
Material language for spiritual things has often been viewed as “primitive” or “magical” by those who hold to a forensic view. The non-materiality of forensic relations somehow seems more mature and insightful. But for all of its “sophistication,” it fails to accurately portray the truth of our existence. We are not utterly discrete individuals only relating through words and ideas. We are material beings. The Word of God did not become an idea – He became flesh. As flesh, He did not give us ideas – He gave us His flesh.
The Scripture abounds with very physical, material descriptions of divine things. The glory of God fills Solomon’s Temple so that the priests are pressed to the ground (1 Kings 8:11); the face of Moses shines with the light of God; the light of God is seen by the Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration; the priests of God “clothe themselves in righteousness” (Psalm 132:9); the Holy Spirit appears as flame above the heads of the disciples in the upper room (Acts 2:3), etc. Such imagery can be dismissed as efforts to speak the ineffable (and this has some truth to it). But we too easily accept forensic language without question.
I recall some years ago meeting a Bulgarian scientist who had recently immigrated to America. He was Orthodox, but his former materialism still flavored his thought. He was convinced that icons emitted rays. His wife believed in the power of crystals. I was rather confounded by them. In time I have realized that they came from a very non-forensic world. The Church had been displaced by Communism and a material philosophy. But their materialism was, perhaps, closer to the language of Scripture than the forensic imagination. Their thoughts needed correction, but perhaps much less than those of the Western Christian who thinks of the world in terms of contracts and relationships.
In the meantime, most of us live in a state of double-mindedness. We struggle to think one thing but are still mired in another. For some, this discussion of imagery, comparing models of the atonement, will seem to be just a discussion about words. But that is itself a forensic thought. It’s only words…what does it matter? But it matters. It matters.