The Atonement and Optimism

by Tom Tredway

Often religious experience, even Christian experience, is understood to be a transaction or negotiation between humans and the divine. P.P. Waldenström, the leading theological figure in nineteenth century Pietism in both Sweden and Swedish America, charged that heathen religion, and by implication much of Christianity, understood the gods—or God Himself—to be angry at human sin and failure; if a person were to hope to be restored to divine favor, some sacrifice, perhaps of a dead creature, would be necessary to appease the divinity, to overcome His wrath. The individual made the offering which satisfied the divine sense of justice, and the relationship between earth and heaven was set right.

In Pietistic Christianity, Martin Luther’s own experience was often paradigmatic; his journey to full New Testament-based faith began with a long struggle to live up to God’s law. It was a struggle that Luther realized had been futile, once he saw that it was by trusting Christ, not by trying to earn His favor, that one came into a right relationship to God. In Luther’s age, the understanding of how Christ’s work restored a person to that right relationship was centered on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. God’s sense of justice, His wrath against sin and the sinner, was satisfied by Christ’s death; Christ had taken upon himself the punishment which, in fact, the sinner deserved.

While Luther himself spoke in varying ways of the atonement, this understanding of Christ’s sacrifice in the stead of sinners remained orthodoxy in the new Lutheran churches, as it had dominated Medieval thought prior to the Reformation. The major Lutheran creed of the early Reformation, the Augsburg Confession of 1530, says “sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who by his death has made satisfaction for our sins” and speaks of “a reconciled God.”

This view of the atonement is often called “substitutionary”; Jesus Christ took the sinner’s place, acting as a substitute in satisfying divine justice. Thus it can also be characterized as a “sacrificial” or “satisfaction” understanding of Christ’s death. Someplace—at Bible Camp, a Youth for Christ rally, or even in one’s own home church—every young Pietist certainly heard this understanding of the atoning death of Christ preached as the Christian Gospel: “Jesus took your place; he suffered the penalty for sin which you deserved!” Waldenström, however, wrote that this was a false interpretation, because it incorrectly assumed that God was angry at sin and the sinner and that His wrath had to be placated by the sacrificial and substitutionary death of His Son.

Of course, P.P. Waldenström was not the sole figure in Christian history to question the substitutionary atonement. I was struck in reading the fourteenth century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, that she denied the wrath of God as a key to atonement. For Julian wrath is “all that is contrary to peace and love,” and it lies only in us, not in God at all. The divine presence she found deep within herself was the source of that peace and love. Like her, Waldenström held, four centuries later, that God has never been angry at humanity. But he was no mystic; rather than to introspection and meditation, the Swede turned to Scripture as the validation of this truth. The Bible itself makes it clear, he said, that God had always, and still does, love men and women. This love has never waivered—since the creation itself.

When he was challenged by the “orthodox” theologians of the Church of Sweden, Waldenström asked them simply: “Var står det skrivet?” Where is it written? No place, Old or New Testament, could one find, he maintained, the idea that God had to be reconciled to humanity. It is we who needed to be reconciled to God, not He to us. The atonement, when we have faith in Christ, brings us back to a right relationship to God, one broken by collective and individual sin. This was the core of Waldenström’s Sermon on the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (1872), published in (the original) Pietisten, and of his subsequent work, eventually gathered into a multi-volumed collection, Guds eviga frälsingsråd (God’s Eternal Plan of Salvation).

Olof Olsson, at the time the Augustana pastor in Lindsborg, Kansas (and later the third President of Augustana College and Seminary), wrote a response to Waldenström in which he argued that what the Swede failed to understand was that there were two sides to the divine nature: justice and mercy. In line with Lutheran orthodoxy, Olsson held that God’s justice and the wrath that accompanied it were satisfied by the sacrifice of His Son and that because of this, His mercy could be bestowed on humanity. In failing to recognize the dual nature of God—mercy and justice—Waldenström tended toward a kind of Unitarianism, Olsson argued.

Himself a mild tempered and irenic soul, Olsson had many friends in his own congregation who were drawn to Waldenström’s teaching. But Pastor Olsson himself hewed to what he believed to be orthodoxy; his congregation in Lindsborg lost members because of the disagreement on the atonement; and the Augustana Synod staunchly stuck to the traditional Lutheran understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death—that he had taken our place on the cross to pay divine justice for our sins. This was what is sometimes called an “objective” theory of the atonement: Christ’s death changed the very nature of the Universe, of God’s creation. Implicit in it was a philosophical understanding of the way reality itself was constructed.

Waldenström, on the other hand, saw the meaning of the atonement in the turning of each individual to God through belief in Christ; this is sometimes spoken of as a “subjective” theory. In his history of the American Covenant Church, Karl Olsson writes that Waldenström’s work gives “much less significance” to the historical work of Christ on the cross: “On the cross Christ died for men’s sins, but this did not result in the atonement of the whole world; atonement takes place where the gift of grace is accepted by the sinner. This more dynamic view of atonement meant that the emphasis was shifted from Christ’s work on the cross to Christ as person. Salvation takes place at the point where the individual confronts Christ, the Savior.”

Olsson hints that a problem in Waldenström’s work is that one is left to ask whether Christ’s death was after all truly necessary; the strength of the substitutionary theory was that it made clear that, given the radical depth of human sin and God’s unfailing sense of justice, a blood sacrifice to atone was absolutely needed. This matter of the necessity of the atonement was taken up by the twentieth-century Swedish theologian and bishop Gustav Aulén in his seminal work Christus Victor, in which the idea of Christ subduing the ancient enemies of humanity—sin, death, and the devil—is treated as the truly classical Christian understanding of the atonement. Christ the Victor would be an alternative view to the substitutionary idea of atonement, one which also certainly explains its necessity.

In any case, the “objective” fact that the atonement provided the necessary means by which humankind could be forgiven by God is morphed in Waldenström into an emphasis on the “subjective” experience of faith in the person who accepts Christ. One can see how this suited the Pietists’ concern that an individual undergo her or his own conversion experience. In terms of the distinction between Christian theologies which emphasized Christ and those emphasizing Jesus (a matter I discussed in Pietisten a few issues ago), it was the case that while the classic substitutionary view of the atonement emphasized the cosmic work of Christ in satisfying divine justice, Waldenström’s work tended to emphasize the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching.

All of this suggests a movement in Swedish Pietism away from a “transactional” understanding of the atonement and of Christian experience. Instead of a universe where divine justice must be satisfied and divine wrath toward sin and the sinner placated by a sacrifice, we have a God who sends His son to live and die and rise again as the sign of His love toward His creation and its creatures. What happens when a person comes to faith is that one recognizes what God has done and affirms its meaning and power in one’s own life, recognizing that the love of God toward humanity has never waivered.

Rather than a cosmic transaction in which the Son pays the price for sin to the Father, we have the recognition of the eternal unchanging love of God for creation and its creatures. An understanding of the divine-human relationship in which a transaction has taken place and the individual claims it for his or her own has turned into one in which the person recognizes what has always been the case: God loves us and wants to restore us to friendship with Him.

It is, I think, significant that Waldenström frequently uses human relationships and circumstances to argue his case. At one point he even asks what sort of human father would punish another second person for the sins of a first individual. He regularly appeals to human experience as a figure of God’s love, asserting that if persisting parental love is noble, how much more so is the divine unchanging love for us. There are therefore, in spite of the fallen nature of humanity, evidences of the goodness of creation in ordinary human life that may be taken as signs of the eternal love of the Creator.

When a person realizes this, a sort of re-cognition, a re-knowing, takes place. Elements in one’s spiritual or religious experience resonate with experiences and events from wider human life. There is, it might be said, continuity between one’s relationship to God and the rest of her or his experience. Though the creation is fallen, there is much in it that can be drawn upon to understand one’s spiritual life. Medieval scholastic theologians taught that Gratia naturam non tollit sed perficit: Grace does not cancel nature; it perfects it. Thus Jesus spoke often of heavenly matters in parables and saw in the act of a Samaritan or in a child’s readiness to receive a gift a sign or figure of one’s relationship to God. We recognize in all of life the evidences and even the proofs of divine love and goodness.

So as concerns the meaning of Jesus Christ’s atoning work, there are differing types or emphases in Christian experience. One type is to understand a person’s relationship to God as a transaction. For generations people have recognized that their lives are out-of-kilter, that God and they are in need of reconciling. It has often been assumed that some payment or sacrifice, some transaction is in order if things are to be put right between oneself and God. He must be appeased, His justice satisfied. In classical Christian theology this has led, perhaps abetted by the Roman legalism in which Christianity first grew to become the dominant religion in western culture, to the sense that a transaction between God and humanity, between God and the individual, must occur. It is this transaction in which they are reconciled to each other; atonement occurs.

This disposition or mindset does not look for God within the natural person; for this way of thinking grace, the presence of God, descends upon humanity, to use Karl’s Barth’s image, senkrecht von oben, perpendicularly from above. Once, while we were discussing Christian mystics such as Julian of Norwich who found God deep within themselves, one of my close friends, himself a convinced “Barthian,” remarked to me: “I’ve looked down inside myself, and I’ve never found God there; He comes to me only from beyond myself!”

But there is a different emphasis or type of Christian experience as well. The work of P.P. Waldenström suggests that this different emphasis has also been a strain in Pietism, especially in its Scandinavian iteration. This strain sees “coming to Christ” as the recognition of a truth that lies deep in life: God loves us and always has, that for His part He needs no reconciliation to us. He has always waited for us to recognize Him there at the very core of our lives. Like the Father in Jesus’ story, He looks over the parapets of heaven hoping we rediscover who He is and who we are, hoping that we recognize that we belong to one another, that we are members of one family, hoping that we come home.

This sense of realizing or recognizing who we are as God’s children runs through Christian civilization as surely as does the idea that God needed to be appeased by Christ’s sacrifice. “In Him we live and move and have our being,” St. Paul affirmed. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and we are restless till we rest in Thee,” St. Augustine prayed four hundred years later. Of course, this realization of our very lives existing in God cannot explain what is so often wrong with the world and with ourselves. But, like any theology that holds to the unwavering love of God for humanity, Waldenström’s work has important positive implications. Not all of them are worked out, and some are probably not intended, but they do lie implicit in his central idea.

When we recognize this key idea, the underlying truth that God has always loved us and needs no reconciliation toward us, a certain optimism about the world and human life develops. Now the human race is not understood to be divided between those living under divine wrath and those few who have claimed Christ’s sacrifice as their own. It is such optimism about God’s unwavering and universal love and its power that the Englishwoman, Julian of Norwich reached, after wrestling all her life with questions of sin and suffering: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” This is an optimism of grace that the second Pietisten’s readers and writers may well have inherited from the writers and readers of the first.