Saturday, December 13, 2008

Avery Dulles (1918-2008) on Jesus' Atoning Death

The great American Catholic Cardinal-Theologian, Avery Dulles, S.J., passed away this week. Cardinal Dulles was a prolific writer and thinker. He wrote over 750 academic articles and 25 books. In his last years he suffered greatly with a post-polio syndrome. Yet, he continued to give the McGinley lectures at Fordham, where he had taught for over 20 years--having composed the words himself, he would sit in a wheelchair while someone else read them. In his final lecture he wrote:
Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be accepted as elements of a full human existence. Well into my ninetieth year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Dulles was a rarity in many ways. In 2001, John Paul II created him a Cardinal, making him the first American born theologian who was not a Bishop to receive such an honor. When Pope Benedict came to America this year he made a special request to visit Cardinal Dulles (see above).

Upon hearing of his death, Pope Benedict put out the following statement:
HAVING LEARNED WITH SADNESS OF THE DEATH OF CARDINAL AVERY DULLES, I OFFER YOU MY HEARTFELT CONDOLENCES, WHICH I ASK YOU KINDLY TO CONVEY TO HIS FAMILY, HIS CONFRERES IN THE SOCIETY OF JESUS AND THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY OF FORDHAM UNIVERSITY. I JOIN YOU IN COMMENDING THE LATE CARDINAL’S NOBLE SOUL TO GOD, THE FATHER OF MERCIES, WITH IMMENSE GRATITUDE FOR THE DEEP LEARNING, SERENE JUDGMENT AND UNFAILING LOVE OF THE LORD AND HIS CHURCH WHICH MARKED HIS ENTIRE PRIESTLY MINISTRY AND HIS LONG YEARS OF TEACHING AND THEOLOGICAL RESEARCH. AT THE SAME TIME I PRAY THAT HIS CONVINCING PERSONAL TESTIMONY TO THE HARMONY OF FAITH AND REASON WILL CONTINUE TO BEAR FRUIT FOR THE CONVERSION OF MINDS AND HEARTS AND THE PROGRESS OF THE GOSPEL FOR MANY YEARS TO COME. TO ALL WHO MOURN HIM IN THE HOPE OF THE RESURRECTION I CORDIALLY IMPART MY APOSTOLIC BLESSING AS A PLEDGE OF CONSOLATION AND PEACE IN OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.
--BENEDICTUS PP. XVI
Whenever a cardinal dies, the Vatican news always carries word of it. However, this Sunday, in addition to the usual coverage of a cardinal's death, the L'Osservatore Romano will run a piece highlighting his contribution to Theology--something which is unusual for the paper. All this just underscores his unique significance.

One of Dulles' last pieces, "The Church and the Kingdom: A Study of their Relationship in Scripture, Tradition, and Evangelization," appeared in last year's Letter and Spirit, the academic journal put out by the St. Paul Center (purchase here). It is my favorite of his articles.

Of course, there are many others that could be mentioned. For the sake of highlighting at least one, I thought I'd mention his, "The Death of Jesus as Sacrifice," which first appeared in Josephinum Journal of Theology [Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 1996)]. It is now available on-line via the St. Paul Center's website. The article tackles the question of the meaning of Jesus' death. In particular, Dulles argues for a theory of "personalist" approach to "atonement". He takes on other models, such as the theory of "penal substition", i.e., the idea that Jesus' death should be understood in terms of a legal exchange in which Jesus in effect takes the place of sinners. Sinners receive Christ's sonship, Jesus receives the punishment they deserve.

Here's an excerpt:

A personalist framework of thinking calls for a radical transformation of this concept of atonement... In primitive mythological thinking, as I have said, guilt is understood in crassly material or objective terms, and consequently atonement is depicted as the mere substitution of one thing for another, as would be the case when an old tire is replaced by a new one, which will itself eventually be replaced. But in a personalized framework, there is no way in which one person can simply replace another. One person may represent another, but cannot substitute for that other except in a merely functional way. As Dorothee Sölle has brilliantly explained, substitution is the definitive exchange of reified objects, whereas representation is the provisional intervention of persons on behalf of other persons. To retain this distinction, it seems preferable to avoid speaking of "substitutionary atonement" in the case of Jesus Christ. Sölle herself proposes to speak rather of Christ the Representative... Christ's redemptive act, unlike the merely mechanical substitution of the scapegoat, is the loving identification of the innocent sufferer with the guilty on behalf of whom he suffers. However, it cannot be understood in merely moral or psychological terms, as the vocabulary of "loving identification" might seem to imply. Even when personalistically interpreted, "substitution" does not do justice to the reality, since a substitute could not do for us any more than we could do for ourselves. In view of his theandric constitution as incarnate Son of God, Christ is able to do far more for us than any human person could do. He stands before the Father as the representative head of the new, reborn humanity. He is the Second Adam, the progenitor in the order of grace, the firstborn of the dead (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 8:29; Col 1:18). Alone among human beings, he is qualified to remove the guilt of human sin and to communicate divine life.

Because there is no mechanical substitution of one person for another, the representative death of Christ does not automatically remit the guilt of sinners. The merits of Christ are not simply imputed to us by some kind of juridical fiction; rather we are truly and inwardly healed through the infusion of the grace that flows from him. We have to allow ourselves to be taken over by Christ as he stands in for us. This we do by appropriating Christ's action on our behalf through free and personal acts of faith, hope, and loving obedience...

Does the vicarious nature of redemption mean that Jesus is punished in our place? Some authors, indulging in very powerful rhetoric, describe in lurid terms the way in which the wrath of the eternal Father was visited upon the guiltless Son, so that he felt rejected and even hated by God... Some go so far as to suppose that Jesus suffered a loss of faith, fell into despair, and underwent the pains of the damned. His cry on the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?" (Matt 27:46 & parallels) is considered to confirm this interpretation.

Against these views, I would insist that Jesus remained at all times the well-beloved Son, living in close communion with the Father through the incomparable grace that flooded his soul. Far from despairing, he continued to trust in the Father, whom he loved. Since the cry from the Cross is a quotation from the first verse of Psalm 22, the interpretation remains somewhat uncertain. It seems probable that Jesus (or the Evangelists who ascribe these words to him) had in mind the whole of the psalm, which Jesus is, so to speak, intoning. As Walter Kasper points out, "According to the practice of the time, saying the opening verse of a psalm implied the whole psalm."20 The Psalm, beginning as a lament, turns into a song of thanksgiving to the God who saves from death:

"I will tell of thy name to my brethren; In the midst of the congregation I will praise thee... All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.(Ps 22:22, 27; cf. Heb 2:12)."

It would be a mistake, therefore, to interpret the words quoted by Jesus as though he were describing his psychological state of feeling rather than referring to the religious message of the Psalm.

The fact remains, however, that Jesus did suffer terrible afflictions, and did so because it was the Father's will that he should do so. He was abandoned in the sense that God did not come miraculously to his aid, as presumably God could have done. Would it not have been far better, some ask, for the Father simply to forgive the guilt of the human family without exacting any retribution? For all we know, it might have been possible for God to grant this free forgiveness. But would it have been better? How, if he had done so, would the right order have been established? What kind of healing would have been effected? How would we have learned the full gravity of sin? What motivation would we be given for avoiding sin in the future? What consolation would be given to persons burdened with exorbitant and unjust sorrows? All things considered, it appears that God has exercised greater mercy toward us by giving his innocent Son to suffer and die on our behalf than if he had simply canceled out the debt of sin...

The Theories Compared
The advantages of the representational sacrifice theory, and the answers to the objections raised against it, may be clarified by a review of the alternative theories described at the opening of this paper. In some ways the sacrificial interpretation, as I have proposed it, resembles the first theory, that of penal substitution, but the differences are important. Both theories maintain that Jesus suffered terrible ordeals and thereby won for sinners a release from the pains they deserve. But the penal substitution theory makes it appear that God punishes the innocent in place of the guilty, thereby suggesting that God is unjust. The theory of representative headship, by contrast, looks upon Jesus as one who offered satisfaction, rather than endured punishment. These are true alternatives. As Anselm insisted, sin requires either punishment or satisfaction; satisfaction takes the place of punishment... Satisfaction is voluntarily given, whereas punishment must be coercively endured. Satisfaction, unlike punishment, can be offered by the innocent as well as by the guilty.

Punishment, as an act of justice, must be strictly proportioned to the offense, but satisfaction, as a work of love, may be superabundant. According to Thomas Aquinas, Christ "offered to God more than was required to compensate for the sin of all humanity."

Read the whole thing here:

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

That's beautiful, Michael!

Thank you for pointing it out and making it available.

Pax,
John McBryde

Anonymous said...

It was with deep sadness that I learned of the death of Cardinal Dulles on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was first introduced to Dulles as an undergraduate student in theology who, like many, was assigned Models of the Church as one of my texts for Ecclesiology. Ever since, I have been impressed with Dulles’ ability to stay above the fray of theologian-status-dichotomies: “liberal”, “conservative”, “progressive”, “traditionalist”. Better: “brilliant theologian” and “faithful son of the Church”—an unfortunately rare combination, especially in the English speaking world.

May he rest in peace…

Justin Nickelsen
NouvellTheologie (at) Hotmail (dot) com

Charles Sommer said...

Michael,

Thanks for bringing this article to everyone's attention. It's good for those of us in Biblical studies (particularly in OT) who don't get out much to see what systematics is doing. It is a shame that we are so compartmentalized. I hope I can avoid it as I go on as you and Brant seem to be doing.

Dale Rudiger said...

Avery Dulles was also an integral part of the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" meetings and resulting documents.

We should remember Dulles' work in helping to wordsmith the amazing ECT II - "The Gift of Salvation." This second document in the ECT series presents the gospel, and states that both evangelicals and Catholics can agree to it.

This despite the evangelical confessions, which teach that the Catholic Church errs in four ways:

1) Leaving unfinished the finished (Sanctification as part of justification; Tradition as God's revelation along with Scripture),
2) Making physical the spiritual (e.g. Pope as head of the Church; transubstantiation),
3) Making mediate the immediate (e.g. Mary as co-mediator; Pope as Pontiff, etc.), and
4) Making meritorious the gracious (e.g. Merit; Treasury of merity/supererogation).

These documents have had a tremendous impact on Catholic-Evangelical relations. They have caused the broader evangelical community to move much closer to a Catholic understanding of the Gospel. This says much about the weak and divided state of evangelicalism.

John Hobbins said...

Michael,

Thanks for this. On my blog, i posted on another aspect of the Cardinal's teaching: that regarding the authority of Scripture.

With respect to the comment before this one, viewed sociologically evangelicals remain and will remain a predominant and perhaps the predominant force within Christianity worldwide.

Still, it is true that evangelicals, or at least some of them, are learning to translate from the language of the Reformation of Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, and Wesley to the language of the Catholic Reformation and back again.


Catholics, or at least some of them, are learning to do the same from their direction.

There are significant and helpful trends.

Virtually every evangelical emphasis can be mapped into Catholicism without violence to the emphases or to Catholicism, and with great advantages accruing to Catholicism. The Cardinal understood these things, which is why he said that all Christians should desire to be both evangelical and Catholic.