By late 4th century AD, the raw transformative power of the Gospel was already in deep decline. The way of Christ was being supplanted by the Constantinian institutional Christianity. Since the tangible power of God was not widely demonstrable, something else was bound the take its place. That “something else” was forensic, legally focused Christianity. In redefining the overarching meta-narrative of the New Covenant as being exclusively a legal matter, the practical power of the Gospel was theologically legitimized. Institutional Christianity became a purveyor of solutions which were purely speculative, experientially unverifiable, and requiring one to die before the veracity of their theories could be personally ascertained. In other world – that so-called gospel was not much use for the for the living. It was only useful for the dead.
Historically, here’s how things got to where they did. In 410 AD Rome was sacked by Visigoths. At that time, Rome was viewed as the mother city of Christianity, and it came as a huge shock to the Western world that their relatively newly adopted religion – Christianity – was powerless to stop that sacking by pagan barbarians. In response, in mid-420s AD Augustine penned his opus magnum “The City of God”. In that volume he made important doctrinal corrections, but committed probably just as many worldview errors as he sought to correct. In trying to salvage Christianity from its alleged failed responsibility to protect Rome, he simply relegated everything that can be expected of God to the realm he called “the city of God” which can be accessed only after death.
Since Rome couldn’t punish the evildoers in this life, in a master stoke of a painter mixing a bit of Scripture with vast quantities of pagan Hellenism, he went on at length about describing postmortem terror which allegedly awaited those belonging to the “city of the devil” which of course included unchristianized Goths (who ironically couldn’t even read Augistine’s missive). Never mind that Jesus prayed “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. The “on earth” part was basically abandoned. Instead of being viewed as God’s precious gift, earthly life began to be viewed as a weary pilgrimage, and as a mere qualification test for admission to heaven. That logic may have quelled Roman doubts about Christianity, but it did so at the expense of severely diluting its real-world relevance and potency. And thus the stage for legalistic Christianity presided over by a tribal West-allied pagan-despising god was set.
Now fast forward to 1094-98 AD. Anselm of Canterbury, the direct precursor to modern PSA, provided a philosophical (not Scriptural, but philosophical – huge difference) justification for that way of judicial accounting, based on the way feudal lord / servant relationships were construed. In his work “Why God became a man” he laid out his systematic view. In essence, his idea is that our sins were primarily an offense to God’s honor, and since God is a very important lord, the punishment should match the importance of the lord (rather than matching the severity of the crime). What he appears to have missed is that our Lord is specifically Jesus Christ, and he never held even the most heinous sins committed personally toward him against the perpetrators, in the way Anselm proposed. (Also – interestingly, his theology was specifically predicated on his understanding that not all humans are created equal. For instance, if you were a slave – killing you would be about as bad as killing a mule.)
About 450 years later, even with all of his innovations Martin Luther mostly stayed within the framework of Anselm’s model. Although he elevated the understanding of the cross as a uniquely significant spiritual event showing the love of God and his identification with humanity, he infused those ideas into the Anselmian legalistic wineskins which they could barely contain. But at least that was a big step in the right direction. John Calvin, however, took that system and recast it in more specifically legal terms in keeping with his own legal training, giving us the PSA in its current form. His arguments were based primarily on legal philosophies of his day. So, Protestant reformation improved on medieval Christianity mainly in the area of individually appropriated judicial justification. In a number of other ways it made the problem worse, in no small part due to popularization of Calvin’s ideas.
Within Calvin-inspired legal worldview, your sins are understood primarily as legal transgressions. Since every one of us sins, our primary identity is that of criminals, and actual Christians are encouraged to view themselves as conditional parolees. Every one of your sins (even stealing a cookie from a jar as a two-year old) is deserving of eternal torture at the hands of the “loving” God. There aren’t really any degrees of punishment which would match the severity of the crime. In expressly Calvinistic strands of theology espoused by a number of mainline and some Evangelical denominations, multitudes of people are simply predestined by God to eternal punishment, and therefore no amount of evangelism can reform them. Not only are they doomed from birth, but due to Calvin’s understanding of the limited nature of atonement (the L in TULIP acronym) Christ is also of no effect to them.
Even from a legal standpoint – surprisingly and somewhat shockingly, PSA doesn’t build even a half-way decent case for the judicial due process. What PSA advocates did was oversimplify things down to an absolute minimum while ratcheting things up to the absolute worst possible scenario. Soon enough, the “just” and “fair” legal system was dumbed down to this: you are guilty from birth, and your punishment for merely being born human is an unending maximally painful execution immediately upon death, without even so much as a fair hearing. There are numerous Scriptures which talk about judicial due process – court hearing with many judges (pictured as courtroom thrones), a nuanced judicial process (represented by different books), the fact that judgment has to precede punishment and that the judgment takes place at the final general resurrection rather than individually and immediately upon death. Nearly all those Scriptures are completely disregarded with PSA, which should tell you that Biblically, it’s more of a caricature that a faithful depiction of heavenly justice.
Of course, not only this is not justice in any sense of this word, but this view can’t even be considered sane at the most basic human level. However, in the West, this has been the prevalent way of looking at things for the past 900 or so years. (In the first 1,000 years or so of Western Christianity, this view didn’t hold theological monopoly, and this wasn’t even the most popular one.)
To sum up what I’ve discussed up to this point. No matter where you come down on the solution spectrum when the problem of humanity is postulated in purely legal terms – which could be anywhere from religion fundamentalism to hypergrace and universalism – your solutions are bound to remain largely speculative. Since the problem is postulated as being primarily legal, the solutions will also be primarily legal and fairly unimpactful in the grand scheme of things. Granted, some of those views are much better for one’s mental and emotional health that others. But at the core, their strength is mainly ideological rather than practical, and they ultimately force you to become a glorified lawyer rather than a carrier of divine power that transforms this world.
If you want to study up on other views on atonement, look up “The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views” by an ensemble of authors, and “Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement” by Gustaf Aulen.
In my next installment on the subject atonement, I will illustrate a different way to approach the issue in a way that actually holds the power to transform the world before our very eyes, immediately beginning *in this life*. Stay tuned!