The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 3-5)

The three chapters I’ll be dealing with plot out a series of alternative conceptions of atonement, i.e. not those most influential in the later theological tradition. Firstly, Adam gives some overview of some modern treatments – the theologies of Boersma, Weaver, and Aulén. Secondly, he turns to Irenaeus, whom he admits sets out a view that is far from mainstream (76), in spite of the orthodoxy of its author. Thirdly, he describes the development in Gregory of Nyssa. I will be giving summaries and comments on these chapters one by one, in case readers are still catching up with the pace of the reading!Chapter 3 is all about modern accounts that draw on some of the same sources treated in this book. As the first two authors are both reliant on the third, I will limit my comments largely to this latter, namely Aulén, the Swedish professor who wrote the standard work for atonement theory. Aulén worked at Lund, and his work is usually associated with that of Anders Nygren (who wrote Eros and Agape). Both were hardnosed Lutheran scolars of patristic theology, and both applied their work to contemporary systematic questions, which is unusual for Nordic Lutheranism.

Aulén is famous for categorising atonement theories into two camps – the subjective and the objective view, represented by Abelard and Anselm respectively – and then arguing for a classic view held by the patristic authors, namely the “Christus Victor” model. This latter tries to dissolve the tension between Anselm and Abelard by posing the problem as a cosmic battle rather than as an individual struggling with her own damnation. Sin becomes a cosmic power rather than a simple issue of conscience.

In any case, the Christus Victor view essentially entails that Christ descended to earth to defeat the powers of destruction that had held humanity captive. Adam’s own sympathies seem to lie with this model in the following chapters, but the main problem with Aulén’s own presentation of it is that God works unilaterally to save the individual believer. In other words, there is no question of humanity interacting with God, nor of God saving communities or families, or environments. Here Aulén reveals his Lutheran emphasis – it is God alone that enacts the atonement, with no need of human consent, contribution, or collaboration. And this conviction is stated at the beginning and end of Aulén’s study. And Adam naturally assumes that this otherwise conviction is a function of Aulén’s ontology.

I have two issues with Adam’s presentation here, but they’re not serious: firstly, I think you’ll find a fair number of patristic authors that will be quite eager to emphasise God’s agency rather than humanity’s (and Augustine is the most obvious candidate); secondly, the persuasion/coercion dichotomy (on which the next two chapters rely heavily) is made to be based on its unilateral or non-unilateral character. This is problematic to say the least: Adam has already recommended understanding relations in all their specificity (23), and criticised Boersma for defending violence in terms of restraining pedestrians from crossing a busy road (56). So I don’t think unilateralism is either irrelevant to or constitutive of coercion.

Chapter 4 gives us an interpretation of Irenaeus’ atonement theory, based on his sprawling Against Heresies. Incidentally, the translation Adam uses (which is the only complete translation into modern English) is available online and as spoken word. It’s a difficult text to work with, because the original Greek is only extant in fragments, and we are otherwise entirely reliant on an early Latin translation.

Irenaeus’ account of atonement is based on the U-shaped movement of Christ’s mission: from God to the earth and back to God with the earth. It reverses the opposite movement of creation from earth and fall from grace enacted by Adam and Eve. For the purposes of the book, perhaps the most important part of his theory is that Christ reflects Adam and Eve’s univeral relation to the human race. Adam and Eve’s disobedience makes everyone captive to death and the devil.

This is because we do not sin alone. Our actions have social consequences that further entrench ourselves and others in our captivity. Christ is only able to interrupt this process by his solidarity with the human race, and with the whole human race at that. Instead of seeing all of humanity as fallen through some kind of inner genetic tarnish (which presumably would be the flipside of the gnostic divine spark), for Irenaeus we transmit our fallenness socially:

Yet unlike the later Western tradition, which will make birth the site of transmission for a kind of moral brokenness, the accent here is on the socio-political relationships transmitted via childbirth, in this case the condition of slavery or subjection to a foreign power. (83)

Whilst this should imply universalism – Christ saves all of humanity just as Adam and Eve called all to fall – Irenaeus does not in fact embrace that direction. Adam’s claim is simply that his logic leads in that direction. The way in which God makes this effective (is this the new process of relationality Christ institutes?) is by persuasion, and Adam riffs a little on the theme of the “God who does not use force to get what he desires” (Against Heresies V.1.1, quoted on page 86), comparing it to the Hegelian slave-master relation. Persuasion and violence become opposites here in Adam’s scheme, in ways that he will make much of later.

This account of Irenaeus’ views of atonement was enlightening, and not something I picked up on in my own reading of the church father. The only problem I have is the unambiguously positive interpretation of persuasion. Although Irenaeus does indeed contrast it with violence once, that is no reason to let persuasion and violence define the entire field of possible actions. Adam emphasises the rejection of violence in order to allow further diversity amongst possible good actions, but there is an obvious problem: there are evil non violent actions. Even persuasion can be deeply problematic, and the early Christian theologians were closely aware that persuasion could be used to manipulate others, to overcome crowds, and to deceive. Irenaeus describes the persuasive gnostics at a number of points in book 1 (e.g. Marcion in book I.27).

Chapter 5 takes patristic atonement theory on with the work of Gregory of Nyssa. This is presumably a discursive strategy to take the worst possible case for your thesis: Gregory of Nyssa is a standard example of Eastern spiritual theology, and his Life of Moses in particular depicts the march of the solitary to God. If this man thinks relationally, then everyone must.

Gregory differs from Irenaeus, however, by fronting sin as a decisive factor in atonement. The act central to Christ’s atoning work for Gregory is his resurrection. Just as Irenaeus had Christ re-doing Adam and Eve’s original work by becoming incarnate and divinising humanity, Gregory has him rehearse Adam and Eve’s work by becoming mortal and rising from the dead. Here the story of birth and death is vital as enacting Christ’s solidarity with humanity in order that all may experience resurrection life – no longer subject to the separation of body and soul. Once again, the entire body of humanity is the object of salvation, rather than the individual believer.

Granted that Christ’s resurrection is a game-changer by introducing new possibilities of hope and a new potential status to humankind, how does this act save humanity from the slavery? We have dealt with death, but what about the devil? Gregory essentially elaborates a ransom theory, whereby the devil may do as he pleases with humanity: so when God becomes human, he attempts to eliminate God. But in swallowing the Lord of Life, he receives a gift that turns his destructive role around. Gregory hints that the devil may also be saved.

Rather than rely too much on the efficacy of “solidarity” (I am personally worried it won’t bear much scrutiny), Adam stays true to his promise to examine relations in their particularity and argues that the resurrection of one physical and relational human distributes its effects just as those of the fall were spread through networks of relationality. He summarises Laclau and Mouffe’s ideas about government through the satisfaction of desires, and argues that the resurrection – precisely as a reconfiguration of desires, hopes, and ideals – is able to upturn the hegemony of the devil and embrace the non-violent rule of God. And this is just one more persuasive act to effect our atonement.

I have two issues with chapter 5: firstly, I am a little worried about the way the resurrection vilifies the seriousness of death on p. 104, where Adam argues that the imposition of the possibility of death is a persuasive rather than a violent measure because it is in keeping with human mutability and was imposed as an emergency and temporary situation (is he intending these references to Agamben?). I can sympathise with the logical difference between imposing death (by killing someone) and imposing mortality, but I worry that these excuses are all too familiar. They may induce either courage or some of the passive justifications of suffering outlined in chapter 2. Secondly, I suspect that the “persuasive” measure of governing by renewed resurrection desires would turn out to be much more sinister if for example Foucault’s or Agamben’s analyses were preferred rather than Laclau’s. But of course a full theoretical treatment was not possible in the book.

In general: Adam has delivered on his promise here to develop the underlying ideas in Christian atonement by plotting alternative interpretations of central authorities, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Lossky. I’m afraid I’ve largely ignored his interpretations of the soul-body relation as I consider by far the most important steps in connection with his project to be

  1. relating Christ’s solidarity with humanity to the redemption of the entire human race. Just as Adam and Eve’s sin made us into a massa peccatorum, so are we redeemed as a whole.
  2. making specific the relations by which this fall and redemption is communicated relationally to all humanity (namely by family, birth, and social relationships rather than biologically).
  3. evaluating the mode of God’s intervention in the world, and concluding that the Christian tradition looks for a collaborative (rather than unilateral) method of atonement that interacts with humanity rather than taking it as an object.
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5 Responses to “The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 3-5)”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Andy, Thanks for this — I can always rely on you for sympathetic criticism. Your final numbered points do get to the heart of what I’m trying to do in these chapters. I’ll try to let this simmer in my mind and write more later today.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Okay, so on Gregory of Nyssa — you’re right that he’s a huge test-case. In specific, he’s a great test-case for my contention that no matter what they tend to want to do elsewhere, theologians tend toward a social-relational model when specifically and directly explicating the effects of the incarnation.

    You’re also right that my claim that the temporary imposition of death is “persuasive” rather than “violent” is one of the more questionable claims I make here, and in fact it’s one of the areas where I was worried I’d wind up being unconvincing or at least misunderstood. What I think that claim does, however, is to show the degree to which I’m using violence and persuasion in a more metaphorical or “ontological” way — persuasion enters into a situation in a way that respects its integrity, while violence imposes or violates it. One can see that in my section on Irenaeus, where I suggest that an over-literalness on persuasion (i.e., the notion that it literally has to mean talking to people in such a way as to convince them) leads him to consign the Gnostics, as unpersuadable morons, to damnation. And that more “ontological” view of what counts as persuasion also could account for the persuasive Gnostics, who for Irenaeus proceed through falsehood, etc., and hence represent a “violent” mode of apparent persuasion.

  3. erin Says:

    fantastic! I am excited to read along with my hard-earned copy:) Thanks again.

  4. Andy Says:

    Excellent. I had imagined you going through the list of authors in Classics of Western Spirituality and picking out the ones that looked like no-mates.

    I like the expression “persuasion enters into a situation in a way that respects its integrity” and understand why you should want to write it. I still have two issues though. I can imagine a bunch of situations in which respecting a situation’s integrity is the worst possible response, and analysing the violence ontologically the second worst. The expansion of use of the word “violence” is for me one of the most problematic features of postmodernity.

    Plus I suspect Boersma might feel a bit miffed because you’d criticised him for unnecessarily expanding the reference of the word “violence”. I think it would help me if you can state clearly the difference between these two instances: you narrow down Boersma but expand Gregory and Irenaeus. Why?

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    One thing that I think this discussion is pointing toward is the fact that my distinction between persuasion and violence is more a polarity than a binary opposition — but I still think it’s a polarity that’s useful and that in most cases can return an obvious or at least defensible result.

    What Boersma seems to share with some of the postmodern people you have in mind is turning essentially any interaction into a violent one — to use his stupidest example, stopping someone from walking into traffic is supposed to be “violent.” Boersma’s approach seems to me to get rid of any possible standard for moral judgment, since everything becomes violence. The problem isn’t the formal one of expanding violence (at all or “too much”), it’s the specific way he does it. His account of violence seems to leave absolute non-intervention as the only consistently non-violent position — which is an idiotic way to try to disprove pacifism — and as you point out, non-intervention is not defensible when the situation itself is not defensible.

    I basically just think my way of expanding violence is more productive than his, as well as being more flexible and less legalistic than a typical pacifist approach to the question. You have to be able to give an account of what in specific is bad about obvious violence and how those properties can be present in less obviously violent acts. I also don’t think my model creates a bias in favor of letting things be by any means — after all, my central example of a non-violent act is a pretty elaborate and radical intervention into human history. The issue isn’t whether to intervene or not — of course we need to intervene in situations that are bad — but of the way you intervene. God intervening violently against a violent foe like the devil has a certain appearance of justice to it, but it would wind up making God into yet another violent ruler (who’s supposedly “better” in a more or less tautological way: because he’s God he deserves to rule, whereas the devil doesn’t because he’s not God). To use the cliche: if God is offering a genuine alternative to the devil, he has to “be the change he wants to see.” The form of the revolution has to cohere with the desired result.


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