Friday, February 25, 2011

Epistemic theories of the atonement

Every orthodox Christian agrees that:

  1. Salvation occurs at least in part because of Christ's death on the cross.
The "at least in part" is because Christ's earlier life and subsequent resurrection no doubt play a role. It is also uncontroversial that this has something to do with atonement and sin, but there are many theories here. Epistemic theories say:
  1. The explanatory connection between Christ's death on the cross and the salvation of an individual always involves the individual's epistemic encounter with Christ's crucifixion.
For instance, it may be that Christ's death expresses to the sinner the weight of the sinner's sin and seeing the free acceptance of the penalty transforms the sinner. Epistemic theories as I defined them need not hold that the epistemic encounter is the whole story. Someone could, for instance, hold that there are two essential components to atonement, one of them an epistemic component and the other a penal substitution component. Such a theorist would count as an epistemic theorist.

But there is a plausible argument against this:

  1. Nobody is saved except because of Christ's death on the cross.
  2. Some are saved who have no epistemic encounter with Christ's crucifixion.
  3. Hence, the explanatory connection between Christ's death on the cross and salvation does not always involve an epistemic encounter with Christ's crucifixion.
And so, it seems, epistemic theories of atonement are false.

I think (3) is a central part of Christian orthodoxy, assuming that by "nobody" we mean no human beings other than Christ (contextually restricted quantifiers!). One way to see this is to consider the debate over Mary's Immaculate Conception. The doctrine says that Mary was conceived without original sin. Probably the deepest theological objection to the doctrine has centered on arguments that the doctrine is incompatible with (3). If rejecting (3) were an option for a Christian, the defenders of the doctrine would have had ample motivation to reject (3). But they didn't—instead, they offered theories that attempted to reconcile (3) with the Immaculate Conception. It is not my point to evaluate the arguments for or against the Immaculate Conception (though of course I do accept the Immaculate Conception) but simply to note that both sides admitted that (3) is non-negotiable.

Now, it may seem that (4) directly contradicts the epistemic view (2), and hence begs the question. That's not quite right. Claim (2) is that whenever there is an explanatory connection between Christ's sacrifice and salvation, that connection is at least in part epistemically mediated. As far as that goes, this is compatible with the possibility, denied by (3), that some are saved without any such explanatory connection.

Why accept (4)? Because of the following three classes of persons:

  • Jews and gentiles who were saved prior to the time of Christ.
  • Those who are saved without ever hearing about Christ's death.
  • Those (e.g., at least baptized infants) who are saved despite dying prior to having developed an ability to have an epistemic encounter with Christ's crucifixion.
In each of these types of cases, it certainly seems that we have (4).

I want to consider now one kind of reply. We could modify (2) by restricting the quantifiers. For instance, we could apply (2) only to those who have achieved the age of reason and positing that all who die prior to the age of reason are saved, thereby ruling out the third class of cases as offering an argument for (4). This would be an unacceptable variant of Pelagianism. The person who died in infancy would be saved not by Christ, but by natural causes—namely, the causes of death. If some who die in infancy are saved—and certainly at least those baptized people who die in infancy are saved—even they had better be saved only by Christ.

Or we could, if we were willing to bite the bullet on the case of infants in some way, restrict the quantifiers in (2) not to apply to those who died prior to Christ's death, thereby ruling out the first class of examples as offering an argument for (4). I think this, too, is a kind of Pelagianism. Moreover, consider the weirdness of supposing that an Inuit who died at 2:59 pm on Good Friday could be saved not by the cross, while an Inuit who died two minutes later needed to be saved by the cross.

Another move one might make would be to deny that, at least since the time of Christ's death, anyone is saved without ever hearing the Gospel. This is a hard-line response to my argument. For sociological reasons, I suspect this response to my argument is not going to be that popular. I suspect that most of the people who take a hard-line on those who die without hearing about Christ's death take some substitutionary sacrifice theory of the atonement. This is not because there is a good logical connection between these two views—indeed, substitutionary sacrifice theories of the atonement appear to me to be our best bet for explaining how one can be saved without expressly hearing the Gospel—but simply because the kind of tough-mindedness that inclines one to a hard-line on salvation outside the apparent boundaries of the Church is apt to incline one to a substitutionary sacrifice theory.

A different response is that a transformative epistemic encounter with the crucifixion occurs after death for those who are saved despite having died without hearing about Christ's death. Such a view would not only be committed to post-death purgation—i.e., to purgatory. That is not a problem. But it would, further, require the thesis that baptized infants who die prior to hearing about Christ's sacrifice go to purgatory, if only for an instant, and that view simply seems wrong. For one, it downplays the effects of baptism.

One might, however, suppose a miraculous epistemic encounter prior to death. God can miraculously make it possible for an infant, or even embryo, to understand the central doctrines of Christianity, whether explicitly or more vaguely. That this view posits a miracle is no objection. Salvation always involves a miracle. I do not know how plausible this way out will be for particular epistemic theorists. But I think in the end this is the only satisfactory account available to them.

So, unless one wants to posit a miraculous raising of intellectual abilities—and I do not reject this option—epistemic theories of atonement should be rejected.

But I don't think the substitutionary sacrifice theorist is off the hook either. For the above argument gives us a necessary condition for a theory of atonement: it must explain the connection between Christ's sacrifice and the salvation of an infant. If the theory is that Christ is paying the penalty for the individual's sin, then that theory will not be sufficient to account for the salvation of infants who have never committed any sins.

There are two separate issues here, I think. One is the issue of overcoming personal sin. That issue does not come up for the infant, as far as we know (I am inclined to some epistemic caution on this point). The other is the issue of attaining salvation. Many Catholic theologians have said that lack of personal sin is insufficient for salvation. A supernatural love is necessary and sufficient for salvation, a love that can only come from grace. Atonement is not only atonement for sin. It is, as its corny but apparently genuine "at-one-ment" etymology indicates, a matter of uniting us with God. While sin keeps us from union with God, union with God is not constituted by the absence of sin. It requires something more than absence of sin. And for fallen humanity, even in the case of non-sinful members such as infants, this "something" more must be held to come from the Cross. A puzzle or maybe even mystery, then, is how it is that the "something else", the supernatural agapê, comes from Christ's sacrifice. I am inclined to think that a crucial component here is that by our membership in the Body of Christ, Christ's sacrifice is our sacrifice, and the agapê of his sacrifice is our agapê.


Brandon Reams said...

In talking about substitutionary atonement you say "then that theory will not be sufficient to account for the salvation of infants who have never committed any sins". In some theologies Adam's sin was sort of imputed into his posterity. This would over come the problem, would it not?

kraigmartin said...

I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

Alexander R Pruss said...


The response will depend on how the "sort of" is spelled out.

Randy Everist said...

Thanks for writing this post! I enjoyed it and myself have wondered about this. But I wonder if the solution isn't something along the lines of imputed righteousness. For example, why can't we just say that for infants, people before Christ's death, and those who never hear (or cannot understand as with mentally impaired individuals), the benefits of Christ's atoning sacrifice are imputed to them based on their response to the light they did have (in accordance with some kind of prevenient grace)? It seems to be consistent without being subject to Pelagianism (or even the semi-Pelagian heresy). Of course, since infants and mentally disabled people cannot respond, the benefits of Christ's death are imputed to them by grace.