The cross, horizontal and vertical

Returning to René Girard on the atonement (see previous post), one criticism made of Girard (and of his disciples, such as James Alison) is that they emphasise the “horizontal” aspects of the atonement to the exclusion of the “vertical”, Godward aspects.

Girard is explicit about this in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, where he writes:

Medieval and modern theories of atonement all look in the direction of God for the causes of the Crucifixion: God’s honour, God’s justice, even God’s anger, must be satisfied. These theories don’t succeed because they don’t seriously look at the direction where the answer must lie: sinful humanity, human relations, mimetic contagion, which is the same thing as Satan. They speak much of original sin, but they fail to make the idea concrete. That is why they give the impression of being arbitrary and unjust to human beings, even if they are theologically sound.

I’m not entirely clear what Girard is saying here. Is he saying that “vertical” theories of atonement (such as penal substitutionary atonement) are to be rejected in favour of his horizontal, “mimetic” approach? Or is it that a mimetic approach to the atonement is necessary in order to give a more concrete understanding of “original sin” and thus rescue the vertical aspects of atonement from the impression of being “arbitrary and unjust”?

Alison makes a similarly opaque remark somewhere about “crudely substitutionary versions of the atonement”, where it is unclear whether he means that substitutionary atonement is inherently “crude”, or whether he is just taking issue with the crude expressions of penal substitutionary atonement that undoubtedly are all too common (and which John Stott also criticises in his staunchly substitutionary The Cross of Christ).

Personally I’m deeply reluctant to lose the vertical aspects of the atonement, the confession that Christ died as a propitiation for our sins. However, I’m equally reluctant to reject the very profound insights of Girard on this issue. What is needed is some way to reconcile the two more effectively.

This is one of those “I don’t know, do you?” blog posts. I think some hints of where an answer might be found can be seen in the final paragraphs of this post at Whosoever Desires (a very Girardian blog name!), while others can be found in the observation someone made on my Facebook page that “the atonement exposes the Satanic mimetic economy, but it also establishes a different mimetic economy in its place”.  But if anyone has any other ideas, or suggestions for further reading: please let me know in the comments.

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15 Responses to The cross, horizontal and vertical

  1. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    A worthy exercise: “propitiation” – kind of a fancy word. What is being rendered thus in the Greek (and Hebrew)? Or, in other words, what Biblical texts are presumably under threat? Or rather, are the “crudely” put versions of the atonement perhaps actually decontextualising the New (and Old) Testament?

    I think that “propitiation” can be a danger-zone word, as far as reading the Bible contextually goes. For example, what does it mean that Jesus is a hilasterion for our sins (Rom 3.25). A “propitiation”, or “expiation”? That is by no means a translation. It only provides a (particular) theological explanation. Girard’s analyses, within the dynamic between the Torah’s and Old Testament’s depiction and theology of kipper “atonement” and the New Testament typological use of the Old, may contribute another or more-fully developed theological explanation.

    I am probably blabbering.

    I do think talk of “vertical” and “horizontal” is misleading, or at the very least, undercuts Girard’s reading. I’m not sure what is to be gained by positing a vertical vs. horizontal dichotomy in light of the Incarnation as the locus for the Atonement. I.e. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” – that is neither “vertical” or “horizontal” – it is incarnational.

    Oh, that and, All Theology is Pharmakology.

  2. Rev. Alex Klages says:

    The correct answer is that there are both horizontal and vertical aspects to the atonement.

    And I’m obviously a stubbornheaded German Lutheran because I just can’t buy what he’s selling— namely, that mimesis is everything and that God’s requirements are irrelevant.

  3. Jesse says:

    I haven’t read any Girard or most of your related posts. Nonetheless, concerning the quote in this post:

    “They speak much of original sin, but they fail to make the idea concrete.”

    It was, apparently, concrete for Micheal Spencer:

    “But the news that “Christ is risen!” really is Good News for one kind of person: The person who is dying.”

    In that vein, I fail to see how the idea of original sin cannot be concrete without some pretty hefty selective thinking.

  4. John H says:

    JRH: maybe “horizontal” and “vertical” is unhelpful, but was in response to specific comment made by someone re an earlier Girard/Alison post. But basically relates to Pr Klages’ point re not excluding God’s demands from our account of the Cross.

    Jesse: I don’t think Girard is saying that original sin isn’t a concrete idea. On the contrary, he is trying to make it more so. But yes, perhaps part of the answer to the question posed by this post is that element of the gospel as a message for the dying: the point at which imitation ceases and the question of how we can stand before a holy God comes to its sharpest point.

  5. Blair says:

    Hi John,

    delighted to see all your posts on James Alison and Girard. Am a gay Christian and a big fan of JA’s work – guess there’s a risk of me idolising his work without properly ‘processing’ it though, and I think your ‘bite-size’ posts summarise very lucidly what he says and so help with the ‘processing’.

    On the matter at hand: I have not read ‘I see Satan fall’ but on the alternatives in your 3rd paragraph, I’d say Girard is arguing something nearer the latter than the former. Applying his mimetic theory gives a richer view of atonement, both ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ aspects in the language you’re using here.

    Out of interest have you read JA’s ‘Some thoughts on the atonement’, available at ? Am wondering if you think that JA’s take does “reconcile the two more effectively” in that it holds together Jesus’ being a propitiation (vertical) and the impact on us (horizontal – being approached by our forgiving victim), while also rooting it all in the Jewish atonement rite from temple times?

    in friendship, Blair

  6. John Hill says:

    I think there is definitely a ‘vertical’ dimension in Girard’s understanding of reconciliation through the cross and resurrection, but it is not penal substitution. Rather, it is, first of all, God’s initiative in placing his Son in our hands and at our mercy, knowing that ours is a culture of death. But God was willing to accept the agony of his rejection as the price to be paid (by God, no less) for the revelation of the real nature of our human sickness. That’s the first half. The other half is raising up the Crucified One and sending him back to us (or more precisely, sending him to those whose eyes have been opened by this revelation of our sin) with words of forgiveness and peace. This is the divine intiative that is converting because it exposes our unconscious evil and convicts us, and then offers us a new existence in a brand new culture of life. That is why the apostle says, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me.” He was convicted by his encounter with the Crucified One, his old life ‘hit the wall’, and the death of Jesus became his death. The visit of Ananias, expressing the gracious forgiveness of God in Christ ushered him into that new existence which he later refers to as ‘new creation’. Is that not a truly vertical dimension of atonement?

  7. frank sonnek says:

    Luther, in his sermon for the 9th sunday of trinity referenced as the template for article VI of the formula of concord titled “3rd use of the law” has this to say:

    “We will not hang onto the article of the forgiveness of sins (vertical righteousness) unless we realize that there are two kinds of true (ie god pleasing) righteousness.”

    Luther then goes on in some detail describing horizontal righteousness. So apparently Luther agrees with Girard on this one. The reason he says it is important to know the horizontal is to know that it has nothing at all to do with the vertical. He refuses to link the two. Sanctification is not a form of love that is law+gospel as both geneva and rome would have it. It seems that we have a model here that does link the two.

    What Gerard and Alison are missing is the Lutheran distinction of Law and Gospel. They come so extremely close and would come much closer if they looked at what they are pondering through law/gospel glasses I think. It feels like I am reading and following along with them going briskly in a direction that I feel will reach a crescendo in a classic Lutheran law/gospel observation and then when they get to exactly the point where they would take that leap of faith, and it IS faith, they say that that part is sort of vague or mystery for them.

    Imagine. We believe that we are saved by grace apart from love. and if grace then love (acts of righteousness or if you will, properly oriented memetic desire) is excluded. This seems un-reasonable and ir-rational because it is.

    Lutherans point out (again article VI) that the works of pagans and christians are identical. true righteousness or even properly oriented mimetics happen with christian and pagan alike. No faith is necessary , only law in the form of what lutherans call “natural law” ie one´s conscience. The difference between good and not good is in the tree and not the fruit. In the new man good happens spontaneously. In the old man only by carrot and stick of the law. This is because the opposite of evil or satan even is not goodness, the opposite of evil is faith. Whatever is not of faith is sin.

    I would be interested in exploring how these ideas that seem to be about desires resulting in actions would overlay with a lutheran weltanschaung.

    this is all very intriguing stuff especially in the hands of Alison. Example Alison says original sin was a doctrine created with the purpose of uniting us and them as just being all us. He is almost there. but there is something in his analysis that seems missing…. i hope to meet him this month. should be interesting…

  8. frank sonnek says:

    I think I am saying that a Lutheran reads this stuff and fills in the gaps automatically with a lutheran meaning that is not necessarily there. or is it?

  9. John H says:

    Blair: Thanks for your comment, and particularly for the James Alison link. I’ve had a read through that, need to go back over it to “process” it, but is very, very interesting – especially the emphasis on atonement as liturgy rather than theory, and the comparison with the OT atonement liturgy.

    Had managed to overlook that essay’s existence – have read quite a lot of the material on Alison’s site, but hadn’t seen that one.

    John: Indeed, and I slightly regret using the “vertical” and “horizontal” terminology, when what I had in mind was the specific issue of the cross satisfying God’s demands as envisaged in penal substitutionary atonement.


    One of the reasons I find Girard and Alison so stimulating is precisely the fact that they are writing as Catholics rather than Lutherans (and hence, among other things, are not explicitly or clearly following a law/gospel framework), but that what they say seems so suitable for re-expressing or mapping across to a Lutheran understanding. So what you get in my posts about them is probably a bit misleading in some respects, in that it generally comes having already passed through a certain degree of Lutheran filtering…

    I think I am saying that a Lutheran reads this stuff and fills in the gaps automatically with a lutheran meaning that is not necessarily there. or is it?

    I don’t think it’s that the Lutheran meaning is or isn’t there, but that (as I said above) they using Catholic concepts and language. So it’s not so much filling in the gaps, as re-expressing what they say in Lutheran language, seeing how their insights can be understood within a Lutheran framework.

    This ends up as an ecumenical (in the best sense of the word) process, as I think it helps show that the Catholic and Lutheran understandings are less far apart than they might otherwise seem. In particular I’m very interested by Alison’s love for the Council of Trent, which is making me see that perhaps Trent wasn’t entirely the Evil Apostate Council of Error that I’ve previously taken for granted.

    Example: In The Joy of Being Wrong (and elsewhere), Alison is at pains to distinguish Trent’s view that human desire is not in and of itself sinful with what he describes as the more pessimistic “Protestant” view in which desire is inherently sinful. What I want to do once I’ve read more of Alison’s book is look at this in the light of what the Formula of Concord says about the “Manichaean error” of saying that “original sin is really, without any distinction, the very substance, nature and essence of the corrupted human being, and thus that there should be no suggestion of a difference between human nature after the fall in and of itself and original sin…” (Epitome I.9).

    I wonder if this distinction between “human nature in and of itself” and “original sin” is really the same as what Alison is getting at, particularly if we follow Girard and see human nature as really indistinguishable from human desire. Certainly I remember being very struck by the Lutheran insistence on distinguishing human nature “in and of itself” from original sin when I first read the FoC some years ago, as it seemed a real contrast with the Reformed/evangelical view I’d inherited – which is one reason why Alison’s distinction struck a chord and had me scurrying back to the FoC.

  10. John H says:

    Frank: PS,

    i hope to meet him this month. should be interesting…

    Yeah, yeah, no need to go on about it or anything. It’s not like it’s making me jealous. No way. 😉

  11. frank sonnek says:

    Hey John,m

    I get what you are saying now. As a Lutheran christian who happens to be gay, I had forgotten that this is an area that is actually pretty fuzzy in practical…”folk” Lutheran theology (as opposed to what the confessions say…) . I am referring to that line between desire vs lust/sin. And I don´t really think I fully understand the confessional discussion on concupiscence etc. where they are sparring with rome. Why is that? We lutherans don´t even use that word concupiscence anymore and I personally don´t really have a clue what it means. And this means that there are rather large and significant chunks of the confessions that I just don´t get. Maybe a good Roman Catholic can help me become a better Lutheran here? hmmm.. Maybe this indicates we modern Lutherans dropped out of an important discussion with the roman catholics at some point?

    I sense this tension Alison and gerard talk about in christian and pagan alike. I see men all the time on gay dating sites saying they want something more “spiritual” and less “carnal”. They don´t use those words exactly, but this seems to be a universal longing among humans. Then they immediately do the manichean/scholastic thing: flesh/body vs spirit. Like buddhists and monastic types and you and me and …. They thus become good little moralists with lots of rules. More exacting here than any puritan. It is interesting that Luther´s light-bulb moment was exactly his departure from this false dichotomy. For Luther “flesh/body” in romans 8 importantly fully comprehends true God-pleasing love for others and earthly righteousness in a way that is fully excluded in “spirit/faith”. He even calls heavenly righteousness, invisible faith “useless on earth and meaningful only to God and troubled consciences”. I think this is why, later in life, he came to appreciate and quote St James much more.

    I find myself then suggesting to these gay men that the problem is not that their physical or sexual desires are too much, it is rather that their life would look more alive if their other desires could be similarly passionate and all-consuming. They have merely transferred their too-narrow passion from sex to romance. One addictive substance for another thinking they can be cured by this. Neither option they see makes room for the “platonic” relationships where they will find the real intimacy that they are meant to have as humans. With this passion shift, if they want a boyfriend, then won´t have time for me if I merely want to be a friend.

    So I am saying to them that the problem is not too much desire, but rather a lack of it except for an extremely narrow focus. The beauty that God throws their way to excite their passions…. sun, birds, music, and that He is passionate about, looks dead or invisible to them unless it serves their narrow aim somehow. Things in that world cannot simply be simply to be. Not even humans.

    No one can walk away from a reading of the “song of solomon” I don´t think with any other idea about desire than I am suggesting. God truly does ” love(and like) his whole creation.” as we chant in evening prayer.

    As a gay man I get beaten up more than a few times about the distinction between desire and sin by fellow Lutherans. For some of them it appears as if there is no distinction. Then I think of the collect that says “from whence come all holy desires.” Holy. Desires. What are those? and what makes them holy or unholy? Jesus confounds our distinctions between the profane and the sacred in the Incarnation. Again that false “us vs them ” motif that Gerard seems intent on destroying.

    Lutherans for all we say formally, have the same tendency to take what we do to who we are much like rome and geneva do but they do it more honestly and formally. The real difference can be subtle, like the difference between having a beloved or child or parent who does for you spontaneously vs one who does for you out of obligation or force and of course we are not satisfied ever with that second option. and neither is God.

    So maybe the law and gospel are all hinged on desire.

    But then, from the analogy I gave, this is an existential issue and not really about what is or is not done. Alison and Gerard are pushing in this direction it seems. It is about who we are and what makes us human. We all, as humans, sense this distinction and struggle to wrap our words around it. To merely be, and not be preoccupied with the drama around who is doing what, shatters what is wrong with the entire system from the inside. Again Alison and Gerard are taking us directly there eh? I note here that Eckard Tolle is heading in the same direction from yet another angle one of the ego vs simply just being in his book “a new earth”. If one can hold one´s nose at his lame understanding of the words of Jesus, and read him with a christian lense, he goes there. Tolle even goes so far as to say that where he goes can also be gotten to by the “way of the cross” in one of the final chapters of his first book “the power of now”. A christless way of the cross! Amazing. So I am thinking that what we are all discussing is really about christ-as-example. But now the real example and not one we make up.

    Question John: have you access to chemnitz examination of trent? have you seen what he has to say about some of where allison comments? Excuse my overly luthrun thought patterns. I have come to trust Luther and Chemnitz….

    I think you are right John. To read someone who has come to the same conclusions by a somewhat different route like Allison is great (and for me disorienting) at the same time. But he ever seems to push towards Christ in an incarnational way that is entirely orthodox. Have you read AC Piepkorn? He was the most influential Lutheran in Lutheran/Roman dialog in the 50´s through the 70´s. This to the extent that many felt he wanted us to go back to Rome. That is to misread him completely. He had alot of hope that that breach could be healed or, at least, as you are experiencing, we each seem to have a piece that the other is missing and dialog could be a wonderful thing.

  12. frank sonnek says:

    “Personally I’m deeply reluctant to lose the vertical aspects of the atonement, the confession that Christ died as a propitiation for our sins. However, I’m equally reluctant to reject the very profound insights of Girard on this issue. What is needed is some way to reconcile the two more effectively.

    This is one of those “I don’t know, do you?” blog posts. I think some hints of where an answer might be found can be seen in the final paragraphs of this post at Whosoever Desires (a very Girardian blog name!), ”

    Okay. this guy says this

    “If the function of sacrifice were limited only to its role in bringing about a (usually false and unjust) resolution to mimetic crisis, then McCormick’s conclusion might be justified. But Christ’s Passion is best understood as a TRANSFORMATION of sacrifice rather than a negation of the concept. The Resurrection, after all, does not negate or destroy the world; it transforms it. (emphasis his).”

    Jesus death was a death. And even His death was death, it was not transformation. It was the Death that swallowed up death. It was the total absence of life or even Life. The reason it could lead to Life is because it was Life that died. Life can die but cannot be negated by something that is nothing, is meaninglessness by definition. We all try to escape this fact in ourselves hoping that the old can be transformed. We are afraid to die and we should be afraid. So we are right there with Nicodemus when Jesus tells him: “No. It must die.” This is why we must have a new, new man. not the calvinist or roman old, yet transformed “new” man that Holy Ghost powered free will can get us to. Even the resurrection is not transformation. The Life that negated the negation called death, and exposed and disposed of it for the meaninglessness that it is, is not a transformed Life. It is the same life before and after. There is no change or transformation or even death (which is the perfect vacuum of meaning). There is only Life.

    “we proclaim Christ´s death”. we don´t offer it as sacrifice. Death is not life or Life. Not even Christ´s death. Even God´s own death will not allow us to escape death. So this guy is seeing a glimpse of this with the help of Gerard, and then takes that fatal wrong turn down transformation avenue.

    Alternative and Lutheran turn: We can accept that love and life means our death because what is going to die is no longer “us”, and so death is merely a passing not a finality. Death is now about “them”. It is the old adam. But it is a “them” in a way that does not feed victimization or lend it meaning. So we accept being placed with “them” even when we know it will certainly mean the death of us. “So what” is what we can now say. This is exactly why we no longer consume our lifes energy to avoid this death at all costs: We live now by faith in Christ, in the new man. Not figuratively or metaphorically. really and truly in with and under. Existence-ially (NO reference here to JP sarte et cie) . We don´t need transubstantiation/transformation turning old adam as bread and wine into Christ as Rome needs. And the new Christ in with and under us is real, it is not metaphorical or figurative as Geneva. There can be no real resurrection without first a real death. So there we are Old adam and new man. two realities. one we can only see by faith. Real presence in the form of you and me in with and under our old adams. and we trust that this is so by faith without trying to explain how as rome will ever be compelled to do, or trying to deny the “is” as geneva does because our understanding cannot make sense.

    And it can then be transforming in our minds to know that we are in exactly the same boat as pagans. There is no cure, and no transformation. there is only death. progressive death ending in entire death. This is what wesley and rome imagine is sanctification, the path to Life that is like Life, an imitation of. They mislabel. Luther: “life is Mortification”. It is. This is mortification and not sanctification at all. The metaphor is not church as hospital, it is church as hospice. And so we don´t have christ as imitation. we literally put on christ, we literally have christ in us. and we can´t see this. ok. It is an article of pure faith. Blessed are they who have believed and yet not have seen.

    The old adam that we struggle with as pagans continues exactly as before in the believer. So the righteousness we produce and the sins we commit are indentical, intrinscially identical, to that of pagans. This has nothing at all to do with who we are as christians. There is utterly no difference here. There is NO difference between christian and pagan behavior or the means used to make us behave. Both christians and pagans struggle against and resist the idea that love. Love! (the fulfillment of the law) can only end in death. We hear that God is Love from our consciences, and so are confused when He tells us that love=death. We think that it must certainly lead to life. After all even our Lord said “Do this Love towards God and Neighbor and you will live!” Similar thoughts must have passed through father abrahams mind when he was told to sacrifice the bearer of the promise Isaac: “This makes no sense at all.”

    But it is our new existence alone in the new man that allows us to go back into that small-l life, that we died to, intentionally to literally be food and nourishment for wolves in our mundane and profane and anything-but-religious vocations, and die. To donate our lives for the betterment of the transitory dying lives of others. To be the willing mundane needs-to-be-pointed-out-in-a-crowd victim devoid of drama of victimhood because we now know that all this means nothing at all. Our meaning is in that new man, christ in us. Our meaning is found only there.

  13. frank sonnek says:

    “Medieval and modern theories of atonement all look in the direction of God for the causes of the Crucifixion: God’s honour, God’s justice, even God’s anger, must be satisfied. These theories don’t succeed because they don’t seriously look at the direction where the answer must lie: sinful humanity, human relations, mimetic contagion, which is the same thing as Satan. They speak much of original sin, but they fail to make the idea concrete. That is why they give the impression of being arbitrary and unjust to human beings, even if they are theologically sound”

    I read this with Lutheran glasses this way:

    The Holy Gospel has to start with anthropology, man´s plight, condition, and need. Original sin. Theologies of atonement that start with a sovreign God needed to be atoned, even if theologically sound, leave original sin as a abstraction. They therefore give the impression of being un-human. or abritrary and unjust to human beings.

    Why this looks like….um Lutheranism.

    At-one-ment. God isn´t the one who needs anything here. We need to be drawn to Him. To be made one with him. A focus on original sin and mankind´s need (the gospel) rather than frame things as appeasing a sovreign God, makes the Gospel incarnate rather than appear as some abtract legal requirement.

  14. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Atonement out from the Veil

  15. Theodore A. Jones says:

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    You people only consider speculation, but it is only facts that are determinative.
    “When there is a change of the priesthood, there is of NECESSITY a change also of the LAW.” Heb. 7:12
    The crucifixion of Jesus has only accomplished the set purpose of God for each man. And the words atone, atonement, are only applicable to this purpose. Therefore there are NOT various aspects relative to the word atonement. Atonement is only relative to the fact that by Jesus’ crucifixion, the sin of murder caused by bloodshed, this sin, has been increased to the level of unilateral accountability by adding a word to the law. Salvation from the penalty of eternal death is predicated upon hearing the only Way each individual must obey this particular law which has been added to the law. For if the crucifixion were to have been the direct benefit of your faulty speculation(s) it would have the result that the sin of murder caused by bloodshed has abolished the penalty the law of God affords.

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