Returning to the subject of the atonement, James Alison has written a very interesting essay on this topic that may help answer the questions I was raising in my post last month about the “horizontal” and “vertical” aspects of the atonement.
The first point Alison makes is that we talk too much about “theories” of atonement. Having presented a (slightly caricatured – probably deliberately so) version of the “conventional” account of the atonement, he writes:
[T]he principal problem with this conventional account is that it is a theory, and atonement, in the first place, was a liturgy.
Atonement-as-theory turns it into “an idea that can be grasped“, whereas atonement-as-liturgy emphasises it as “something that happens at you“.
To demonstrate this, Alison goes back to the ancient Jewish liturgy of atonement as practised in the First Temple. He sets this out at some length (and in a frustratingly non-linear manner!), but in summary the process was as follows:
- The rite involved two goats: “a goat which was the Lord, and a goat which was Azazel (the ‘devil’)”.
- The high priest would sacrifice a bull or calf in expiation for his own sins, and then “don the white robe, which was the robe of an angel”. “From that point he would cease to be a human being and would become the angel, one of whose names was ‘the Son of God’.”
- He would then go into the Holy of Holies with the first goat (the “goat which was the Lord”), and sacrifice it to the LORD. He would sprinkle the goat’s blood on the Mercy Seat and around the Holy of Holies, “to remove all the impurities that had accrued in what was meant to be a microcosm of creation”.
- The high priest would then emerge out of the Temple Veil, wearing a robe made of the same material as the Veil, and proceed to sprinkle the rest of the temple with the blood of “the goat which was the Lord”.
- Finally, the high priest would place the accumulated sins of the people on the head of Azazel, the “scapegoat”, which would then be driven away, taking the people’s sins with it.
What’s essential to note is the direction in which this ceremony operates. We tend to think of sacrifice in what Alison describes as “Aztec” terms: a human priest “sacrificing something so as to placate some deity”. In contrast:
The rite of atonement was about the Lord himself, the Creator, emerging from the Holy of Holies so as to set the people free from their impurities and sins and transgression. In other words, the whole rite was exactly the reverse of what we typically imagine a priestly rite to be about.
In particular, when the priest came out through the Veil, it was not as a human being acting towards God:
for the Temple understanding the high priest at this stage was God, and it was God’s blood that was being sprinkled. This was a divine movement to set people free. This was not – as in our understanding – a priest satisfying a divinity. The reason why the priest had to engage in a prior expiation was because he was about to become a sign of something quite else: acting outwards. The movement is not inwards towards the Holy of Holies; the movement is outwards from the Holy of Holies.
To my mind, this helps us see a way to reconcile Alison’s account of the atonement with the more conventional “substitutionary atonement” which Alison might otherwise seem to reject (and it’s still not entirely clear to me whether he rejects the caricature or the thing itself). Because Alison is right: an understanding of substitutionary atonement which sees it as the placating of an angry deity by a human priest (albeit, in the case of Jesus on the Cross, a human priest who is also God) does indeed owe more to our “Aztec imagination” than to what the Bible tells us.
But Alison is not the first to make this point: as I mentioned in a previous post, John Stott also criticises these crude accounts in his book The Cross of Christ. The term that Stott uses to describe the atonement is “self-satisfaction by self-substitution”: in other words, the atonement is not an angry Father being placated by his loving Son in a “plan B” cobbled together after the fall of humanity, but is principally a drama taking place within the Godhead in which a loving and just God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, both satisfies and demonstrates his holiness, justice and love in a single act.
So in the imagery of the Old Testament liturgy of atonement, Jesus’ death on the Cross is not the sacrifice of a priest towards the Holy of Holies. It is the sacrifice of God (“the goat which is the Lord”) by God (the priest wearing the white robe of the angel of the Lord) within the Holy of Holies – followed by God’s emergence through of the Temple Veil (now torn in two forever) to sprinkle his temple (that is, us – 1 Corinthians 3:16) with his own blood.
As Alison points out later in his essay, this of course takes us immediately to the Lord’s Supper:
What the Eucharist is for us is the high priest emerging out of the Holy of Holies, giving us his body and blood, as our way into the Holy of Holies.
While Alison expresses this in Roman Catholic terminology (“transubstantiation”), what he says is equally true for the Lutheran understanding of the Real Presence:
this is not our memorial supper; this is, in fact, the heavenly banquet where someone else is the protagonist and we are called into it. We are being called “through the Veil”, into the participation. We are given the signs; which is why the body and blood are not something that hide the divinity but make it manifest. They are signs reaching out to us of what God is actually doing for us.
So this gives us a way to reconcile Girard’s version of “Christus Victor” with a form of substitutionary atonement. On the outside, what appears to be happening is a simple lynching, and Girard is quite right that this has to be seen in terms of mimetic contagion and the single-victim mechanism – that, in human terms, this is not in the slightest a sacrificial movement from humanity towards God.
But how is it that Jesus is able to expose and destroy this mechanism? What gives him (in Alison’s phrase) “the intelligence of the victim”, the resentment-free knowledge that this is what his life had been heading towards all along? The answer is that he knew he was acting as the high priest of Israel, who would enter the Holy of Holies and make atonement by his own blood, before emerging through the Veil and “coming towards us as one who is offering forgiveness from the victim”. But what happens in the Holy of Holies bears no resemblance at all to a “sacrifice” in either the Girardian sense (an arbitrary victim lynched by a crowd) or the “Aztec” sense (a human placating of an angry god).