Atonement as liturgy, not theory

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, us1 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).

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10 Responses to Atonement as liturgy, not theory

  1. frank sonnek says:

    i think here, having now spoken to the good father Alison over dinner ( 🙂 !! ), that even stott is a little off from alison.

    Don´t let me imply by that that I am about to perfectly reflect Fr Alison´s views ok. I am still working through this as well:

    The idea is that humanity is screwed up. We are screwed up precisely because we need a victim. The victim can even be us sacrificing our own selves for our own attempts at idolatry. Religion is about religious, ie sacrificial acts. But God says: ” I want mercy and not sacrifice”.

    So Jesus went and said “ok here I am. Do what you will with me and died within that sacrificial idolatry and so that whole entire sacrificial system that requires a victim to perpetuate died with him.

    The standard model is wrong precisely the “drama” that Stott still maintains. This is the idea that it is God that needs a victim and wants blood or revenge for how we have wronged Him with our sin and then Jesus becomes the victim in our place so then God is ok now.

    I do think that the idea Fr Alison is trying to convey is that original sin is precisely manifest in OUR need for a victim and maybe more precisely in our projecting on to God that he needs a victim or sacrifice or maybe more accurately we project onto God or self justify, by thinking that God wants or needs our sacrifices and victimizing. So God entered the world and says “that drama means nothing at all. It has no significance. It produces nothing. Drama is just that. It is the still quiet voice where God appears.

    Note that here not even Christ´s death means anything. So we should not even dramatize that part. What has meaning is only the Life, the Creator, Christ, who bore Meaning in his flesh, through that death into a resurrection. ”

    It can still be said that Jesus is The Victim. How? Not as God´s Victim as a standin for us being the victim. Rather it is Christ becomes the victim of our sin, which manifests in our “need” to make sacrifice and have a victim. In this way he overcomes sin and death.

    God blows up all that idea of religion and sacrifice and victimhood from the inside by doing what? Nothing at all. Merely showing up and letting sin have it´s way and so be swallowed up by Life.

    I hope that makes sense.

  2. frank sonnek says:

    one more comment…. and here as a Lutheran, apart from musing about what Fr Alison means with his words, I observe that this does not do away with any of the full significance in any of those two words “substitutionary atonement”.

    This is the idea precisely that by one man sin entered into the world, and so by one man , the God-Man Christ Jesus, who was, in his incarnate Flesh the world, “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made man”.

    If anything this broadens, or rather emphasizes the breadth of, the idea of substitutionary atonement to include everything at all that is Christ. Not merely his death on the cross but his entire incarnate Person. Whatever was done to him or by Him, was done to our by us. That is, as a substitutionary at-one-ment. Just as Christ went down into the waters of the Jordan, the entire world went down with him. In a real sense , that was our baptism of which the water poured over us connects us directly to.

    The words victim and sacrifice go directly against the idea of being at one. Victim and sacrifice fully require an “us” and a “them”. Jesus if you will, becomes both “us” and “them” by showing up the way he did, in order that “I” can be restored as a full part of a “we” that includes God and all of his creation.

  3. John H says:

    Frank: stop trying to make me jealous! Oh, and tell Fr Alison he is more than welcome to comment on my blog directly. 😉

    I know what you mean about even John Stott’s account probably still owing a lot to that “need for a victim”. What I was groping for in my post was this: the question is, “What happens inside the Holy of Holies?”.

    Whatever that is, is what is to be understood by what is commonly referred to as “substitutionary atonement”. But we have to check our feudal “honour” systems at the door (or rather, the Veil): the term “substitutionary atonement”, if it is to be used at all, has to be understood entirely in terms of the OT liturgy, rather than vice versa.

    So I’m still troubled by the suggestion that “not even Christ’s death means anything”, even if I’m not fully clear how to answer it – other than to say, “Christ’s death means whatever ‘what happens inside the Holy of Holies’ means”.

    The words victim and sacrifice go directly against the idea of being at one. Victim and sacrifice fully require an “us” and a “them”. Jesus if you will, becomes both “us” and “them”…

    Indeed – which is why I go back to that question of what happens inside the Holy of Holies. A sacrifice that is entirely without an “us” and “them”, that is God sacrificing God. A non-sacrificial sacrifice, a non-victimary victim.

  4. frank sonnek says:

    John. I am going to reread alison´s paper ok homing in on your questions.

    I will invite Fr Alison to take a look at your site as well 😉

    I think the point is that God was not changed by what happened with Jesus. His mind did not change. What changed instead was the situation of mankind.

    I think this really is his point. “god is angry… needs to have his righteous wrath appeased… needs us all to be sacrificed, but accepts jesus as our substituted sacrifice…. so now he is not angry anymore.”

    Fr Alison´s version would be this I think: We are stuck thinking we need a sacrifice of a victim to live and we ascribe this sinful idolatrous thinking as being about God. It is not. It is really the manifestation of our sin and what we need to be rescued from. So Jesus comes and allows us to make him the victim in our sacrificial system (which God actually has no part of), and by passively allowing himself to be our victim, suffers himself to become our sacrifice, he forever destroys this system from the inside out and reunites the cosmos to God.

    Again John, please forgive me if I am being a little dense. I am working with two heavy weights in you and James Alison, and perhaps being from the shallow end (ie norwegian) of the intelligence gene pool, I will need more digestive time.

    Let me see if I can´t invite the good father Alison to comment and correct where I am misrepresenting his thoughts. I am sure there are places. He is a very very nuanced thinker.

    Thanks for posting all of this!

  5. John H says:


    I think the point is that God was not changed by what happened with Jesus. His mind did not change. What changed instead was the situation of mankind.

    I think this really is his point. “god is angry… needs to have his righteous wrath appeased… needs us all to be sacrificed, but accepts jesus as our substituted sacrifice…. so now he is not angry anymore.”

    I agree. Perhaps an appropriate analogy is with baptism: does baptism “change God’s mind about us”? No, but it’s still the moment at which we can say “God made me his child”.

    Similarly with absolution: does it represent a change of mind about us by God (“Now that you’ve said sorry, I’ll stop being angry with you and forgive you”)? No, but it is still a moment at which “something” happens – at which we encounter at a particular moment the forgiving love which God has for us at all moments.

    To put it another way: the eternal purposes of God toward us intersect with creation at particular points in space and time.

    So with the death of Christ: it is not that it changes God’s mind about us, but it’s the moment at which we see God’s unchanging love toward us (and, I’d still want to say, his unchanging hostility toward sin) intersect with creation at a particular moment in space and time, so that from our point of view there is a definite “before” and “after”, even if not from God’s.

  6. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Beneficial atonement

  7. frank sonnek says:


    Interesting stuff. A couple of stray thoughts I had while reading your latest response “”…the Lamb…slain from eternity” and the thought expressed by Robert Farrer Capon, which is this…

    Many of us think of God´s interaction with creation as that of a sewing machine needle that pierces the fabric of time and space that is ours and then withdraws. His suggestion is that God´s interaction is more than of a giant iceberg ever just under the surface of the water and occassionally that iceburg makes it´s presence known by a small part of it poking it´s head above the water.

    I wonder how time and space and sequence plays into all of this or if it even really does.

  8. Pingback: Sacrament, Covenant Itself « Cogito, Credo, Petam

  9. Blair says:

    Hello John,

    “(and it’s still not entirely clear to me whether he rejects the caricature or the thing itself)…”

    Not sure if this will help, but have you read ‘Unpicking atonement’s knots’, ch2 of On being liked ? JA starts this with a similar “version of the ‘conventional’ account of the atonement” to the one he uses here. But in an introduction prior to getting under way he says: “…simply to deny that there is a fixed Christian understanding of how Christ worked our salvation leaves us at the mercy of the most common story underlying our salvation, the one in the back of our minds. This story therefore gets to run the whole show of teaching us to imagine the enterprise in which we think we are involved…” (p17). He makes clear that he is not going to engage the “academic disquisition” about what authors such as Anselm, Luther and Calvin really meant, but that his is “the much more contemporary task of bringing the old default background music into the foreground, where its almost parodic nature becomes audible to us” (p18).

    So, am wondering if it could be said that he’s rejecting the caricature, because it’s so pervasive (and corrosive)?

    in friendship, Blair

  10. fws says:

    I suspect that James Alison holds rather exactly to the doctrine of the atonement held by the Council of Trent. He is re-representing that view probably. I just spent the last hour or so googling to see what the official roman catholic view is … and I am really not sure…..

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