The different ways in which contemporary philosophers of religion have expounded and interpreted the writings of Thomas Aquinas on atonement throw further light on the problem before us, and may be illustrated from further articles by Quinn and Stump.
Quinn demonstrates the many-sidedness of Aquinas's treatment of atonement. He shows first how Aquinas breaks with a number of key elements in the Anselmian tradition. For Aquinas, the devil has no rights, and atonement cannot be thought of as a matter of paying the devil his dues. Again, Aquinas was clear that God could have restored human nature in some other way than through the Incarnation of his Son. Rather, this was the best or most fitting way of restoration. The benefits conveyed by the Incarnation are manifold, according to Aquinas, and making satisfaction for sin is only one of them. But Aquinas does insist that Christ's Passion and death satisfy the debt of punishment incurred by human sin. By incorporation into Christ's death by baptism we are set free from guilt and reunited with God.
Quinn himself recognizes the difficulties in this account. He admits that a different kind of remedy is required for those who have not had the opportunity of baptism. But this admission deprives Christ's Passion and death of their necessary role. Quinn is not prepared to abandon the doctrine of divine severity retained in Aquinas's account, a stance putting him at odds with the moral intuitions of Hick, Lucas, Adams and even Swinburne, as discussed above. But Quinn does see the difficulty in making moral sense of Aquinas's notion of vicarious satisfaction. At this point, Quinn is prepared to modify Aquinas's account (in a manner comparable to Cross's modification of Swinburne). God is merciful to sinners, not because their debt of punishment is paid by Christ's Passion and death; rather 'Christ's Passion works by prevailing upon God not to be severe in his dealings with sinners'. Once again, I have to say that the trinitarian implications of this suggestion are highly implausible.
A rather different interpretation of Aquinas is provided by Stump. She points out, in the first of her two articles, that, for Aquinas, the function of satisfaction is to restore a sinner to a state of harmony with God. Sins are remitted when the soul of the offender is at peace with the one offended. It is possible for another to make satisfaction for us, provided we ally ourselves with the substitution. The satisfaction in question is Christ's humble, obedient love, as acted out in the suffering he endured for others' sake. And the transfer is effected by God's sanctifying grace, eliciting our response, as we commemorate Christ's passion in the Eucharist. It is interesting to observe that, although there is some sense of artificiality in the way in which the language of satisfaction is still employed in this account, the morally objectionable aspects of the sacrifice model are absent, if Aquinas is interpreted along these lines. For the transformation is entirely on our side, not God's. The sacrifice, with which, by a kind of substitution, we are associated, is characterized wholly in moral terms: a self-sacrificial offering of a life of obedient love. And the manner in which we are associated with this is described in moral, personal terms: God's own sanctifying grace eliciting the sacramentally based response of a life of faith, lived out in the Christian community.
In her own account, in the second of her articles, Stump stresses the same key elements, this time without the artificiality to be discerned in Aquinas's retention of the terminology of satisfaction. Stump argues that justification by faith is a matter of our free acceptance of God's transforming grace. While allowing, as any morally serious account must allow, that this transformation is a gradual process, Stump presses the question how God effects the initial change in our will that opens up the transforming possibilities, without any overriding of our free will. The wedge that cracks the heart and elicits conversion, she repeats, is Christ's sacrificial love in action, culminating in the way of the cross. This is what atonement means in relation to justification by faith. It is thus that God undermines resistance, enabling God to reform the heart without violating it, and that, presumably, is what atonement means in relation to sanctification. We shall return to the subject of justification and sanctification, and the relation between these two key elements in atonement theory, in a later section.
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