Swinburne and his Critics

Swinburne's Responsibility and Atonement is the most substantial treatment of this chapter's subject matter to come from a philosopher working in the analytic tradition. Swinburne's method, here as elsewhere, is first to analyse in detail the human conceptuality involved in the topic under scrutiny, and then to spell out its theological application. Thus he begins by offering a detailed account of moral goodness, responsibility and freedom, merit and reward, guilt, atonement, punishment and forgiveness as they occur within purely human relations, before going on to examine their use in the case of God's way of dealing with human sin.

This method is not to be challenged as such. Human relations are bound to provide analogies for talk of God's relations with humankind, if our God-talk is to retain moral significance at all. But there are dangers. Any mistake in moral philosophy is liable to lead to magnified anomalies in the theological context. And the special case of our relation to our Maker may involve the need to bar at least some aspects of the purely human case from analogical extension.

Swinburne holds there to be four components in a purely human act of atonement, leading to the restoration of relations broken or disrupted by wrongdoing. There have to be repentance, apology, reparation and penance. We may agree that, even if forgiveness does not have to wait upon repentance and apology, restoration of relations cannot realistically be held to have occurred without acknowledgement of fault and expression of remorse. Moreover, in the purely human context, it is clear that, at least for serious cases of wrongdoing, repentance and apology are not enough.

The wrong done is often too great to be overcome simply by forgiveness, repentance and apology. In some cases reparation is indeed called for. Penance too may well be a mark of one's recognition of the seriousness of the wrong done. Sometimes, penance may replace reparation where the latter is impossible. In the human case, moreover, a penalty, imposed by law, may have to be paid, either in addition to, or in place of, reparation. Often, however, the something more, in addition to repentance and apology, required for genuine atonement, is not so much reparation or penance, let alone penalty, but amendment of life and the actual building up of the restored and renewed relationship that constitutes reconciliation. In many contexts, genuine costly forgiveness, leading not only to repentance and apology, but also to a process of amendment and reconciliation, may well involve the remission of penalty and the waiving of the right to reparation or of the offer of penance. The point to be stressed here is that in the purely human case we cannot insist on reparation and/or penance, any more than penalty, as necessary conditions of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Let us now consider the divine-human case. I have already commented on the implausibility of Swinburne's insistence that divine forgiveness requires prior repentance and apology. That seems to fly in the face of the whole Gospel story. I now stress the implausibility of what he says about reparation and penance in the context of our reconciliation with God. Swinburne holds that, such is the seriousness of sin, that repentance and apology plus forgiveness are not enough. There must be an equivalent of reparation and/or penance to mark the seriousness of the alienation to be overcome and the depth of our commitment to the process of reconciliation. And here he calls upon the sacrifice model as one that retains moral force and enables us to give the death of Christ on the cross something of its traditional role as a necessary, or central, element in the once-for-all act of atonement. Unable to make a sacrificial offering of our own sufficient to fulfil the necessary task of reparation and/or penance, we are to plead Christ's perfect, loving self-sacrifice, made for us on the cross. By associating with this, we are enabled to embrace the process ofrestoration with the slate wiped clean.

It has to be said that this is a somewhat forced rescue operation, on Swinburne's part, of an element that he mistakenly thinks to be essential to the Christianity of the creeds. It is surprising to find this element included in his quasi-credal list of the theological assumptions governing his whole approach. Swinburne includes there the belief that Christ's life and death were openly intended by him as an offering to God to make expiation for human sin. This assumption (highly dubious as a piece of New Testament interpretation) seems deliberately designed to require what I called the forced view of atonement as including, necessarily, our offering Christ's sacrifice in place of our reparation and penance. Despite Swinburne's intriguing analogies from ways in which parents may help children to make reparation for wrongs which they have done by providing them with the means to do so, this is surely not a morally persuasive, let alone necessary, way of regarding Christ's death. The fact that Swinburne vacillates at this point between talking of our pleading Christ's sacrificial death and talking of our being associated with Christ's offering of a perfect human life to God the Father, is another indication of moral and theological insecurity in this way of articulating a theology of the Atonement. To speak of our being associated with Christ's offering of a perfect human life to God the Father is a much more plausible way into a theology of sanctification and of being conformed to Christ, as we shall see. But on that view, Christ's death is not going to play the role in atonement theory that Swinburne wants it to do. On that view, the something more, over and above repentance and apology, required for genuine at-one-ment, is not reparation and/or penance, but amendment oflife and conformity to Christ through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

Similar criticisms of Swinburne have been made by a number of philosophers. John Hick, for example, insists that God's forgiveness can no more be thought to be dependent on a sacrifice than on a ransom payment or a vicarious penalty. And, even where some reparation, or penance, is appropriate, in respect of wrongs done to our fellow humans, it is, says Hick, a 'category mistake' to treat the eternal God as just another individual equally subject to injury, and equally requiring redress. On Hick's view, God, being God, will freely forgive sinners who come 'in genuine penitence' and 'with a radically changed mind'.

Lucas insists that 'the language of sacrifice only describes, and does not explain, Jesus' dying on the Cross'. We can of course still speak of God's own self-sacrificial love there, in the life and death of the incarnate Son; but that was not a sacrifice made to anyone, least of all to God himself. It was simply done on our behalf, in order to win us back to God. We shall return to Lucas's view in the next section.

Philip Quinn, in another contribution to the Swinburne Festschrift,33 tries to stay with an account of Christ's atonement in terms of sacrifice; but even he balks at the idea that Christ died on the cross in order to appease a wrathful God. Rather, he suggests, Christ's life and death are of such value to God that they enable or permit him to remit both penalty and the requirement of reparation, and to forgive the sins of repentant and apologetic sinners freely, whether or not they are in a position to plead Christ's sacrifice. This last point raises the question of the scope of God's act in

Christ, that is, the question whether it is effective only for those who consciously respond. This question will be considered later in this chapter. But Quinn's suggestion that the Passion and death of Christ permit God freely to forgive must surely strike the reader as somewhat bizarre. It makes little sense, in the context of an incarnational and trinitarian theology, for which the Passion and death of Christ are the act of God himself in the Person of his incarnate Son.

Eleonore Stump's review of Swinburne's book34 raises a number of objections. First she asks, as Hick does, why an omnipotent, omniscient deity, who can hardly be harmed by human wrongdoing, should require some costly penance from sinners. Secondly, she asks why God should require a cruel death as reparation, when, as Swinburne himself allows, he is not obliged to require penance or reparation at all. Thirdly, again like Hick, she refers to the parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the father gladly forgoes the offer of reparation. Finally, she too points to the ambiguity in Swinburne's treatment as to whether it is really Christ's blameless life, or his death on the cross, that is supposed to constitute atonement.

One of the most extended and intriguing criticisms of Swinburne is to be found in an article by Richard Cross entitled 'Atonement Without Satisfaction'. Cross rejects the view, held, as we noted, by both Hick and Stump, that God cannot objectively be harmed by human sin. Here, I think we have to agree with Cross. God is wronged by sin. Moreover, any serious theology of the Cross, that is, of the crucified God, is bound to recognize the cost to God himself of the world's sin and suffering, whatever one may want to say about God's ultimate metaphysical invulnerability. But even so, given his rejection of retributive theories of punishment, Cross finds no need to postulate more, in relation to God, than the need for repentance and apology, once repentance, apology and redress, where possible, have been accorded to the human victims of wrongdoing. Sacrifice (or satisfaction) simply has no moral point in respect of our relationship to God. Cross suggests replacing Swinburne's satisfaction theory of atonement with a merit theory of atonement. It is the sheer merit of Christ's life and death that persuades God to promise and perform the supererogatory acts of forgiveness and restoration.

I am bound to say that this too strikes me as a somewhat forced theory of atonement. If Christ is God incarnate, then his life and death do not persuade, any more than permit, God to do something he would or could not have done otherwise. They actually embody and enact God's forgiveness and mercy.

One advantage of Cross's theory, however (as of Quinn's) is that salvation does not depend on our knowledge of what Christ has done. Simply in virtue of Christ's merit, God's mercy is extended to all and, we may hope, will take effect universally, if not in this life, then in God's eternity. Much more needs to be said, of course, about the ways in which the divine Spirit actually achieves this restoration.

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