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Anselm too read the New Testament lines calling Christ's death a ransom, but he could not believe that the devil was owed anything. So he restructured the cosmic debt. It was, he posed, humanity that owed God the Father a ransom of "satisfaction" (to use Anselm's feudal terminology) for the insult of sin. The problem was that the debt was unpayable: not only did we lack the means, since everything we had of value was God's to begin with, but also we lacked the standing, like a lowly serf helpless to erase an injury to a great lord. Eternal damnation seemed unavoidable, except for a miracle of grace. God "recast" himself into human form so that Christ, who was both innocent of sin and also God's social equal, could suffer the Crucifixion's undeserved agony, dedicating it to the Father on humanity's behalf. Christ "paid for sinners what he owed not for himself," wrote Anselm reverently. "Could the Father justly refuse to man what the Son willed to give him?" No, thank goodness.
Anselm's formulation, often called substitutionary atonement, has been restated in countless ways over the centuries. The church eventually extended its concept of the sin for which Jesus died beyond Adam's disobedience to everybody's transgressions. The 16th century reformer John Calvin replaced Anselm's feudal king with a severe judge furious at a deservedly cursed creation. Hala Saad, a contemporary churchgoer in Texas, recites a milder modern version: "All I had to do was sign up for God's debt-cancellation plan--for Jesus to take my place!"
Arguments still rage as to which group of humans (everyone? Christians? the elect?) the sacrifice benefits and about whether our sins somehow retroactively exacerbate the agony of Christ's sacrifice. But no other postbiblical formulation has so elegantly intertwined the Father, the Son, wayward creation and intimations of sin and grace. None has so bound believer to Saviour in the intimacy of pain (and eventual Easter glory) and fulfilled Paul's great work of turning the Cross, an image of ultimate horror, into the paramount Western icon of love.
The Catholic Church adopted substitution as a legitimate doctrine in the 16th century. The Reformation also bathed in the blood of the Lamb, and rare is the American Protestant congregation that doesn't sing, "O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood/to every believer the promise of God/The vilest offender who truly believes/That moment from Jesus a pardon receives."
EXAMPLE, NOT SACRIFICE
From the 18th century on, however, various thinkers developed a bill of complaints about substitution, although few wanted to abandon it totally. To some Americans, Calvin's angry, all-powerful God was too reminiscent of the arbitrary tyrant by whose overthrow the country had defined itself. In an age when Thomas Jefferson was literally cutting out all references to miracles from his copy of the Bible, substitution's supernatural structure perturbed some Enlightenment rationalists. Its scant room for human volition contradicted a growing 18th and 19th century optimism that the species could perfect itself through its own efforts. And in a religious culture increasingly defined by emotional evangelizing and the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus, Anselm's legalistic equation struck some as a liability for those preaching to win souls.