Throughout this series I have focused primarily on what I perceive to be a strength of Campbell’s account of Justification theory in The Deliverance of God, namely its capacity to expose the theological underpinnings of certain observable (though anecdotal) phenomena within contemporary Evangelical churches. In my last post, in particular, I focused on Campbell’s objection to the implications of a particular reading of Anselm’s theory of atonement that seems to warrant the proposition that all human activity is essentially economic. There I suggested that the economy of salvation envisioned by Justification theory tends, in practice, to encourage the maintenance of class distinctions in the earthly economy. I should reiterate at this point that, in my opinion, this is a predictable and theologically explicable outcome of Justification theory as Campbell construes it, even though I do not think it is necessary for the theory to work.

In fact, the particular reading of Anselm to which Campbell objects turns out to be a common misconstrual of Anselm. Thus Campbell writes, “we will set aside as irrelevant to our present concerns the question whether the following is a fair reading of Anselm’s treatise; it is the cogency of this reading as an argumentative rejoinder in relation to these particular issues that matters for our present purposes” (p. 50, my emphasis). Campbell adds in a related note that “it is Anselm’s ‘misunderstood’ reading that is most useful here” (p.944 n.25). This brings me to one of my major reservations concerning Campbell’s argument. Although Campbell writes for an academic audience, the theory that he attacks is a popular construct.

If a ‘fair’ reading of Anselm diffuses Campbell’s criticism on the issue of debt and payment then it is certainly not irrelevant, regardless of its use or neglect by Justification theorists (at least some of whom must be acquainted with such a reading). Gary Anderson illustrates this point rather well in his recent book, entitled Sin: A History (also published in 2009, hence, I suspect, unavailable to Campbell). Although Anderson can hardly be called a Justification theorist, in a typically wide-ranging but compact study he argues that the metaphor of sin as a debt to be repaid is more deeply biblical than has usually been appreciated, with roots in late-Exilic biblical texts and the literature of Second Temple Judaism.

In his concluding chapter, appropriately enough on Cur Deus Homo, Anderson contends that Anselm’s argument is also more deeply biblical than is usually appreciated, involving a notion of satisfaction that goes beyond merely paying off debt to include offering additional credit to others:

Fundamental to understanding Anselm is the crucial distinction he made between satisfaction and punishment that is lost on modern readers [many of whom “have simply folded the notion of satisfaction into that of punishment” (p.234 n.23)]. Punishment, Anselm assumed, is suffering the just consequences for one’s sins, something that happens to the sinner whether or not he or she wills it. Satisfaction, on the other hand, is a voluntary recompense for wrongdoing. Christ offers satisfaction in Anselm’s view; he does not suffer punishment. . . Christ suffers, to be sure, but not because paying a penalty is a central theme; he endures the penalty that is rightfully ours to reveal how deeply he loves us (pp.197–198).

Anselm’s argument does not depend on the notion that Christ bore the penalty for everyone’s sin in a cumulative sense, but rather on the notion that Christ is the only person who could voluntarily endure the same penalty (death) that every human being suffers involuntarily as a result of sin. In so doing he reveals himself as the one person with sufficient credit to redeem everyone from the further consequences of sin, namely future judgment and condemnation.

On this reading of Anselm, Christ does not suffer redirected punishment in the sense of absorbing the full force of the penalties that would otherwise be directed at human beings. Instead his singular act of voluntary solidarity results in the substitution of his merit as payment for the debt of honour owed by human beings to God. His death does not merely balance the scale of debt and merit but actually tips it in favour of merit.

Indeed, Anselm’s notion of the atonement in Cur Deus Homo . . . rests on the notion that Christ’s sacrifice created an infinite store of merit for which he had no need. In his love for humanity Christ ceded these immeasurable riches to the church. With the merits of Christ, any sinner could find the resources to cover his debts (Anderson: p.162).

Campbell’s cynicism concerning Anselm’s deployment of the metaphor of debt and repayment loses some of its force if Anderson’s arguments concerning its biblical and traditional roots are granted. There are, of course, legitimate reasons to suspect that this metaphor is not foundational to Paul’s concept of sin, but Anderson’s brief remarks on the Pauline corpus are still worth noting. He reads the Pauline idea of God cancelling the debt of transgressions and erasing the bond of indebtedness (Colossians 2:13–15) in light of Paul’s discussion of the origin of sin in Romans 5:12–14. In short, he finds the metaphor of debt and repayment operative at the very outset of what Campbell maintains is Paul’s alternative to Justification theory: Romans 5–8. Thus Anderson writes:

If we stay within the bounds of the Pauline corpus and read Colossians in light of Romans, we can answer that question [how did humankind fall into such debt?]: Adam and Eve were the ones who signed a bond that enslaved humankind (Anderson: p.118).

Previous posts in this series:
The Deliverance of God, Reflection 1
The Deliverance of God, Reflection 2: Douglas Campbell v. Pat Robertson
The Deliverance of God, Reflection 3: Theory v. Exegesis
The Deliverance of God, Reflection 4: The Economy of Salvation
Sin, Debt, and the Economy of Salvation