Peter Abelard: The Cross and God’s Love
In this article I will explain Peter Abelard’s theory of redemption in Christ, in which Abelard portrays Christ’s death on the cross as the supreme and redeeming example of God’s love for human beings. I will refer to his famous Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (pictured to the right) as the source of his view. Parenthetical references are to that work.
Peter Abelard’s view of redemption in Christ is considerably different from Anselm’s objective satisfaction theory. Abelard’s primary critique of Anselm seems to be that he misunderstands God’s justice. For Abelard, God’s justice is not primarily retributive, but is rather a synonym for God’s love (PA-278-279, 284). Furthermore, Abelard contends that forgiveness was not contingent on Christ’s death. Citing Gospel evidence of Christ forgiving the sins of Mary Magdalene and a paralytic prior to the crucifixion, he argues that God could “pardon sinful man apart from his [Christ’s] Passion,” and thereby remove, by sovereign fiat, any requirement of further punishment (PA-281-2). For Abelard, the remission of sin does not result from Christ’s sacrifice, but rather from the “long-suffering of God” and the repentance of the sinner (PA-279).
The Cross as an Expression of God’s Love
Having disarmed the satisfaction theory (and the ransom theory before it), Abelard poses the now live question: why did human redemption require the death of Christ on the cross? Abelard’s response is grounded in several assumptions about God’s nature and the human condition. First, Abelard’s understanding of God as loving seems to govern his redemption theology. For Abelard, it is most crucial that, in Christ, God “has demonstrated to us…perfection of love (PA-278).” In the same section of his commentary on Romans 3.19-26, Abelard cites scriptures that describe the inseparability of the believer from God’s love, and how God’s love for us anticipated our own love for him (Rom. 8.35, 38; 1 John 4.19; PA-278-9). Moreover, as intimated above, Abelard readily substitutes “God’s love” where Paul refers to “God’s justice” (PA-279). For Abelard, love seems to be the governing attribute of God.
Abelard’s assumptions about the human condition are less clear than his view of God as loving. Although he does not explicitly refer to the initially good state of human beings, his consistent use of the word redemption implies return to a previously good state (PA-282, 3, 4). Moreover, although he seems skeptical of the grave importance some theologians attribute to Adam and Eve’s first sin, Abelard does seem to embrace a relatively orthodox view of human sin. He harmonizes with Paul, emphasizing that the law renders people “completely without excuse for their sins (PA-277),” and affirming that “all have sinned (PA-278).” Abelard also refers less clearly to a human need or obligation “to glorify the Lord (PA-278).” Perhaps the most prominent attribute of the sinful human condition for Abelard is fear. Abelard suggests that God’s grace changes people such that in their redeemed state they “should not now shrink from enduring anything for him (PA-283).” Implicitly, Abelard seems to be saying that before redemption people have a tendency to fearfully shrink from enduring difficulty on God’s behalf. Elsewhere he states that redemption converts human motivations from fear to love (PA-284), suggesting that fear is the primary human problem addressed by redemption.
For Abelard, then, Christ’s primary role was to provide an example of love that energizes our own love for God and removes fear. The Son took upon himself human nature, “teaching us by word and example even unto death (PA-283).” In taking on human nature, God expressed his love for—and deep identification with—humanity (PA-282). In the crucifixion he showed a supreme love that was even willing to die (PA-284). For Abelard, the key result of Christ’s example is that people are joined closely to God, and a love for God and neighbor is “enkindled” that allows people to overcome their slavery to sin, and to live motivated by love and not fear (PA-284, 278). Abelard refers to the redeemed life that is free of fear as “the true liberty of the sons of God (PA-284).” The “deeper affection (PA-284)” stirred up by Christ’s suffering seems to be primarily an inward affective state of the soul and “not a matter of the display of outward works (PA-278).” For Abelard the righteousness obtained in Christ—the righteousness that justifies sinners in God’s sight—is love for God (PA-278, 279, 284).
Questions Regarding Abelard’s Account
Peter Abelard’s primary concern in explaining Christ’s redemption seems to have been to clear the clutter of past interpretations—which wrongly emphasized Satan’s authority and a misconception of God’s justice—and to put forward an interpretation focusing on God’s chief characteristic, love. For Abelard, it is as a contagious example of love that Christ has provided human redemption. However, despite Abelard’s intentions, it seems that several things are left unclear in his compact explanation. For example, what does he mean when he says, “our redemption through Christ’s suffering is that deeper affection (PA-284)”? Does he mean redemption produces the deeper affection? If so, what does redemption itself consist in and why would it require Christ’s death? Would not some other radical display of God’s love do? Another problem seems to be his equation of God’s justice and righteousness with God’s love. While this substitution may be justified in some cases, nowhere does he argue for it. Surely God’s justice includes a retributive element that is not captured by Abelard’s substitution.
In summary, for Peter Abelard, neither divine justice nor human forgiveness required the Passion. Instead, the incarnation and death of Christ was the supreme demonstration of God’s love for humanity. This love, in turn, kindles reciprocal love for God in human hearts, which is the substance of redemption in Christ.
Brilliant. “Would not some other radical display of God’s love do?” I am mostly convinced of Abelard’s side of things — I agree with him in detail, but I hadn’t heard of his ideas before today — but you caught him overstating his case.
You also overstate your case. “Surely God’s justice includes [an element] that is not captured by Abelard…” No, he already overturned the case for ransom and punishment. Besides, those are comparatively minor themes in Scripture, and we have distorted them like half a dozen animals crowding into a mitten in the folk tale, in order to make those minor ideas fit all situations. They do not adequately explain the cross as a whole.
My thought on this is that the cross does not have just one explanation. It is a picture of victory, of priestly (not forensic) forgiveness, of empathy, and of promise. “This is the new covenant in my blood.” Those are major themes in Scripture (Rev. 5:9,10).
We can’t simply say “Abelard’s explanation is insufficient. Dying for somebody is stupid if there is no reason to. Therefore we have to fall back on the justice of God.” Again, you don’t fall back on a discredited theory, a broken reed.
The moral theory is at least partly right, and clearly taught in Scripture, e.g. John 3:14f, Romans 3:25, emphasis on “put forward,” Matt 16:24, etc. I’m not sure where you would find the forensic theory clearly taught in Scripture. It seems to be made up of a lot of inferences, and it also seems to be a distortion of the notion of sacrifice. It has the end result of some pretty severe logical and moral contradictions.
Despite his rather disputatious personality, Abelard couldn’t lift himself out of his culture in order to simplify the questions he was dealing with. Perhaps, in our more fluid era Abelard’s ideas point to a larger question.
That Jesus went to his death in order to inspire compassion and repentance is far superior to the sin-offering concept. It does run into a problem, though, because Jesus was justly condemned of a grave morals crime. When he was convicted of Blasphemy; all his credibility, all his power to teach or inspire, disappeared. His followers, of course, fled in shame. He went to the cross lower than Job. So what was the point?
I can’t answer that question, but I can point to a datum. At it’s core, the story of Pentecost contains an assertion that more than a thousand people joined a movement in the memory of Jesus the very year he died. You can’t make a claim like that and expect it to survive unless the claim is true. I would argue that the most plausible explanation for the origin of Christianity is that it began in an explosive event, metaphorically comparable to Chixilub.
There is one, and only one, place to look for events and forces capable of causing that explosion.
Great insight. Thoughtful.
Thank you for this article.
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God’s love for humanity and consequent desire to save sinners can be brought forth as evidence for this interpretation of the atonement.