Atonement & Creation – Notes on Matthew Levering’s LATC15 Presentation

Here are some notes on the first plenary session of the Los Angeles Theology Conference….

Satisfaction theories can only be understood in the context of the doctrine of creation.

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Critique of Satisfaction

  • In the sermon on the mount Jesus rejected the reciprocity code of justice – i.e. he rejects a retributive model of Justice
    • If someone does you a favor you owe them a favor
    • If someone does you evil you owe them “evil” in return
  • Jesus teaches us to return evil with good.
  • Wolterstorff argues that Anselm’s satisfaction theory reverts back to a reciprocity code of justice – Anselm assumes that the justice of God requires satisfaction.
  • How could Jesus teach against retributive justice yet participate in retributive justice on the cross?
  • Question for Wolterstorf – Where does the code of reciprocity come?
    • Levering – The reason for the enduring nature of the reciprocity code is that it is inscribed or grounded in the creative order.

Atonement & Creation & The Contribution of Thomas Aquinas

  • Aquinas makes a distinction b/w commutative justice & distributive justice. Commutative justice cannot apply to God. Distributive justice remains – this is what we are called to.
  • Can it really be said that God owes anything to humans? (i.e. distributive justice) Surely God has no obligations to us.
    • How can there be distributive justice in the creator?
    • Aquinas – God does owe creatures what is necessary for their flourishing.
    • Aquinas – the primary debt God owes is to himself…
      • In giving creatures what he owes for their flourishing God is essentially giving himself what he owes as a good and wise creator.
    • Creation is profoundly imbued with structures of justice – this is a gift of God.
      • Gift and Justice cannot be separated

Creaturely Justice & Retributive Punishment

  • Just as the creator owes a “debt” to his creatures – his creatures become debtors to one another but also to God. God holds first place for God is supremely excellent
    • This is both a debt of justice and a debt of love.
  • When humans turn away from divine love and fail to fulfill the debt of justice, we fail to live up to what we are created to. It is a rebellion against the order of justice between the rational creature and God.
  • Humans were created for a graced union with God – rebellion attacks this order. Thus we fall into disorder and slavery to Sin.
  • The order of creation is such that when we rebel against this order we lose the justice we were created for.
  • Sin carries its own punishment b/c of the disorder it brings.
    • The sinner can accept this punishment and make it satisfactory
      • He/she must accept this punishment freely
      • This brings healing and reconciliation
      • This is an acceptance of the order of justice – i.e. the created order of justice
    • Aquinas is not separating the stain or the guilt from punishment – the act of sin makes man him deserve punishment.
      • In justice the rational creature owes God a debt of love and service.
      • To restore justice in this situation means to restore justice within the creature and to heal the disorder
        • The punishment – heals the disorder…
      • If this is the case then there is nothing retributive about punishment…

Jesus Death as Satisfaction for Sin

  • In the case of atonement no satisfactory sacrifice was strictly necessary, God could have forgiven without satisfaction.
    • God didn’t have to fulfill the reciproticy code?
  • But why then does God send the son to die for sin?
    • God does so because it sets us free from the slavery of sin – and God shows more copious mercy than if he had forgiven sin without satisfaction.
      • It shows us how much he loves us and dignifies us.
    • How does Jesus death count for us?
      • Vicarious suffering & vicarious humanity – because Christ and his body are one mystic person.
      • His death was far more than was necessary to cover the sins of the whole human race.


  • Jesus came to bear our sin and restore order. It is because Jesus has fulfilled retributive justice that his followers no longer need to pursue it.
    • We don’t need to exercise the code of reciprocity here on earth.
  • Wolterstorff’s argument that retributive justice does not apply to God ignores scriptural data.
  • Although creation is pure gift – it can be said that God does owe his creature something
    • Gift and justice are related
    • Creatures must offer love, worship, and service to God
    • When we turn away from the creator the result is existential disorder and death
  • In self-giving love the Father sends the son to go through this retributive justice on our behalf – not because of a thirst for revenge – but as an act of pure love.

Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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