The foundational efficiency of love: Reconciling with Aquinas

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Copyright © 2015 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd. Anabaptist theologians who vie for the most convincing theory of divine non-violence in the contemporary 'atonement debate' quite often fail to appreciate the contributions of medieval scholars such as St Thomas Aquinas. Of course, that failure does have a rationale. Aquinas does, indeed, support various systematic expressions of a satisfaction theory of atonement. In doing so, he insists upon God's violent solution to the problem of sin and also employs language fraught with quid pro quo, mercantile and penal images. Aquinas does attempt to 'correct' Anselm and rearticulate the satisfaction theory of atonement; however, his expression of that motif still hinges upon the divine demand for remuneration, balanced accounts or an economic transaction in order to repair the damage done by sin. God's desire for this redemptive reparation results in the necessity of the violent death of an innocent man. Consequently, although Aquinas expresses the notion of necessity differently than Anselm, his theory also necessitates, at best, divine complicity with violence and, at worst, divine insistence on violence. Anabaptist theologians who remain true to the tradition's pacifist roots rightfully cry 'foul' in response to Aquinas' theory. If Jesus of Nazareth fully reveals the character of God as indicated in John 14:7 with the words, 'if you have seen me, you have seen the Father', theories of atonement which depict God as condoning or requiring violence do not harmonise with the life and teachings of the man Christians call the Prince of Peace, especially if that violence pertains to the redemption of a loving God's good creation. As a result, those who oppose the implicit divine violence embedded in Aquinas' satisfaction theory of atonement may opt to disengage with him, to expel him completely from the conversation. Yet I suggest that non-violent atonement theologians pause and rethink their indictment of the angelic doctor. Satisfaction remains the prevalent theme surrounding Aquinas' atonement motif, but it is not by any means the only image he brings to bear on the topic. In fact, throughout his ruminations on the passion of Christ, St Thomas focuses explicitly on the unfathomable, extravagant and immeasurable divine love as the primary motivation for God's desire and subsequent actions to redeem and restore a sinful humanity. I suggest that, given Aquinas' emphasis on divine love, Anabaptist theologians may well discover a satisfying interlocutor for further theological conversation which carries significant implications for the life of the church. Indeed, scholastic savants such as Thomas Aquinas still do warrant a place at the communal table.


Putt, S. L. (2015). The foundational efficiency of love: Reconciling with Aquinas. Scottish Journal of Theology, 68(2), 143–163. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0036930615000022

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