09 October 2007

Does God Need Christ's Atoning Work?

It is a provocative, yet philosophically and theologically untenable, question when we posit that the atonement was necessary in order to meet some need in God. St. Augustine, among others, addresses both philosophically and theologically any notion of necessity in God. Philosophically, any necessity in God questions the freedom that God is and makes the mistake of ascribing to God human limitations. Theologically, St Augustine builds on this same conclusion. Permit my colleague, Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, to summarize St Augustine.

Medieval and Renaissance theories about the Atonement appear to suffer from a common and easily identified misunderstanding, and I take it to be this: They all assume that there is some need in God that must be met and satisfied by Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Something in God is the beneficiary of the Cross, whether His honor, or His justice, or His wrath, or whatever. These theories postulate in God some requisite that could only be addressed by the suffering and death of Christ. God—or some aspect of God—is the beneficiary of sacrifice.

I submit that an idea of this sort is very difficult to sustain from biblical teaching about sacrifice. There are simply too many scriptural texts insisting that God does not need it. Introducing a brief survey of such texts, St. Augustine comments, "And who is so foolish as to suppose that the things offered to God are needed by Him for some uses of His own? Divine Scripture in many places destroys such an idea" (The City of God 10.5). Augustine then goes on to cite several texts from the Psalter to this effect, limiting the number "so as not to be tedious."

If God does not need sacrifice, however, man certainly does, because "whatever correct worship is paid to God profits not Him, but man." Man, then, not God, is the beneficiary of a sacrifice offered to God. God does not need sacrifice, but man needs to offer it.

This quotation is a selection from Pastoral Ponderings by Fr. Patrick Reardon. Here is the complete Pondering on the Atonement.


William Weedon said...

I think it misses the point utterly to argue that God needed the atonement. But WE needed the atonement if we were going to be able to live in the presence of the all-holy with His very holiness destroying us in our sinfulness. I don't think it's a very good way of explaining the teaching of vicarious satisfaction, either, to speak it of as God needing something. It is rather God providing something we need and without which His presence - which is the only true life - would only be our death. It is how He can come to us without wiping us up and unite us to Himself while destroying our sin and not destroying us.

The Blogger Formerly Known As Lvka said...

First of all, Father, thanks for stating the obvious.

Secondly, ... and this is a deep theological question, with tremedous impications, that need NOT be taken lightly: ... how did You manage to write with italics in the article-title ?? :D

Fr John W Fenton said...


Sometimes the obvious is not so obvious, and so it needs to be stated.

As for italics -- I used html coding.

Pr Weedon,

I think you've rightly understood Fr Patrick's point.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Except that it isn't God's presence that kills us.

Is not, not, not. This needs to be said again and again.

It is SIN destroys us when we come into the immediate presence of God. God's Presence may be termed the occasion, or even the catalyst, but the CAUSE is sin.

Sin kills us. The wages of sin is death. You earned it, sin paid you. The gift of God is eternal life. You didn't earn it; God gave it.

Sin derives me of all that is good, true, and beautiful, making eternal life into eternal hell. Sin makes the Light of Truth into torment, when it shines on my hideousness. Sin made me hideous to begin with. Sin, not the Presence of God. Please.


Colin Clout said...


right under the window it says "You can use some HTML tags, such as..." (If I continue it will just make what follows bold, italics, and I'm not sure what the "a" one does). To finish, use a / before the i in the second of those symbols. It should work like this.