Costly Love – an analogy of the Atonement


A good analogy is hard to find. With the Trinity, analogies have been almost entirely abandoned, not without good reason. This is especially true today when “social” models of the Trinity have come under increased scrutiny, for good or ill — and I am rather undecided. As a result, an analogy from human relations and loving community is potentially an abdication of the hallowed Creator/creature distinction. With the Atonement, however, we have surer footing to appeal to human relations as an analogy, for the simple reason that we are dealing more concretely with the creature and the “economic” side of the Trinitarian coin.

As an example of an especially articulate use of this analogy for the Atonement, here is Shirley Guthrie (1927-2004), longtime professor of systematic theology at Columbia Theological Seminary:

If God loves and forgives us already, why atonement at all? Why did Jesus have to sacrifice himself to “pay the price”? Why did not God just say, “I forgive you,” and let it go at that?

We can catch a glimpse of the answer with an analogy in human relationships. Suppose I have done something that deeply hurts a friend, and he says so me, “That’s OK. It doesn’t make any difference. Forget it.” Has he forgiven me? What he has really said is: “I don’t really care enough about you to be touched by anything you say or do. You are not that important to me.” Not only that; he leaves me alone with the awareness of my guilt. He lets me “stew in my own juice,” refusing to help me by letting me know that he suffers not only because of what I have done to him but because he knows how I feel and can share with me my shame and guilt.

Good-natured indulgence and broad-mindedness, in other words, are not forgiveness and love but indifference and sometimes even hostility. Real love and forgiveness mean caring enough to be hurt, caring enough to put oneself in the other’s shoes and sharing his guilt as if it were one’s own. Real love and forgiveness are costly — not in the sense that the guilty must squeeze them out of the injured, but in the sense that the injured freely participates in a guilt not his own.

[Christian Doctrine (Richmond, VA: CLC Press, 1968), 253. It is currently published in the revised 1994 edition from WJK Press.]

As with any analogy, that doesn’t capture everything we want to say about the Atonement, but it does say it well.


Image: “The Lamentation over the Dead Christ,” Rembrandt (c. 1635)



  1. I discovered this analogy years ago by realizing, in my own language, how I do exactly what she talks about. Any sleight, wrong, or injustice was met with a “it’s cool/don’t worry/I don’t care”. But it’s all trying, as I really was, to become removed and alienated. It doesn’t hurt because you don’t care.

    In the digital age, maybe this has become so much more a thing. The possibility of appearing immaculate is possible, though a mirage. So of course nothing really matters. Projecting it up, God becomes the ultimate Facebook friend. And then we’re confused about all the passages of blood, anger, wrath, and apocalypse.

    It’s just another age of gnosticism. We’re all busy trying to slough off all this creatureliness and frailty, all the while God took on flesh and dwelt among us. Maybe there’s a reason that saying Jesus did not come in the flesh is anti-christ.

    2 cents,

    • But it’s all trying, as I really was, to become removed and alienated.

      That’s an excellent way to put it, and I love the illustration of God as “the ultimate Facebook friend.” It is indeed a new age of gnosicism, but worse: we have more tools than they could have ever imagined to disconnect ourselves from our frailty.

    • And, by the way, Shirley was a guy. He liked to joke about how people assumed he was a woman until he appeared at the church or conference to which he was invited to speak!

  2. Reminds me of Herbert McCabe suggesting that “It is when an injury becomes an insult that it is really an offence and needs forgiveness”. If an action is neither intended nor taken as an insult, well, meh. But if it is, then, ironically, the meh itself becomes insulting to the insulter because it doesn’t take his insult seriously. And then we have the ironic situation — worthy of a Marx Brothers sketch — of the insulted-become-an-insulter needing to ask forgiveness of the insulter-become-an-insulted.

  3. This ability of God to receive an insult or injury from human beings is precisely why all neo-Platonic spirituality, like that of Meister Eckhart, which makes detachment, and even indifference, God’s primary attribute, cannot be truly Christian.

    • That’s a great insight. I have only slowly started to make these realizations. When I wrote a paper on Simone Weil for Francesca Murphy at Aberdeen (she’s now at Notre Dame), I tried to explain how Weil’s theology of the atonement was insufficient…even non-existent. (I was reading P.T. Forsyth heavily at the time as an antidote.) I didn’t quite realize how “detachment” and “indifference” featured so strongly, not only in her anthropology/spirituality but also in her doctrine of God, which is why her commitment to neo-Platonist mysticism was stronger than her (often complicated) commitment to catholic doctrine.

      • Much Christian mysticism, in the West but even more so in the East, is deeply sourced in just this neo-Platonic valuing of detachment and disinterest. Pseudo-Dionysius is the common source of much of it.

        The really odd thing is how often in traditional Christian mysticism this neo-Platonic understanding is mixed up with a more affective Christian spirituality, as if the two are somehow compatible. They are not compatible.

        Yet many otherwise catholic Christians illogically switch back and forth between the different idioms that proceed from these two very different streams as if they naturally relate to each other, no explanation needed. It’s really quite astounding.

      • Yes, even more so in the East. I have been reading Alexander Schmemann’s journals, which are often very insightful, but I do not know if I can handle another jab at theology, namely systematic theology (implicitly). It’s really getting tedious. The language of “not speaking” and “not knowing” as a superior relation to God runs throughout the journals. I am thankful that the Apostle Paul didn’t take Schmemann’s advice!

        That is a good observation about the “illogical switch back and forth.” Though, I am still interested in pursuing whatever lines of agreement between mysticism and the gospel may exist, as in “I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives within me” (Gal 2:20), or, “For you have died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). I know that Balthasar has written extensively on, what he perceives to be, the harmony between mystical Platonism and evangelical Christo-centrism, united within Roman Catholic dogmatics and nowhere else.

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