September 15, 2003

"Atonement as the Ecclesio-Christological Practice of Forgiveness in John Milbank"

Hans Boersma
Respondent: John Milbank

[Abstract from handout:
“In this paper, I argue that for Milbank atonement is an ecclesio-christological process of forgiveness. This participatory model assumes an equation of violence and evil that leads to an unfortunate indeterminacy. Milbank’s apparent reconsideration of this equation, however, may lead to a narrowing of the gap with Reformed theology. My argument proceeds as follows: I give an overview of what I take to be Milbank’s view of atonement as an ecclesial practice by comparing his view to the traditional models. I argue that by subsuming christology into ecclesiology Milbank modifies key concepts of the traditional atonement models and so incorporates them into his participationist model. I maintain that Milbank cannot sustain his appeal to Aquinas for his view of forgiveness as unlimited positive circulation and that Calvin and the Reformed tradition, with their defense of divine punishment, are closer to Aquinas than in Milbank. By combining his participatory atonement theology with an ecclesial practice of non-violence he adopts a problematic ethical and christological indeterminacy. Milbank’s “ontology of peace” has always accounted for violence in a somewhat ambiguous manner. On the one hand, it is the civitas terrena that is the domain of violence and evil with the Church being the realm of peace, the participatory community of forgiveness. On the other hand, since violence is inescapable in everything we do, Milbank must make the admission of the tragic necessity of violence in everything we do. There are several indications, however, that Milbank is becoming more open to the possibility of redemptive violence and is thereby narrowing the gap with Reformed theology. By means of two suggestions, which would “reform” Milbank even more, I build on his apparent change in direction: I suggest that Milbank would alleviate the tension in his theology by an acknowledgment that there is grace beyond the boundaries of the Church and by a recognition of the need for divine violence in the atonement.”

(Here are my notes of Boersma's presentation:)

[[mba: Warning. More and more of my double-bracketed concurrent and critical commentary is sneaking in as I transcribe these notes. Skip over at will.]]

According to Milbank, Radical Orthodoxy not just for Roman Catholics, it is a catholic vision of the patristic period--an olive branch.

Milbank notes that, after rejecting Protestant accounts of grace, many are not of this kind.

I see signs of change in Milbank's approach that would move him closer to the Reformed tradition.

In particular, a reconsideration of the equation of violence and evil would narrow the gap with Reformed theology.

Imitation, substitution, sacrifice, and other common language might be promising starts.

Christianity is not founded on a transcendent original to imitate. Milbank is impatient with imputation, but Christ didn't offer one all-sufficient sacrifice, but passed into heavenly sanctuary as priest and victim, making an atoning gift there. So it's not a Calvinist juridical framework.

Milbank calls for an ecclesio-christological practice of forgiveness which identifies Christ and the Church (see Milbank's "The Name of Jesus" essay). Christ is both already and not yet.

In this ecclesiological construal of Christ's divine personhood, the Church continues what Christ has done, and its work is Christ's work of atonement.

This leads to an atonement doctrine which is primarily ecclesiological, with christology and atonement secondary. It subsumes atonement into christology into ecclesiology.

[[mba: Here it seems that Boersma completely misses the point that christology and atonement aren't subsumed into ecclesiology, since the church is not anything apart from the (eucharistic) presence of Christ. I'm guessing this will be a tough point on which to find agreement, since it seems so fueled by ecclesiological formation and identity--Reformed vs Anglican. . .]]

Milbank claims that in nonidentical repetition, not straightforward moralism, the church is caught up in participatory exchange, so there is a charismatic ethic, an ethic of gift which is atonement and forgiveness. Atonement means participation in the divine life of church. Christ offers the gift of true worship which humanity should [[receive/enact]] but can't.
It requires repetition.
In the metaphoric sign of the cross we discover the key to atonement.
[[mba: note, Boersma's understanding of metaphor flatter than Milbank's, so, for Boersma, "metaphoric" connotes inadequate.]]

Milbank contrasts his notion of sacrifice with a truly-other ethic. His is not an ecstatic attitude, a transcendent egotistic or self-sacrificial concern. Thus we shouldn't celebrate self-sacrifice as such. Rather, sacrifice is for sake of return as same but different. Sacrifice looks for the return of life in resurrection.

For Milbank, in an ontology of peace, true being is taken up in a continuous display of difference. This is a participatory account, such that in church and forgiveness we participate in infinite reciprocity, and share in an eternal reciprocal economy of gift exchange. Christ offers himself and becomes the gift that returns.

Milbank claims that the Reformation sees forgiveness as negative. In contrast, he argues that the Fathers and Aquinas had a positive view of forgiveness, and of incarnation as fitting, whereby God generously gives God's self in incarnation. Is there no rapprochement in a (unilateral?) contrast between positive and negative?

1) Milbank misinterprets Aquinas by insisting that God needn't forgive because God keeps on giving. This is an un-Thomist move. Forgiveness as positive?! Where is this in Aquinas?! It's not there. Every sin can be blotted out by true penance. The debt of punishment as well as the guilt of punishment are removed; therefore, after forgiveness, no debt of punishment remains. Aquinas says that contrition is the cause of the forgiveness of sin. In one and the same act, God heals the mind and pardons sin, but Aquinas distinguishes between the two.

Calvin has more affinity with Aquinas (than Milbank has recognized), by holding to the distinction between justification and sanctification. These are inseparable but distinct. For both Calvin and Aquinas, one can't have forgiveness without transformation. Milbank insists that an account of the arrival of grace must also mean sanctification and ethics, but this doesn't dismiss Calvin. For Calvin, works are not causal to the forgiveness of sins, but still the two go hand in hand.

This is also un-Thomist: Aquinas says both are divine acts. Milbank says they are not reactive, but that both are sustained giving. Milbank says there is no divine forgiveness aside from human forgiveness--humanity forgiving humanity, not God's forgiving us, but God giving us gift-capacity for forgiveness. By Christ's forgiveness, Milbank means Christ's giving us the capacity for forgiveness, since his ontology of peace doesn't allow for divine punishment, which Milbank associates with evil.

But when God doesn't punish, there is no need to forgive either. Aquinas has a penal view of the cross, more similar to Calvin than Milbank. Aquinas has a reactive view of the cross and even double predestination.

So, how can Aquinas say that God needn't forgive. Aquinas doesn't share Milbank's queasiness with God's divine punishment.

So what is the process of nonviolence? Milbank wants an ontology of peace, with violence as an anti-transcendental, a counter-ethics and a counter-ontology. His counter-history is a counter-cultural version of Augustine's two cities: one of no violence, with the cross; the other with all violence into nothingness. Violence has no true existence and can be rooted out. So Milbank combines participatory atonement with a christologically-shaped practice of non-violence.

This combination causes problems. So what does non violent forgiveness look like? It fails to assign determinacy to the church's non-violence, because it is not possible. A nonviolent act in a violent world would be an oxymoron. Milbank even admits that the church has less definite ideas than the polis. Milbank claims an antinomian ethic, which rejects virtue and duty, rejects right and wrong, and asserts that Christianity explodes limits. So how can we know if an act is violent or nonviolent.

[[mba: the "how can we know" question pervades the conference, pointing to a discussion of discernment which could make up a whole conference on its own.]]

Practices of assumed nonviolence may turn out to be violence. We should attend more to the goodness of the created order and the significance of the OT in discerning the will of God, so as not to succumb to ethical and christological indeterminacy. But what about the specificity of Christ? According to Milbank, only Christ reconciles us, but where Christ is identified with the unfolding practices of the ecclesia, it is hard to define specifics . The textual Christ is the historical Jesus (says Milbank). He says to read the Gospels as the refoundation of the city.

I am uneasy with this complete disinterest in the historical Jesus and with this ecclesiologically-constituted Christology. It obscures the particular identity of Jesus Christ as the mediator of salvation. It is in the historically specific life of Jesus Christ that God acts. The church only has its place in obedience to Jesus Christ. The church can identify with Christ but isn't his equal.

[[mba: here we have another prevailing undercurrent of the conference: radically different understandings of hermeneutics, such that the Reformed argument can accuse the RadOx argument of insufficient historicity and over weighted ecclesiology, while the RadOx argument finds that critique dependent on a narrow understanding of scripture and an inadequate understanding of the presence of Christ. I can imagine subsequent conferences/conversations on hermeneutics as well.]]

This nonviolent character is a problem: if violence can be rooted out it is a violent metaphor. So how possible is it to root out violence, especially if our entire conduct is penetrated by violence.

There is a tension in Milbank on this point: a tragic resignation and critique of Augustine's inadequate ontology of atonement. However, Milbank does admit that we can't avoid some violence.

In more recent writings, Milbank shows a shift on violence; he is more ready to acknowledge the inevitability of violence, and he accept that it could be redemptive. (See the Baker book of essays which contains some of the debate with Stanley Hauerwas on this point: Must Christianity be Nonviolent?]

The disagreement itself is already a low-key account of violence as a concealed and devious form of violence, but it also assumes that violence may be justified. We may need to accept divine violence. Violence is only eradicated by an apocalyptic counter-violence.

(Milbank interjects: Note that I have had children since I wrote Theology and Social Theory!)

[big laugh all around]

[[mba: except me. I am as yet unpersuaded by Milbank's more recent lean toward violence, by Boersma's campaign for redemptive violence, and, as a pacifist parent, most unamused by the joking association between parenthood and a renewed affirmation of the inescapability of violence. I do have a sense of humor; I understand the joke; I do not accept the sensibility. . .]]

(Back to Boersma:) Redemptive violence is a possibility which Milbank seems to recognize.

So there reason for optimism that Milbank is beginning to close the gap between Augustinianism and Reformed sensibilities.

There are always overlays of power. Truth requires persuasion. A determinist theory requires violence. Therefore we must resist the postmodern rejection of all boundaries--which leads determinacy.

Two suggestions:

1) It is not clear why Milbank calls for a denial of other publics (besides the church). If we acknowledge that violence is everywhere and can be redemptive, why is there an opposition of two cities? Why is the church presented as counter-culture. It?s all part of an infinite-finite exchange. Recent Milbank on nature and grace sounds more like (the Reformed notion of) common grace, too. Milbank affirms now that the denial of nature as autonomous doesn't mean that everything beyond the church is outside grace.

The church as public, and participation, includes spaces outside the church. So don't subsume christology within ecclesiology. Accept the personal identity of Christ outside eccelsiology.

2) On violence and atonement: The cross deals with violence in a violent fashion. God redeems humanity through violent means. Redemptive violence is a possibility, and divine punishment is not out of the question. For Aquinas, forgiveness can be rehabilitated. We witness the anticipation of this in the biblical account.

Be more radical in your disavowal of Hauerwasian nonviolence. You can still participate in an ontology of peace, whereby divine violence is used toward divine peace.

[[mba: if it's not obvious yet, I am unconvinced by the characterization of Hauerwasian sectarian non-violence, unimpressed by Boersma's notion of divine (and human) "redemptive violence," and dissatisfied with Milbank's recent leanings toward a more violent story about the Christian engagement with our eschatological hope of non-violence.]]

Milbank's Response:

To begin with, I want to emphasize my appreciation for this kind of conversation. This is real theology: engaging with real issues from the past as if they are important today. This is what is most important: seriously having to think in our situation and in the terms of tradition. This is good.

I see no penal substitution in Aquinas. Yes there is double predestination in Aquinas. (Aquinas is wrong on this; it's horrific to believe in double predestination.) There is a difference between satisfaction and punishment in medieval usage. The father doesn't punish the son or the son's humanity, but Jesus offers satisfaction by suffering the consequences of sins, omits the punishment we deserve because of our sin, and satisfies the divine honor (this is different from the Reformation model). So, there is no divine affliction in violence or transaction in God. That would be the most ridiculous mythology. If that's Christianity, I want nothing to do with it! I dislike it intensely.

Your peaceful-practice points are completely right. But I've always thought this. I?ve never thought there could be a pure practice of peace in the church. It's an eschatological aim, more ontological. We have faith that there can be a peaceful practice finally, but of course we're always intertangled with violence in the world because sin and violence go together. This is an extended reflection, but all the materials are in the tradition. Augustine does elevate peace into a transcendental, and evil as a privation, like violence. So in my most recent book, evil and violence are overlapping ways of describing the same thing (like the way truth, goodness, beauty describe God's perfection). Evil and violence become something like anti-transcendentals.

But I agree that even the church is not entirely avoiding coercive practice and can?t; but nonetheless, the desire to go beyond coercion always an important desire of the church, beyond punishment to reconciliation. (For example, the Roman Catholic church's situation now, despite the obvious and problematic hypocrisy, is still trying to show a different model, and it is partly misunderstood, because of the general difficulty in understanding a model of reconciliation over punishment.)

On the undercurrent of too much postmodernism, too much indeterminacy: Maybe, by associating it more with analogy and a peaceful coexistence of differences, this should free it from hopeless indeterminacy. So, within the indeterminate, some relative things are better than others, and some anticipations are of an infinitely just order. This is rather than a Derridean approach were all are equally good and bad.

[[mba: note presence here of (my theory of) two underlying themes as yet insufficiently addressed: hermeneutics (importance of a wide and fruitful understanding of analogy) and discernment (living with relativity, and not being overcome by indeterminacy).]]

I do say both that Christianity obliterates boundaries and that it can't entirely, doesn't entirely, renounce a Jewish concern with the legal institution of boundaries.

Yes, there is a big difference between me and the Reformed tradition. I want to push the antinomian tradition of Paul more than the Reformed (there is something about the Muggletonians and Blake I want to appreciate)--something about an insistence in going on beyond the law.

Calvin is completely inadequate in terms of the radicalism of Paul on the law.

On christology: "The name of Jesus" is my most difficult essay. It is always misread, and now needs to be read in conjunction in my most recent book, Being Reconciled--Christ is the exception, and his crucifixion obscures deliverance, where I show a passionate concern with this historicity of narratives about Jesus and the passion narratives. So, this should not be read as a change of mind, but as two sides of same picture. I defend historicity because the meaning given in Christ is meaningless without historicity. Part of the meaning we are given is that this meaning is entirely real, an absolute event. Incarnation is absolutely a meaning event and is also absolutely real. The meaning of the Incarnation is that it surpasses our usual distinctions between fiction and reality. Like a true fairy story, it is the arrival of a realm beyond our distinction of real and imagined. A recreation of the world, a restoration of a pre fallen order, bound to seem like an entry to the magical-- like in Shakespeare's late romances.

So, no wonder the problems about handling this text are bound to be massive. It defeats the considerations one normally makes. It is a unique kind of event, which lays down its own conditions for likelihood and evidence. Nonetheless that should predispose us towards taking seriously the historicity. So, with the passion narrative, there's a prejudice against the exceptional event or against the typological repetition. (If it echoes what comes before, we think it can't have happened; if it's peculiar, it can't have happened). I try to make plausible the features which seem exceptional and are not surprising in the passion. I try to relate to Jesus's exceptionality and the procedures of Roman law which has actually has procedures for exceptional emergencies. These chapters show I am indeed concerned with historicity.

In "The Name of Jesus," the real Christ is the textual Christ, not a division between textual and original, not denying the original.

[[mab: This notion seems to upset the Calvinists here, perhaps because they see this as a denigration of both scripture and Christ--again, I'd argue, because of a misunderstanding or inadequate understanding of the medieval sense of analogy, as well as a confusion about the presence of Christ.]]

What we know about Jesus isn't a lot. It is often presented in general metaphors, not as a character in a novel (as the Yale school suggests. . .), but as an absolute beginning--an absolute beginning will be like this. To talk about an absolutely new event has to establish a new context, like a saturated and blinded phenomenon. You can only see the newness. It's from this new beginning you get to a high christology.

I am pushing the bounds of orthodoxy on Christ and the church and the role of pneumatology, wanting an orthodoxy beyond orthodoxy, a more adequate account of the role of the Holy Spirit. The more we see that God was incarnate, the more we see the incarnate as a person in history and society, so from the beginning, we are indissociable from the reception of Christ. Even the possibility of Christ depends upon the reception of Christ.

This is allowed for more in Mariology, in the baptism by John Baptist, in the Shepherd of Hermas--where the bride arrives with the coming of the Son. I am arguing for something almost like a double incarnation, where the Spirit is incarnate in the church--although this is a different, eschatological incarnation, which is only complete at the eschaton. But how else are we to make sense of the indwelling of the Spirit in the church and the promise that the Spirit is surely with us? This means that the response to Christ is not simply subordinate to Christ, but in the end echoes the response of the Holy Spirit to the Logos. The Logos doesn't exist without this response. This way we can retain all the gender analogies without the subordination of the female--all the sexual imagery without patriarchalism, like Luce Irigaray's hints in this direction.

[[mba: I wonder if this emphasis on the necessity of reception for the presence of God (in both "incarnations") sounds like Palagianism to the Calvinists, while the more Calvinist rejection of the christological and pneumatological intertwining of divine presence in the church seems like Palagianism to Milbank.]]

So, there are certain radical innovations we have to make in our Christian thinking. This is something like a hyper-orthodox--thinking more through the biblical legacy. The whole tendency of Christianity in last 200 years has been to do with the role of the Spirit, and we haven't understood it enough. (I feel called to engage with this, even as I feel very uncomfortable with some of the more charismatic directions this has taken the church.)

I never intended this to be sectarianism.

[[mba: I wonder if Milbank's recent attempts to distinguish himself from Hauerwas stems in part from Milbank's desire to try and avoid some of the sectarian charges which Hauerwas himself has been trying to argue with all along. . .each of them trying to rearticulate their positions to critique this critique, and Milbank trying to make some headway by emphasizing his distinction from Hauerwas.]]

Maybe Theology and Social Theory sounds like this, but I never meant it that way.

[[mba: I think we need a rehabilitation and reclamation of what gets called sectarianism, and which everybody knows is bad, but which can rightly be a necessary discernment and articulation of Christian identity, so that more energy can be put in the discernment process and less in the denial of the "bad sectarian" label.]]

I do not have a strong view of boundaries --the church is the beginning of the kingdom. This is very Anglican. Grace is everywhere (see the de Lubac essay); so, in a way, the church is everywhere. But the church isn't a sphere alongside other spheres, since it?s the anticipation of the redeemed society, and it is much vaster than that. So, for example, as the state exerts a pastoral role, it merges into church.

On counter-violence: It is important not to miss that what I am attending to is the aporia of being against violence. It is a very particular kind of violence, the opposition of violence itself, and that refusal is somewhat ambivalent, but it is not what God needs to do. God has never been violent. This doesn't mean that God himself is acting violently. We can?t literally talk about God punishing or forgiving. Here I am drawing on Julian of Norwich, although Aquinas does say that God?s forgiveness can't be just an offer.

I don't deny the negative moment in forgiveness, but I stress the positive moment as always there and more decisive in end.

Questions from the Floor:

?? If God is not involved in producing violence, then what about images in Revelation?

Milbank: This is metaphorical language, as the Fathers read most such images about divine action. It would be idolatrous to take it literally, to treat God as finite person! God doesn't need to oppose anything.

Boersma: Sure, it's metaphorical language, but isn't all language about God metaphorical? Then on what grounds do we say that certain acts of God that we don't like are metaphorical (not final), while other acts are final?

Milbank: This is not a problem if your metaphysics are clear. To think about these things without metaphysics is disastrous, and quickly descends into mythology. You have to discriminate predications in terms of what can be appropriately applied to God--what is compatible with the perfections and infinitude and simplicity of God--then you understand which metaphors have more analogical freight. If it involves things not compatible with what we know to say about God, then it has less weight. We want what we say about God to have more to do with the effect of divine action on our actions.

(Still Milbank:) In fact, I think we need to have a moratorium on all discussions of atonement until everyone has read David Hart's essay on atonement in Pro Ecclesia, which charts the history of atonement theory and undermines certain myths about categories of atonement.

Posted by Margaret at September 15, 2003 08:35 PM