Salvation Not Purchased
Overcoming the Ransom Idea to Rediscover the Original Gospel Teaching
- ISBN: 9781725255838
- Published By: Cascade Books
- Published: May 2020
Stephen Finlan’s Salvation Not Purchased: Overcoming the Ransom Idea to Rediscover the Original Gospel Teaching helpfully critiques the root of popular atonement ideas. The author’s goal is to get Christians to reject the idea that salvation was purchased with blood—that God requires Jesus’ blood to save humans. Finlan has published scholarly work on this topic, but this book is written for a broader audience and motivated by a “pastoral concern.” Beliefs impact one’s spirituality, and he is particularly concerned with how the belief that God requires a sacrificial payment negatively impacts the way Christians relate to God and how they treat other people.
Many Christians believe that God must exercise vengeance against sinners—somebody must be punished, even if it is an innocent person. Finlan correctly identifies two key problems with this belief. First, it pits a loving and forgiving Son of God (Jesus) against a vengeful God the Father. Second, there is a hideous assumption behind this belief: God cannot forgive. The notion that God is either unable or unwilling to simply forgive people is, Finlan argues, completely at odds with the teaching of Jesus regarding the way God saves people. Jesus “tells people, ‘your faith has saved you.’ And he never adds ‘dependent upon your believing in my coming death as a sacrifice’” (9). Finlan writes that Jesus came to reveal what God is like, not to pay God off.
Finlan examines the biblical material and shows that the idea that God requires payment occurs in the Hebrew scriptures. The animal sacrifices functioned in two ways. Some were valuable “gifts” (payments) to “make atonement” while others were rituals of purification necessary to keep the deity from leaving the community. Though the “majority position in the Old Testament is pro-sacrificial” (25), some of the prophets rejected the value of sacrifice altogether. These prophetic critiques did not develop an alternate view of sacrifice, he claims. Rather, they denounced the notion that sacrifice wins God’s favor. Regarding the New Testament, Finlan argues that though Jesus’ attitude towards sacrifice is not totally clear, Jesus quotes the prophets’ “mercy not sacrifice” motto, says love is more important than sacrifices, and rejects the purity traditions. The author believes the weight of evidence indicates that Jesus did not support the sacrificial system and that he rejected the notion that payments procure God’s favor.
Moreover, Finlan notes that the earliest New Testament teaching references the death of Jesus many times, but never in conjunction with sacrifice or payment. Paul is the first to use the payment idea. Paul gives meaning to Jesus’ death by using four different metaphors: sacrifice, scapegoat, redemption payment, and justification. The author argues that Christians should set aside the sacrifice and purchase metaphors in favor of Paul’s other metaphors because they hamper Paul’s overall message of forgiveness, reconciliation, and transformed living.
In addition, Finlan argues that whereas the Greek-speaking early church emphasized theosis (being drawn into the divine life) over atonement ideas, it was Augustine of Hippo and Anselm of Canterbury in the Latin-speaking church that developed robust explanations of Jesus as the blood payment God required. Martin Luther and John Calvin developed these ideas further and both emulated their violent God with violence on Jews and other Christians.
According to Finlan there are harmful consequences to the idea that God requires payment. The author holds that psychological problems arise from the belief that God is paid off by a ritual murder: the glorification of suffering, guilt, anxiety, shame, depression, and self-loathing. He uses the psychological theory of Sandor Rado to locate the origin of the payment idea: the child learns to self-punish in the hopes of winning the love of the angry parent. “Ransom and penitential suffering are religious echoes of a childhood strategy for coping with parental brutality by payment through suffering” (66, emphasis in original). Finlan sees this connection in the theology of Augustine and Luther and the childhood abuse they suffered. This may explain why some Christians developed the payment idea, but I was left wondering why those from loving homes are attracted to the payment idea.
Finlan believes Jesus reveals both the nature of God and what human life should be like. God became incarnate in Jesus to draw us into the very life of God (theosis), empowering us to grow towards God and transform the way we live in relation to others. The author lumps all “atonement” ideas into the payment model, yet it seems to me that he affirms the “model of love” (this is usually mistakenly named by others as the “moral influence” in my opinion) theory of atonement. Perhaps he would say this is not “atonement” at all.
Overall, the book insightfully critiques the idea that God requires payment to forgive by addressing many important biblical texts, shedding light on the harmful assumptions behind the payment idea, and discussing the damage this notion causes in the Christian life. I have some questions after reading this book. For example, are all views of atonement including Christus Victor and the scapegoat theory illegitimate? Which New Testament metaphors for the work of Jesus are acceptable and on what criterion? Are New Testament doctrinal developments beyond the earliest teaching allowable? Of course, one cannot address every text or issue in a short book. But this one is a good place to begin.
John Sanders is emeritus professor of religious studies at Hendrix College.John SandersDate Of Review:March 30, 2022