Substitutionary Atonement and Classic Lit

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck was well versed in classic literature, a point made clear in an excerpt from Reformed Dogmatics, 3:402–404 (abridged p. 444).

In this section he responds to those who claim that Christ’s substitutionary atonement is morally nonsensical (an objection that remains to this today). Yet,

…the idea of substitution is deeply grounded in human nature. Among all peoples it has been embodied in priesthood and sacrifices and expressed in various ways in poetry and mythology.

Origen already compared Christ in his death to those who, according to classical traditions, died for their mother country to liberate it from a plague or other disasters, for, conforming to hidden laws, it seems to lie in the nature of things that the voluntary death of a righteous person in the public interest breaks the power of evil spirits

Christian theology, accordingly, frequently cited the examples of Codrus, Curtius, Cratinus, Zaleucus, Damon, Phintias, and the hostages to illustrate the vicarious suffering of Christ. These examples have no other value, of course, than to show that the idea of substitution occupied an important place in the intellectual world of the Greeks and the Romans.

The same is true of tragedy, whose basic idea can certainly be conveyed not always by “guilt and atonement” but often only by “passion and suffering.” In many tragedies the death of the hero is not a true atonement for sins committed but yet is always a deliverance made necessary by some mistake or error, hence finally reconciling us and giving us satisfaction. But even viewed that way, tragedy proclaims a great truth: all human greatness walks past abysses of guilt, and satisfaction occurs only when what is noble and great, which for some reason has gone astray, perishes in death. The downfall of Orestes, Oedipus, Antigone, Romeo and Juliet, Max and Thekla, Iphigenia, and others reconciles us with them and their generation. “Pure humanity atones for all human weaknesses” (Goethe). …

All these examples and reasonings are undoubtedly somewhat suited as illustrations of the substitutionary suffering of Christ. Against the individualism and atomizing tendencies that tear humankind apart and know nothing of the mysticism of love, they are of great value.

Still, they cannot explain the suffering of Christ. …

Bavinck’s knowledge of Greek mythology and poetry is impressive. It is to this well of literature that he turns to find fitting illustrations of substitution in history, illustrations that have “great value” in cultures where people increasingly live self-sustained and isolated lives (hint, hint).

Yet the classic literature has significant theological limitations. In order to make sense of the unique sacrifice of Christ we must turn to Scripture (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 4:25, 8:3; Gal. 3:13). Classic literature cannot explain the sacrifice of Christ. Illustrate? Yes, to some degree. Substantiate? No.

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