English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment

Glossary of Terms


"Atonement" is a term coined from the English particles "at" + "one" + "ment," and refers to a process by which estranged parties may be reconciled -- that is, their differences overcome so that they are "at one" again.[1]  In a general sense, then, we might advise our friend to send his girlfriend a box of candy and a bouquet of flowers by way of atonment for having forgotten her birthday.  In religion, the offended party is a god or gods, and a given religion will convey a particular understanding of what sorts of behavior on the part of human beings will cause offense, and what the processes are by which atonement may be accomplished.

The traditional Christian conception of atonement for Original Sin is crucial to its overall picture of justification.  There is a complicated history of theological discussion on this point, but for our purposes we can take a shortcut and enter that discussion in the high middle ages with the Italian-born English bishop St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109, bishop from 1093).  In his treatise Cur Deus Homo? he explained the necessity, for atonement, of the Crucifixion thus:

The problem is:  how can God forgive man's sin?  To clear our thoughts on this matter, let us first consider what sin is. . . . To sin is to fail to render God his due.  What is due to God?  Righteousness, or rectitude of will.  He who fails to render his honor onto God, robs God of that which belongs to Him, and dishonors God.  This is sin. . . . And what is satisfaction?  It is not enough simply to restore what has been taken away; but, in consideration of the insult offered, more than what was taken away must be rendered back.

Let us consider whether God could properly remit sin through mercy alone without satisfaction.  To remit sin this way would be to abstain from punishing it.  And since the only possible way for correcting sin for which no satisfaction has been made is to punish it, not to punish it is to remit it uncorrected.  But God cannot properly leave anything uncorrected in His Kingdom.  Moreover, so to remit sin unpunished would be treating the sinful and the sinless alike, which would be incongrous to God's nature.  And incongruity is injustice.

It is necessary, therefore, that either the honor taken away should be repaid, or punishment should be inflicted.  Otherwise one of ttwo things follows:  either God is not just to Himself, or He is powerless to do what He ought to do -- a blasphemous supposition.

The satisfaction ought to be proportionate to the sin.

Satisfaction cannot be made unless there be some One able to pay to God fro man's sin something greater than all that is beside God. . . . Now nothing is greater than all that is not God, except God Himself.  None therefore can make this satisfaction except God.  And none outhg to make it except man. . . . If, then, it be necessary that the kingdom of heaven be completed by man's admission, and if man cannot be admitted unless the aforesaid satisfaction for sin be first made, and if God only can and man only ought to make this satisfaction, then necessarily One must make it who is both God and man.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) introduced the sacramental system that is central to Catholicism today, having been reaffirmed by the Council of Trent in response to the Protestant rejection of all but two (of the seven) -- baptism and the Lord's Supper -- and its radical reinterpretation of the nature and function of these.  In the Catholic understanding, the virtues of the Atonement must be appropriated to the individual case by baptism, which washes away the guilt attaching to Original Sin and allows the satisfaction paid by Christ in the Crucifixion to redeem the debt of punishment due for Original Sin.  Concupiscence, however, remains, and in almost every person's instance will lead the individual to commit individual sins thereafter.  These in turn can be addressed by the sacraments of penance and the Lord's Supper (mass or communion).  The latter, too, is dependent upon the power of the Crucifixion, since it reinacts Christ's sacrifice for the benefit of the communicant.  For more on how baptism, penance, and communion coordinate with the Crucifixion, see the glossary entry on justification in traditional Christianity.

Milton provides his explanation of the necessity of the Crucifixion in Book III of Paradise Lost, in the dialogue between the Father and the Son in Heaven.  Having witnessed Satan winging his way from Hell through Chaos to the World, to try to wreck the new creation man, the Father explains that Satan will succeed, but that his plan will ultimately be frustrated.  To get the full flavor of Milton's positon, one needs to study carefully the entire passage consisting of lines 80-343.  But here we will highlight just a couple of passages within this more extensive stretch.  We begin with God's explanation of the requirements of justice (ll. 203-216):

                              Man disobeying,
Disloyal, breaks his fealty, and sins
Against the high supremacy of Heaven.
Affecting Godhead, and, so losing all,
To expiate his treason hath naught left,
But, to destruction sacred and devote,          sacred and devote:  doomed
He with his whole posterity must die --
Die he or Justice must, unless for him
Some other, able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
Say, Heavenly Powers, where shall we find such love?
Which of ye will be mortal, to redeem
Man's mortal crime, and just the unjust to save?
Dwells in Heaven charity so dear?"

After silence on the part of all the angels, the Son replies (ll. 226-251):

  Father, thy word is passed, Man shall find grace;
And shall grace not find means, that finds her way,
The speediest of they wingèd messengers,
To visit all they creatures, and to all
Comes unprevented, unimplored, unsought?           unprevented:  unanticipated
Happy for Man, so coming!  He her aid
Can never seek, once dead in sins and lost;
Atonement for himself, or offering meet,                 meet:  suitable, appropriate
Indebtted and undone, hath none to bring.
Behold me, then:  me for him, life for life,
I ofer; on me let thine anger fall;
Account me Man:  I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die
Well pleased; on me let Death wreak all his rage.
Under his gloomy power I shall not long
Lie vanquished.  Thou has given me to possess
Life in myself forever; by thee I live;
Though now to Death I yield, and am his due,
All that of me can die, yet, that debt paid,
Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave
His prey, nor suffer my unspotted soul
Forever with corruption there to dwell,
But I shall rise victorious, and dubdue
My vanquisher, spoiled of his vaunted spoil.
Death his death's wound shall receive. . . .

The Father, thanking the Son, explains further (ll. 276-297):

                              well thou know'st how dear
To me are all my works, nor Man the least,
Though last created, that for him I spare
Thee from my bosom and right hand, to save,
By losing thee a while, the whole race lost.
Thou, therefore, whom thou only canst redeem,
Their nature also to they nature join,
And be thyself Man among men on Earth,
Made flesh, when time shall be, of virgin seed,
By wondrous birth; be thou in Adam's room
The head of all mankind, though Adam's son.
And in him perish all me, so in thee,
As from a second root, shall be restored
As many as are restored; without thee, non.
His crime makes guilty all his sons; thy merit,
Imputed, shall absolve them who renounce
Their own both righteous and unrighteous deeds,
And live in thee transplanted,and from thee
Receive new life.  So Man, as is most just,
Shall satisfy for Man, be judged and die,
And dying rise, and, rising, with him raise
His brethren, ransomed with his own dear life.

If you'll look carefully, you'll notice that this account is a Protestant one.  According to Milton, the virtues of the Atonement via the Crucifixion will be enjoyed by, and only by, those

who renounce
Their own both righteous and unrighteous deeds,
And live in thee transplanted,and from thee
Receive new life

Here we recognize the key Protestant doctrine, stemming from Luther, of salvation by faith alone.

At-one-ment:  This hybrid coinage of an English phrase ("at one") with a French noun suffix indicating "process" was coined in 1526 by William Tyndale, who (moved by the Protestant conviction that every man should read the Bible for himself) translated the Bible into English.  (He had not been the first.  Besides the Old English version dating back to the days of King Alfred (849-99; King of Wessex 871-99), there was, most famously, the version by the John Wycliffe (c. 1330-84), whose theology anticipated in many ways that of the Reformers of the 16th Century.  Tyndall used his coinage to translate the Latin term reconciliatio, the term St. Jerome had used (in producing the Vulgate Bible, in the early 5th Century CE) to translate the Hebrew word kapparah.

Despite the fact that Tyndall was a Protestant, his coinage has since been taken over in English theology, anthropology, and sociology of religion.  The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), for example, has an extensive article on The Doctrine of Atonement.

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      This page last updated 11 October 2000.