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A Superabundant Satisfaction for Sin

DM 101: Week 21

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 25, 2005)
St. Thomas on the Atonement
In order to understand St. Thomas' theory of atonement, we need to be clear about what he meant in saying that Jesus Christ makes "satisfaction" for our sins. Often, St. Thomas' theory (and that of his predecessor, St. Anselm) is confused with the theory put forward by John Calvin and Martin Luther, for whom the atonement meant a quasi-legal transaction in which Christ suffers the "retribution," "penalty," or "punishment" for sin in the place of sinners. In other words, Christ takes upon Himself what sinners deserve, and in this way He clears our debt to God's vindictive justice.

For St. Thomas, "satisfaction" does indeed involve making up our debt to God's justice for our sins. But what is "owed" is not retribution—or at least, our moral debt for sin can be made up to God in a way other than retribution. Our debt can be cleared by another kind of reparatory or compensatory act, which St. Thomas calls "satisfaction."

The word and concept of "satisfaction" actually derives from ancient Roman law. According to St. Thomas, a person can be said to make satisfaction for an offense when he offers something that the offended party accepts with a delight matching or outweighing his displeasure at the original offense. The offender "does enough to clear the debt." Take for example, the case of someone who in a fit of anger throws a punch at another, and breaks his jaw. Retributive justice says that the offender ought to suffer to an extent comparable to the suffering that he has caused. Thus, someone should punch him in the jaw too ("an eye for an eye"), or at least he ought to be put in jail and suffer a punishment that fits the crime. However, "satisfaction" for the original transgression might be made to the offended party in another way if the offender offers appropriate acts of "reparation" or "compensation." For example, he could offer a sincere apology for his actions, offer to pay the injured man's medical bills (plus a compensatory payment for pain and suffering), or do other acts of help and service to "make up" for his crime. All this would amount to "satisfaction" of the man's moral and legal debt.

St. Thomas states numerous times that what gives saving value in God's eyes to the life and death of His incarnate Son is the loving obedience of the Son's sacred humanity. That is why St. Thomas can argue that our Lord began to merit our salvation even from His cradle, because even His Holy Childhood was one continuous act of loving obedience to the Father. Moreover, St. Thomas quotes with approval St. Augustine's teaching that what made Christ's passion acceptable to the Father was the charity out of which He offered Himself up for us (ST III.48.3). Furthermore, it is important to note that because He is the divine Son in human flesh, all of his human acts are "theandric" (i.e., acts done by a divine person through His human nature) and therefore of infinite value. Christ's loving obedience throughout His life and death are therefore not only "sufficient" to "make up" for our sins—in fact, His life and death gains "superabundant" merit: it more than makes up for our sins. St. Thomas sums up his view of all this in the summa as follows (ST III.48.2):

He atones appropriately for an offense who offers whatever the offended party equally loves, or loves more than he detested the offense. But Christ by suffering out of love and obedience gave to God more than was required to compensate for the offenses of the whole human race. First, by reason of the tremendous charity from which he suffered; second, by reason of the dignity of his life, which he gave up in atonement, for this was the life of one who was both God and man; third, on account of the extent of the passion and the greatness of the sorrows suffered....and so Christ's passion was not merely sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race.

We see clearly here that in the theology of St. Thomas, Divine Mercy not only fulfills the demands of divine justice, but goes way beyond those demands, meriting an infinite ocean of graces which our Savior wants to pour out upon a lost and broken world!

(This series continues next week on Divine Mercy in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Again, we wish to acknowledge our debt for many of these reflections to the marvellous essay by Fr. John Saward, "Love's Second Name: St. Thomas on Mercy," that appeared in the Canadian Catholic Review in March 1990).

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