Cross purposes: The violent grammar of Christian atonement

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




James G. Williams


Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Violent, Christian, Atonement, New Testament

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Religion | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion


Key Western theories of Christ's death on the cross have been worked out in terms of exchange brought about by violence. The most influential example is that of Anselm, of Canterbury (1033-1109), that Christ's death made satisfaction to/for God's offended honor. Mimetic anthropology, based in the work of René Girard, provides a powerful deconstructive tool in regard to such doctrine. It demonstrates the inherent quotient of violence in the logic used, producing a divine hypostasis of violence. Application of this analysis to concrete episodes of the medieval period further locates the Anselmian text in a frame where violence is constitutive of cultural practice, meaning and symbols.

An alternative tradition exists--that compassion of the crucified is the most persuasive account of the cross of Christ. Radicalized mimetic anthropology--understanding the "self" as already a version or repetition of the "other"--enables; us to describe this compassion as solidarity in suffering and at an abyssal level. This means that non-retaliation and forgiveness provide an "alternative" (self) to and for the violence profoundly shaping relationality, that they do so at a level beneath all phenomenality of violence, and that such explanation in and of itself lacks metaphysical necessity: it is the qualitative uncertainty of com-passion that is its only warrant to "alter" violence. This account is, therefore, intrinsically rhetorical, illustrated consistently both by the philosophical aporia of "repetition," and by particular exempla drawn from world literature. And yet it is also historical, rooted in the particular and contingent. A hermeneutic of the New Testament rejects exchangist notions of Christ's death, highlighting rather the apocalyptic content which fits the interruptive nature of the cross, and gives credibility to a contingent intentionality in the historical Jesus. In this light the conclusion detects in Christ's abyssal com-passion the re-creative quality of "new time," both for God and humanity, obviating need for systematic accounts incorporating both violence and non-violence in the one God.


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