René Girard passed away November 4, 2015, to the great loss of the broader theological community. Though championed by theologians seeking alternatives to traditional views of the atonement, there is much for the evangelical community to appreciate and appropriate in this thought, particularly when it comes to the atonement—though doing so requires care and precision.
The key to appropriating Girard’s thought lies in appreciating the limits he sets for his project: “the present book can define itself as … an apology of Christianity rooted in what amounts to a Gospel-inspired breakthrough in the field of social science, not of theology” (I See Satan, 3, 105, 137, 141, 150). While he does occasionally make slightly bolder statements, the gist of Girard’s project is to develop the anthropological insight of the Gospel in such a way that is not at all antagonistic toward but rather inseparable from its theological point—a project he explicitly roots in the double nature of Jesus Christ. The question we ought to ask, given Girard’s aim, is not whether he advances an account of the work of Christ, which is in and of itself sufficient or orthodox, but rather whether Girard has uncovered a significant aspect of the work of Christ which belongs in a full account. The answer to this much more charitable question is yes, and the key has to do with anthropology.
There are a number of aspects of sin, which necessarily correspond to aspects of Christ’s reconciliation. One of these aspects or dimensions operates at the social level of reality—sin against neighbors and the reconciliation thereof. There is every reason to presuppose that Girard’s anthropological insight into the Gospel may in fact bring some clarity to Scripture’s witness to this specific moment, and in doing so, open our eyes to the other moments that relate to it.
Girard’s first and decisive move is his account of human sin as envy, which then leads to violence and murder. But does envy provide us with a vantage point within the doctrine of sin to develop a unique theory of the atonement? I believe it does. Jesus comes to us as the Lord who does not envy but is self-giving, exposing us as those who envy God’s lordship and wish to be our own lords that our own will might be done (Matt. 6:10). We are exposed as the ones who, if we could, would kill God but instead kill his prophets (Acts 7:52). As the ones who, wishing to be gods, are threatened by similar claim to deity by our neighbors and enviously seek to rise above them in violent conflict (whether passively or aggressively). As the ones who see the created order as on occasion for envy and strife.
But Jesus does this as the one who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil. 2:6), but gave himself for us, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7), who does not sacrifice others for himself but vice-versa. In coming to us, he enters our world of envy and takes upon himself the envy of the world and the death that is its ultimate fruit—“even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). But in doing this, the Father exalts him, passively receiving that which envy aggressively attempts to seize: the “name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9), the name into which we have been baptized (Acts 2:38). In this he constitutes us anew, setting forth a model and giving us the vocation to imitate him, to enter a cycle of redemptive mimesis in which that which is coveted (1 Cor. 12:31) leads now to life rather than death (see Heim, Saved From Sacrifice, 236-51).
Such a framework offers several significant developments to Girard’s thesis. First, it facilitates the growth of the theological aspects of his thesis by placing the anthropological point within a theological framework, seeing envy in light of God’s condescension and self-humiliation (Phil. 2:5-11). Second, it offers resources to develop his thesis in a more substitutionary direction, wherein Christ not only exposes our jealous and envy and mechanism by which we deal with it, but also bears our sin and its consequences, lending an objective aspect to Girard’s more subjective approach.
Most importantly, though, I believe that it alleviates the tension some might feel with regard to a potentially reductionist interpretation, overly emphasizing the anthropological aspect of the cross. The best way to respond to reductionisms is to offer a fuller framework which vindicates and honors their respective insights, availing ourselves thereby of “subjects that current theologians, even the most orthodox, have a tendency to neglect” (I See Satan, 192). While the above sketch does little more than raise such a possibility, I hope that it does so in such a way as to commend the work of René Girard to those might otherwise tend to dismiss him, as well as suggest the strengths of the thesis we developed in this chapter on sin.
As it stands, is Girard’s account sufficient? “Is salvation simply a matter of cessation of scapegoating,” and was Christ’s death and resurrection intended merely to expose the cycle of mimetic violence? Not at all. However, properly interpreted, Girard makes a vital contribution to the doctrine of the atonement, when it is born in mind that this contribution is primarily at the anthropological level of the gospel.