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Bushnell And 'The Vicarious Sacrifice'


HORACE BUSHNELL was born in Connecticut in 1802. He died in 1876. He was reared in the Congregational Church, but his mother had been a member of the Episcopal Church, and his father had learned Arminian views from his mother and objected to the rigid Calvinism delivered where he lived. So religiously varied currents met in Horace Bushnell. His father had two occupations —conducting a factory and a farm. Bushnell worked in connection with both. His heredity and environment seemed to combine to preclude narrowness and provincial-ism. Diversity came in upon him in life and thought. His mother was a woman by whom duty was made authoritative without being hateful, and who made religion felt as a reality without making it a constant topic of conversation. The home was a New England home and more ; and in a sense it was prophetic of Bushnell, who was to be a New England man, and far more than that. Conscience, and a practical relation to life, with a compelling conviction in the things of religion, are three New England characteristics. These things were true, but not the distinctive, characteristics of Bushnell. The deep vein of mysticism and the versatility of his thought and life in combination with the other qualities, made Bushnell what he was. At twenty-one he entered Yale College. After a course where he was felt as a leader he graduated. Then he studied law and became a tutor in the college. He had been religious as a boy, but a skeptical period came and an intense revival movement in the college found him intellectually unsympathetic. A group of young men who ad-mired him stood aloof from the movement. This was more than Bushnell could bear. He listened to the demands of his conscience and his heart and opened himself to the revival influences. How his doubts were dealt with may be seen in his own words. Speaking of the Trinity he said: "I am glad I have a heart as well as a head. My heart wants the Father, my heart wants the Son, my heart wants the Holy Ghost and one just as much as the other." It was the appeal to experience which was to underlie much of his thinking and life. He entered the divinity school and in 1833 was invited to become pastor of the North Church in Hartford, Connecticut, where all his active ministerial life was spent. His pastorate entered into the very life of Hartford. The park bearing his name is one evidence of how deeply he impressed the city. His influence entered into the fiber of the manhood of the city, inspired it in educational ideals and even in commercial activity. He became Hartford's first citizen. After hearing him on Sunday, we are told, men would say, "I've heard a great sermon and I'm going to make my week mean something!" His relation to his own church is suggested by the unity with which it stood by him through the fierce theological controversies which raged about him, finally withdrawing from the Concession to protect him and express its loyalty to him. When his divergence from opinions almost universally held be-came understood the attack began which continued a running fire for years. Vain attempts were made again and again to bring him to trial. The Congregational polity was in his favor. Besides, Bushnell was not the sort of man to try for heresy; there was such a massive Christian quality about him that New England common sense held the heresy-hunters in check. He was interested in everything. He planned roads, could not pass over a stream without calculating its water power, had a passion for nature, organized a musical society when at Yale, was practical, poetic, virile, alive to the finger tips. Through all this versatile life the ring of conscience sounds clear, and under it there heaved the great tidal movement of a deep personal religious life. He was forever original. Though a reader, he was not in any technical sense a scholar. There was too much going on inside his own mind for that. He kept problems hanging on pegs, as he said, until he could get to them. Such eagerness and such vitality were his that to the last he was planning new and large enterprises of thought. If he was still alive, he would be publishing a book this year to startle men out of intellectual sluggishness, partly agreeing with the spirit of the time, as easily disagreeing with it ; moving with an almost airy freedom from earth's control, but with a very solid strength for a man who has wings. His thinking was a preacher's thinking, his theology was a preacher's theology. The young men who listened to him in Hartford found in him a leader. Through his books he has been the master of many, a sort of theological pastor, and his preaching rooted in his experience. Skillful and brilliant as he was, the secret of his power was not in these things, except as they expressed the spiritual realities which he had verified in his own life. Great as he was a thinker, he was greater as a seer. His style at times is dazzlingly brilliant. Heaven and earth are laid under tribute, and one is sometimes almost bewildered by the play of light, the gleam of figure, the sweep of movement, and the quality of noble phrase. Yet it is not always an easy style to read, and it is not always just lucid. Bushnell's originality is his weakness, as well as his strength, here as elsewhere. He takes liberties with words. To a generation taught by Matthew Arnold some of his constructions are awkward. Perhaps it would be too much to expect a volcano to have regard to literary chastity. There is something in Bushnell's style which suggests the paintings of Church, with their daring brilliancy of color. The comparison may not be fair to Bushnell, but he has something of the fault of Church., All is, of course, redeemed by a wealth of thought which completely saves his style from being splendid pyrotechnics. Its best defense would be to say that it was an expression of the man.

The last years of Bushnell's life were a battle with disease. A manly battle it was, and they were not years of idleness. They were filled with work as he was able, and the richness of his nearness to God glowed over them. The theological controversies were healed not by agreement but by a growing respect and reverence for the man. In the day of his passing one of America's most distinct and notable minds was lost to this world's activities. When we think of the largely built men of his century, we do not hesitate to name him among them.


The New England theology was a thing of wonderful logical acumen, but it tended to reduce theology to the terms of formal logic. In one way Browning's "Tertium Quid" in The Ring and the Book might represent its fatal tendency to miss reality in the pursuit of logical correctness. And the logic became not merely formal and mechanical but cold, heartless, even cruel. Some of its assertions were unethical enough unless measured by some supramundane standard of ethics where two and two morally do not make four. The reaction from this came about in two ways. First there was the Unitarian movement. It had several aspects. There was the moral aspect. Trying to get away from an immoral God, it gave itself to negations. It insisted and reinsisted that certain cruel things which theology had asserted could not be true of God. In many of its negations it was correct enough, and, doubtless, many were driven into Unitarianism by the false assertions of a mistaken orthodoxy. Then there was its theological aspect. It more and more reacted so as to leave Christ quite completely without divinity. Beginning with a lofty and spiritual sort of Arianism, by the very law of its nature it lowered and lowered its estimate of Christ. A distrust of the potency of the supernatural led toward the repudiation of miracles. Theologically, Unitarianism tended to drift into a modified skepticism. Then there was the aesthetic side. It represented religion without ethical cost. It created piety without the echo of Mount Sinai thundering through it. A natural outcome of this aspect is seen later in the philosophy of Emerson and the dilettante piety of "Christian Science." Beginning as a party of protest, Unitarianism possessed great and noble leaders. In many details it was right. But almost every pro-found tendency promised less and less noble things in days to come. The other reaction from the older New England theology was in the direction of a modified Calvinism. Here the governmental theory of the atonement found play. But it was an attempt to heal with more logic the wounds made by logic. The syllogism still sat grandly on the throne. Whatever may be thought of it as an intellectual achievement, the result did not save the situation. The modified Calvinism had taken up logic and by its logic it was to perish. In such a theological world Bushnell was trained. His whole theological life was a reaction from the reign of formal logic. The heart must be heard. Life must speak. Christian thinking must be made vital. We will best approach his work from the standpoint of his theory of language. To him language was not a vehicle of absolutely correct speech; it was a symbol, a suggestion. If this were true, it was a great and destructive bomb thrown into the camp of the formal logicians. For, if words are but symbols, how can they be used in closely reasoned demonstrations? Who would think of making a syllogism of metaphors? Words are a means of contact with reality through a sort of splendid suggestion, but you must not try to tie them down to the niceties of absolute accuracy. Then nature was a great symbol. Bushnell was quite Wordsworthian in his feeling about nature. It was just another set of words, a symbol of the highest realities of life. Coming in this attitude to the problems of theology, he had a wonderful exegetical freedom. He really did not need the help of modern critical scholarship; his theory of language saved him in every awkward situation. Regarding the Trinity he at first expressed himself in quite Sabellian forms. He had a passion for the unity of God like that of Unitarians. One God with three modes of expression might pretty well describe the impression made by his early writing about the Trinity. The more he thought over the problem the more he tended to move toward orthodoxy. He pushed the distinctions in the Godhead farther and farther back until finally he spoke of God as "eternally threeing himself." Perhaps this sounds more nearly orthodox than it is, for to the last Bushnell emphasized the threefold aspect as necessary in regard to relations with the finite rather than inherently essential to the life of the Godhead. His study of the supernatural recognized a world of nature, with its mechanical laws, and a supernatural world. including all persons man as well as God but he conceived of it all as a unity with God as ruler. The contention that man was supernatural tended to be of the greatest help to men beginning to be afraid of the laws of nature, and his insistence that all made a unity ruled by God was right and true. If he had seen that even the laws of nature are just God's ways of doing things, he would have come to the very heart of the problem. His work on Christian Nurture, of more practical than theological value, insisted that children in Christian homes should be brought up as belonging to God and trained as members of his King-dom. This seems like a commonplace now, but the practical contention, valuable as it was, had a theological presupposition which needs careful scrutiny. A certain kind of emphasis on training needs to be made with clear understanding of the meaning of personality and personal choice. When Bushnell spoke of Christ he usually used terms in which the divinity swallowed up the humanity. He was sure of God in Christ. The other side of the problem perhaps scarcely occurred to him.

This hasty sketch of his work as a Christian thinker, omitting The Vicarious Sacrifice, which will be referred to immediately, does not reveal what was most characteristic and valuable in his theological method. He was always expressing his own Christian experience, or what he felt necessary to protect it. It was the theological foundation for a life he wanted to get. He was ready to consider and reconsider his theology in the light of his growing Christian life. Theology was to be not merely crystallized Christian experience; it was to be Christian experience living and thrilling in beautiful symbols, forever suggesting and leading the soul to the sanctuaries of Christian reality itself.


The first volume of The Vicarious Sacrifice was written during the Civil War. The book itself has a great throb of battle in it.

But it is no petty warfare, with intellectual raid and plunder; it is a great, noble battle, a Gettysburg, with far-flung lines and loftiest heroism. The book has its necessary polemic, but its whole tone is lofty. Here Bushnell's repudiation of the theology of formal logic is expressed at white heat. The central thing about the Christian faith was salvation. The central thing must be expressed in terms of life. It must not be even wonderfully articulated bones, it must be flesh and blood and nerves. Here theology must be translated into heart throbs. So he set to work upon the great task, to discuss salvation in terms of life. And the great principle, the positive foundation for all the work, was the necessity inherent in love to get under whatever bur-den of sorrow and pain and sin affects those loved; in suffering sympathy to enter into the very meaning of their woe ; to bare its own life to the blasts which beat upon them; to go forth to rescue at whatever cost, nay, with a certain passionate eagerness for the cost of sorrowful experience which will work rescue. This is the principle of vicarious sacrifice inherent in love. It is a universal principle. It is true of God the Father, it is true of the Holy Ghost, it is true of the good angels, it is true of all redeemed souls. When love is love it has no other choice than to go forth under any burden of pain for the helping of those for whom love yearns. This is the motive of salvation. This is the spiritual meaning of the cross. It is an eternal meaning. There was a cross in the heart of God from eternity. Christ revealed it on Calvary. The inherent obligation of God's life required this sacrifice. He was not any better than he ought to be; he was just completely loyal to the meaning of his own love. But this quality of willingness to suffer for the rescue of men becomes itself a moral power, becomes itself a rescue when it is expressed in terms of human life. The vicarious principle in the heart of God, crystallized into action, becomes the moral power which conquers and renovates the sinner. Christ came to be this moral power—not to be simply an example, not to be simply an influence, but to be a power, the power of love in the abandon of suffering to rescue from sin. His work as a healer gives a keynote to his ministry. He was always healing bodies, it was a parable of his work as a healer of souls. No technical change in legal status would satisfy him; he must see sin conquered slain in man, and his work was so to become a moral power that the very root motives in men's lives would be seized and held for God. How did he do it? By every-thing about him. By life and death all together. He did not come to die; he died because he was here and the situation in which he found himself required death. You can follow his life from the start, however, and, full of wonder as it is, full of heartbreak as his death is, the pivotal place in his practically becoming a moral power was at the resurrection. That showed who he was. The life and death of a splendid man could not become the required moral power, but the life and death of One revealed by the resurrection to be God in human life breaks right into the heart and becomes the power of God unto salvation. View life, and words, and works, and death from this high vantage ground, and all leaps with significance. The eternal heartbreak in the life of God has got itself expressed. Thus he loved, thus he suffered ; thus he entered the very burden of the world's woeful sin. Thus the very moral potency of God is set loose in human life. Thus does Christ become the moral power of God in rescuing men from sin.

But now we are beset by the hosts of the logicians. What becomes of the justice of God in this view? The question rings out with the charge of the enemy. Right eagerly Bushnell girds himself for the fray. Let us get to the root of the matter, he says, in effect. This whole question of justice must be scrutinized, for justice is not the fundamental thing in God. Justice is a quality of God in the practical exigencies of government. There is a deeper thing. It is the very ideal law of right, existing before government; the law in fundamental oneness with which God is what he is. Justice must be treated with respect, but this fundamental law must be satisfied. And what is vicarious sacrifice, what is love taking up the burden, the woe, the whole tragedy of sin upon its own feeling and life, in rescuing agony, but the very expression of this fundamental law? This is the law before government. It is the deepest thing we can touch; and instead of being an obstacle in the way, it causes the rescue of men by the moral power of vicarious sacrifice. But what about the antagonism between justice and mercy? There is no antagonism. They work together. Justice holds the evil man in the chains of his evil until a change in his life lifts him out of the category where retributive causes work. There is no let-up in this. It is unflinching. Mercy finds a way to work in the man a change which lifts him out of the range of the retributive causes of life. Justice is steady, and works as another force in the very field where mercy works. Like two forces in nature, they may seem to contain a formal contradiction but really are cooperative in the whole process. But what about the law's high demand upon life? Christ honors it in every way. He restores men to obedience to it. He restores it to its place of power. He obeys it himself, and he dies in loyalty to it. Christ is the great supporter and uplifter of the law. As to legal enforcement, there is no failure. We may almost say that a new sternness comes to light in Christ. He first announced the doctrine of eternal punishment, and he announced it in the most appalling forms of speech. And he announced the judgment. His words flame with moral fire. All this perfectly protects legal enforcements. As to God's rectoral honor, that, too, is protected. For Christ as God stepped aside from no burden laid upon the race by the curse of sin. He entered into the very meaning of the curse. Under its pressure he so lived and wrought and died as to become the world's supreme moral power. A work so wrought can never dishonor God as a ruler. So, not by mechanical or commercial substitution but by the moral power of his vicarious sacrifice, Christ works out our salvation. It is a process wrought in men. It is not something done for them in which they have no part. And what is their part? It is the consent of faith. By faith they so open their lives to this moral power that it does its work in them. Justification by faith is not a new legal status; it is a new life. The sinner is actually made into a new creature; but this new life constantly comes from the power of Christ. The man all the while is being worked upon. And this constant derivation of power from Christ through faith is justification.

Just now another attack comes sweeping before the reader. The guns thunder with the sacrificial ammunition of the Old Testament. Bushnell proceeds, as he believes, to capture the guns and to turn them upon the enemy. What was the meaning of the whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament? Why, like words themselves, it was a great symbol, and it was finally to teach not legal cleansing but moral cleansing. Ceremonial cleansing was finally to uplift cleansing of life. The whole system was a parable of purification. And what does all this mean but that the whole system was a preparation for the viewing of Christ's work as a real purification, as a moral power?

Now, after the manner of ancient battles, the fighting along the line ceases and some giant words come up to do single combat.

There are three Goliaths of them: Atonement, Propitiation, and Expiation. Of these Expiation is a Philistine indeed and Bushnell goes forth to his slaying. As a matter of fact, we are told, expiation is no biblical conception at all. It is a heathen conception grafted on the Bible and grafted on the gospel. Expiation spells itself out in terms of unutterable cruelty. It is a heartless conception from the classics. It has no home in the Bible nor in our faith. Expiation slain, atonement and propitiation are explained. They have been fighting under the wrong colors. All we need is to understand them. Atonement is at-one-ment the real, not the legal, harmonizing of man and God. And how is this done except by the power of Christ making the man a new creature? Propitiation is the new attitude God can have toward this changed, renewed man. The essential change is in the man. This makes possible a new relation of God to him, and this essential change is wrought by the moral power of Christ. But there is something left to be done. Christ's great sacrifice is to become a moral power in our lives and so save us from sin, but he does not become a moral power by our calling him that. He does not become a moral power by our thinking of him as that, or by our trusting him as that. In fact, we must for-get all about his being a moral power, or he cannot be the greatest power at all. Our very self-consciousness, in thinking of him as a moral power, is in danger of preventing his becoming so. How is this dilemma to be dealt with? We must think of him objectively. Not that his work is objective, to be sure, but that in order to be subjective it needs to be thought of objectively. So we may bring back the very phrases of objective atonement, only we will under-stand that we are using them as beautiful symbols to deliver us from over-subjectivity; not that we accept any mechanical logical conception which might seem to flow from their use. So shall Christ become our great moral power. So shall his vicarious sacrifice renew the world.


All this work is done with a mental brilliancy, a resourcefulness in conflict, a constant and detailed reference to the Bible seen from continually surprising angles, a depth of spiritual power, a devotion to Christ and a moral passion of which this discussion has given no adequate notion at all. It is a splendid piece of constructive work coming from the mind and heart of a great Christian man. Now, what is to be our verdict upon it? 1. In the first place, the great positive contention is true. Mr. Charles W. Iglehart once described the "Moral Influence theory" as "a number of true things about the atonement." That Christ's work is a power in men can never be denied, but while that is true it is not all the truth; while it is a power in men it is also an achievement for men; and this Bushnell did not see. 2. Not a little of Bushnell's negative work will stand. The crass mechanical views of the atonement must be repudiated, and repudiated as earnestly as by Bushnell; but he had not faced the question whether an objective work of Christ had not been wrought which was no mechanical or commercial exchange, but a vital thing, capable of being expressed in terms of vitality. And he did not ask if many who used terribly inadequate phrases might not be feeling after a reality which their phrases grossly misrepresented, but which was the great fact of the whole matter for all that. If he had sought to find the vital meaning in an objective atonement, instead of discarding it, all his work would have been different. 3. His presentation of the moral view keeps within sound of the thunders of Mount Sinai in the most wonderful way. It would surely be impossible to present the moral view in a more whole-some fashion. What he says of judgment, punishment, and all ethical things bristles with cutting blades of moral intensity. This is not, I think one may say, a characteristic of typical moral-influence theories. Could a man who had such an intensely glowing sense of fundamental moral things continue contented with the moral view? It remained to be seen. 4. His theory of language was a pitfall to its user. Of course there is a large symbolic element in language ; but if speech is to be at all trustworthy, there must be a place for definite meanings, and even in transcendent themes we may be sure of certain results without claiming any exhaustive knowledge. We may have islands of certainty even in the infinite ocean. There is a symbolic element in language and there is a definite element. When all speech is reduced to symbol it makes a man too free. It tends to make him lawless. 5. So Bushnell's use of the Bible, unconsciously to himself, was free and easy. It is not dependable. Often where modern criticism would have delivered Bushnell from difficulty he just takes wings and flies away. He had a right to the deliverance, but he had no right to the method, and often he uses the method when he has no right either to the deliverance or to the method. We must treat words more seriously and reverently than his theory allowed. 6. His feeling that the great subjective work must be spoken of as though it were objective is a most interesting thing. It gives an air of artificiality to this part of a most real book. Yet his point is surely well made, and the escape from the dilemma is not hard for us to see. The work must be thought of objectively because it is an objective work not as a necessary mental fiction. It is a work for us, and so becomes a power in us. Seeing the matter in this light, we preserve all that is of value in the moral view and give the deeper the central fact of the atonement its right place. 7. With all its vitality, there are most vital and essential questions the book does not adequately face: What does sin mean in the sight of God? Does sin make such a difference to God that something more than the rescue of the sinner must be done to satisfy him? How is the rescued man to have peace in spite of his memory of past sins? Just what is the New Testament consciousness about the death of Christ? 8. Bushnell did not succeed in so getting the great law of right quite into the nature of God that here was the very source of its existence. If he had done this, and had faced the demand of the nature of God in the presence of sin, he would have found full deliverance from mechanical and commercial theories, but he would not have made the port of the moral-influence theory.


The second volume of The Vicarious Sacrifice was first published in 1874 eight years after the publication of the first volume. It was published as a separate work, with the title, Forgiveness and Law, and it was Bushnell's intention that it should appear finally as a substitute for Parts III and IV of his earlier volume. This was much objected to, and after his death it was decided to let the first volume stand as it was, and publish Forgiveness and Law as a second volume under the same title as the first The Vicarious Sacrifice.

This volume came as a result of what Bushnell felt to be an accession of new light. It has two positive contentions. One has regard to propitiation, the other expresses a conception of the relation of law and commandment. Bushnell had made the discovery that when a man tries to forgive there is a moral repulsion which can be overcome only as the person wronged gives himself, in some way, in self-sacrifice and suffering, to the one who has wronged him. Then the hardness or moral repulsion departs from his own heart. He has propitiated himself. Using his favorite principle of arguing from analogy, Bushnell reasoned, If this be true of human nature, why not of the divine nature? And so he came to the conclusion that there is a moral repulsion in God's nature which is overcome by self-propitiation. But this self-propitiation of God is not the suffering life and death of Jesus. These are the means by which God's self-propitiation is revealed to men. But the self-propitiation itself is an eternal thing God's everlasting taking cost and suffering upon himself by virtue of his very nature. Jesus made this aspect of the nature of God tangible to men. It now becomes possible for Bushnell to see more in the phrases representing the idea of propitiation in the Bible. He now has a distinctly Godward side in his conception of the atonement. The other positive contention of the new volume had regard to law and commandment. Bushnell felt that the commandment of Christ was a different thing from the law the statutes of the Old Testament. The one was legal, and imposed demands for a man to perform definite things. The other implanted a great principle and, in free and spontaneous dependence on Christ, expected loyalty to it. Life, Bushnell felt, is full of parallels to these two. First there is the legal demand ; later, with new incentives, the spontaneous loyalty. But these legal demands have regard not to final justice, but to discipline, and the "penally coercive discipline" and the great motives back of the commandment together work the completion of the Christian man. Final justice comes only in the summing up after this life is over. It has nothing to do with this life. This world is a place of discipline. And in that discipline the harder pressure of the law and the creative incentives of the commandment work together. Bushnell re-affirms his attitude toward justification by faith and urges finally the viewing of Christianity under different forms of thought, such as those used by Jesus in fore-telling the Holy Spirit's work, in order that we may be freed from the frozen lifelessness of old formulas, and, perhaps, at last, from the larger perspective, see more adequately the great meaning of old words enslaved now by a scholastic theology.

This book was written when Bushnell was about seventy years old. There are several things to be said about it. 1. It shows his wonderful openness of mind. He was al-ways ready to receive new truth. He was the kind of man who keeps growing to the day of his death. 2. It was, more than he really knew, probably, a step toward an objective view of the atonement. It recognized an obstacle in God which had to be met. It was met, he believed, by self-propitiation. This was a long step. When a man sees that God's nature is such that something must be done to satisfy him before sin can be forgiven he is no longer merely a teacher of the moral-influence theory. 3. The significance of all this lies here : Bushnell had written the most nobly Christian exposition which could be made of the moral view. If a Christian could ever rest in that view, he could rest in it as it is expressed by Bushnell. But Bushnell him-self could not rest in it. His own Christian consciousness was so profound that it required something more. And so the man of seventy years set about thinking out this "something more" and found it as an objective element, a Godward side to the atonement. So, though he himself did not see it, Bushnell becomes the most effective critic of the moral view. 4. It is, I think, not fanciful to see a certain kinship between Bushnell's idea of self-propitiation and Professor Curtis's idea of self-expression. The latter idea seems to have the reality Bushnell was reaching after. 5. His contention that this world is not being conducted on principles of absolute and stringent justice is correct. Such a view would preclude forgiveness. 6. But you do not feel that he has found the real root of the demand for the atonement. His is a nobly Christian mind moving toward the haven with the haven not yet in sight. The great true thing about Bushnell in relation to theology was his profound conviction that theology must not be a dead formula but a living reality. It must be a perfect dynamo of vital energy.

( Originally Published 1915 )

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