How the Mystery of the Trinity illuminates the mystery of atonement

“Far too many treatments of the doctrine of atonement,” says Margaret M. Turek, author of Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology (Ignatius Press, 2022), “focus almost exclusively on the role of the beloved Son while underplaying (or otherwise distorting!) the personal involvement of God the Father.”

Detail from "The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist, and Donors" by Masaccio (1401-1428) (Wikmedia Commons Image)

Margaret M. Turek, S.T.D., is Professor of Theology and Chair of Dogmatic Theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University. After studying and earning degrees at the University of San Francisco (where she studied in the St. Ignatius Institute) and at the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, she received her doctorate in sacred theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. She is the author of many articles and the book Towards a Theology of God the Father; her new book Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology was published recently by Ignatius Press.

CWR: How did this book come about?

Margaret M. Turek: The book had been in gestation for some time. When I was a young woman, a few days shy of my 21st birthday, I was graced by a life-changing encounter with God while gazing on a crucifix. What became clear to me at that moment was that I had been living under the influence of a distorted image of God the Father. I grasped, too, that Christ crucified is the consummate revelation of the Father who is rich in mercy, whose love is tendered in advance of any merit on our part. I knew the truth of these words of Saint Augustine: “Our one task in life is to heal the eyes of our heart so that we can see God.” This singular task became my life’s work.

Soon afterward I changed my undergraduate major to Theology. Following graduation I entered a Carmelite community and was privileged to undergo spiritual formation with them for six years. What drew me to the Carmelites was a way of life – a Rule of Life – designed to draw one by means of participation into the mystery of Christ’s Cross. The Carmelite Rule gave me the opportunity to explore Christology “from within” and by means of a contemplative approach.

With this foundation laid, I went on to do graduate studies in Theology, which culminated in my doctoral thesis on God the Father. My many years of teaching Theology, at both the University of Dallas and St. Patrick’s Seminary, have had one primary goal in view: to enable others to see with the eyes of their heart the glorious goodness of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as God works for us and in us and through us to deliver from evil. The book is simply the fruit of this effort, bound with a beautiful cover designed by Roxanne Lum.

CWR: You draw deeply on the works of four theologians, three of them well-known (and two of them popes) and one not known by most: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Norbert Hoffmann. Why these four theologians?

Dr. Turek: Given my personal history, it is not surprising that I would be attracted to those theologians who approach the mystery of the Cross event with a contemplative eye, who are masters at a “kneeling theology”. Because of their contemplative approach, they are able not only to deepen theological insight but also to express the Christian mysteries in a way that draws others to share in the mysteries themselves.

Another benefit gained from exploring their works is the emphasis they place on the Cross event not only as a work of atonement but also as the high point of God’s self-revelation. In particular, they often shift attention from the beloved Son on the Cross to the loving Father who sends and accompanies him, who remains always at work in him.

Far too many treatments of the doctrine of atonement focus almost exclusively on the role of the beloved Son while underplaying (or otherwise distorting!) the personal involvement of God the Father.

CWR: You note, in your Introduction, that the “theme of atonement takes us to the very heart of the mission of Jesus Christ” and then, a bit later, point out that not only is there a “modern aversion to a theology of atonement”, there is embarrassment on the part of many theologians about it. What are some reasons for that?

Dr. Turek: I have already noted one reason for the modern aversion to a doctrine of atonement: the prevalence of a distorted depiction of God the Father’s role in the Cross event. Ever since the 17th century and well into the 20th, a trend arose among theologians and preachers to portray God the Father along the lines of a celestial child abuser, as someone who is thirsty for vengeance and demanding the passion and death of his Son to calm his rage. Even today images like these still haunt the Christian imagination.

Closely coupled with this faulty notion of divine wrath is another mistaken view, one which errs in thinking that the Father undergoes a change of heart in the face of the Son’s self-sacrifice. God changes from a disposition devoid of love and blind with rage to a state of being appeased and pacified. The Son’s role is to win back the Father’s love for the human race – as if it belonged to the Son to generate love in the heart of the Father. But this is wholly at odds with the Johannine proclamation that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16) and the claim that we have come to know that God is love precisely in view of God’s sending his Son as atonement (1 Jn 4:8-10). The challenge facing theologians is to do justice to the biblical testimony by showing that the work of atonement is the result of the Father’s love. It does not result in the Father’s love being revived or jumpstarted, as it were.

This cluster of problems associated with the modern aversion to a doctrine of atonement stems from a flawed understanding of the Trinitarian Father. It seems to me that just as modern systematic atheism arose largely in reaction against a flawed notion of the Father’s almightiness, so likewise the modern repugnance to the doctrine of atonement is due largely to a defective understanding of the Father’s wrath.

When, as a graduate student, my focus turned toward the mystery of God the Father, I was astonished and disappointed to find that a theology of God’s Trinitarian Fatherhood had lain neglected for centuries. While countless books and articles had been written on Jesus and the Holy Spirit, relatively little light was being shed on the mystery of the Father. In my opinion, this regrettable situation is not simply due to the influence of radical feminism in recent decades; a certain theological myopia regarding this subject has gone untreated for hundreds of years. You can imagine my delighted relief, then, when I discovered the works of these four theologians, which provide a prescription to enable us to see more deeply into the mystery of the Fatherhood of God.

CWR: So far you have highlighted distorted views of God the Father that have been impediments to accepting the message of the Cross event as a work of atonement. What about mistaken or faulty notions of sin? How do they undermine a true understanding of atonement?

Dr. Turek: Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have expressed concern over the trivialization of sin that holds sway in many minds today. Such a reductionist view of sin often rests on a false presumption that we sinners know all about sin; after all, we are its perpetrators. But the Bible belies such a presumption. Sin can be fully understood only from God’s point of view. It seems to me especially important to bring forward John Paul II’s teaching on this subject: “Faced with the mystery of sin … it is not enough to search the human conscience… but we have to penetrate the inner mystery of God, those Trinitarian ‘depths of God’.” If the world is to be convinced concerning sin (cf. Jn 16:8-9), it will “have to mean revealing suffering. Revealing the pain, unimaginable and inexpressible, on account of sin [which the Bible] seems to glimpse in the ‘depths of God’ and in a certain sense in the very heart of the ineffable Trinity” (Dominum et vivificantem, nos. 32 and 39).

A major aim of my book is to counter the trivialization of sin while avoiding the mistaken view that the magnitude of sin is best measured by the magnitude of divine vengeance. I argue, instead, that it is above all in encountering God’s radically forgiving passion of love (passio caritatis) “that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin” (Catechism #1432).

CWR: Why is the Mystery of the Trinity so vital to illuminating the mystery of atonement?

Dr. Turek: As I noted just now, sin is a mystery of Trinitarian proportions. Sin possesses an infinite quality inasmuch as it is the rejection of a gift of infinite magnitude: the passionate love with which the Father wants to beget (divinize) human beings as adopted sons, children, in his Only-Begotten Son. Seen from the vantage point of the Trinity, sin in its deepest character is an inter-personal event between ‘Father’ and ‘son’.

If this is true, then we can begin to see why atonement is also a mystery of Trinitarian proportions. The Cross event demonstrates the Trinity’s determination to stick to the ultimate aim of creation: God creates human beings with the aim of drawing us into the mystery of divine generation. Or what amounts to the same: God creates human beings for participation in the Son’s personal relation to the Father within the Trinity. For us and for our salvation, the Father made the Son “to be sin” (2 Cor 5:21) because those who became sinners were made to become sons.

My book makes the case that what is at stake in the Christian doctrine of atonement is nothing less than the Christian doctrine of God, the eternal Trinity. It argues that if we are to do justice to biblical revelation, we must take account of the profoundly inter-personal quality of the process by which sin is eliminated. To see into the heart of the Cross event is to see that forgiveness and atonement are rooted in the Trinity like fatherhood and sonship. It is to see the Cross event as a dramatic epiphany, shaped in response to sin, of the mystery of the triune God who is caritas (cf. 1 Jn 4:7-10).

CWR: You cover a lot of ground in your chapter on atonement in the Old Testament: what are a couple of key insights that you highlight?

Dr. Turek: Earlier we acknowledged that a defective notion of divine wrath has provoked a negative reaction to the Christian doctrine of atonement. All the same, my book does not simply ignore or cast aside the many (and there are many) biblical references to God’s anger in the both the Old and the New Testaments. Instead of dismissing the biblical testimony to God’s wrath as primitive thinking, we are to see that God’s wrath has an integral role to play in enabling his filial beloved to atone for sin, yet without misconstruing it along the lines of celestial child abuse. In my book, the notion of God’s wrath is purified of violent aims separated from love, and the redemptive purpose of divine wrath/judgment in the Bible is given its due attention.

I might add that for all the concern to understand atonement in light of the mystery of the Trinity, the book consistently relies on the life-testimonial of the prophets, the martyrs, and the saints. Perceiving Christ to be the keystone of God’s relationship with humanity, the book highlights Christological images and patterns in the experiences of both the prophets of Israel (in Chapter 1) and the saints of the Church (in Chapter 3). By virtue of their participation in the mission of Christ, these holy men and women enable us to understand the mystery of atonement “from within” their concrete personal histories.

This approach sets the book apart from others on atonement which typically limit their interpretation of Christ’s Passion and death to the liturgical context of ritual sacrifice (sacrifices of expiation) without adequately exploring the existential context of atonement as can be found in Israel’s exilic suffering, the prophetic figures of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) and of the “Pierced One” (Zechariah 12), as well as the martyrs (in Daniel and 2 Maccabees) and the Christian saints up to the present day.

CWR: What is the relationship between God’s granting of forgiveness through Christ (often emphasized today) and Christ’s vicarious atonement for our sins (often ignored today)? Why must they be understood together?

Margaret M. Turek: Actually, my entire book is devoted to answering this question. For now, let me say just this. If forgiveness and atonement are rooted in the Trinity like fatherhood and sonship (which is a central claim of the book), then we’ve uncovered the deepest theological root to explain why the Father is not content to grant a one-sided forgiveness without involving the willing collaboration of his filial beloved. For already in the Trinity, the relationship of Father and Son lives by the interpersonal process of initiating love and answering love, generative love and engendered love, archetypal love and imaging love.

Now if God creates and calls human beings to be beloved sons/daughters in the Son, and if this relationship is ruptured due to sin, then it is most fitting that God’s forgiving power would take full effect in his beloved (in Christ, once for all) only by engendering a response of filial love that takes the form of atonement. There is much more to this mystery, of course, and so I direct CWR readers to the book.

CWR: How might you summarize your chapter, titled “Toward a Spiritual Theology of Atonement”? Why is this such a necessary focus and emphasis?

Margaret M. Turek: In this chapter, the spotlight shifts to the Holy Spirit, who divinizes us by drawing us into Christ’s relation to the Father within the Trinity. By the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we are empowered as “sons in the Son” to participate in Christ’s mission of atonement. This chapter aims to put to rest any suspicion that Christ’s representative atonement is an automatic process that overrides our free cooperation. At the same time, it means to satisfy those who object to a doctrine of atonement that infantilizes human beings by depriving us of our freedom and denying us the dignity of bearing our own guilt. The chapter achieves these aims, I believe, without jeopardizing the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of man.

Perhaps more importantly, this chapter encourages the reader to move toward a renewed spirituality of atonement. It saddens me to say this but over the last 60 years or so many Catholics have failed to see that our Yes to (adoptive) sonship in Christ is a Yes to co-atonement in Christ. This chapter argues that the call to holiness inevitably entails a call to the vicarious bearing of the guilt of others. “In Christ” we can co-atone, not only for ourselves, but also for our loved ones and especially for our enemies. We are to echo the conviction of Saint Paul that anything we suffer we can offer up in union with Christ for the salvation of others (cf. 2 Cor 1:3-7). Even ordinary troubles and trials can be transformed into situations that share in the fruitfulness of Christ’s atoning work — if they are borne with faith and charity.

Finally, I find an opportunity in this chapter to include the spiritual wisdom and experience of Saint Therese of Lisieux on the subject of co-atonement in Christ. I am indebted to her for enabling me to understand the mystery of atonement “from within” her personal mission as a Carmelite.


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About Carl E. Olson 1179 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

4 Comments

  1. Dr Turek is appealing, while celestial child abusers are appalling. A question on Justice, missing in the Doctor’s take on Atonement. There are just two mentions of justice, doing justice to biblical testimony and to biblical revelation. Missing is how is the virtue justice consistent with Atonement, if at all?
    “God changes from a disposition devoid of love and blind with rage to a state of being appeased and pacified” (Turek’s criticism of legalism). Justice may be, as perceived by this writer correct me if I’m wrong, obliquely referenced as rage, rage referred twice to a God devoid of love who demands reparation for sin. Interviewer Olson then asks a key question, the correctness of the apprehension of sin. Dr Turek responds, it will “have to mean revealing suffering. Revealing the pain, unimaginable and inexpressible, a glimpse into the ‘depths of God’ and in a certain sense in the very heart of the ineffable Trinity” (Dominum et vivificantem).
    This theological muse is excellent, fine for the well read, the theologian, although enigmatic, and not really accessible for the average man. While the basics of Dr Turek’s theological vision on Trinitarian atonement is indeed appealing, it requires for most a dash on what easily identifies sin, that it offends a Trinitarian communion and requires atonement.

  2. “…why the Father is not content to grant a one-sided forgiveness without involving the willing collaboration of his filial beloved. [NB: By extension, this collaboration/cooperation would include His adopted sons and daughters] For already in the Trinity, the relationship of Father and Son lives by the interpersonal process….” of initiating/receiving, giving/taking, asking/answering, etc.,

    This sounds very much like “active participation” which is best done during Mass, then carrying its fruits into our day.

    Happy Easter, Everyone!

  3. What an insightful idea and interview. Thank You. Hebrews 10:14 Lays it out for me. The Trinitarian context helps one understand the eternal perfection granted to those who receive Him (“made perfect forever”) It is also helpful with the transcendent inner change of heart and mind that can be embraced, expressed, renewed, and expanded. (“I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds”)

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