March 10, 2004
Atonement and victory

Peter writes that the Passion movie reminds him of the discussion he had with me about a year ago about the theology of the crucifixion. Actually, I was thinking the same thing, and it's interesting to compare myself then with now. After that discussion I basically dropped the subject and didn't think about it a whole lot. So it's interesting to see how my thinking has moved, even though it's been largely subconscious.

Part of what was different about me then was I kind of understood the relationship between God and human as a giant omnipotent being over a helpless insect. Although Christians see God as sovereign, of course, I hadn't quite realized how exalted they see humanity as becoming: to reign with God in the kingdom of heaven, beneath him but also alongside him. The omnipotence thing is still a big problem for me, but it does explain a bit why God is going at this interactively rather than by fiat. I mentioned in a comment to this post that I had warmed to the idea of "God became man so that man could become divine." Back when Telford first told me that line, on Palm Sunday last year, I didn't understand what he was talking about, because the whole "man becoming divine" thing hadn't quite reached me yet.

I also mentioned that I hated substitional atonement theory, which was the main point of contention back then. When I think about it now, though, I see the theory as not so much bad as incomplete. Peter referred to it then as if it were the lone Christian theory before these newfangled interpretations came along, but actually it originated with Calvin. And it really only makes sense in the Calvinist universe, which it's odd that so many non-Calvinists have adopted it.

The main problem for me is that it focuses entirely on man as transgressor. That fits with the Calvinist idea of total depravity, which holds that except for divine intervention man is completely wicked and deserving only of hell. God, apparently, wanted to deliver a world of hurt on us for this, but delivered it to his son instead.

There are a number of things, it seems to me, that this leaves out. For one thing, it's all about humanity's corporate sin against God, and says nothing about people's sins against each other. People were already suffering for sin -- they mostly just suffered for other people's, rather than their own. Jesus, in fact, talked about this a lot during his life, and both preached and showed compassion for the suffering. But why would God care about this? If all he cares about is the sin against himself, why put "love your neighbor" on par with "love God"? Why love your enemies? According to this line of thought, the suffering on earth are only getting their just deserts ahead of schedule.

When I talked about this with Telford yesterday, he told me of another problem he raises with his students. (Nobody dissects Calvinism like an ex-Calvinist.) What, then, does the resurrection mean? God wanted his sacrifice, and he got his sacrifice. Why raise him again? He also pointed out that the whole thing seems to happen in a closed system, a transaction between God and himself. Humans are strangely passive, which seems to fit Calvinism's idea of predestination and irresistable grace, but leaves it a bit unclear why humans, then, should have to do anything.

As Kynn put it while we were blogging Mark, this leads a lot of conservative Protestants to act as if Jesus came to earth just to die. Which has led some liberal Protestants to downplay the idea that the death actually achieved much of anything, and to focus almost exclusively on the life and teachings. But another idea that's almost the diametric opposite of SA was spelled out by the Methodist pastor in this post at Mark Kleiman's blog. The concept is indeed a venerable one in its own right, Christus Victor. He refers to a passage from Revelation about a battle with a dragon:

If you only read this passage, you might think that the Dragon is a Devil like the devil in Mel Gibson's movie, an evil person who wants to throw souls into hell. But if you read the whole book, it becomes clear that on earth, the Dragon in John's time is the Roman Empire. It is Rome that crucified Jesus, and that murders the faithful. It is Rome that conquers by blood, starves, oppresses, and enslaves. And Jesus defeats Rome: not by his death, but by rising again in victory. His death, desired by Rome, not by God, is apparent defeat. In Mel Gibson’s movie, Satan screams when Jesus dies. In Revelation, Satan screams when Jesus rises. And, Revelation tells us, those who remain faithful to Jesus, to his teaching and example of service, compassion, and nonviolent love, will also rise. Jesus has made atonement, not by his substitutionary death, but by the vindication of Easter...

Christus Victor says, "The Dragon has been cast out of heaven, but he still rages on earth. Fight this dragon, with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your strength. Do not fight with the dragons weapons—he will defeat you every time. But fight with the weapons of Jesus, who healed the sick, ate with outcasts, and prayed forgiveness for his enemies even on the cross. Never accept injustice. Never surrender. And Christus Victor, the Lamb who was slain and yet stands triumphant, will be victorious again in you."

This certainly answers both Telford's and my objections to SA theory. It recognizes the sufferes from sin and puts Jesus in solidarity with them. And its focus and meaning is the resurrection, and victory over evil.

It's a lot more appealing to me than SA. But still, some things seem to be missing, things that SA, oddly enough, actually provides. While it's not clear what the resurrection means to SA, it's not clear what the crucifixion means to Christus Victor. If the message is the triumph of good over evil, why not have it be just triumph, instead of going through the horrendous death first? Also, while SA seems to make people overly passive, this seems to be creeping in the direction of works righteousness. Being Christian seems to be all about action rather than faith.

But the crux of the matter, I think, is that while SA speak only the transgressor within, CV has nothing to say to it. What happened to forgiveness of sins? Forgiveness, oddly, only appears here as a weapon, something you wield that your enemy doesn't. One of the few things it has in common with SA is that it remains myterious why you should love your enemies. Especially since your enemies also seem to be enemies of God. Indeed, this reminds me of a faintly creepy conversation I had with a commenter at The Right Christians, during the discussion about why young straight men don't go to church that much. The commenter wondered why churches would want them anyway, since they're the privileged class and the church is supposed to be for the underdogs. Such exclusivism is the sort of thing liberals usually criticize fundamentalists for, but I guess with some it's OK if you reconfigure the goodies and the baddies.

Although the Bible occasionally "weaponizes" forgiveness (such as the line about how loving your enemy will heap burning coals on his head), much more often it urges forgiveness because you yourself have been forgiven. Over and over, human mercy to each other is tied to God's mercy to humans. We should realize that we all fall short, so we aren't in a position to judge others, we're told.

This recognition of guilt, and having a way to deal with it, is one thing SA does very well. Churches traditionally have often overdone it on the guilt so there's kind of a backlash in the more liberal denominations. But guilt is part of being human, unless you're a sociopath. Martin Luther wrote that the realization that God forgives you is what inspires good works to begin with. Otherwise they become an onerous task, because you're never going to be perfect at them.

Peter made the connection between God forgiving us and us forgiving each other in his last post at the time, and it was my favorite response that I got then. But I think that, really, I should not have to choose between these two theories. Loving your enemies only makes sense to me if, essentially, Jesus died for you enemies and you, for the sinners and for the sinned against, because ultimately we are all both.

I don't pretend to have the crucifixion totally figured out, and my biggest problem remains the fact that sin and evil are still here, despite claims of their defeat. But perhaps the biggest change in my thinking was that somewhere along the line I stopped thinking of it as a mechanical process, and started thinking of it more as a communication -- a message from beyond written in flesh, left for us to decipher. Once I started trying, I couldn't seem to stop.

Posted by Camassia at March 10, 2004 02:38 PM | TrackBack

I think that the Christus Victor view can indeed come to grips with the "horrendous death" of Christ and incorporate judgment. Here is a quote from the Barthian theologian Thomas Torrance that shows how these things can be seen as a part of the triumph of the self-offering and mutual love of the Trinity -

"God's self-giving IS therefore God's judgment upon man, for it is the giving of a love that will NOT have what is against love, so that the very act of God's self-judgment is a judgment upon man's sin, but in the very heart of that judgment is the fact that God is opposed to man's sin, and THEREFORE He is opposed to man's bondage in sin, and opposed to man's sinful reversal of the love of God. The self-giving of God in love to man is a self-giving which negates the very barrier of sin which prevents fellowship between man and God, and God and man. The judgment of sin is IN ORDER to the removal of that sin and its barrier to fellowship with God. In other words, in pouring out His love upon man, God affirms man as His loved one, and therefore He negates man's sin only in affirming man as the object of His unconditional love."

One can compare how the strong "No" to Hitler of the Barmen Declaration is always implicitly contained in the initial "Yes" to Jesus Christ.

Thank you.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on March 10, 2004 10:51 PM

I like the communication idea better too, especially because, with characteristic economy, God communicates so many things at once. Like...

1) It's a way of showing our valuableness to Him.

2) It's a way of getting our attention. (A Crucifix is a graphic depiction of where unforgiveness and sin leads.)

3) It's an effective way to show that power isn't the answer.

Posted by: tso on March 11, 2004 10:18 AM

Jesus' reconciling work is more a mystery to be adored than a problem to be solved. Still, we have to love God with all our minds, and that means proposing atonement theories,among other things.

One correction, if I may? Calvin got the theory of satisfaction atonement from Anselm.

Calvin was quite a borrower. His understanding of sacraments as signs which really present the thing signified was ripped straight out of Augustine.

And if I can promote myself, my blog entry for 3-11-04 also contains a piece on the atonement.

Posted by: Marvin on March 11, 2004 12:31 PM

You're right, Marvin, I shortchanged Anselm -- I didn't mean Calvin made stuff up out of whole cloth. It's just that the particular Calvinist theory of the atonement is so prevalent in America, a lot of people think it's the way the atonement worked. Actually, the Palm Sunday conversation I mentioned happened because our pastor delivered a sermon describing it that way, so Telford took me aside and assured me there are other theories out there so I wouldn't run away in horror.:-)

I think you and Neil also make good points about Christus Victor -- the version I reprinted was rather brief and politicized, so it's good to fill it out.

Posted by: Camassia on March 11, 2004 04:05 PM

When trying to understand how Christ's death saves us, I've found the following point to be helpful: It is Christ's _obedience_ unto death that was pleasing to the Father - because it was an expression of Jesus' total and unconditional love for us and for the Father. The obedience of Christ, the New Adam, takes the place (substitutes) for the _disobedience_ of the first Adam, and his fallen children (you & me).

This is why Jesus' statement "No one takes my life from me, I lay it down freely" (John 10:18) is so important. Christ's death is more than the incidental shedding of innocent blood. It is the loving "yes" of Christ to offer Himself up to death that makes his death a sacrifice, one with infinite value and power to atone for our sins.

This is known as the "theory of satisfaction", developed by St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas. It differs from the "substitutionary atonement" theory of some Reformation leaders, where the Father inflicts on Christ the punishment deserved by us. For Aquinas, "the Son is not punished by the Father, but tormented by men; and it is not his suffering in and by itself that makes satisfaction but the loving obedience with which he endures the suffering inflicted on him." (The Catholic Vision, Fr. Edward D. O'Connor, CSC, 1992) Nevertheless, Christ's sufferings and His shed blood are the very _means_ of our redemption, as He bore our sins on His body.

Focusing on Christ's _loving obedience_ unto death helps me to see His death not only as something He did for me, but also something Christ invites me to participate in - to die to my self, and offer my life in union with Christ's, in loving obedience to the will of the Father.

These ideas are expressed in the Catholic Catechism (par 615-616):


_Jesus substitutes his obedience for our disobedience_

615 "For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous." (Rom 5:19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who "makes himself an offering for sin", when "he bore the sin of many", and who "shall make many to be accounted righteous", for "he shall bear their iniquities".(Isaiah 53:10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.

_Jesus consummates his sacrifice on the cross_

616 It is love "to the end" (John 13:1) that confers on Christ's sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction. He knew and loved us all when he offered his life (cf. Gal 2:20). Now "the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died." (2 Cor 5:14) No man, not even the holiest, was ever able to take on himself the sins of all men and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons, and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all.


In Christ Crucified and Risen,

Fr. Terry

Posted by: Fr. Terry Donahue, CC on March 11, 2004 11:50 PM

What is substitional atonement ?

Posted by: Michael Edwinn on March 15, 2004 06:51 AM

Here's a very good explanation of the older understandings of the purpose of Jesus's suffering and sacrifice.

The author is a convert from the Episcopal church to the Eastern Orthodox (Christian) Church. Her explanation is a beginning point for a discussion on how the primitive Church saw Jesus's work of redemption.


Posted by: Kizmet on March 15, 2004 11:05 AM

Hi, I noticed the comments about 'the passion' movie while researching another topic; just a few thoughts.....when all the hype rose up about gibson's new movie i did some simple research and discovered several things; his script didn't include textual reference to Isaiah 53 or Psalms 22; his screenplay suggests the devil was trying to prevent the crucifixion whereas scripture says the opposite, that had the devil known God was going to raise Jesus from the dead he would never had stirred up man to crucify Him; also several of the female actresses were also popular euro-porno stars; so, i never saw the passion movie and i never will...

Posted by: steve on November 7, 2004 11:50 AM
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