Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, wrote an article titled The Problem with Christus Victor. As someone who believes Christus Victor ought to be the umbrella atonement motif for the Christian faith, this post is a response to that article.
I have noticed—and do tell me if you see otherwise—that in general those who publically champion Christus Victor don’t pepper their talks and prayers with personal guilt for sin or the need for divine forgiveness.
“do tell me if you see otherwise”, I take that as an invitation to discussion. I hope to “tell” Mark “otherwise” before this post is through and show how that perception can easily go both ways.
Some Significant Points:
There are a few things I believe that are significant to point out in this discussion. I believe it is significant that the Church Father’s held to the Christus Victor atonement motif unanimously up to the Augustine/Pelagian controversy of the fifth century, at which point it began to fall out of favour in the Western Church. It believe it is significant that the Eastern Church has always held to the Christus Victor motif from the time of the Father’s of the Church up to this very day. I believe it is significant that the Augustine/Pelagian controversy was virtually unheard of in the Christian East and remains a non-issue (notice the connection between that fact and that the Orthodox still holds to the Christus Victor motif). I believe it is significant that since the Reformation the dominant atonement theory in the West has been Penal Substitution. I believe it is significant that Protestants who react against the growing return to the Christus Victor motif seem to be most concerned with how they perceive that it raises “works” (global concerns and social agenda’s et cetera) above or against personal guilt and a personal need for forgiveness.
There is more going on beneath the surface of Mark’s article then just which atonement motif one prefers. It’s amazing how many “issues” raised by Protestants go back to the Augustine/Pelagian controversy and exposes the Protestant terror of anything that smacks of smuggling works-based salvation in through the back door.
Mark’s View of the Christus Victor View:
Mark correctly draws out some of the strengths of the Christus Victor “model”: That this view emphasizes Christ as the victor, that in his death and resurrection he overcame the hostile powers that hold humanity in subjection, those powers variously understood as the devil, sin, and death. But before long the article takes a decisively wrong turn:
While the model assumes humanity’s guilt for getting ourselves into this predicament—beginning with the original sin of Adam and Eve—the theory’s anthropology (view of humanity) emphasizes not our guilt but our victimhood, at least the way it is often discussed today. (emphasis mine)
That emphasis sets the direction of the article. One is left with the impression that there is a problem with the Christus Victor motif itself, when in reality Mark is concerned with “the way it is often discussed today“. The problem throughout the article is that Mark does not do a good job separating the Christus Victor motif from “the way it is often discussed today”. As the title itself suggests, it is the motif itself that has serious problems. So in the readers mind Mark appropriately chucked out the baby with the bathwater. While acknowledging that the Christus Victor motif is biblical, according to Mark it is just one of those things we “Protestants” should be cautious not to over emphasize. We shouldn’t talk about it very much. Yet Mark’s double standard is that it is somehow okay for the Eastern Church to emphasize Christus Victor, just not us Western Christians.
Here, I’m simply suggesting that Christus Victor may not be a theory that Protestants, and evangelicals in particular, should tie their wagons to.
And why is that? Because, according to Mark, 1) “it’s clearly a secondary atonement theme in the New Testament”, and 2) “at least for today’s Protestants, it has an uncanny tendency to downplay a sense of personal responsibility, which in the end, sabotages grace”.
Is Christus Victor Secondary?
Mark acknowledges that the Christus Victor motif emphasizes the role of Christ’s atonement in regards to the whole cosmos. That being said it is difficult to reconcile his claim that it is secondary and that God is really (perhaps we might say, merely) concerned with individual sin, until you see that Mark has qualified his statement with the phrase “New Testament” by which it seems he means “Pauline Epistles and Hebrews”. (A very Protestant approach to the “New Testament”.)
It is significant that in discussing the role of the atonement of Jesus Christ Mark does not turn to the Gospel’s at all. It is also significant that when he speaks of the Christus Victor model he does so in terms of Christ’s death and resurrection, but not in terms of Jesus’ life and actions throughout his ministry which, incidentally, happens to be termed “The Gospels”. This is a Penal Substitution approach to the atonement applied to the Christus Victor motif. Furthermore the long held belief by Christians that the first reference to the atonement is in Genesis 3:15 happens to be a Christus Victor, not Penal Substitution, reference. When the rest of the scriptures are allowed to weigh in on the subject, the idea that Penal Substitution theory is dominant cannot be sustained.
Major themes running through both Testaments include Egypt and Exile, where the great atonement themes in the Egypt event with the sacrifice of a Lamb, the beginning of the passover with the blood spilled on the door posts so that the angel of death can pass over, are all within the context of deliverance, redemption, freedom and victory, and in fact the term “righteousness” is often used synonymously as “vindication” and in the context of military deliverance and victory as in the case with Deborah. The ongoing atonement for Israel’s sins are all conceived within this framework. The continuing sin of Israel landed God’s people right back into bondage in Exile in need of redemption, freedom and deliverance again. It needed another Lamb with spilled blood to end the Exile and defeat the principalities and powers of the air.
Christ’ work throughout his ministry in the Gospels is a testimony to this defining redemption motif.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news [Gospel] to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19
Jesus’ mission was summed up in that Isaiac prophecy as he said himself. Through his ministry he did those very things including casting out demons everywhere he went, forgiving sins (yes!) and commanding, “go and sin no more” because it is not just that you have been forgiven of your personal sin, but that you have been set from and are no longer bound to them. In regards to an individual, this is what Christus Victor emphasizes against the raising up of the Penal View. Not just that you’ve been forgiven, but that now you can “go and sin no more” because the chains have been broken.
Is it any wonder John could write:
“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” – 1 John 3:8
Of course this verse is in the context of personal sin, but that’s just it. Mark’s claim that Christus Victor fails to address personal sin and personal responsibility is simply wrong. “He who does what is sinful is of the devil” says John immediately before the one I just cited, but Jesus came to “destroy the devil’s work” so that you do not need to be of the devil any more. You’ve been forgive, of course, but you’ve also been set free. In fact, John’s point actually addresses the danger of raising the Penal View above the Christus Victor motif: if you claim to be forgiven but are still in sin, it means you have not been set free and are still “of the devil”.
Jesus told the disciples that he has given them authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the wiles of the evil one. When they returned from the mission field he sent them on, he hold them that he saw Satan falling from heaven. We are told by John that “the world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) and Jesus called Satan the “prince of the world” (John 14:30) and Paul refers to Satan as “the ruler of the Kingdom of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). Is it any wonder that the central message of Jesus throughout his ministry was the proclamation of the Kingdom of God in which Jesus says, “the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12 ESV).
Obviously the Penal Substitution view is not the dominant atonement teaching when all of the scriptures are allowed to weigh in. In light of this fact, I find it astounding that Mark would make this statement:
With “no extensive discussions of Christus Victor anywhere in the New Testament—one begins to wonder how much stock we should put in Christus Victor. In short, should we be so quick to marginalize substitutionary atonement?”
The whole of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, discuss Christus Victor. Is that extensive enough for you? The substitutionary atonement theory should not be marginalized, but it should be put in its place and not at the expanse of the complete work of God in redemptive history.
Does it Sabotage Grace?
Earlier I made the connection between Protestant fears of Pelagianism and Christus Victor. This is where I think Protestants tend to overreact and scurry away from anything that – to us – smacks of sneaking works based salvation in through the back door. We’re so scared of slipping into one heresy (works based salvation) that we run fool-headed into another (antinominism).
Where Mark sees Christus Victor as potentially sabotaging Grace, I see Penal Substitution theory as sucking Grace dry of its substance. The Grace of God is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the hole Gospel including his ministry, his death and his resurrection and ascension. It is not just about how “I am forgiven so that I can go to heaven” as is often emphasized by those who preach the Penal View exclusively. That cheapens Grace. It is about how God has set us free from the powers of Sin, Satan and Death – the three enemies of the Cross. It is about how “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me [Jesus]. Therefore go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18). So even the Great Commission is wrapped up in the Victor motif. It is about taking the Lord’s Prayer seriously that “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”, it is about taking the Beatitudes seriously, it is about taking Grace and the Gospel seriously.
Where Mark sees the Christus Victor motif as emphasizing human’s as simple victims that need to be set free, the Eastern Church sees the Penal Substitution theory as emphasizing Christ as the victim. Both are an exaggeration. For the Penal View the idea is not that Christ is the victim, but rather the he is the Vicarious One. For the Christus Victor motif, humans are not so much mere victims, as they are in need to redemption from sin, death and Satan. This of course includes, but is not restricted to, Penal Substitution.
Returning to the quote at the start of this post.
I have noticed—and do tell me if you see otherwise—that in general those who publically champion Christus Victor don’t pepper their talks and prayers with personal guilt for sin or the need for divine forgiveness
The perception goes both ways:
I have noticed—and do tell me if you see otherwise—that in general those who publically champion [the Penal Substitution theory] don’t pepper their talks and prayers with personal [freedom] from sin or the need for divine [deliverance].
Thinking about Lent
It is fascinating that Mark concludes his article with this:
Something to think about, anyway, especially during Lent, when many of us ponder the great mysteries of sin and atonement.
In my home city a 40 Day Prayer Vigil for Right For Life has been taking place this Lent, and it is significant that Protestants make up less then 5% of the Christians who are actively involved in this event. But with the dominant view of the atonement being what it is in Protestant teaching still today, (that I have been forgiven from my personal sins so that I can go to heaven, i.e. Penal Substitution), is it any wonder that Protestants are not always front-liners in matters of contemporary social Kingdom agenda concerns. That is best a matter for those who believe that Jesus’ mission is bigger then me and my heavenly future.
One of Mark’s primary concerns in the article is how many who hold to Christus Victor polemically distort the Substitutionary View. I think he’s right, and so from one who holds to Christus Victor as the dominant atonement motif, I want to address the concern and add a corrective measure. It is unfortunate though that in reacting to an overstatement on the part of the Victor adherents, Mark himself would make so many overstatements.