These Infinite Spaces

Saturday, December 30, 2006

My article " Understanding the Cross: Penal Substitution vs Christus Victor is generating some lively dialog over on the Blog These Infinate Spaces. I've included some of my responses here for you. You can check out the whole thing in context here. Just so you know, the text below "CV" stands for Christus Victor and "PS" for Penal Subsitution.

Craig writes: "What Anselm rejected in the Ransom theory was the idea that God had to make a bargain with the devil, and that He essentially tricked the devil into releasing human souls"

This criticism was not a new idea with Anselm. The Church Fathers had argued extensively about the best way to formulate this, and had made similar criticisms themselves. What is of monumental significance is that with Anselm, a major shift occurred where salvation was no longer understood in the deep terms of humanity being enslaved to sin and our need to be liberated from that bondage, but instead viewed sin in the legal terms of transgression, understanding salvation as paying a penalty to “satisfy” the demands of law. When the central understanding of atonement shifted from ransom from slavery to satisfaction of justice, the paradigm for sin shifted with it from the relational idea of bondage (who we belong to) to the legal idea of transgression (what we do).

With that, the deep reaching impact of the Christus Victor soterology was last and "Christus Victor" became in the minds of many Evangelicals today an insignificant appendix (for example with both John Stott and Derek Tidball). It is this "tacking on" of Christus Victor that I find problematic. I think it actually has some really profound implications that need to be explored. Two people who have pioneered this in different areas are Jürgen Moltmann and Walter Wink.

David writes:
"As Craig rightly asserts, CV doesn't really have a vigorous understanding of a personified Satan"

This statement surprised me. I would disagree and say that CV is in fact rooted in a deep understanding of the devil, and that PS is lacking in it. One can completely leave the devil out of the formulation of Penal Substitution. Christus Victor on the other hand is rooted in the idea of Christ overcoming "sin, death, and the devil". It expands the idea of sin beyond "transgression" to "bondage" showing the deep reaching consequences of evil in the human heart. CV is essentially about a change of identity from bondage to adoption, the theme of "redemption from slavery". The devil is crucial to this understanding.

What Gustav Aulen has removed from the ransom theory is not the devil, but its heavy legal focus and replaced it with a dramatic focus. Quite a number of major Evangelical theologians including JI Packer and James Denney have sharply criticized the legal focus in PS as well, and Packer has suggested that PS should also be seen (following Aulen) with a dramatic rather than legal focus (which he Packer sharply criticizes).

So what is so bad about a legal focus? I am not really arguing that it is "cold". I think one can me emotional and cold as well. In fact as an aside, I find Jonathan Edwards a pretty bad example of positive emotion since he was pretty nasty. I would instead suggest Spurgeon who was a PS advocating Calvinist with a huge heart for the lost. He is an excellent example of "positive emotion". The problem I have with a legal theory of the cross is twofold (there are other reasons, but I will limit myself for brevity sake):

1) A legal focus does not express the focus of Scripture which is clearly on the supremacy of love (Love is the "greatest commandment", the "sum of the law and the profits", if I "have not love I am nothing", "God is love", etc) over the law which the NT (both Jesus and Paul) are quite critical of. Biblically focus of the Atonement needs to be relational not legal. It was an expression of God's amazing love for us.

2) A legal focus trivializes sin. Sin is not simply an infraction, it is a cancer. It is bondage. It is about identity (who we belong to and who we are). It is a deep rooted problem that needs to be deeply addressed. Punishment does not heal the wounds of the sinner nor those who have been sinned against. It is superficial. What people need is a profound inner transformation, a change in identity, healing for their cancer. These are all aspects of God's work that a legal theory simply cannot capture.

So why don't we then have, as Packer suggests, a dramatic relational understanding of PS? Good idea. This is I think how most Evangelicals understand the cross: they see the great cost, they are humbled that this was "for them", they are moved by dramatic depictions like the movie "The Passion". The problem here is that while we can and should have a dramatic understanding of substitutionary atonement and vicarious sacrifice (as Luther did) there is a fundamental flaw specifically in PS's explanation of that vicarious sacrifice:

The idea of "satisfaction" does not mean "to gratify" as it does in English today but "to make restitution". With Anselm the idea of satisfaction/restitution was a way to avoid punishment. We make restitution and thus avoid punishment (pay the fine avoid a whipping). Specifically with the cross, Jesus make restitution by restoring God's honor (by giving his life so nobly for us Jesus gave God extra honor beyond what was due God in the sinless life of Jesus making up for the honor God had lost because of our dishonoring sin). Since restitution/satisfaction had been made there was no reason for the punishment. Now of course this whole system of honor is an artificial man-made concept of feudal times, but within Anselm's framework it does all make sense. I think there is in fact (if we could pull it out of its feudal legal framework a bit) some deep things about Anselm's theory. PT Forsyth does a good job of exploring this.

With Thomas Aquinas the idea of satisfaction/restitution changed. Unlike Anselm who said one made restitution to avoid punishment (pay the fine or go to jail) Aquinas said that it was the punishment that made the restitution (By seeing someone hurt you felt better). On a carnal level we can see how making someone hurt who hurt us would be "satisfying" (that is, gratifying). Its the basic desire for revenge, for payback. Whether it "makes things right" (restitution) is debatable. But there's another level here: What if instead of whipping and executing the guilty man we instead take someone who is innocent and good and beat and execute them instead and then let the guilty one go free? Does that sound like a fulfillment of justice? No, it sounds terrible. This is the elephant in the room of PS, it is as a (legal) theory profoundly unjust.

Compare that with the idea of someone giving their life for another, a firefighter who dies rescuing others from the flames, a body guard who takes a bullet for someone. this is heroic and deeply moving. We often see in movies the hero say to the terrorists who are going to kill someone (usually female) "No take me!". I think anyone with kids who are sick and suffering can relate to the wish that we could suffer instead of them. "I'd give anything to take their place" we say. But what is the theme here? It is Christus Victor. The bullet, the burning building, the ravaging disease, the terrorists, are not pictures of "justice being satisfied" they are bad things. Pictures of the Accuser, of Satan.

In short the vicarious sacrifice "in our place" is a moving and dramatic idea that is all over the NT. But explaining it in legal terms gives completely the wrong impression because in a legal sense it would be profoundly unjust. Understood in a relational sense however, as a ransom, as a redemption, it makes perfect sense.

Craig writes:
"Derek, I don't understand how you can reject the category of law, but still wish to uphold the concept of justice. Law is justice implemented and applied."

I would differentiate between human laws which are an outwardly imposed artificial human construct, and God's moral law which is simply the way the universe works. Sin is not punished by some extra action of God, sin "leads to death" just like hitting the ground is the consequence of gravity. God "gives us over to wrath" Paul says. God's moral laws are written into the fabric of who we are. Their consequences are inevitable flowing from the nature of how life works, again like gravity. Biblically this is not "justice", it is wrath, the curse, death. "Justice" biblically speaking is about "making things right". This was Luther's major discovery. Justice was not about consequence for sin as the Scholastics taught, it was about God making thing right.

Michael writes,
"The problem I can see with Derek's Christus Victor scheme is dualism... which is to say: God is not in any sense here the agent of our judgment/punishment."

I don't see this to be the case. I wonder if you have read the entire article on my website rather than merely the posts here? Biblically we have all three expressions:
1)God being the one who brings judgment,
2) judgment coming as a process ("the wrath" and "the curse" in Paul) and
3) judgment being executed by the devil.

So there is a pretty complex picture in Scripture. In Christus Victor the image is of the devil as the "accuser" (which is what "Satan" means) but it is also understood that he has "rights" because we have indeed sinned. This picture is not of God and Satan as co-equal (dualism) but of Satan as a fallen angel.

That means that the law for example is made to be good, made to point to God (not to be equal with God) but can through sin become something that instead leads to death (fallen). So God who desires life seeks a way to redeem both fallen humanity as well as to redeem the fallen law through grace. It is a more complex view than PS to incorporate the idea of fallenness and the devil, but I think it is also truer to both the complexity of the Biblical witness and to life. I go into all this in more detail in part 4 of my essay.

You are correct that ultimately God is the author of wrath (and of gravity). Gustav Aulen calls this the "double-sidedness" of the Atonement: God saves us from his own wrath. The Divine Love overcomes the Divine Wrath.

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Why Christmas Matters

Monday, December 18, 2006


As much as Christmas is celebrated here, I think we have lost sight of it's significance. Why does Christmas matter? Isn't it really a minor holiday made to replace the pagan birthday of the sun god in Romans times and co-opted by Santa Claus and shopping in our own time? Looking at the media you would get the idea that Christmas is about childhood excitement, family, wonder, warmth, lights, songs, presents... and those are are great things. I'm really looking forward to sharing all that wonder and thrill with my little boy.

But there is something deeper still that happened in a manger long ago. A homeless unwed teenage girl gave birth to God incarnate. Christmas is about the Incarnation, and every understanding of the cross and of our salvation and hope is ultimately rooted in the Incarnation. Anselm's famous treaty was called "Why God became Human" (Cur Deus Homo). Likewise Irenaeus' Recapitulation is about how "God became what we are so we could become what he is". Every major theory of the Atonement is rooted in the idea of God come among us, in humility, taking on our weakness, sorrow, and needfulness.

That is what Christmas is about. The day that God came among us in weakness. Seeing that when God comes among us he does not come as a powerful domination ruler, but in the form of a little child. Christmas is about God turning all of our expectations of what power, glory, and holiness are about upside-down. It's about how God entered into all of our helplessness and need. It's about finding God in the middle of our ordinary nitty gritty lives. It's about hope in a gray world.

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Love of Enemies v2

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I have done a major rewrite of the chapter "Love of Enemies: The Way of the Cross". I think it is a big improvement and reads a lot better. let me know what you think.

read chapter "Love of Enemies: The Way of the Cross"

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