Christus Victor: Atonement for the Postmodern World?


Our beliefs about our faith always arise in a cultural context and engagement with that context. It's something I taught at LST last week in a class on Emerging Culture and Church. It got me thinking some more about current exampled. I know it's an old example in terms of news, but Steve Chalke & Alan Mann's book 'Lost message of Jesus' , and the reaction (Christians who hadn’t even read the book have taken into permanent folklore, the mistaken belief that this book rejects penal substitution, which it does not.

You can read some of the heat here) from the Christian world revealed one of the largest cultural context and belief issues we face today as Christians in the emerging culture, that of Penal Substitution.

Penal substitution, which really emerged with Anselm in the 11th century, and found its zenith in the modern church, was not the preferred understanding of atonement by the early church and church fathers. In a modern world that saw truth through rational and empirical eyes, the forensic and legal metaphor of penal substitution was powerful and connecting.

The postmodern world that has had epistemological crises, about knowing. At it's best there is a rediscovering that truth is also relational, intuitive, and not always objective. At it's worst the rejection of objective truth, overlays the metaphor of penal substitution and sees an angry God, who kills his son, an image of cosmic child abuse.

Now we can resist that view, demanding people understand atonement that way, or forever live in error, or we can be sympathetic to the cultural context that causes it, and explore how else atonement might be explored, so that people might be able to appreciate penal substitution, and come to that any notion of atonement in any form (if you believe the Gospel is completely summed up in penal substitution turn away now).

Christus Victor, as coined by Gustav Aulen in the 1930's (as he described, was the dominant view of the atonement, until the 11th century, and Anselm's penal substitution, and Peter Abelard’s Moral Influence theory developments. It all gets even more complicated, as Aulen argues that later in history people mistook the early church fathers as having a view of atonement as 'ransom theory'. In essence Christus Victor is the explanation that atonement is about the incarnation of Jesus into this world, and of participation and sharing in the suffering of humanity, taking them to the cross, so that God triumphs over evil and all of creation is restored and recreated.

Anyhow if you follow the links and dig deeper, what I want to explore is how Christus Victor might resonate more with our current culture, and is biblical and theological, and helpful as we seek to explain the Gospel today.

Helpful - How?

1. Cosmic Story & Epistemic Humility: There is a deep suspicion in the postmodern world of metanarratives, of stories that encapsulate the truth in particular ones that have human beings at the centre! Christus Victor offers a cosmic account, and with humans decentred and located in the context of the whole of creation. Also whilst people are suspicious of narratives that explain life, they search for them constantly, in movies, and other narratives of consumer life. Christus Victor offers a cosmic story of good an evil, creation and environment, suffering and hope, that resonates with our culture, maybe.

2. Suffering and Healing: Despite being protected from suffering in the western world we are more sensitive to it than ever, the pain of divorce, suicide, abuse, depression, AIDS etc. The idea of someone suffering to resolve my suffering can seem abusive, and the image of a legal wrangle to resolve our pain as absurd. Also we more than any time in history have images of suffering pumped into our homes, at overwhelming rates. The notion of Jesus identifying with us entering into our suffering, and that of the rest of the world, to bring healing, justice and victory might be more compelling.

3. Cosmic and Virtual Reality:In the west where we once made models to explain reality, and things have collapsed so that our models and simulations become reality (we send hate mail to TV stars, and believe reality TV has any semblance of reality with real people), the desire to find what is real is maybe stronger than ever. It's the desire we see in the Matrix, to explore and find the adventure of what is really real beyond the simulations. Christus Victor offers that unmasking, with the Lord of the Cosmos, entering into space and time, to show us what is real and authentic.

4. Holistic:Whereas penal substitution focuses on the death of Jesus, Christus Victor, incorporates the incarnation, life, death and strong emphasis on resurrection. It seems far more holistic and life affirming, in a world obsessed with the holistic.

5. Involvement/Participation Community:Christus Victor is about participation, of God in our world, us with him, to restore and transform and heal creation, instead of the escape of the individual into heaven of penal substitution. There implicit and explicit community from participation in the mission of Christus Victor. It also avoids the escape from the world of 'left behind' spirituality.

Drawbacks - Problems

1. Purpose of the Cross:What is the purpose of the cross in Christus Victor. Was it just one of many ways Jesus could have died, including old age. Where and what is the cross for is problematic.

2. Wrath/Judgement/Judgment/Sacrifice: All elements of the bible still need exploring, and can be overlooked in Christus Victor. Postmodern sensibilities want to bypass these notions.

3. Therapy: In a therapetuical culture, the cosmic Christ becomes a therapeutic tool, and consumer talisman to rescue me from my existential suffering. The Jesus of the cross, of dying to self, can be all to absent.

3. Deification of Creation: Humanity can too easily become lost in the ecological project of restoring creation. The Gospel is no just about us as humans, but it is about God and his reaching out to humanity, at the centre of its story.

4. Simulation: In a world desperate for community and authenticity, consumerism can hold us captive, and Christus Victor can support a virtual spirituality, with and other worldly ontology.

So perhaps Christus Victor is a place to start with our culture, and then Penal Substitution can then be explored, along with Moral Influence and other ideas. We need all those aspects, whilst recognising which are liable to be misused by our current culture, whilst understanding which ones rely to heavily on previous cultures.

(For an academic and much better piece on this see: Brad Harper, 'Christus Victor: Postmodernism, and the Shaping of Atonement Theory', Cultural encounters : a journal for the theology of culture, 2 (2005), 37-52.)

If you want to explore these topics more see:

Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, Joel Green (Editor). Atonement for a sinless society, Alan Mann. The Glory of the Atonement, Charles E. Hill (Editor), Frank A., III James (Editor). Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters, by Simon Barrow (Editor), Jonathan Bartley (Editor)