I had a happy time in my Jesus Collective Hub the other day. I love the fool’s errand we are on: trying to have a Jesus-centered outlook which manages to respect but not join the powers tearing apart the church and whole societies these days. We’re not succeeding, but it feels like the right thing to try.
In every generation of the church, there has been an argument about something, and great teachers have generally arisen to help us figure out how to keep going. For instance, the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament usually hone in on a current problem he needs to solve. His approach is different in different contexts — like the difference between a problem your mother might have had as a child and one you are having now, or the difference between an email you’d write to your work group and the one you’d write to your best friend. Just so, the letter to the church in Ephesus feels different than the letters to the church in Corinth. As a teacher in the church myself (I wanted to be like Paul), I think the greatest skill I needed to develop was to listen in love to all the varying viewpoints people have and to try to knit them into a mutually accepting whole, leaning toward a consensus direction while accommodating both the newest and stubbornest differences.
The different ways to see the atonement have provided people a reason to have an argument over the years. The views have matured over time and have been expressed differently in many contexts. All of them have their own beauty to respect, don’t they? In the past four weeks I have been meditating on the four main “theories,” and I am going to get to the fifth in a minute. But I want to acknowledge the need for “third way” thinking before I do, just like the Jesus Collective is trying to develop for our current problems.
The same damned argument
The present polarization in the United States does not seem like a new phenomenon to me. I am sort of stuck in the 11-1200’s in my readings right now (good book), so everything seems to go back there for me. But I honestly think the differences between Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kamala Harris seem a lot like what Christians were arguing about way back then, too (the women are both Evangelicals, at some level, after all).
Greene represents people who are afraid tradition is being run over by newfangled thinking. They still have a view of the atonement in which God beats the devil, using deception to do it, as necessary, for the sake of purity and goodness. So she will also work with God as he does what it takes to defeat evil.
Harris represents people on the side of human individuality, science and progress. Those people have a view of the atonement in which God unleashes people from guilt and frees them to appreciate the wonder of creation, especially the value of each human. So she will keep at it until the world is safe for all God’s children.
How we put those potentially polar positions together takes a third way, not a triumph by one side.
Paul manages to be on both sides of redundant church and societal arguments. For instance, he tells the Ephesian church:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power; put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having prevailed against everything, to stand firm. – Ephesians 6:10-13
I think Greene thinks Harris is with the devil, so she is putting on her armor to stand against her in this evil day. I don’t think she read all of Ephesians well, but I could see how she might get where she is.
Then Paul tells the church in Corinth
So if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. — 2 Corinthians 5:17-19
I think Harris thinks Green is in the way of new things that need to come, especially the need to reconcile elements of a pluralistic society and to protect against people being trespassed upon. I am not sure Jesus is at the center of her thinking, but I respect her goals.
Christus Victor launches a new/old way
In the atonement explanation named “Christus Victor” (Christ the Victor) Gustaf Aulen went back to the Bible and the Early Church to verify the transcendent way Jesus worked to saved humankind — and creation with us. I am not sure he intended to do this, but he opened up a new way to see an old thought and many people latched onto it as a way to stop having the arguments of the past over and over again. We are still having the same damned arguments, but Christus Victor provides a view that incorporates previous explanations of the atonement and frees up imagination locked in entrenched views from Eurocentric philosophy and politics.
In 1931 Gustaf Aulen published a book of his lectures titled Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. We’ve explored all the main types, so far; I split Aulen’s third one into two parts. He saw his book as a defense of the “classical” view of the atonement he found in Paul, Irenaeus and Luther. (Of course Luther — the Swedish state church theologians at the time all needed to adhere to “evangelical faith,” which was, basically, Lutheranism). In the course of offering his defense against egocentric, humanistic, and idealistic theology, Aulen ends up offering a new way of seeing — at least it seemed new enough to get a name that stuck: the “Christus Victor theory.”
Aulen stressed a Bible-based, dramatic view of God and the work of Jesus. That is, God in Christ personally participates in the drama Christianity is. The Gospel is a story about how God entered into our place and time and saved us. This view is more popular all the time, it seems. A church plant in Philly affiliated with my denomination was called Story Philly. Evangelical author, Donald Miller, wrote a book called Storyline: Finding Your subplot in God’s Story.
The main plot of the story is clear in the Bible. In Christ, God “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13–14). The order of the action is important: God has rescued us; God has transferred us; in Christ we have redemption and forgiveness. Paul does not write, “God has forgiven us so that he may then rescue us” (as in the penal substitution theory). Rather, God rescues us out of darkness and brings us into the kingdom of his beloved Son and that rescue act is our salvation. By his gracious initiative, God brings us into the realm of life where we find that our sins are forgiven.
I’m not sure Aulen would approve of where his work has led, especially since he thought he was talking about something old, not new. But it has provided a fresh way to meet the evils of the modern and postmodern world. Paul’s statement that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (in 2 Corinthians, above) provides a new launchpad. That phrase epitomizes Aulen’s view that the atonement is “dramatic,” “dualistic,” and “objective.” It is dramatic and dualistic, because it is the story about a conflict between God and the powers of evil, sin, and death, in which God triumphs over “the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (in Ephesians above). It is objective, because it is about God’s action, not ours. God took the initiative to decisively change the relationship between God and the world (see Marianne Meye Thompson). I think Aulen caught the wind of the Spirit which has been blowing for a hundred years as the modern era comes to a close. Others are moved along with it, as well.
World War I, the Great Depression, massive industrialization and huge governments and corporations ignited new imagination for what Aulen (and Paul) called “the powers.”
It was not just theologians having a discussion about “the powers.” Here is a quote from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) — it may seem familiar after peeking into Silicon Valley Bank recently and getting a glimpse of the faceless “power” it represents.
But the bank is only made of man. No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
I think most people want a world without militarism, poverty, sexual exploitation, white supremacy and the despoiling of nature. Yet we find it very difficult to have such a world. Our social, economic and political structures powerfully resist transformation! Steinbeck made that reality vivid when he described the banking system as a monster that cannot be controlled.
The American theologian Walter Wink (who died in 2012) made it his life’s work to help us understand these monsters and how to loosen their hold. He freed the core truths of biblical faith from endless argument and made them tools for change agents to use, both in the church and in society (Gingerich summary). I am not sure he is a direct theological descendant of Aulen, but I think he is moving in the new stream of freedom Aulen undammed.
Wink shows how the language of “principalities and powers” in the New Testament (e.g. Eph. 6, above) refers to human social dynamics—institutions, belief systems, and traditions. He calls these social constructs “manifestations of power,” and insists they always have an inner and an outer aspect.
Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form—be it a church, a nation, an economy—and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world. Neither pole is the cause of the other. Both come into existence together and cease to exist together. (Naming the Powers).
In Wink’s view, we need an integrated, inner-outer awareness in order to understand the world we live in and act effectively as agents for healing and transformation. “Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure.” What’s more, in Wink’s understanding, all systems of power have the potential to be just or unjust, violent or nonviolent. “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed” (Engaging the Powers). (Nice summary artricle).
Kamala Harris and Marjorie Taylor Greene are on the outs with God if they profess to follow Jesus but continue to create and serve a domination system which has been overturned by the work of Jesus. An alternative way to live is being taught for people with ears to hear. We have prophets of the new creation arising everywhere, just like Gustaf Aulen. They are peacemakers — see J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement (2001). They are social investigators — watch Rene Girard reimagine Jesus as the final Scapegoat. They are feminists and womanists — listen to Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker take down anyone who can’t see Jesus as the Liberator.
Aulen and the rest are all following a very basic, maybe the most basic, atonement explanation, as Paul taught the church in Ephesus:
[Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us, abolishing the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. — Ephesians 2:14-16
The “powers” which create the systems of domination they control and defend have been abolished. We are free to live now and forever. Whenever we see the latest powermonger creating their territory in the name of something good (like an end to racism, climate action, evangelism, etc.), we need to reassert the Lord’s basic work: reconciliation to God and others, not a more robust hostility that defeats our enemies.
If the resurrection of Jesus did not free us from sin and death to effect reconciliation and participate in the new creation, who is Jesus? Even if you are a leader of the country with the largest military in history, which is the biggest polluter in history and whose marketing machine overwhelms whole economies worldwide, reconciliation is still a top priority; persistently planting the seeds of a new creation is a preoccupation. For us small people, who think we are comparatively powerless, the call is still the same. We live in the new creation; what else is there to do but live with Jesus?