Monday, November 24, 2014

Why I love Christus Victor

In my previous post, I tried to restrict myself mainly to an explanation of the doctrine of Christus Victor (or CV). But now, I want to explain a few reasons why I love it.

Reason #1: It's more of a Romance than it is a formalized system of theology (although I think it can actually be formalized and logically defended to a much greater extent that Aulen does).

It is so incredibly easy, when speaking abstractly and analytically of theology, to lose track of the actual Things behind the words and ideas.

But CV doesn't speak in abstract terms, and it doesnt' seek to analyze too closely its various components. Instead, it speaks in imagery and action: Christ descends from heaven disguised as a mortal, to do battle with the devil. He devises a trap and springs it, rescuing his people from the tyrants of Sin and Death: Indeed, he makes Sin and Death his own captives, and makes a mockery of them!

It's action. It's adventure. It's a love story. It's everything good and true and pure that the human soul finds, in bits and pieces, in great literature: indeed, it is what makes great literature great.

Reason #2: Christ "plays by the rules."

The way multiple early Church Fathers saw it, Satan has legal rights to humanity. This likely stems from Hebrews, which states that the devil is the one who "holds the power of death." Reading through the Church Fathers, you see a doctrine in which Satan, by deceiving Adam and Eve into sinning, gains "legal" power of them as sinners. This is further backed up by Colossians 2, which links the forgiveness of sins and the cancelling of debts, NOT to any form of substitutionary atonement, but to the disarming and mockery of the rulers and authorities arrayed against us.

Of course, this "legal" power stems ultimately from God: Some see Satan as in some sense the executor of God's judgement on sin (See The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the Witch is described by Mr. Beaver as "the Emperor's hangman"), and God is, after all, sovereign (though not necessarily in a Calvinist sense...more on this later). However, there is the sense that however "legal" his possession of humanity might be, he got it through deceit, and he is abusing it.

God could, if he so chose, sweep in under his sovereign power and forcibly liberate humanity from its slavery. He could exert his divine power and simply remove Satan altogether. He could act outside the order he created: That would be his right as God.

But he does not do this. Instead, he sets out to "win" humanity back from within the created order, acting according to the "rules". And there are two ways that CV sees this happening (either as one or the other, or as a combination):

  • Christ offers his life as a ransom for humanity, and Satan is eager to make the trade. There is, in a sense, a contract or bargain that is struck between God and Satan, where Christ agrees to die as a ransom for his people.

  • However, in killing Christ, Satan overreaches and loses all power. Christ had done nothing to merit death, and when Death (as CV often personalizes it) attempts to strike him down, Death loses all power and authority, as a law which convicts an innocent man will be annulled.
(A careful reader of CS Lewis will notice that BOTH of these themes are present in Lion, Witch, Wardrobe. First, Aslan agrees to give his life for Edmund: But due to the workings of the Deep Magic, when an innocent being is killed, death loses its power, having overstepped its bounds). 

Finally (and although this is the main reason, I've left it till last because it has the most potential to be controversial), Reason #3: It presupposes a genuine enmity between God and Satan. Satan is doing things that God genuinely does not want to happen

That dualism, that sense of real conflict, sits at the heart of Christian theology. A bedrock assumption of the Bible is that there is a thing called Evil, that it is real, that it is really evil, and that it is at odds with God's genuine desires. God really desires a cessation of evil, and he plays no role in its creation. Sin grieves God, and he wars against it, to bring about the end of evil, and the salvation of those under its thrall (us). 

But here's the thing: This sense of enmity and conflict literally cannot exist in Calvinistic theologies, and this is for one very simple reason:

In Calvinism, everything is ultimately as it should be. Everything, including the initial Fall, was not only "allowed" but actually planned, designed, and carried out by God (albeit through secondary causes).

That means that there cannot be the genuine enmity that Christus Victor presupposes. Satan can't be doing anything that God doesn't wish to be done, because Satan only ever does the things he was meant by God to do! It is, at best, a thoroughly one-sided enmity: Satan thinks he is going against God's will, but from God's perspective, it's more like a puppeteer pretending that he is genuinely at odds with one of his marionettes. Or as my friend Danny M said, it's like a child having a pretend war while playing with toy soldiers.

CV cannot exist in a Calvinist theology, because there is no real enemy; There are only various ways and means that God employs to irresistibly bring his predetermined plan to fruition.

There is no real war: There is only God playing with toy soldiers, occasionally knocking some down and making pew-pew noises.

And there is no real victory: Only a cessation of one way in which God brings his inevitable will to pass.

And to that philosophy of puppets and fakery, Christus Victor says "No." The early Church believed what the Bible seems to plainly teach: That Sin and Death are enemies not just of ourselves, but of God. That Satan is an Accuser and a roaring lion, and that God genuinely does not wish for us to be devoured. That Jesus came into the world to tie up the strong man, to plunder his house and set the captives free.

And to that, I say "amen."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christus Victor - Part 1

A couple weeks ago, I bought Gustaf Aulen's Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement (I can only assume it's snappier in the original Swedish (or German? Maybe German). Its main object was to trace the development (and unfortunate decline) of the view of the Atonement known as Christus Victor: Christ the Victor.

CV (Christus Victor) was, as it turns out, the dominant view in the Church for the first thousand years of its existence. From some of the very earliest of theologians (including Irenaeus, writing around 170-180 AD), the primary view of Atonement has nothing to do with Penal Substitution ("for on that cross where Jesus died/ The Wrath of God was satisfied"), the view that Jesus affected a "legal restitution" for our sins, payed to God. That view didn't arise until Anselm around 1100 AD. Instead, the primary view of atonement was that of victory: Victory over Sin, Hell, and Satan.

One of the first extant proponents of this doctrine (outside of Scripture, which we'll cover later on in this post) is Irenaeus, one of the "Church Fathers." He was born in the early second century, and what's incredibly interesting here is that he was a student of Polycarp, and even earlier leader of the Church. And as for Polycarp, he's traditionally accepted as a disciple of the Apostle John.

That's right: Irenaeus is only twice removed from one of Jesus' original disciples. How crazy is that? Anyway, Aulen poses the question: For what purpose did Christ come down from heaven? He quotes Irenaeus: "That he might destroy sin, overcome death, and give life to man." He develops this answer in a longer quote:

""Through the Second Man [Christ] he bound the strong one, and spoiled his goods, and annihilated death, bringing life to man who had become subject to death. For Adam had become the devil's possession, and the devil held him under his power, by having wrongfully practised deceit upon him, and by the offer of immortality made him subject to death...Wherefore he who had taken man captive was himself taken captive by God, and man who had been taken captive was set free from the bondage of condemnation."

See the theme here? There are a couple really interesting assumptions here, that are further developed by later theologians:

  • First, that the devil is literally in possession of mankind. Man is under the power of the devil, by virtue of being subject to death. He is "captive" to the devil.

  • And second, that Christ's goal in his life, death, and resurrection is to annul and destroy the power the devil has over us, and to free us from our captivity to the devil.

That sense of conflict and victory is the central point of the doctrine (hence the name). Even more interesting, however, is the manner in which this victory is achieved. There comes up again and again the sense that God tricked the devil: That the devil was deceived by Christ's humanity.

In fact, Gregory of Nyssa, in the late 300's, actually compared the deity of Christ with a baited fish hook!

"Since the hostile power was not going to enter into relations with a God present unveiled, or endure His appearance in heavenly glory, therefor God, in order to render Himself accessible to him who demanded of Him a ransom for us, concealed Himself under the veil of our nature, in order that, as happens with greedy fishes, together with the bait of the flesh, the hook of the Godhead might also be swallowed."

And what is the result of this trickery?

"And so, through Life passing over into death, and the Light arising the darkness, that which is opposed to Life and Light might be brought to nought. For darkness cannot endure when the Light shines, nor can death remain in being where Life is active."

There is the sense that God actually lures Satan to him: That Satan snaps at Christ's human body as a fish snaps at a hook, and is undone in exactly the same way. Normally, Satan would not dare to even approach God in His radiance: In Christ, however, Satan not only approaches him but actually brings him into the the heart of his kingdom (as Christus Victor is closely linked to the slightly later developed doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell). And then Life arises in the midst of death, and the Light of creation blooms in the darkness, undoing and conquering both.

Of course, the awesomeness of the theology is not, in and of itself, an argument for its truth. And while it was the dominant theory of the Atonement for the first thousand years of Church history, that too does not constitute proof. For that, we must look to Scripture...but here, Christus Victor is most certainly not lacking (and indeed, it's difficult to conceive of the idea gaining such prominence without Scriptural support!).

Indeed, we find hints of a war of some kind even in the Old Testament. God casually mentions the storehouses of hail in Job, which are "reserved for the time of trouble,for the day of battle and war": God himself makes preparations for the conflict. This is even more fleshed out in Daniel, where an angle states that he was detained - genuinely, "physically" held back - by the "prince" of Persia: This conflict was only resolved when Michael, "One of the chief princes", comes in for back-up.

But the language of conflict is not merely present in the New Testament: It is actually built on an assumption of war, of an ongoing conflict between that which is truly, absolutely Good...and that which is really, genuinely Evil. But these are not generic categories...the sides are not abstract in the least. On each side we find distinct, active agents constantly working, constantly planning and scheming, constantly maneuvering for advantage across the battlefield of the world.

That is why Paul can speak casually of Christ "destroying every rule and every authority and power," and how "the last enemy to be destroyed is death." (any why at the end of the chapter, he speaks of the victory of Christ not only over sin, but over its weapon as well: The Law.)

It is why Paul can speak of the "present evil age" in opposition to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It is why Paul goes into such detail about the "authorities", "cosmic powers", and "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." This is no mere abstraction...the forces arrayed against Christ and His Church are personal and active in their warfare.

And this war has been going on for a long time, and there have been casualties. This is no mere skirmish or invasion: It is also a rescue mission. That is why Christ calls himself " a ransom for many", and we would do well to remember that ransom is a very specific term: It is the means by which captives are released. And this is spelled out nowhere so clearly as in Hebrews, where the author clearly lays out the necessity for this rescue mission: "Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil),"

There is a war going on, and all of humankind are casualities and prisoners of war. And Christ comes to free the captors, to tie up the devil, take his property, and plunder his house (man, Mark 3:26-27 is awesome when read through Christus Victor...). There's actually quite a bit of nuance here, which I'll get into in the next post, but the main theme is clear: Christ is victorious over his enemies, and we are liberated by that victory.

This is not the analytical, nearly mathematical theology of Anselm onward. It can't be spoken of in terms of debt and legal obligation, of payment and restitution - at least, not to God. Instead, it is a drama, a romance in the truest, Chestertonian sense of the word. It is an adventure, a heroic quest, and a battle. Ladies and gentlemen, Christus Victor.

See Part 2 for a more detailed discussion of why I really love this doctrine.