Friday, April 8, 2011

Two Models

There is an article in Christianity Today on what is seen as two models of atonement theory -- Christus Victor and Substitution -- competing for top billing in evangelicalism. The author, Mark Galli, has witnessed a trend amongst (post)modern evangelicals to favour the Christus Victor model as the dominant model. Galli, however, says that,

biblical substitutionary atonement in all its nuances (the Bible frames it in subtly different ways: as sacrifice, propitiation, and payment) remains the dominant metaphor for atonement in Scripture.

I don't know much about the history or the contents of the Christus Victor model, but is substitution not a part of it? Galli says that the Christus Victor model comes under the umbrella of the substitution model (he cites a tenuous example from Colossians 2 to support his point), but is it not the other way round? Christus Victor doesn't exist for the purpose of substitution; substitution exists for the purpose of Christus Victor. In other words, substitution isn't the goal; Christus Victor is.

Substitution is a necessary part of Christus Victor because humanity's original calling was to power, dominion -- ultimately, to kingship. We have failed in our vocation individually and communally, therefore we needed someone to step into our shoes to do what we didn't and couldn't. This is perhaps the chief reason the cross is so offensive to us - it is God's way for humanity to exert power and authority over the competing powers and authorities, but we have sided with the competitors rather than God. 

In Jesus weakness, servanthood, and sacrifice become the hallmarks of what a powerful human being looks like. Jesus offends us because he has put himself in our place but acted in a way that is seemingly irrational, even sub-human. But the gospel is (amongst other things) the message that Jesus is truly human. It is thus the announcement that power and authority has returned to its rightful owner. Jesus has taken our place, but the staggering good news on top of this good news is that he wants us to join with him in his reign. The law says that we are unfit to be kings, but Jesus has overturned the law's verdict. The record of debt against us was nailed to the cross with Christ, but unlike Christ it did not rise again.

I don't know if this is all part of classic Christus Victor, but I'm excited about it. This framework of understanding seems to make better sense of God, humanity, the role of Law, justification, participation and how these fit together in that at times elusive story we call "the gospel".

Galli says that there are "no extensive discussions of Christus Victor anywhere in the New Testament". Mark Galli, meet Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew Mark, Luke and John, meet Mark Galli. They may not be "discussions" of Christ Victor, but they surely tell its story. 

The problem with the "biblical substitutionary atonement" model is that it doesn't make good sense of the Gospels. A resulting problem is that those who hold to it as the dominant model struggle to find the gospel in the Gospels. We end up with a Jesus who didn't really preach the gospel at all, even though he said that he did. Something like Christus Victor seems to solve these serious problems.

What do you think? Is Galli right about the rise in popularity of Christus Victor, but wrong to let "biblical substitutionary atonement" dominate it? Do I need to read A Community Called Atonement again since I mostly forget what it says other than something about a golf bag? I'm gonna say Yes, Maybe, and Yes, but feel free to disagree.


  1. I think you make a great point- the purpose of substitution is that Christ be displayed as the victorious one he is.

    That is a really clarifying point.

    I respect Galli but when he writes that there are "no extensive discussions of Christus Victor anywhere in the New Testament" I want to ask him what does it mean that the strong man has been bound up?!

  2. Did you catch this Calvin quote on Michael Bird's blog? :)

    “Finally, since as God only he could not suffer, and as man only could not overcome death, he united the human nature with the divine, that he might subject the weakness of the one to death as an expiation of sin, and by the power of the other, maintaining a struggle with death, might gain us the victory … But special attention must be paid to what I lately explained, namely, that a common nature is the pledge of our union with the Son of God; that, clothed with our flesh, he warred to death with sin that he might be our triumphant conqueror.”

  3. I didn't see this quote but I did read Bird's comment under the CT piece, which said something similar.

    One of these days I'll read Institutes, after which I have no doubt that both my appreciation for Calvin and my contempt for many of his current followers will increase :-)

  4. What in particular would cause you to hold current followers of Calvin in contempt?

  5. Scott whats his name had a thing in CHristianity today about how Jesus and Paul seem to clash. Jesus talks bout the kingdom and Paul bout Justification.. Paul dont say much bout the kingdom and Jesus dont say anything bout justification. Scott said the only way to reconcile them was if you see that they are both talking about Jesus.