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Theory of Atonement that Anabaptists Can Feel Good About

The Nonviolent Atonement - J. Denny Weaver
Atonement is a word that theologians use to describe how humans can be "at one with" God. For the Christian religion it includes tying it to the death of Jesus and explaining how it can provide spiritual salvation. The various theories of atonement that have been developed over the past two thousand years have been human endeavors at providing a rationalization as to why the execution of Jesus as a criminal has significance for Christian believers.

In this book the author, J Denny Weaver, proposes an atonement theory to which he gives the name “narrative Christus Victor”. It is an approach more consistent with the narrative descriptions of the teachings of Jesus contained in the New Testament than is the theory that has prevailed since the year 1100 when Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement was published in his Cur Deus Homo.

Anselm developed his satisfaction atonement in order to replace the then prevailing view that Christ's death was a ransom payment that God owed to the devil. This ransom theory is the classic Christus Victor and most theologians didn't like the emphasis on the power of the devil to interact with God as an equal.

The problem with Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement is that it is based on the idea of retributive violence. Christians are not supposed to practice retributive violence so why must God? Isn’t it strange that a God who sent his Son to teach “love your enemies” is incapable (as described by Anselm) of simply forgiving sins without the use of retributive violence? However, the satisfaction theory of atonement was widely accepted by the Christian church during the medieval era because it was compatible with a state church that was part of the government that needed to use "the sword" to maintain social order.

Abelard came along a few years after Anselm with his moral influence theory of atonement in an effort to avoid the retributive aspects of the satisfaction theory. But the death of Jesus still has aspects of divine child abuse in the exercise of moral influence in Abelard's theory. With the devil missing from the equation it's hard to explain why the death of Jesus was needed. Also, narrative Christus Victor differs from the moral influence atonement by envisioning changes other than an impact on the mind of the sinner by envisioning a change in the spiritual universe symbolized by Christ's resurrection.

Narrative Christus Victor puts a devil or sorts back into the equation again as was the case for classic Christus Victor. But the devil in narrative Christus Victor is in the form of the very tangible and real principalities and powers of this world that are opposed to God's kingdom. The post-Constantine state church of the Medieval era could not recognize this definition of the devil because they themselves were the principalities and powers.

In Weaver’s narrative Christus Victor there is no need to explain why God required that Jesus die:

“In narrative Christus Victor, the cause of Jesus’ death is obviously not God. ... Rather, in narrative Christus Victor the Son is carrying out the father’s will by making the reign of God visible in the world — and that mission is so threatening to the world that sinful human beings and the accumulation of evil they represent conspire to kill Jesus. Jesus came not to die but to live, to witness to the reign of god in human history. While he may have known that carrying out that mission would provoke inevitably fatal opposition his purpose was not to get himself killed. ... Jesus depicted in narrative Christus Victor is no passive victim. He is an active participant in confronting evil. Salvation happens when or because Jesus carried out his mission to make the reign of God visible. His saving life shows how the reign of god confronts evil, and is thus our model for confronting injustice. While we do not save, we participate in salvation and in Jesus’ saving work when we join in the reign of God and live the way Jesus lived. ... It means actively confronting injustice, and in that confrontation we continue with Jesus to make the rule of God visible in a world where evil still has sway. “ (p.211-212)

Weaver deliberately builds his narrative Christus Victor model by careful examination of scriptures and history -- Revelation, the Gospels, letters of the apostle Paul, Old Testament sacrifice traditions, the book of Hebrews, and Israel's history. In summary Weaver says:

"Seeing narrative Christus Victor in this long historical context underscores how completely outside of history satisfaction atonement is. If fact, satisfaction atonement appears to reduce the life of Jesus to an elaborate scheme whose purpose was to produce his death. Narrative Christus Victor is a way of reading the entire history of God's people, with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the culminating revelation of the reign of God in history, whereas the various versions of satisfaction atonement concern a legal construct or an abstract formula that functions outside of and apart from history. Seeing the long historical context of narrative Christus Victor underscores the extent to which satisfaction atonement is separated from ethical involvements and allows oppression to continue without challenge." (p.69)

Narrative Christus Victor is compatible with much of René Girard's theory about mimetic violence and its implications for understanding the death of Jesus and atonement theology. Narrative Christus Victor also stands in continuity with, but differs significantly from, the classic view of Christus Victor described by Gustaf Aulén, and it bears little resemblance to the Christus Victor rejected by Feminist Theology.

Weaver includes chapters in his book explaining how narrative Christus Victor addresses the concerns of and is compatible with "Black Theology on atonement", "Feminist Theology on Atonement", and "Womanist Theology of Atonement." Much of Christian theology, classic atonement images, and christological terminology have accommodated violence of the sword, slavery, racism, and violence against women. Even though Weaver originally developed narrative Christus Victor model to reflect a nonviolent ethic for Christian living, he demonstrates that it fits well with the concerns of oppressed people.

This book has a chapter near its end titled,"Conversation with Anselm and His Defenders." A number of theologians have tried to respond to the criticisms of satisfaction atonement that have been expressed by feminist and womanist writers. The defenders have generally responded in one of three ways: (1) Rehabilitate the ideas of punishment and vicarious suffering, (2) Shift emphasis away from punishment by recovering additional themes and emphases within satisfaction that have been covered over by too much stress on punishment, and (3) Acknowledge the validity of the critique of punishment by blaming the excesses on Protestant reformers such as John Calvin. Weaver concludes that none of the defenses are adequate or convincing.

J. Denny Weaver has recently published a new book titled, The Nonviolent God , which I hope to read next. I presume it is sort of a sequel to this book.

It is interesting to note that the word “atonement“ is not in the King James version of the New Testament (however it is in the Old Testament, Leviticus 17:11).

A book has been published recently by Ted Grimsrud titled, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness. I’m under the impression that it may have some similarities to Weaver's book. But the title sounds more anti-atonement, whereas Weaver's book is more rehab-atonement. Frankly, I'm not all that excited about atonement theory, so anti-atonement sounds pretty good to me.