Christus Victor: Victory without Deceit

Last week I reviewed The Forgotten Cross. Lee Gatiss’ book is a welcome addition to the innumerable works we have on the cross, for while he affirms penal substitutionary atonement his biblical expositions develop the many other effects of Christ’s work. Since the early church fathers, and perhaps peaking at the Reformation, Christ’s work on the cross has been understood as the moment when God’s justice was satisfied. So it is of paramount importance that Christians understand what Christ’s death achieves for us. While we must affirm what is central to the atonement – Christ suffering the penalty for sin – we cannot overlook or forget the far reaching outcomes of Christ’s work. That is what Gatiss’ book sets out to do and you can read more about it in my review. But in this post I want to challenge Gatiss’ thinking on one point.

Lee GatissIn his chapter on Colossians 2, Gatiss touches on what has been dubbed the Christus Victor view of atonement. This view was popularised last century by Gustaf Aulén, in which he opposed what he calls the ‘Latin’ or ‘objective’ view of atonement, mentioned above. He argues that central to Christ’s work was dramatic conflict, biblical dualism, and victory over evil powers. “Christ fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him reconciles the world to Himself” (Aulén). Indeed, Christ disarmed the rulers and authorities, shaming them in triumphing over them (Colossians 2:15). Earlier in the same letter Paul wrote, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness” (1:13). In isolation these texts clearly speak of Jesus’ victory, but we must be mindful of their context: ‘God cancelled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, nailing it to the cross’ (2:14); ‘In Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (1:14). Though the New Testament ties the cross to victory it is not, as Aulén argues, the centre of Christ’s work.

The issue I want to take up with Gatiss chapter is not his treatment of Christ’s supremacy and victory, but with how he says it was accomplished. One of the tenets of the Christus Victor theory is the deception of Satan. This view was adopted by Martin Luther and very prominent amongst the early church fathers. Essentially the idea is that Christ was a sort of bait to Satan. Closely tied to Origen’s ransom theory, Jesus is offered to Satan, but when the latter kills the former he overreaches, and his dominion is shattered. But this analogy made Aulén uncomfortable, “With regard to the deception of the devil. It scarcely needs to be said that the application of any such thought to God is at least dangerous.” However, Gatiss seems to hold to this idea in The Forgotten Cross, “The devil thought this was his finest hour. God’s very own Son surrounded and cut off and done for. But the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the evil one. He came to conquer death and to steal the keys of Hell right out of the devil’s hand at the very moment when it seemed that all was lost. He got right up close, and it appeared that Satan had beaten him and secured the victory. Then Jesus snatched it all away, the very second he died” (p95-96).

Gustav Aulén

As Aulén said, to make God into the deceiver is dangerous, not to mention a counterintuitive since that is one of Satan’s titles. But I want to raise a further critique of the view that says Satan thought Jesus’ death spelt victory: in Christ’s temptation, Satan seeks to lure Christ away from the cross, and his messianic task. “We could say that Satan’s power was aimed at breaking Jesus’ faith, and it proved powerless. Jesus’ power was aimed at doing God’s will, and it overpowered Satan and won back the lost dominion of man” (Seccombe, The Gospel and the Kingdom). Jesus mission drove him to the cross, while Satan sought to drive him away from it. This fits Jesus’ stern rebuke of Peter, who refuses to accept that Jesus must die, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (Matthew 16:21-23). “The crucifixion marked [the Devil’s] final failure. Having run the gauntlet of every temptation, Jesus refused to disqualify himself and so proved himself worthy” (Seccombe). There was no deceit as Christ went to the cross. Though the gathered crowds may have been confused about what was taking place, the principalities and powers were certain that this was the beginning of their end.

Book Review: The Forgotten Cross

Lee GatissIn this short but stirring work, Lee Gatiss calls Christians back to “the poetry of the gospel, and the multifaceted beauty of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (p108). As Gatiss states in his preface, such a work is necessary because the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has become embattled. Gatiss notes how this has drawn much of our attention away from the wonder of the cross. However the motif behind this book is not to enter into that debate. Thus Gatiss writes, “I want to affirm with all my heart that God the Son’s punishment-taking, in-my-place death is the magnificent centrepiece for all Christian theology” (p9-10), but, “The Bible explores and applies what Jesus did on the cross in a multitude of different ways. Penal substitution is one of them—indeed, it’s the most important one…because without it other ways of looking at the cross end up being inadequate for my salvation. But that’s not to say that penal substitution alone is fully adequate to meet my needs” (p11). Therefore as the book’s title suggests, Gatiss seeks to draw out “some forgotten or at least neglected dimensions to Christ’s death that we would to well to recover.”

To claim that PSA is not comprehensive in and of itself may raise some heckles, but that only reveals how narrow our understanding of the cross has become amidst recent theological debates. Gatiss repeatedly identifies Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners as the glorious focal point and source of salvation. But his very appropriate concern is that our focus has become myopic, meaning we are failing in our preaching and teaching to explore the spectacular depths and glory of Christ’s self-giving love, not to mention the broader implications of salvation for all of life. “This is what I often neglect,” Gatiss writes, “I think of the cross as having done something in the past…But I so often forget that it has implications in this present age” (p83). That is one of the resounding points of this book, as well as one that Gatiss models. He allows us to rest in the clear and undeniable biblical teaching of PSA, but shows how that truth is inseparable from others. For example, in his exposition of Ephesians, “We are saved by his precious blood. But there is also a corporate dimension to what the cross achieved. Jesus didn’t just come to save me personally so I can go to heaven when I die” (p62).

If I may interpose something C. S. Lewis wrote in his Reflections on the Psalms, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” One of the greatest strengths of Gatiss’ book is the application, which is both practical and offers some invaluable development of truths too often ignored. There are too many examples of this pointed and expansive application, so I will highlight just three.

Firstly, a repeated theme of The Forgotten Cross is how glory is promised after suffering and service, as we emulate our Lord. “The question we’re left with here is very simple: would you give up everything you have, and everything you’d like to have, to follow Jesus to the cross? It may not be glamorous. But in the end, even for Jesus, it’s the only way to true and lasting glory” (p40). Towards the close of the book, Gatiss baldly states, “Defeat and obscurity in the eyes of the powerful is utterly unimportant. Only the eyes of faith can perceive where true victory lies” (p107).

The forgotten crossSecondly, and tied to the aforementioned theme, Gatiss challenges the worldly desire for impressive ministry. In his first chapter we read, “When we see that the church in Corinth could boast of strong, well-educated, wealthy, successful people and leaders—that it was a strategic and important church…we’re not a million miles away from the culture of many evangelical churches today” (p17). In the chapter on Mark 10, Gatiss puts his finger on the temptation faced by many ministers: we have the nagging sense that we are made for something greater, to be more influential and successful. Concluding that chapter he writes, “It’s noble to want to make the biggest impact we can for the gospel. But it’s probably better for most of us, especially for the health of our souls, if that’s in a place that nobody’s ever heard of” (p40). Thus Gatiss reassures us, “[Jesus] knows our weakness. So we don’t have to collapse under the strain of having to appear together, to having to compete in the game of who’s the best and keenest Christian. Our saviour was crucified, crushed to death by the weight of our sin and God’s wrath against it, so that we can be free of that pressure to perform” (p26).

Thirdly, chapter 5 (on Titus 2) draws out the intractable link between the cross and our sanctification. The glorious point Gatiss reminded me of is this, “What we see going on at Calvary, the place where Jesus died, is of monumental significance. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting together in concert and perfect harmony to achieve their purpose in our salvation. And part of that salvation is…our holiness, godliness, purity, and goodness” (p80). The work of Jesus on the cross is in fact the joint work of the Triune God to make us his, therefore that work extends far beyond the atonement. “[The cross] saves us from a life of going with the flow of the world. Jesus died to save us, but he also died to make us different. That was the plan. So if we’re not different we’ve missed something in our doctrine, and are not adoring the gospel in the eyes of the world—however good we are at talking about” (p89).

This review is already too long, so I will offer just one short criticism, before concluding: Gatiss’ treatment of 1 Peter (chapter 3). On the whole this is one of the best chapters in the book. But I think that merely suffering with the same resolve and faith that Christ did fails to do justice to Peter’s epistle. Jesus stood before his enemies without sin, any harsh words or retaliation, and with full confidence in his Father who judges justly. But I am unconvinced that we are called to simply do the same. Suffering like Christ has the express purpose of vividly presenting the gospel to others, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see you good deeds and glory God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Added to that, a little later, “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for that hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:14-15). Christ undoubtedly set an example for us in the way that we are to suffer, but how we suffer can present us with opportunities to declare the gospel of Christ, as we share in his sufferings.

I read The Forgotten Cross in preparation for Easter and my heart was warmed, welcomingly challenged, and joyously reminded of the multifaceted glory of the cross. And I was convinced, most of all, because in the end Gatiss teaches the plain sense of Scripture, unpacking what God has revealed, and applying it with the caring but incisive sharpness of a pastor.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. Previously I reviewed Stuart Olyott’s short work on the Trinity, also published by Evangelical Press, and offered a slightly nuanced critique of it.

Doodle: Constantine, the Caesars, and Jesus Christ

Bavaria Faith Religion Head StoneLast week I posted an article on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I argued that the birth of the early Christian church is more than a historical peculiarity, for it demands that we answer why despairing disciples became daring heralds of their crucified lord. Jews living in the Roman Empire saw many messiahs publicly killed, and every futile revolution left those who believed in it with a decision: seek out a new messiah or surrender any sort of hope. But those who followed Jesus did neither. Rather, as Paul Barnett writes in The Logic of History, “The early rise of Christianity as a movement close in time to Jesus is a fact of history. Someone gave impulse to the rise of that movement in the immediately preceding weeks and months”. Thus I argued that if we apply logic – and avoid sceptical presuppositions, or poor historical explanations – the resurrection of Jesus provides us with both a satisfactory and startling answer.

When I preached on Christ’s resurrection over Easter I joked that most of us only know who Julius Caesar is because we were forced to read Shakespeare at school. Furthermore almost none of us know his nephew, Augustus Caesar. Yet these men were considered gods. I mention Julius and Augustus because the latter was a contemporary of Jesus, and both were considered divine. Classicist Mary Beard writes in SPQR, “There were priests and temples, sacrifices carried out to them, not on their behalf, and some wonderful surviving images that literally put the imperial gods in the Olympian heavens.” But none of them are broadly remembered today, and they are certainly no longer worshipped. Strangely, on the other hand, the Jewish peasant who was publicly executed by the Romans has stubbornly endured.

Enter The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, faux historical research, Wikipedia, and conspiracy theories that make employees at Area 51 incredulous, to rescue us from believing Christianity was a significant presence in the Roman Empire before Constantine. These reputable sources have indubitably proven that prior to Constantine’s conversion Christianity was hardly worth mentioning. Upon gaining state support it, however, enjoyed meteoric success and growth. But that is to be a poor student of history, not to mention a gullible consumer of popular fiction. In his insightful work, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark writes, “Constantine’s conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not its cause.” This agrees with actual historians, not potboilers. A notable Christian sect must have existed in the Roman Empire in the 4th century C.E. Constantine did not venture into the religious marketplace in search of an obscure faith; he could not ignore the influence of a faith that was sweeping through his empire.

Those who would claim that Constantine is the reason for the season must explain what happened to Julius Caesar, supposed descendant of Aeneas, and his nephew Augustus, those first Roman emperors who had ascended, becoming imperial gods. Constantine’s state sponsorship of Christianity is thrown around as if it was the first occurrence in history. It is also ignorantly supposed that Constantine’s support of Christianity enforced exclusivity in the Empire. The reality is that a contemporary of Jesus enjoyed state support – of varying degrees – for over 300 years until Constantine’s conversion experience. Where are the imperial gods now? Condemned to the fading memory of history. Those who supposedly ascended to Mount Olympus and took their place amongst the pantheon of classical gods are all but forgotten today.

CaesarThe one truth we might draw out of this meandering post is the ephemeral nature of state sponsored religion, or perhaps just the shallowness of such faith. Christianity was almost certainly already a significant Jewish sect long before the 4th century. It held its own in that religious marketplace not because it had state backing, such as the worship of Caesar Augustus, but because Christians from the 1st century were convinced something incredible had happened. As Marilynne Robinson writes in Wondrous Love, explaining what gives the cross and resurrection such lasting power, “They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. So, as Gamaliel said about some of the disciples who were preaching Christ’s death and resurrection, ‘Keep away from these men for if this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39).

How the Early Church Proves the Resurrection

In her most recent novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson draws back the curtain on a character who, though present in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home, has remained fairly mysterious. She is the young wife of John Ames and Lila recounts her austere life as a migrant worker, dominated by loneliness and loss. But one day Lila finds herself in a church service, when she was only looking for shelter from the rain, “She was thinking how strange it was for them to be there singing songs to somebody who had lived and died like anybody.” Very few historians would dispute that there was a historical man named Jesus, who was remarkable at most but died nonetheless. And this means Lila’s bemusement is more than bare wonder, but a question we must all answer: how do we explain two millennia of singing?

A historical note

CrucifixionFirstly, because without it the resurrection makes little sense, we must look at the death of Jesus. “Crucifixion,” David Seccombe writes, “was designed to inflict as much pain as possible for as long as possible, in a manner that brought about the complete public humiliation of the victim…This was Rome’s way of exposing the foolishness of anyone with political pretensions. There was no honour or heroism in such a death” (The King of God’s Kingdom). For Jesus’ disciples, his death signalled a miserable failure and a familiar pattern. Jewish messiahs would gather devoted followings, appealing to the oppressed people with promises of God’s powerful liberation. None succeeded. Jesus fits this category: supposed Jewish messiah executed by the Romans. In dying Jesus was painfully ordinary, even predictable. He was not exceptionable and arguably not even the most popular messiah of his day. This was what happened. And, in addition to the Jewish people’s familiarity with disappointment, they did not expect their messiah to die and be resurrected (a point very well made by N. T. Wright). Therefore, historically, the Jesus story is very similar to the lesser-known stories about other failed Jewish messiahs. Strangely, Jesus’ story is remembered.

An improbable hypothesis

That brings us to our next point, the quite incredible historical reconstruction put forward by sceptics. This popular explanation of the resurrection requires, in my opinion, a greater suspension of logic than the kind Christians are often accused of. For it says that a bunch of despondent and utterly disappointed followers, whose messiah was recently put to death, went about proclaiming his resurrection. Their teacher had just been horrendously executed and before that, as he was being arrested and tried, they were climbing over each other to dissociate themselves from him. Jesus was dead, going the way of every other messiah. So they decided to proclaim that he had been resurrected. Even though it had not happened. Indeed, no one expected it to, probably not even Jesus’ disciples. But in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and guaranteed ridicule as well persecution for proclaiming it, they go about preaching Christ’s resurrection. Again, the sceptic must face up to the difficulty that logic presents. What could possibly propel the disciples into the Empire that had recently killed their messiah, declaring that he was alive?

An unpopular explanation

ResurrectionFormer Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams proposes the incredible but altogether logical explanation, “Jesus appeared to people whose confidence in him had crumbled, not to believers. It was the resurrection that created the Church and its faith, not the Church that created the resurrection.” He makes two points: the first has been lightly touched on already, we might paraphrase Williams in saying that Jesus appeared to sceptics. In the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel we encounter two former followers of Jesus, pouring out their heavy hearts in the wake of Jesus’ apparent failure, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Now whether you consider the Gospels historically reliable or not, it is safe to assume that those two men accurately illustrate how Jesus’ disciples would have felt after his death. As Williams correctly says, their confidence in him was shattered and he would be assigned a place with all the other failed messiahs. But that did not happen, as Williams’ second point suggests; a new faith was born, which is hard to account for apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Their faith, their eschatological hope and longing for liberation, did not anticipate the resurrection of a single man. The resurrection created the church, for their fractured faith would not have created a resurrection.

A resurrection shaped hole in history

That unpopular, though logically credible, and in my opinion more probable, explanation answers the question we started with, the strange fact that people are still singing songs to Jesus. The answer goes beyond curiosity, to ask us what we make of Jesus, his resurrection, and the early church. American pastor Timothy Keller comments in The Reason for God that the first Christians knew that if the resurrection was true then they could no longer live their lives however they wanted to. He goes on, “If it happened, it changes our lives completely.” What will you do? How else do you suggest to expain the faith of the early church? Let me close with the now famous lines from C. F. D. Moule, in The Phenomenon of the New Testament, ‘If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes rips a great hole in history, a hole the size of the and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?’

Reflections on LeFouGate

LeFou - Beauty and the Beast 2017With the release of Beauty and the Beast around the corner and the (completely intentional, as far as I’m concerned) controversy over “LeFouGate,” I have been thinking (again) about the LGBTQ / SSA community and the church. The big question on my mind is one that has been asked many times before: how do we make both compassion and holiness our priorities?

It seems that one the major problems is that the idea of the church and its reality are two very different things. Although we say we are against all sin, what we do stigmatises sexual sin and brushes pride, greed and selfishness under the carpet. We say that the church is a community and that everyone is welcome – in fact we would say we are the best community – but in a small group I attended a gay friend once said the best experience of community that he has had has been outside of the church. I asked him what he meant by “best experience of community” and he explained “where I feel like people care about me and try to understand me.” So yes, once again we can say the church is failing on this front – if you’re reading this and you’re in the LGBTQ / SSA community, sorry for mucking this stuff up for so long!

Two responses that I don’t think are helping us are (1) saying “love the sinner hate the sin” – this response is definitely on the side of “love them with the truth even if it hurts.” Sure, there’s something to be said for this approach but the problem is that it stops far short of knowing “the sinner” and forgets how core of an issue this is with regards to self-identity. I think if we are going to be compassionate, this solution is going to let us down. (2) Reframing sin in terms of brokenness (which I wrote about that a while ago). Although this helps us to be compassionate by using language that is not condemnatory, it also turns us into victims of our own sin rather than wilful agents. This is actually more of a problem to the heterosexual community which seems to have gravitated toward this language because while sounding generous and loving, it excuses and plays down our own sin.

So what’s the solution? Well if you want a solution to a problem that has been plaguing the church for the last few decades and to which few people even gesture at answers, you’ve come to the right place – if you know me, you know that I don’t hesitate to give definitive answers to life’s difficult questions (*sarcasm people). But to suggest something rather than crash landing this post at this point, I will say two things.
Washed and Waiting - Wesley HillFirst, read (and this, by the way, is the only solutiony type thing I’m going to offer). In his Experiment in Criticism Lewis writes

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably something you already know – reading the words of people we don’t understand helps us sympathise with them. So I will recommend Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting to anyone who still hasn’t read it. Unfortunately nothing else that I’ve read is springing to mind that I want to recommend so highly (if you have suggestions, put them in the comments!).

Second, to loop back to LeFouGate, watching Beauty and the Beast is not going to help you sympathise. The media’s approach to gender identity is going to be to affirm and to normalise which will make us conservative types recoil all the time (until the normalisation takes effect). We need stories about people who are struggling with their own identity because in their stories we learn sympathy. Imitation Game (about Alan Turing breaking Enigma during WWII) is one example I can think of, a more recent one – though not as good an example – is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the latest in the Harry Potter world) – watch Credence (the adopted son).

Let’s be clear, these movies are normalising identity struggle and I’m confident that their objective is to normalise alternative sexualities but they do also depict the internal struggle that I think Christians all to often fail to appreciate in the people around us – people around us who we are called to love. I think whatever loving means, it’s going to involve some sort of understanding. Whatever you decide to do in response to LeFouGate, let’s remember that Beauty and the Beast is a story in which love transforms the unlovable and our decisions and actions communicate to those around us – what we say and what we do need to correlate.

Excerpts on the Sabbath

While a theology undergrad, debates about the Sabbath would occasionally rear their head. For most of my life I had not attended many church services on Sundays and had almost always taken a good break from the week on Saturdays. This meant that I struggled to understand the potential significance of and contentious positions about the Sabbath. Here is not the place to go into the latter, mostly because it remains something I have not given much thought to. But in the years following college I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of resting, which possibly correlates with my aging. While I do not yet possess a firm position on the Sabbath, I do believe that important practical principles can be gleaned from it. Below are just a few that I have come across in my own reading.

Marilynne Robinson Firstly, in her essay titled Decline, from The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson contrasts the Sabbath with our capitalistic drive and economically regimented cultures. “The Sabbath has a way of doing just what it was meant to do, sheltering one day in seven from the demands of economics. Its benefits cannot be commercialized. Leisure, by way of contrast, is highly commercialized. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress. Sabbath is a way of life, one long since gone from his country, of course, due to secularizing trends, which are really economic pressures that have excluded rest as an option, first of all from those most in need of it.”

Claire Diaz-OrtizSecondly, in Barna’s Greater Expectations, Claire Diaz-Ortiz quotes Matthew Sleeth’s 24/6 on the necessity of Sabbath practice for frenetic modern lives: “Just as the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, we have become slaves to our technology. Our technological tools allow 24-hour productivity and connectivity, give us more control, and subtly enslave us to busyness itself. Sabbath is about restraint, about intentionally not doing everything all the time just because we can. Setting aside a day of rest helps us reconnect with our Creator and find the peace of God that passes all understanding. The Sabbath is about letting go of the controls one day a week and letting God be God.” Whether it is a day or a couple of hours, the Sabbath calls us to give up productivity and trust God.

Bruce WaltkeThirdly, Bruce Waltke (in An Old Testament Theology) comments how time set apart for worship and reflection, allows us to do far more than rest. We were made for much more than dominion over our world by working in it; we are made for communion with God. “As human beings exert sovereignty over space and matter, which they build with and possess, the sanctification of time reminds them that there is something transcendent beyond matter and space. The critical moments are not the one spent building, possessing, and controlling, but the times set apart for quiet, reflection, meditation, and worship. Religious people who see Sabbath rest as a religious obligation miss its meaning”

Finally, let us conclude with Augustine, who concludes his Confessions by returning to that most famous point, ‘You made us tilted to toward you, so our heart is unstable until it stabilised in you’ (1.1.1). “This beautiful cosmos, made up of creatures, ‘eminently good,’ in their entirety, has an appointed course to run to its end — its dawn will have its dusk. But no dusk comes to the seventh day, its night will never fall, since you have made it holy and abide forever. You, who are always at rest, nonetheless ‘rested on the seventh day’ after completing your works — or so it is said in your Scripture, to signify that when we have completed our works, which were your works made ‘eminently good’ in us, we can rest with you on the eternal seventh day” (13.14.50-51).