Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rethinking reactionary theology: Reflections on Christus Victor and Penal Substitution

I really enjoyed reading Justin Taylor's interview with Michael Wittmer author of Don't Stop Believing: Why living like Jesus is not enough. There is a review of the book by Tim Challies here. The diagram above fascinated me, and I will look forward to reading the book.

This part of the interview caught my eye:
JT: You write that “The history of theology is a story of pendulum swings. The church pursues one line of thought until it reaches an extreme, and then, like the pendulum on a grandfather clock, swiftly swings to the other side.” Can you give a few examples?

MW: This pendulum swing shows up in nearly every chapter of Don't Stop Believing...We emphasized penal substitution at the exclusion of the other atonement theories (e.g., I don’t remember hearing much about “Christus Victor”). Now some are over-reacting and accepting every theory of the atonement except penal substitution.
When I read this my mind was drawn to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism (italics added):
What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.
The Catechism holds together what Wittmer notes evangelicals have sometimes separated. Why is this?

1. In is to be expected that when a doctrine is under attack not only will there be an appearance of new books and articles defending it, but there is also a mood that one senses at conferences and that you hear in preaching of lines being drawn and sides taken.
  • There is the didactic desire to articulate the doctrine under attack clearly, so as to rescue it from misrepresentation.
  • There is also the pastoral desire to make sure that our listeners are themselves personally clear about their own understanding and embracing of the doctrine.
  • Then there is the polemic and apologetic desire to engage with errors and to win over the wayward and those holding to contrary views.
The net result of this is that there is a perceived emphasis on a particular doctrine that looks very much like an imbalance. This does not mean that there is a real imbalance in the way that one's overall theology is constructed and practiced, but for a time the contested doctrine takes the central place. And the greater the perceived threat the more we should expect this to be the case.

2. A lack of historical awareness is a significant issue. If our main diet of reading is dominated by the most recent books on particular doctrines we will deprive ourselves of access to the centuries of thinking that has preceded those works.

Of course good contemporary books that also deal with important thinkers and controversies in church history can become a significant entry point into the literature of the past. John Stott's The Cross of Christ is a good example of this. Reading this book as an undergraduate introduced me to Anselm's Cur Deus Homo and the aberrant views of Mcleod Campbell, as well as several other figures.

A lack of familiarity with what our forefathers believed and what they rejected is detrimental to the church today. One wonders whether we are better innovators than inheritors.

3. Sinclair Ferguson made the perceptive comment that most listeners to expository preaching would benefit more from it if they had a framework in place, a theological frame of reference, that would help them to understand and better assimilate and retain what they hear.

It should not be lost on us that the Protestant Reformation which unheld the authority, clarity and sufficiency of the Word, also saw a significant emphasis on the need for churches to confess the faith and to catechise members in doctrine, piety and ethics.

The very comprehensiveness and thoroughness of these confessions and catechisms are themselves a safeguard against swinging pendulums. However, a minimalist approach to doctrine arguably builds up the kinetic energy of the pendulum.

How is this related to Penal Substitution and Christus Victor?

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism views the atoning work of Christ as dealing with the satisfaction made for all our sins (penal substitution) and his redeeming us from all the power of the devil (Christus Victor). When Scripture explicates how Christ conquers the devil, the reality of which is anticipated in the proto-evangelium (Gen. 3:15), it views the power of the devil as the power of deception and accusation. Our legal position before God, in view of Adam's breaking of the covenant of works (Gen. 2:15-17), and our own sins, has rendered us guilty, cursed, and under the sentence of death (Rom. 6:23).

How does Christ redeem us from the power of the devil? By dying for us (1 Peter 3:18). By taking our curse and punishment (Gal. 3:13). By enduring the wrath of God (Rom. 3:25-26). By taking the full penalty of the law (Gal. 3:10).

The legal accusations of Satan are silenced by the blood of the Lamb that has brought us forgiveness for all our sins (Col. 2:13-15; Eph. 1:7; Rev. 12:10-11; Rom. 8:1, 33-34!). How has Christ conquered Satan? By his active and passive obedience, by making atonement and justification. And now without God's law to condemn us, Satan has no power to accuse us. What truth then will he seek to overthrow with all his might? The truth that the blood of the Lamb saves, the doctrine of penal substitution.

The Lamb slain saves us. The Lamb slain silences Satan's accusations. It is seeing this connection that will stop the pendulum from swinging from penal substitution to Christus Victor. As Henri Blocher argued, in a much neglected essay, these doctrines are seen in the biblical proportions and glory together. It is really Agnus Victor, not what is commonly understood as Christus Victor, that best explains the conquering of Satan.

4 comments:

étrangère said...

Ovey, Sach and Reeves address it in the latest tabletalk - on how it must be a just victory.

Martin Downes said...

Thanks for the link

Theodore A. Jones said...

"Thou preparest a table before Me in the presence of mine enemies."
And this table is right down front center of every Christian church house in existence. "Look and live." This table is a snare and a trap for God's purpose.

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