Atonement Theology in History

Crosses were not used as icons until after Constantine when crosses were no longer torture devices, and did not show Jesus suffering on them until around the same time as Anselm formed his theory

To the surprise of nobody who knows me, the section on how atonement theology fits within history was one of the most exciting parts of The Nonviolent Atonement. Many people won’t accept this, but the simple reality is that our theological positions are always a function at least in part of our context. Most people realize that the context of the biblical writers is important and we can’t just pull individual verses out to support whatever we want. Unfortunately most do not realize that those who have gone before us also always had a context for concluding the ideas that they did. Atonement is no exception.

In the early church, Weaver argues, the mindset was strictly toward what he calls narrative Christus Victor. The most important element from the motif for this aspect of the historical discussion, though, is that it is a very earthly theory with practical applications as to how to approach power and oppression. Jesus saved the world through challenging power in a non-violent way. In other words, he didn’t use power to fight power, which just results in the same framework of “might is right” at the end of the day, and lays underneath many of the theories from the medieval period right up to now.

The tone changed with the Christianization of Rome, or as I prefer to put it as a church historian, the Romanization of Christianity. Remember context: the church had to explain how somebody with the most power in the known world, who used that power to maintain oppressive systems, could also be a Christian. Before now this was unheard of and you couldn’t even be a soldier and be a Christian, let alone the Emperor. But the power was too tempting after centuries of persecution and going against the grain.

The solution: make Jesus’ work a primarily abstract spiritual act instead of a concrete earthly one. This next version is what is normally referred to as Christus Victor, a relatively slight but important change from narrative Christus Victor. No longer was Jesus’ victory primarily against the powers of the world; it was now primarily about a spiritual victory over Satan. Consequences of what this meant for Jesus’ followers could stay in the spiritual realm, fighting demons rather than oppressive powers of the world. This allowed for those in power in medieval Christendom to continue to govern their states in a way that Jesus opposed as understanding of Jesus’ work was changed to be irrelevant to daily governance.

Once we reach the scholastic period, atonement theology shifted again. The reason: as the world reclaimed rational (neo-Platonic) philosophy from the ancient Greeks, the idea of Satan being given so much influence over the history of the world was problematic. Could the Almighty God really be required to give up his own life to Satan? At the same time, violence and Christianity were seen as not only acceptable together but actually encouraged (during the period up to now, violence was allowed in extreme situations but still seen as sinful). Christian Kings were conquering other lands and forcing conversion at the sword, so the idea that violence could ultimately bring salvation was a common one. Two new versions emerged: Anselm with his satisfaction view and Abelard with his moral influence view. The former was primarily God reconciling something within his own character – his mercy with his honour that was akin to that of a feudal lord – and the latter was primarily about reconciling us to be better people through the ultimate example.

John Calvin made a slight variation to Anselm’s formulation. It is a small enough tweak that they are usually treated together, but the difference speaks again to the context. For Anselm in the feudal world, the problem was God’s honour being weakened when his creation failed to do what we were supposed to do. For Calvin, a former lawyer who took on a leadership role for a Reformation that began out of response to human corruption, the problem was that God’s perfect law was being transgressed, building up wrath that had to be expressed on something.

In the 20th and 21st century we’ve begun to ask the questions a lot again about atonement. Calvin’s formulation doesn’t work for most of us anymore. We want to move past a nationalistic and legalistic status quo faith into something that is a lot deeper and delves into God’s character as more than the upholder of the law. Many still like to argue that the modern Western (white, male) formulation of Anselm/Calvin was the “pure” or “objective” theory, which of course doesn’t exist, while others are reclaiming Abelard or Christus Victor or formulating something else entirely as Weaver has done.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.