Introducing Narrative Christus Victor
Over the last few months I’ve been slowing working away at reading The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver. As a programming note, I’ll work through the book in probably at least 5 parts: this introduction to the theory, atonement theory within history, how his theory fits and doesn’t fit alongside a few liberation theologies, a conversation with those who maintain satisfaction or penal substitution theory, and conversation with other similar contemporary atonement theologies.
Before I say anything else for this post, I need to warn you: there was a large gap between reading this section and doing the write-up. Normally I write notes as I read but this time I failed to do that. Plus it was a complicated section spanning about 100 pages so what I say here will be nowhere close to the kind of detail that Weaver offers.
And with those preliminaries out of the way…
So what it is narrative Christus Victor? It’s more of a motif than a detailed theory: Jesus has conquered, through his nonviolent life and teachings, the evils of this world, particularly oppressive societal systems represented by the Roman Empire or Caesar or (as in the imagery of Revelation) Babylon. Jesus’ suffering death was not the purpose of the incarnation; instead, it was the natural consequence of the kind of nonviolent resistance to the powers of the world that Jesus did and taught his followers to do. Weaver primarily focuses on the political powers, and that was indeed who killed him, but I think it is also fair to include religious and social powers who operate on the same principles of judgement to control. To try to reach precise metaphysical details about Weaver’s understanding beyond that would be an exercise in missing the point.
Weaver introduces the theory primarily through Revelation of all places. I’m not sure that’s the place I would have started personally, but it works. As a lot of people seem to be saying more often, Revelation is not in fact a detailed foreshadowing of the end of the world. For most of church history this was understand but in the past couple of hundred years of American theology that has changed significantly to suddenly saying that it is not in fact primarily a defense of the modern doctrine of dispensationalism. Instead, Revelation is an apocalyptic, meaning that it is fundamentally poetic in nature where the poetic imagery is steeped in the Jewish tradition from which it came. That to say, once you know how to look at the themes of Revelation, narrative Christus Victor does jump out at you. Weaver unpacks Revelation and the meaning of many of the images. Unlike a lot of confusing dispensationalist interpretations, Weaver sticks to images which were known to the author and his audience, often through references back to other biblical or deuterocanonical texts. I’m not going to go through those, though, because it was just too overwhelming for me to keep a lot of it straight.
After unpacking the motif primarily through Revelation, he goes through many other sections of the Bible and shows how they are all coherent with the motif even if not explicitly presenting that motif. For example, in the section on the Old Testament Law, he shows why, contrary to those who support the penal view, the sacrificial system was not designed by God in order to be a substitute for his wrath against sin. God does give instructions for how to give sacrifices, but even when giving them he regularly foreshadows that this is temporary and not the way that God wants to relate to his people. The other section of Scripture regularly cited as pointing to the penal view is the letters of Paul. Weaver similarly debunks these standard arguments, showing how later assumptions read more into Paul than is actually there. And of course the Gospels provide the strongest support for the motif, along with Revelation, as Jesus consistently teaches and models an ethic of nonviolence as the way to change the world. The level of detail and biblical scholarship in these sections is amazing, but you’d have to read the book to go through it all yourself.
Overall, I found his arguments fairly convincing, but then again, I was already biased away from the penal view because of other study on the subject. I suspect that if you’re reading the book already biased toward the penal view and relatively close-minded about it, this section probably won’t do that much to change it, although it may still plant some questions you’ve been afraid to consider. And if you aren’t willing to do the work of unpacking the context of the biblical texts, preferring to stick to a modern post-Anselm lens instead, then it won’t even make sense because the imagery and the understanding of the nature of God are completely different. But if you come in with an open mind and a willingness to get to what the Bible may really be saying, I bet you’ll be left wrestling with a lot of tough questions whether you agree with him or not.