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Archive for the tag “Atonement”

The Atoning Work of Christ – Concluding Comments

Concluding this series is not easy. There is so much more to know and understand. The more I know the less I know, it seems.

Let’s first do a quick recap on the atonement theories that have been presented:

Penal Substitution: Man sins against God. God is justly angry at the sins of His creation and man is condemned to separation from God. God becomes man and dies as our substitute so that mankind does not have to die. “Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice” – John Stott

Moral Influence: Man is sinful. God becomes man in order to reveal Himself to mankind so that they can follow Him as an example of how to live a Christian life. He reveals Himself to us and teaches us about His character by coming to live and die as one of us.

Christus Victor: Mankind is held captive by sin, Satan, and death. God became man, lived, died, and rose again in order to defeat these evil forces and free mankind from captivity. We have victory with Christ.

Recapitulation:  In Adam all have sinned. God becomes man, thus uniting God with mankind. As God lives on earth as the second Adam he does right in every instance that Adam previously did wrong. Christ recapitulates all of humanity and we are redeemed by His life, death, and resurrection. Christ defeats sin and death and redeems mankind through unity with Christ incarnate.

There are many positive aspects we can gain from all of these theories. In fact, my current professor said, it is better to look at these as images rather than theories. C. S. Lewis  explains further in Mere Christianity:

“The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like. All sensible people know that if you are tired and hungry a meal will do you good. But modern theory of nourishment – all about the vitamins and proteins – is a different thing. People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard of: and if the theory of vitamins is some day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important those theories are. My own church – the Church of England – does not lay down any one of them as the right one. The Church of Rome goes a bit further. But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality” (55, emphasis mine).

This is not an either/or situation. Every one of these images says something true about God and I believe there is much we can learn from each one. The truth of the matter is that we cannot even begin to grasp how God was able to atone for our sins. We know that He did. And these different images help us understand, if only a little, what has occurred.

I do think some images are more helpful than others. And perhaps the ones that are helpful to me are not helpful for you, and visa versa. The two that make the most sense to me are Recapitulation and Christus Victor, which I like to think of together as one image. I believe that these images provide us with a greater sense of what it means to be a Christian more so than the other theories.

Moral influence theory leaves Christian life in a state of moral achievement and legalism. Penal substitution leaves us thinking that since Christ paid the price to God for our sins, we are now free to sin ever more. Of course, Christians would never say that, but there definitely does not seem to be much reason in this theory for me to live a godly life. Sanctification seems to lose it’s ties to the atonement. Why live a holy life if my sins are already paid?

On the other hand, Christus Victor and Recapitulation teach us that since Christ united humanity with God through the incarnation, Christians now have a clear goal in mind. That is, through communion with God (which occurred when we were reconciled to him) we are given freedom be truly human (as Christ exemplified in His life) and to live according to God’s will, no longer bound to sin. Rather than a religion based on laws and morals, Christianity is for the purpose of reconciling the world to God. As Jens Zimmermann states in Incarnational Humanism:

“Our propensity [is] to seek security in rules for the Christian life, which is probably why even today “how-to-do-Christianity” seminars prevail in evangelical churches over actual gospel proclamations. For Bonhoeffer such an attitude is an abrogation of responsibility and a failure to enjoy the liberation effected by Christ to be fully human before God. Slaves need rules and lack initiative, but sons and daughters of God freely and responsibly enact what they know to be their Father’s will: the reconciliation of the world with God for the sake of true humanity” (278).

Lewis explains the atonement by showing that mankind needed to repent but that because man is bad they are unable to repent. However, with God’s help, they would be able. That is, if God put into us a bit of Himself. “We now need God’s help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all – to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die. . . . God can only share what He has: this thing, in His own nature, He has not. But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us” (58).

We can see that in the “Lewisian” version of recapitulation, meaning for Christianity is formed even after justification. Because we are united with Christ and share in His life, we are now free to live in surrender to His will. Sanctification is in direct correlation to justification under this viewpoint.

Now, not to say that Lewis was promoting this view against all others. He clearly states: “Such is my own way of looking at what Christians call the atonement. But remember this is only one more picture. Do not mistake it for the thing itself: and it does not help you, drop it” (59).

My purpose then in researching, reading, and posting these different atonement theories was twofold. One, so that I could gain a better understanding of what Christ did for me and how it affects my life, and two, so that we as Christians would not dogmatically hold onto a view as absolute fact but would be willing to understand the atonement from a new and different perspective than perhaps we are usually do.

Please feel free to comment below with your own thoughts on the different theories. Which theory do you find most helpful and why? Do you hold onto one theory as dogma or do you find them all to be useful means of exemplifying the atonement? Are there other theories not mentioned that you find helpful?


The Atoning Work of Christ – Recapitulation

This blog post is part of a series on the atonement theories. You can find the first post here.

In going over the theory of recapitulation, we will also be touching on the theory of theosis (man becoming like God)– which is not an atonement theory. However, recapitulation and theosis go hand in hand so it is necessary to touch on it briefly.

What is recapitulation?

Recapitulation is the theory of atonement that follows as such: In Adam all have sinned, and have turned against God, incapable of returning. Christ unites humanity with God at the incarnation when God becomes human. He sums up all created things in himself, entering into every stage of life from birth to adulthood and finally to death, and unites it all to God. In his death he enters Hades and thereby destroys it. Where there is Light there cannot be darkness. In his resurrection he destroys death and thus, through his incarnation, death and resurrection he restores humanity. That is a very simplified version so let’s look at this a little deeper. It is rare you’ll find an evangelical who supports this view (at least as a complete theory) so we’ll mainly look at Vladimir Lossky, an Orthodox scholar but we’ll also look to the works of Jens Zimmermann, a protestant philosopher and theologian.

The theory of Recapitulation, necessarily starts at creation. The whole of humanity (from Adam till the last man) “was created in the image of Christ, who is himself the perfect image of God, and [humanity’s] destiny was to become like Him” (Zimmermann, Bonhoeffer Presentation, Feb 1, 2013). Mankind, from the start, was purposed to become like God but upon evil entering the world, via Adam’s disobedience, hope for unity with God was lost. For sin is the negation of good, the negation of God, and of life and so via sinning mankind was in a state of decay. For without God, even existence is impossible. As sin reigned, death (separation from God) took all of creation captive. Adam failed at his vocation of deification.

As Lossky expounds:

“The infinite distance between the created and uncreated, the natural separation of man from God which ought to have been overcome by deification, became an impassable abyss of sin and death, which was near a state of non-being. In order to reach that union with God, to which the creature is called, it was then necessary to break through a triple barrier of sin, death and nature” (Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 135).

This triple barrier was broken through the second Adam, that is, Christ. Through His becoming man, Christ unites himself with all of creation in order to “lift humanity up to its former destiny” (Zimmermann, Bonhoeffer Presentation). Because Christ was both human and divine, he was able to, in uniting himself with creation, restore the ability for mankind to truly be the image of God.  It is not just human beings who are recapitulated, there are implications for the entire creation (Zimmermann,

But it is not just Christ’s incarnation, his unity with humanity, that brings redemption. It is through his death that sin is destroyed. For no man could reach unity with God while in sin, because sin is the privation of Good. And at Christ’s resurrection, when he is transformed and renewed, He defeats death. Christ lives and death dies so that it no longer has a hold on us. Since humanity is unified with Christ, his entire creation is given hope of new life even after death. All three parts are necessary in the atonement. As Zimmermann states, quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“‘Christ does not cease working in us until he has changed us into Christ’s own image. Our goal is to be shaped into the entire form of the incarnate, the crucified, and the transfigured one’ (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 284-85).  In other words, as Christians and as church, we cannot say that we have part only in the incarnate Christ, or in the crucified, suffering servant, or in the resurrected victorious Christ. ‘In Jesus Christ we believe in the God who became human, was crucified, and is risen’” (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 157; Zimmermann, Bonhoeffer Presentation).

Where did it originate?

The simple answer to this is that it originated in the church fathers. Some basic forms of this theory of the atonement are evident in most of the fathers. I will focus on Irenaeus (125-190 AD) because he gives a very thorough explanation.

When Christ comes incarnate, he comes as the second Adam. That is, when he becomes man,  he sums up all created things in himself and recapitulates all of creation, humankind and nature included. In unifying Himself with creation, all of creation endures what He endures.  We see this over and over in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. For example:

“He did appear [as flesh and] that He also was: God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true” (Bk III, ch. XVIII, par. 7).

“For as He became man in order to undergo temptation, so also was He the Word that He might be glorified; the Word remaining quiescent, that He might be capable of being tempted, dishonoured, crucified, and of suffering death, but the human nature being swallowed up in it (the divine), when it conquered, and endured [without yielding], and performed acts of kindness, and rose again, and was received up [into heaven]” (III, XIX, 3).

“Nor would the Lord have summed up these things in Himself, unless He had Himself been made flesh and blood after the way of the original formation [of man], saving in his own person at the end that which had in the beginning perished in Adam” (V, XIV, 1).

For by summing up in Himself the whole human race from the beginning to the end, He has also summed up its death” (V, XXIII, 2).

(emphasis mine)

Christ is righteous where Adam was sinful.  In a sense he reverses or undoes the wrong that Adam did and makes it right.  By Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, sin and death are also destroyed much like in Christus Victor. Adam had been conquered but when ” the Lord vivifies man, that is, Adam, death is at the same time destroyed” (Ibid. III, XXIII,7).

Death is destroyed, because God became man. And it was necessary for salvation that Christ was both God and man, as Irenaeus states so eloquently:

“Therefore, as I have already said, He caused man (human nature) to cleave to and to become, one with God. For unless man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately vanquished. And again: unless it had been God who had freely given salvation, we could never have possessed it securely. And unless man had been joined to God, he could never have become a partaker of incorruptibility. For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by His relationship to both, to bring both to friendship and concord, and present man to God, while He revealed God to man. For, in what way could we be partaken of the adoption of sons, unless we had received from Him through the Son that fellowship which refers to Himself, unless His Word, having been made flesh, had entered into communion with us? Wherefore also He passed through every stage of life, restoring to all communion with God” (III, XVIII, 7).

And in so doing this, Christ has allowed mankind to become unified with God. This is the doctrine of theosis. It is not the idea that we become God in actuality as many may presume. We do not become God in essence but we do become like God. It may be a little confusing how Athanasius and Irenaeus put it: “God became man, that we might become God.” and  “The Word of God, . . . became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Preface). Like God, we become incorruptible and holy. But this deification does not happen suddenly, rather we are undergoing the process of becoming more and more like God.

What is the cultural context?

In his work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus was responding to a heretical theory called Gnosticism which did not adhere to a fully incarnate God nor the Triune Godhead. Rather, Christ was a sort of demi god.  In his book, Irenaeus was explaining the atonement largely to show that if God did not become man – if Christ was not both God and man – then salvation cannot come to humanity. This is one reason why Irenaeus emphasizes the incarnation of Christ far more than he does the death and resurrection of Christ. The Gnostics were threatening true Christianity and like almost all of the works of the fathers, Irenaeus was responding to the prominent heresy of his day.

Another culturally significant concept that ought to be mentioned is neo-platonism whose main proponent was Plotinus (205-70), a Greek speaking Egyptian. Plotinus believed that the highest principle, called the One, is beyond being and “the source from which being derives, the goal to which it ever strives to return” (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 21). The One is not subject to any attributes. It does not have the quality goodness, but we can say ‘the One is good’. The fathers were heavily influenced by neo-platonism and it can be seen in many of the theories they held. This idea that every being strives to return to the One is very similar to that of theosis.

What did the cross achieve under this view?

The incarnation, life, death, and resurrection gave all of creation the ability to unite with God and become like Him in His holiness.

What scriptures support this view?

Rom 5:10-19

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Therefore , just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned – for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned ; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

1 Corinthians 15:20-22

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

Ephesians 1:9-10

He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.

What are some common criticisms?

As I’ve come across blogs and sites  discussing this view, one of the main criticisms is that this theory holds that Christ experienced all phases of Adam’s life even that of sin, but since Christ never sinned, this theory is wrong. The problem with this criticism is that the Recapitulation theory does not hold that Christ sinned. Christ was tempted just like Adam, and did not sin. He did right where Adam did wrong. If the theory held that Christ sinned, it would simply fall apart because Christ would not have perfectly recapitulation all in Himself.

The only critique I could find is that it neglects the atonement by focusing on the incarnation instead of the death or Christ.

If you all have any other critiques or know of any others, please post in the comments and I’ll add them here. In my next post, I intend to give my view of the atonement and thoughts on the previous posts in this series.

Please find my previous posts on the atonement here:

Penal Substitution

Moral Influence

Christus Victor

My next post, which concludes this series, can be found here.

The Atoning Work of Christ: The Christus Victor Theory

What is Christus Victor?

While there are different versions of the Christus Victor view, the main idea is that mankind has been held captain by sin, Satan, and death and that Christ came to defeat those evil forces so that we might be reconciled to Him. In each of the different authors who I will present, you will see some slight variations, but in general, this is the outline of the Christus Victor view.

Although this viewpoint is rare in the protestant tradition, one pastor who supports  this view is Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church. In the book The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, Boyd contributes a chapter to defend and explain the Christus Victor view. Boyd emphasizes that Satan has dominion over this world and is holding us captive. Therefore, salvation, in part, is deliverance from Satan.  Boyd analyzes Acts 26:17-18 which states:

“I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (NRSV).

In light of this passage, Boyd states that because God has set the Gentiles free from the power of Satan, “they would be in a position to ‘receive forgiveness of sins’ as well as a place among the community that is set apart (sanctified) by God. Salvation clearly involves forgiveness of sin, but this forgiveness is itself rooted in a person getting freed from Satan’s grip” (Boyd, The Christus Victor View of the Atonement, 3).

Salvation is not necessarily from God’s wrath or hell, rather, salvation is something that affects the whole of creation. Christus Victor, as presented by Boyd, is not about “my personal salvation”, it is about the salvation of the entire world of which we are only a small part (4).

Even Christ’s life was part of this conquering of Satan and evil powers. Boyd gives numerous examples of this, for instance, when Christ heals on the Sabbath he is “waging war against the powers and exposing the systemic evil that fuels religious legalism and oppression. He was conquering evil with love” (5).

“Everything about Jesus’ life must be understood as an act of defiance against the powers, precisely because everything about his life was an act of self-sacrificial love” (5).

While in the penal substitution view, Christ died as our substitute and took God’s wrath upon Himself in our stead. In the Christus Victor view, Christ died as our substitute and took upon himself all the natural consequences of sin that we would have experienced, that is: death and suffering.

While the Christus Victor view is often presented as the idea that God bought off Satan – that Jesus was the ransom payment to the devil, Boyd states that this idea of ransom in scripture is not meant to be taken literally.  “The word ‘ransom’ simply means ‘the price of release’ and was most commonly used when purchasing slaves from the slave market. Hence, the Christus Victor model can simply take this to mean that Christ did whatever it took to release us from slavery to the powers” (6).

I do want to make mention of one other person who has greatly influenced the rise of Christus Victor, that is Gustav Aulén who wrote in 1931. His book is considered a classic and he provides a historical analysis arguing that the traditional viewpoint of the Church Fathers is the theory of Christus Victor and that it wasn’t until Anselm’s theory of Penal substitution that Christus Victor became less known. Aulén’s book is well worth the read.

Where did it originate?

Although in the first several centuries after the time of Christ, there was no theory called “Christus Victor,” strong elements of the view can be seen throughout the Church Fathers from as early as the 3rd century if not before. Some of the Fathers that presented this view of the atonement were Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, and Origen, to name a few.

For this post, I intend to focus mainly on Gregory of Nyssa’s  (335-395 AD) explanation of the atonement found in The Great Catechism because more than the other fathers, he delves into this idea “tricking” Satan which is often one of the biggest criticisms of Christus Victor.

Gregory’s line of thought starts out by acknowledging that man has been deceived by “the great advocate and inventor of vice,” Satan (XXI). The Devil spread the glamour of beauty over the hook of vice, and man, in his ability to freely choose, took the bait. Man became “fettered prisoners” and in “bondage of slavery” to Satan (XV). God, having made man in his image took pity on mankind and desired to free them from their plight.

Gregory goes on to describe Christ and his great miracles and how when Satan saw that Christ had such power, he “saw also in Him an opportunity for an advance, in the exchange, upon the value of what he held. For this reason he chooses Him as a ransom for those who were shut up in the prison of death” (XXIII). In exchange for mankind who were captive by sin and death, Satan accepted Christ as a ransom:

“In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active” (XXIV).

And so, what then, is atonement for Gregory? It is the Christ victorious in that He triumphs over Satan so that life is brought to those who were once doomed to die, it is cleansing for those who were once polluted with sin.  He does this by paying a ransom to Satan which Satan eagerly receives not knowing that Christ is God.

The main critique of course, is that in veiling the deity of Christ, God deceives Satan. This seems to go against God’s character. Gregory later defends his case against this notion, but I will not be going into depth on it here. The reason being, that the Christus Victor theory works perfectly well without God having deceived Satan. As Boyd says, the idea of ransom in scripture was likely not meant to be taken literally.

The idea of the atonement for Gregory continues even further and does not stop merely at Christus Victor but we’ll look at his ideas as well as other Church Fathers ideas on this in the next blog posts.

What was the cultural context?

St. Gregory was, of course, influenced by the culture around him, and wrote The Great Catechism mainly as a logical explanation of belief so that Christians could defend their faith. Gregory was largely influenced by another Church Father, Origen, who also held to the belief that the ransom could not have been paid to God (because God was not holding sinners captive) so the ransom had to have been paid to the Devil.

What did the cross achieve under this view?

Christ lived a life of love to actively fight against the forces of evil, Christ died to fulfill the law of sin and death, and in his resurrection, he defeated sin death, and Satan so that they no longer hold power over us. We, in participating in that death, are able to live in participation in the life of Christ.

Which scriptures support this view?

1 Corinthians 15:24-26 – Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Romans 5:17-19 – If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous

Romans 6:9-11 – We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Acts 20:28 – Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.

Hebrews 2:14-15 – Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

All Scripture was taken from the NRSV.

What are some common criticisms?

  • It makes sin an objective force outside of man’s nature, eradicating personal guilt and need for forgiveness and  grace.
  • Satan is given too much power, even an equal to God.
  • In some versions of Christus Victor, God seems to deceive Satan which would go against the good character of God.
  • This view puts too much emphasis on Christ as Divine rather than Christ as human.

This blog post is the third blog in a series on the different atonement theories. My first post on “penal substitution” can be found here. The second post, on “moral influence theory” can be found here. The next post, on the recapitulation theory can be found here. Please feel free to comment below with thoughts, criticisms, or opinions in regards to the posts.

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