Two books about Jesus

I am currently reading two books about Jesus. They are very different. One is Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulén. The other is In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen.

Aulén’s book is about the history of atonement theories. He argues that today (he wrote in the 30s) we have what he calls the Latin doctrine on one side, and the subjective on the other. The Latin one is the form of vicarious substitutionary atonement in which Jesus, as sinless man, offers to God the merit of his sinless, obedient, faithful life, satisfying the requirements of God’s justice to remove the penalty due to sin. Aulén avoids the caricature of the angry Father who must be placated by the merciful Son, as if the Trinity were divided against itself. One of his issues with the Latin theory is that it is not one continuous work of God. God is the author of the plan, but the work is accomplished not by the divine nature of Christ but by his human nature.

So far he has not talked at length about the subjective theory, but from brief remarks in the first chapter, I gather that this refers to an understanding of the atonement involving only a change in people, and not any change in the whole situation or in the relation between God and people.

The main argument of the book is that there is another view, which he names the classic doctrine, which involves Jesus triumphing through his death over the powers of evil, including our own sinfulness as well as powers external to us. It is a work done by God from beginning to end, and addresses not just the penalty due to sin, but sin and evil itself. Thus, Christus Victor properly understood contains all that is really important from the substitutionary view — ideas of sacrifice, ransom, deliverance from guilt, justice — but without confining the atonement to a legal issue, and without putting the Father and the Son in conflict.

It is difficult, for me at least, to follow all the arguments clearly. Of course all interpretations of the atonement look to the New Testament for their support. Of course some of the same metaphors and concepts are common to them all. Sometimes the same language is taken quite differently by different theories. It is not always clear what one element of one theory is getting at, what it is reacting against or promoting. Nevertheless, it is fascinating, fruitful, and important reading. The Cross is central to our faith; we must have some understanding of what is going on with Jesus’ death and resurrection. How we think of the cross is deeply related to how we think of ourselves, others, the nature of the universe, the nature of God.

Here is a passage I read this morning that I thought especially  significant. Aulén is discussing how the Latin theory emphasizes the seriousness of sin — that it is not something that can be finally, fully, justly dealt with by simply forgiving it.

But while it is necessary to admit this intention of moral earnestness, we cannot forget that this doctrine of the Atonement grew up on a moralistic basis; and it can truly be said that the very fact that a satisfaction paid to God is regarded as making amends for man’s fault shows quite decidedly that the radical opposition of God to sin has become weakened down. If God can be represented as willing to accept a satisfaction for sins committed, it appears to follow necessarily that the dilemma of laxity or satisfaction really fails to guard the truth of God’s enmity against sin. The doctrine provides for the remission of the punishment due to sins, but not for the taking away of the sin itself. (91-92)

It is interesting that, according to this book, this atonement theory grew out of a legalistic outlook in which it is possible for people to earn merit with God — something that would be anathema to the Reformed and Calvinist folks who generally champion substitutionary atonement. I wonder to what extent current models of vicarious penal substitution are identical to Aulén’s Latin view, and to what extent they differ. I wonder the same about current models of Christus Victor — do some, as this Christianity Today column suggests, leave out too much, and would the columnist find more to support in Aulén’s version? After all, Aulén is at great pains throughout the book, at least thus far, to show that the classic view is not at all dismissive of the problem of sin and guilt, but sees the powers of evil as both our enemy captors and executors of God’s judgment against sin. Likewise he constantly reiterates that in Christus Victor God is both Reconciler and Reconciled, not alternately one or the other. (Which reminds me, beautifully, of the Abrahamic covenant story in which God passes between the sacrifices by himself, taking on both sides of the covenant, his and ours.)

The other book is a less heady endeavor, in a sense, and yet equally weighty if not more so.

What is needed in Christian leadership? To be free from the tyrannies of relevance, spectacle, and power, and instead to be grounded in the limitless and unconditional love of God through contemplation, confession and forgiveness, and theological reflection. I find Nouwen, in this and other books, breath-takingly in touch with the shadow side of life — loss, pain, fear, loneliness, brokenness, vulnerability, need — in ways that are alternately almost unbearably discouraging and passionately, soaringly hopeful.

Here are some of the lines I read this morning that especially moved me:

The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus… Do you know the incarnate God? In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no vindictiveness, no resentment, and not a tinge of hatred… (37)

Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them… when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative. (45)

Echoing Aulén’s criticism of the moralistic legalism and reductionistic rationality of the Latin view of the atonement, Nouwen closes this chapter thus: “For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful… a movement from the moral to the mystical is required” (47).

Further reading on the Christus Victor theory:

Tony Jones
Greg Boyd
Derek Flood
And, on the opposing side in a way,
Mike Wittmer


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