Response to Denny Weaver’s Narrative Christus Victor Atonement Model

Narrative Christus Victor: Denny Weaver’s non-Atonement Atonement Theology

The protestant doctrine of the atonement is that the work Christ death was a penal substitute. Penal substitution refers to the bearing of the guilt and punishment on behalf of the accused.[1] The context of the protestant doctrine is the covenant into which God entered with Christ as mediator for the redeemed.[2] The Triune God entered a legal arrangement with sinners in order to redeem them from sin and its effects.

Denny Weaver, Professor of Religion at Bluffton College Ohio, denies that Christ’s death and resurrection should be interpreted in light of penal substitutionary categories; rather in activist/liberationist categories. He thus argued in summary, “His death was not a payment owed to God’s honor, nor was it divine punishment that he suffered as a substitute for sinners.”[3] In contrast, Protestants confess that Christ’s death was penal substitution, satisfied God’s justice in punishing those who broke the Covenant of Works, was substitutionary, was arranged by God the Father, and for the purpose of disarming the powers of darkness as an effect of that work.[4] 

            This essay will review and critique Weaver’s model of the atonement in defense of the penal substitutionary model. The protestant view did not drop out of thin air, but is supported by the Bible. His presuppositions guide his conclusions against which the Biblical data lends.

Method:

            This essay will accomplish this in two phases. First, it will review Weaver’s thesis. The second part will consist of a Biblical theological critique of his view in defense of the thesis. The Bible teaches that Christ’s work as mediator is as penal substitute for undeserving sinners. This method of the first half will be accomplished by reviewing Weaver’s writing on the subject, and giving his basic thesis, method of argument, and evidences. This will provide the lay of the land for the second section which will critique his thesis. The second section will consist of a critique of his methodology, and his two lines of evidence.  Both his methods and evidence are flawed. His method is flawed because he seeks his conclusions from on select parts of the scripture. His evidence is therefore skewed and misinterpreted. In fact, the same data supports the penal substitute model. It is as Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote, “If you go back to the Old Testament, what do you find there? Well you find a great deal about sacrifices for sin… What are they doing? It was God who told them to do it. By why? The answer is that the wages of sin is death, and that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”[5] This essay now turns to that first section, the review of Weaver’s thesis.

1. Review: Weaver’s Narrative Christus Victor

Weaver followed the theology of Gustav Aulen’s taxonomy of views of the atonement.[6] When speaking about the atonement models, he was referring to arguments which claim to account for the purpose and results of the death of Christ. Aulen’s thesis gained wide consensus that there are three major types of atonement theories. These are the Christus victor, satisfaction, and moral influence views of the atonement.

The moral influence and satisfaction views were representatively defended by Peter Abelard (moral influence) and Anselm of Canterbury (satisfaction). The Christus victor view was held by many in the east. Weaver calls the Christus victor model the classic view since many church fathers held it.[7]  This view came in one of two forms. Picking up on the term agorazo in the New Testament, which refers to a remunerative transaction, many early Christians interpreted the redemption which Christ won for this as a purchase from the devil. The ransom price was Christ, and the redeemed are the church. However, the deal was a sort of cosmic bait and switch, for the Devil’s victory was short lived because of the resurrection of Christ.  

The protestant view falls under the category of a satisfaction view, but specifically a legal (better, covenantal) satisfaction. Adam rebelled against God’s law in the Garden of Eden and thereby cast all men into sin (Gen 2-3, Hos 6:7, Rom 5:12ff, 1Cor 15:22ff). This is because of the Covenant theology which reformed theologians recognize that forms the architectonic structure of scripture, and is the way by which God freely condescended to man.[8]

In contrast to the Protestant view, Weaver summarized,

“[Jesus’] death was not a payment owed to God’s honor, nor was it divine punishment that he suffered as a substitute for sinners. Jesus’ death was the rejection of the rule of God by forces opposed to that rule. In fact, this review of Jesus’ life as a narrative Christus Victor exposes how incongruous it is to interpret this story as one whose ultimate purpose was to arrange a death in order to satisfy divine justice.”’[9]

He denied that the death of Christ is either God-ward, penal, or substitutionary. In fact, he argued that his view is a non-atonement model of the atonement because the atonement means a “divinely arranged plan to provide a payment to satisfy the offended honor of God [i.e. Anselm] or a requirement of his divine law [i.e. protestants], or that understands Jesus’ death as the substitute bearer of punishment that sinful human kind deserves.”[10]

Methodology: Eschatology Drives Soteriology

Weaver presupposed liberation eschatology. Christ was a casualty along the way to the ultimate work of God liberating mankind. The forces of evil, particularly the devil was arrayed against Christ, and killed him because of this goal of God’s rule. The cross was somewhat arbitrary since the purpose of God in rising Jesus from the dead was not atonement. It demonstrated his power. The death of Christ, for Weaver, is not an atonement but an event along the way toward the unstoppable rule of God. His reason for this is what he calls narrative Christus victor model of the atonement. He added the attributive appositive “narrative” to describe the methodology with which he approached the subject. He went about showing that the narratives of the Gospels and Revelation taught a narrative concerning Christ that shows him, not as a suffering servant, but as an “activists.”[11] He went on to say that the “Jesus was an activist whose mission it was to make the rule of God visible”[12]

The Christian Life in Weaver’s Theology

The death of Christ acts as a sort of moral influence.[13] It encourages the Christian to join the activist side of God’s reign. He argued, “Jesus died making the reign of God present for us while we were still sinners. To acknowledge our human sinfulness means to confess our participation in the forces of evil that killed Jesus, including their present manifestations in such powers as militarism, nationalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and poverty, which still bind and oppress.”[14]  Thus the Christian life is one of optional activism. Christ’s death was unnecessary since God is going to liberate all mankind one day despite the activities of darkness in which they participate. This includes one’s participation (by which he does not mean Covenant mediation by Adam) in the murder of Jesus Christ. He said, “We cannot compensate for or undo our participation with the powers that killed Jesus, but God invites us to participate with in the reign of God anyway”[15] There is not atonement which brings about salvation. It is an activity which God will do simply because he is loving. So, unlike Abelard’s view of arbitrariness, Weaver holds that Christ did have an effect, but that effect was to bring about God’s reign. God’s reign of liberation was not by means of the atonement, but simply by the grace of God.  

Method and Evidence:

Weaver’s method is driven by his liberationist eschatological a priori. This a priori guides the interpretation of his evidence. His evidence is only taken from the Gospels and Revelation. His lack of cross-referencing, especially to Paul, does not follow the analogia fide, nor does it recognize the distinct ways of communication in narrative and Epistle.  

Weaver’s evidence for the view above comes from the narrative given about Christ’s work in the Gospels and Revelation. Weaver’s main argument is that these two sections of scripture do not present a sacrificial penal substitutionary atonement, but the narrative of God’s inevitable victory in spite of the work of the devil. Revelation and the Gospels paint the same picture.[16] His emphasis is upon the resurrection of Christ. He thus argued, “With the resurrection of Jesus, the future reign of God has begun already in human history.”[17] He did not emphasize the cross since the cross is not necessary for the message and activity of liberation.

His evidence from the book of revelation is based on a sort of historicist approach which seeks to find the “symbols’ and their antecedents” to “reveal the correlation between the historical church of the first century and the Christus victor in Revelation.”[18] He thus interpreted the death and resurrection of Christ as a consummate martyr, who encouraged the church to suffer at the hands of the Roman emperor, Domitian.[19] He argued that the images must be appraised by their referents.[20]

His second piece of evidence is the Gospel narratives. He argued that the Gospel narratives do not present Jesus as a sacrifice for sin, but as an activist who provoked his own death along the way of questioning the coercive ruling powers. He cited the cleansing of the temple and the healings on the Sabbath as the rationale behind the provocation. There is no doubt that this did provoke his death. But, Weaver did not interpret this as Jesus also “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). He took it to refer to an apparent weakness that comes along with pronouncing the rule of God. He wrote,

“From a position of apparent weakness, the reign of God as present in Jesus confronted and submitted to power. His non-violent death was not a departure from the activist pattern of confronting the social order and making the reign of God visible. In the face of active or direct evil or violence, the refusal to respond in kind is a powerful, chosen act, not a mere passive submission. Refusing to return evil for evil unmasks the violence of the evil acts, and demonstrates that the evil which killed Jesus originated with humankind and not with God.”[16]

The reign of God opposes overcoming evil by violence. God will overcome evil in the day of liberation. This eschatological a priori thus guides the entire reading of the narrative. He also interprets the Supper as symbolizing the union between the activists and Christ. In his view, it did not represent the body and blood of Christ as an atonement for sins, but as “identification with the reign of God.”[17] The narrative picture he painted of the work of Christ reveals a God who reigns, and will liberate all men from whatever oppression prevails upon them.  

2. Biblical Theological Response

Methodological Critique:

His methods are flawed in that he imports meaning only from some select parts of scripture, rather than the whole the New Testament, let alone the Old Testament. Also, when he did interact with other ideas he did not interact at all with the major authors on the subject who have defended penal substitutionary atonement. One would assume that he would begin with Leon Morris, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, or at least Luther and Calvin. There was no exegetical refutation of their claims. Another critique is his presupposed view of eschatological liberation guides his exegesis. Finally, he ignored Paul. For example, he argued that Romans 3:24-26 should be read in terms of non-sacrificial and apocalyptic terms, which he did not elaborate. And he claimed it should be understood that the sacrifices in Leviticus were also for times of celebration, not just atonement.[18] He conceded that the Old Testament did have a category of penal substitutionary atonement for sin. If the sacrifices are “not always” for sins, then that means that it was at least sometimes for sins in the Old Testament. Further, the claim totally ignores the Pauline text rather than engaging it. Paul here argued that by the work of Christ, God made a way of salvation by justification! Thus God preserves his unchanging justice, and yet justifies, by way of the death of Christ. The context is legal justification in Leviticus and Paul.

Exegetical Critique:

The spin that this selective reading puts on the text of scripture skews the exegetical evidence. The deck is stacked in the favor of his model by the passages he selected. When placed in light of the whole of revelation, even these select passages lend evidence against his thesis. We will go about this in three sections: the Gospels, Revelation, and Paul.

Gospels: Jesus and The Devil

The emphasis in Weaver’s thought is on the resurrection. This is a wonderful theme, but is has meaning only when placed alongside the whole work of Christ. He argued that Jesus’ proper mission was to thwart the Devil’s work and establish God’s kingdom. He argued that the right place for the Devil in the narrative is as the great enemy to be defeated by non-violent activism. The Devil destroyed Jesus in retaliation. The Gospel’s painted a different picture of the Devil. The Devil was certainly the instigator of the plot made by Judas Iscaiot (John 13:27). The Devil’s modus operandi was certainly torture, but his point was not to defeat the Son of God by death, but to defeat the Son of God by temptation to sin. The Devils mission of thwarting the Son of God by causing him to sin plays a significant part of the narrative since the context is that the son of God was earning benefits in a Covenant of Works.

The Devil did not destroy Jesus while he was vulnerable in the desert; rather he tempted Him (Matt 4:1-11). Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus ends, “he left until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13). The point was to tempt Jesus to sin, not to destroy him. The proper place of the Devil in the Bible is knowing that he will be vanquished on God’s own terms. God had spoken the definitive word to him in the Garden, “He shall crush your head, and you shall crush His heel.” (Gen 3:15). The point is that the head crusher would come to destroy the Devil, but not without the Devil inflicting a mortal wound. The context however, was not for an arbitrary victor, or a non-violent victor, but for one who would come to fulfill the Covenant of Works which Adam failed on that very day.

Revelation: The Lion and the Lamb

He sought to understand the symbols in light of their historical referents. The application to the church is since Jesus suffered as a martyr, so would all who follow him, a least in some capacity. The major problem is that he missed one major motif, the Lamb of God. The Lamb is not simply an image of docility, or non-violent capitulation to the powers that be should they choose to reject the rule of God. The “Lamb who has been slain” is a sacrificial Lamb. 

The term Lamb was also used by John in the Gospel of John as quoted from the lips of John the Baptizer. In John 1:29 and 36, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The phrase here, “ὁ αἴρων τὴν ἁμαρτίαν” the sin of the world taking away one, does not refer to mere removal, but removal by sacrifice. The term was used by LXX and other New Testament authors to describe the sacrificial system’s act of  “bearing away” ones sins on a victim-sacrifice on the Altar. The sinner is killed on the altar Covenantally by a substitute. Leon Morris argued that the clearest giveaway about the mission of Christ is John the Baptists’ coupling of the word “takes away” with its object, “sin.” Sin is the human problem with the Covenant God who is just, “The lamb that takes away the sin of the world is surely a lamb offered in sacrifice (How else would a lamb take sin away?).”[19] The means by which a lamb takes away sin is as a sacrifice.  

Further, the Lamb is also a Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5). The Lion who would conquer the kings of the earth is an image of a violent fighter who conquers with force. The phrase had its root meaning in the prophecy of Jacob in Gen 49. He also said about Judah, “His robes are bloodier than grapes” (Gen 49:11).[21] This does not fit the motif of a non-violent God, nor non-violent Jesus. The eschatological a priori is not non-violence overcoming the devil, but violence. Christ overcomes sin as either conquering lion, or as penal-substitute-Lamb.

Paul: Jesus the Second Adam who Earned Covenant Benefits for the Church

Original moral peace and unity between God and Adam was severed by Adam’s sin. God is Lord, which means that he has certain control, rights, and rule over his covenant creature. He administrates his rule by way of covenanting with men. In Genesis 2:16ff, God commanded Adam to obey. Adam failed. So, in Adam all died (1Cor 15:220-22). J.I. Packer asked the question: how is it that a holy Lord can relate to weak, perverse, estranged, and guilty mankind?[20]  The cross answers “by reconciling sinners to God” (Rom 3:20-26).

Paul’s remedy to the moral distance between God and man is gapped by the reconciliation which Christ brings about (2Cor 5:17-21). He was mediator who earned the Covenant benefits of life for sinners. As mediator he also died the death of the sinner (Col 2:11-14). God’s justice was satisfied by the wrath of God poured out on the Son of God (Rom 3:25-26; Rom 5:12ff; Rom 6:23; 1Cor 15:20ff). Adam earned Covenant wages for the sake of his posterity. Unfortunately the Covenant “wages” were death. In contrast, Christ is the Last Adam who gives life to his people (1Cor 15:45).

In contrast, the net effect of Weaver’s view is a theology of the Christian life without reconciliation. The only doctrine of salvation that can be gleaned from his writing is the occasional word about an ultimate victory to come. There is neither a word of assurance, nor reconciliation. This is a Christian life of pure law, an arbitrarily loving God, and an arbitrary death of Christ.

Conclusion:

            Weavers’ theology, though clear, well thought through, and well written, does not do justice to the exegetical evidence in the scripture. His methodology crippled the outcome. The main practical problem is that he really has no answer for sin. As Morris argued in his essay on John’s atonement theology, what else does a sacrificial lamb do but reconcile by sacrifice? As if climbing a ladder with broken rungs, he climbs up to the eschatological liberation, but with no more motivation to do so than the moral influence of Jesus good example as an activist.

Bibliography

 

Aulen, Gustav. Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement. New York, NY: MacMillan, 1969.

Barrick, William D. “Penal Substitution in the Old Testament.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 2/20 (Fall  2002): 1-21.

Dever, Mark. “Nothing but the Blood.” No pages. Cited 04/13/2011. Online: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/article_print.html?id=38245.

Lloyd-Jones, David Martin, The Cross (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1984)

Morris, Leon. “The Atonement in John’s Gospel.” The Criswell Theological Review 3/1 (1988): 49-64.

———. The Wages of Sin: An Examination of The New Testament Teaching On Death. London: The Tyndale Press, 1955.

Packer, James I. “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution.” The Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974): 3-45.

Sanders, John, ed. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville, TN: Abington, 2006.

Tidball, Derek, David Hilborn, and Justin Thaker, eds. The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of the Atonement. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

Weaver, J. Denny. “Narrative Christus Victor: The Answer to Anselmian Atonement Violence.” Pages 1-29 in Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Edited by John Sanders.  Nashville, TN: Abington, 2006.

———. The Nonviolent Atonement. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B Eerdmans, 2001.

Westminster Assembly. Westminster Confssion of Faith. Lawrenceville, GA: The Christian Education Committee of the Pesbyterian Chruch in America, 2007.

Williams, Gary D. “A Reply to Steve Chalke on Penal Substitution.” No pages. Cited 4/11/2011. Online: http://www.theologian.org.uk/doctrine/punished.html.

———. “The Charges Against Penal Substitution.” No pages. Cited 04/14/2011. Online: http://www.eauk.org/theology/key_papers/Atonement/.


[1] Mark Dever, “Nothing but the Blood,” n.p. [cited 04/13/2011]. Online: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/article_print.html?id=38245., William D. Barrick, “Penal Substitution in the Old Testament,” TMSJ 2/20 (Fall 2002): 1-21. These are helpful for definitions and getting the lay of the land for the protestant perspective. Dever called his theology “atonement centric.”

[2] See Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapters 7-8

[3] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B Eerdmans, 2001), 44

[4] See, Westminster Confession of Faith 8, Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 20-90, Belgic Confession, Article 20

[5] Lloyd Jones, The Cross, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1986) 33

[6] Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement (New York, NY: MacMillan, 1969)

[7] There is also evidence for the satisfaction model (anachronism admitted) in the church fathers, See, Gary D. Williams, “A Reply to Steve Chalke on Penal Substitution,” n.p. [cited 4/11/2011]. Online: http://www.theologian.org.uk/doctrine/punished.html. We should be honest with this point that both Christus victor and satisfaction models of sorts were held by church fathers. The fallacy to avoid here is the appeal to force.

[8] See Westminster Confession of Faith 7, covenant theology structures scripture and God’s relation to man in chapter 7, and structures salvation in chapter 8, since Christ is the mediator of the Covenant.

[9] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B Eerdmans, 2001), 44

[10] Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 43

[11] J. Denny Weaver, “Narrative Christus Victor: The Answer to Anselmian Atonement Violence,” in Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation (ed. John Sanders; Nashville, TN: Abington, 2006), 22

[12] Weaver, “Christus Victor,” in Sanders, Atonement and Violence, 22

[13] This is not to be confused with the moral influence model of the atonement. It refers to the indicative with which he grounds his imperatives.

[14] Weaver, “Christus Victor,” in Sanders, Atonement and Violence, 22

[15] Weaver, “Christus Victor,” in Sanders, Atonement and Violence, 22

[16] Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 22

[17] Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 22

[18] Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 22

[19] Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 32

[20] The main question we will pose below in response to this is: what is the meaning of the “Lamb” motif in Revelation (Rev 12:11)?

[21] I take the min preposition to be a comparative in the next clauses and apply this construct state the same meaning). The image of the conqueror whose robes are dipped in blood appeared again in Revelation 19:13, referring to the one called “the Word of God.” 


[16] Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 40

[17] Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 42. This is a typical Anabaptist explanation, which confuses the effect of the sacrament, namely union (i.e. Col 2:11-14), with the signified sign, namely the body and blood of Christ.

[18] J. Denny Weaver, “Narrative Christus Victor: The Answer to Anselmian Atonement Violence,” in Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation (ed. John Sanders; Nashville, TN: Abington, 2006), 15, Here he missed the point of the fellowship meal eaten after the sacrifice was offered, which was the result of the sacrifice.

[19] Leon Morris, “The Atonement in John’s Gospel,” CTR 3/1 (1988): 50

[20] James I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974): 43

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