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In Christianity’s first centuries, we find vivid depictions of the cross as a fishhook or mousetrap that catches Satan in the act of destroying human life. The mousetrap image seems to come from the Latin version of Augustine’s triumphant statement in his Sermon 134 that the devil, the ruler of this world who will be driven out (John 12:31), caused his own destruction by entrapping Christ in death, bringing about the resurrection.
As the Gospels indicted Sadducees, scribes and Jerusalem crowds for Jesus’ crucifixion, symbolic codes allowed Christians to incriminate their local governors, business and religious leaders – even their neighbors – for persecuting them. Their understanding of the cross radiates directly from Gospel texts about Christ’s victory, or “nike,” over the world: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33). This theme is called “Christus Victor,” and it is not a side story but the Gospel’s main event.
The Christus Victor cross is a salvific stop sign.
Jesus’ crucifixion exposed calculating, rationalizing human evil that otherwise remained insidiously hidden. The Christus Victor cross – like garlic before a folkloric vampire – dissuades us from trusting the leadership of fear-mongering Sadducees such as Caiaphas, who justify terror tactics, including torture and execution: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Christus Victor unveils the helpless cowardice of the best men in the face of such evil. For without the gift of the Holy Spirit, we, like Jesus’ closest disciples, betray him, deny him, abandon him and scatter in the face of terror and brutality.
We see the profound effect of Christus Victor when God reveals his Son crucified and resurrected in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Saul the Pharisee, a justified persecutor, at once died in this revelation and was reborn as Christendom’s great evangelist the Apostle Paul (Galatians 1:13-17).
The Christus Victor cross is a salvific stop sign. It captures our very human tendency to pass moral judgment on others – and ourselves – that is so severe, we may be tempted to allow human beings to be destroyed in the fulfillment of what might or might not be God’s justice. Thus Jesus presaged the arrival of persecutors like Saul: “Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (John 16:2).
Seen through the lens of Christus Victor, God becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus and, like a horrified parent driven to madness, races in to find her fratricidal children caught in a life-and-death struggle (Mark 3:21-22).
The crucifixion of Jesus calls us to risk our safety, security and profit in order to participate in God’s work to ensure every being thrives, as Jesus tells us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). At the center of all Christian faith is the Lord of life, who liberates us from the devil’s snares of pride, fear, anxiety and terror to bravely follow that old commandment that Jesus has the audacity to call simply a new commandment (John 13:34-35).
Systematic human evil is slippery. The more we rationalize it, the harder it is to put our finger on it. The crucifixion of willing, guiltless Jesus perfectly captur es our human capacity to entwine ourselves in societal systems that require the destruction of countless innocent lives. Today we call these institutional racism, economic deprivation, human trafficking, mass incarceration and enslavement. Yet 16th-century Reformed confessions and creeds omit Christus Victor messages when they teach salvation through satisfaction-atonement alone. By reincorporating Christ’s primary mission as Christus Victor, Reformed theology can make a critical correction that is missing from our earliest doctrines.
Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulen points to Irenaeus as the first to fully articulate the saving work of the cross as Christus Victor. In his 1960 volume, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, Aulen describes how, in Christianity’s first thousand years, the dramatic, mythological expression and extreme graphic depictions of the classical Christus Victor account led to its gradual replacement by scholastics such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, who sought a more rational approach.
In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm speculates about the logical consequences of Jesus as God and savior and explains how only a God-man perfectly atones for human sinfulness. Anselm’s satisfaction-atonement theory incorporates his understanding of Jesus as Christus Victor (Cur Deus Homo, Chapter 19). Aquinas comes close to Anselm’s position and insists there are a number of ways God could have acted to reconcile us to himself, for “nothing is impossible with God” (Summa Theologica, 3a.46.2).
ALL ABOUT WRATH?
Why does God become man? In the Heidelberg Catechism’s answers to questions 16 and 17, 16th-century Reformed doctrine responds: God’s wrath, insofar as the justice of the Father is perfect, required satisfaction through an infinite yet human payment. The Belgic Confession’s Article 21 calls us to believe our sins have been washed clean in Christ’s innocent blood. These standards bid Reformed Christians to cling to Christ’s one-time sacrifice on the cross to reconcile with a wrathful God. The doctrine of satisfaction-atonement strengthens the Reformed understanding of our helpless, sinful state and our total dependence on God’s grace.
Yet as the sole explanation of Christ’s saving work, satisfaction-atonement effaces the Gospel’s Christus Victor teaching. This can be traced to John Calvin’s Christology.
For Calvin, though God in his full being loves us “in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us” (Institutes 2.16.4). When it comes to God’s persona of Judge, God is hostile to us (Institutes 2.15.6). Because our offense is “obnoxious to the wrath of God” as well as “odious and abominable” to him, God’s wrath can only be appeased by a priest (Institutes 2.2.1). However, the priestly rules for entering God’s sanctuary require making a blood sacrifice as an acknowledgment of sin. So to appease God’s wrath, Jesus himself became a blood sacrifice to cleanse or erase our guilt and pay the penalty for our sin (Institutes 2.15.6).
Calvin’s determination to ground his theology in Scripture demonstrates the problems that arise when theologians fail to acknowledge the Gospel’s Christus Victor themes. Spanning three chapters of his Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin’s argument for satisfaction-atonement relies heavily on his exegesis of John 1:29 and 36, where John the Baptist hails Jesus as the Lamb of God (Institutes 2.15-17).
Tying these verses to the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, Calvin cites both texts more than 20 times. Isaiah 53 holds the Hebrew Bible’s fourth and most elaborate description of the suffering servant: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
Isaiah’s servant is shamefully disfigured, yet his death through unwarranted suffering will be glorified by God: “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). The Hebrew word for “made intercession,” or “paga,” means to strike a peace or covenant. Calvin equates this reconciling act with a priestly sacrifice conducted by a sinless mediator to appease a wrathful God.
OBJECT OF HUMAN VIOLENCE
The work of biblical scholar Jeremy Schipper suggests otherwise, however. In his article “Interpreting the Lamb Imagery in Isaiah 53” (Journal of Biblical Literature), Schipper says the lamb fits neither the mold of Exodus 12’s paschal lamb or the ritual sacrifices involving a ram or a lamb in Leviticus 5; 7:2 and 14:24. Both the paschal lamb and animals for ritual sacrifice must be unblemished. Yet the lamb of Isaiah 53 is specifically called “marred,” and in Leviticus the same Hebrew word for “marred” disqualifies an animal for ritual use. Isaiah’s servant is compared to a lamb that is specifically unfit for ritual sacrifice: “We accounted him stricken” (53:4) and “stricken for the transgression of my people” (53:8).
Also, the Hebrew word for “slaughter” in the phrase “a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (53:7) never appears in the books of Leviticus or Numbers or in the context of a ritual sacrifice performed by a priest. Instead, this type of slaughtering of an animal refers to the work of a cook or butcher killing for food (Genesis 43:16; Exodus 21:37; Deuteronomy 28:31; 1 Samuel 25:11, 9:23-24). Other texts extend this image metaphorically to the wartime slaughtering of humans as a divine punishment (Isaiah 34:2; 65:12; Jerermiah 25:34; Lamentations 2:21; Ezekiel 21:15, 20, 33), but none evokes ritual sacrifice performed by priests. Therefore in Isaiah 53, we lack both a priest and the statement that the lamb is an offering to God.
Schipper points to a passage in Jeremiah that more closely parallels Isaiah 53. Jeremiah uses the image of a slaughtered lamb to express how his opponents deceived the prophet: “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered’” (Jeremiah 11:19). Jeremiah’s passage and Isaiah 53:7-8 share the phrases “lamb led to the slaughter” and “cut off from the land of the living.” Yet Jeremiah uses these phrases in the context of someone who is the victim of the larger community’s abuse instead of a ritual sacrifice. Schipper sees this same metaphorical description of community violence in the image of an animal led to slaughterhouse, where the psalmist complains to God, “Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Psalm 44:23).
So, back to the Gospel of John’ exclamation, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 and 36). Scholars agree the lamb refers to the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. But Isaiah’s suffering servant is not primarily a sacrificial, ritual or paschal lamb. Instead the servant is a prophetic lamb, like Jeremiah, who will be led to slaughter, innocent of wrongdoing but marred and broken as a victim of community violence. This reading lends support to the case that the unbearable wrath Jesus responds to in John’s Gospel is not the wrath of God’s justice, as Calvin and Reformed theology insist, but instead the wrath of the oppressive elements of Judaean society that commit violence to maintain Judaea and Galilee under Roman control.
While there is room for Christus Victor in Anselm’s theory of satisfaction-atonement, Calvin leaves no room for it in his reading of the Gospel of John. This leads to serious textual complications when Calvin relies on satisfaction-atonement to explain why Jesus was killed in a particular way: “Had Jesus been cut off by assassins, or slain in a seditious tumult, there could have been no kind of satisfaction in such a death.” The attorney in Calvin gets the best of him: “But when he is placed as a criminal at the bar, where witnesses are brought to give evidence against him, and the mouth of the judge condemns him to die, we see him sustaining the character of an offender and evil-doer” (Institutes 2.16). This reading is necessary to meet Calvin’s requirements that Jesus meet death not just as an innocent but also as a sinner. Calvin insists Pilate confirm the innocence of Jesus so that it is clear he suffers for another’s and not for his own crime. But this is not all that the Evangelist had in mind.
Calvin’s account robs Roman crucifixion of its real-world significance. His metaphysical tale distracts us from grappling with the terror, trauma and grief imposed by governmental and religious forces turned against their own people. The high priests and Pilate are making a terrible decision, but to Calvin’s readers they are fulfilling a divine plan for reconciliation. Calvin’s portrayal of Jesus as the priest and sacrifice for divine propitiation prevents believers from grasping the wrongness of our role in state- and system-sanctioned destruction of people.
The marks we read on Jesus’ tortured, crucified body are not the marks of divine retribution but of man’s cruelty to man. This violence is wrong: Jesus died to stop us from doing this. Calvin’s theology, however, fails to provide us with a salvific stop sign: Satisfaction-atonement without Christus Victor requires Jesus to be executed.
In Christus Victor, Jesus consents to crucifixion, not to reconcile us with God but to call out and defeat human evil. Caiaphas, the scribes and the Sadducees are bound by no metaphysical requirement. If they believed in God, they would not kill godly people who threaten their security. They kill Jesus because they are part of the despairing, faithless machine of the Roman empire that benefits a tiny minority at the expense of a vast majority. A three-day pause ensures we have indeed killed Jesus who came to save us, before God steps in with a vertical response, the removal of the stone from the tomb (John 20:1) and the appearance of a living and breathing resurrected Jesus (John 20:15). God, not Pilate or Caesar, has authority over life and death, so in the end, love wins. Man’s cruelty to man fails to kill vulnerable God-as-Jesus.
STOP GIVING IN
When it comes to systemic, human evil, we are caught like deer in the headlights, fixated on terror. Just as the disciples scattered from Jesus, we fear for our security and our lives. Like the Sadducees and everyone who colluded with them, in our anxiety we abandon God’s commandments and our faith in God. God wants us to stop giving in – this message is common to satisfaction-atonement and Christus Victor. But Jesus suffered the public terror of crucifixion to show us that no matter what his tormentors did to him, they could not suppress his power to save God’s creatures in this world – not just to save believing souls in the next one. If we put our faith in the Lord of life, he will send the Holy Spirit to build us up and forever join our lives with him in his work to save the world.
Atonement is no new story. God did not wait for the advent of Christ to rain God’s mercy upon our iniquities. When Reformed congregations confess our sins, the Hebrew Bible’s psalmist often provides our assurance of pardon: “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103). Seeking atonement for our sins through the cross magnifies both God’s message of reconciliation and God’s victory over human evil.
The resurrected Jesus breathes on his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Our need for an outpouring of Holy Spirit, the divine “ruach” that hovered over the first waters of creation, is apparent in the two-minute video from last summer that captured our society’s murder of a 43 year-old, 350-lb., diabetic and asthmatic father of six. Placed in an illegal chokehold, Eric Garner whispered, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times before suffocating, though he was surrounded by a team of Staten Island police officers dedicated to protect and serve. As Jesus was not the first or last Galilean to die on a Roman cross, this seller of illegal “loosie” cigarettes was hardly the first or last black man whom police have unjustly killed.
Today’s gospel interpreters and law-enforcement officers share a double, conflicted charge: They must uphold the rule of law while protecting life above all. Calvin’s legalistic atonement does its best to separate these antinomies in different personae of the Holy Trinity. God the wrathful Father exacts payment from his Son the willing Lamb. That separation fits our desire for organized categories. It makes sense of our Reformed theology of grace. But it does not fully account for the Bible’s portrayals.
Jesus does not keep his troubles to himself but instead makes his problems our problems. When we wake up and see people publicly, legally destroyed as Jesus was, we recognize the stop sign of the Christus Victor cross. Certainly grave economic and political realities compel the Sadducees and those of us – all of us – who follow their lead. But Jesus died to show us there are fates worse than death. Spiritually, the Sadducees had allowed their worship of Torah to become an instrument of tyranny and utterly failed to follow the commandment Matthew calls the greatest (Matthew 22:36-40). The story of the crucifixion is about the sacrifice true love demands. Like the disciples, we fail repeatedly. Our only hope lies in the Holy Spirit, who joins us together as the Body of Christ to follow the command Jesus repeats three times:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
If we rely on atonement-salvation without Christus Victor, we might imagine God wishes us to prioritize the security of our personal salvation in the next world above our grateful response to save lives in this world. But saving this world is not a second step. In Christus Victor, they are one and the same. Our cities and churches are dying. If we wish to truly resurrect them, it is past time that Reformed Christians adopt a life-affirming Christology with Bible-text-based, classical-style Christus Victor salvation at the heart of our theology of atonement.
Elizabeth Colmant Estes is a student at Union Theological Seminary and a candidate for ordination in the Reformed Church in America.
Image: Robert Campin, Triptych with the Annunciation, known as the Merode Altarpiece, via Google Art Project.