Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Christus Victor Part II

(This post is part of a series discussing Christ's Crucifixion and the Atonement theories that seek to understand the cross.  Here is the first post in the series.)


To understand the classical view of the Atonement, one must first understand who Satan is and his relationship to us.

In his book, Evil and the Justice of God, N. T. Wright provides a direct and concise definition of Satan. He writes, “The Satan, as portrayed in Scripture and as experienced and taught about by many Scriptural guides, is flatly opposed to God, supremely to God incarnate in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.”[1] 

 The question becomes how the Satan, a creature of God, became the agent of evil. Origen, one of the Church Fathers, stressed the importance of becoming familiar with Satan when he wrote, “No one will be able to know the origin of evil who has not grasped the truth about the so-called Devil and his angels, and who he was [before] he became the Devil…”[2] 

Church Tradition teaches that the devil was originally one of God’s angels. As one of God’s creations, the devil was originally good, thus the evil angels became evil via their own sin.[3] In his work On Evil, Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that the sin of the devil did not consist in his desiring to be equal to God, as the very nature of God does not permit another power equal to His omniscient and omnipotent self. The devil, as an angel of pure intellect, fully recognized the futility of aspiring to be on par with God. Therefore, the sin of the devil was not of a natural, but rather supernatural, character. The devil sought to obtain supernatural happiness by his means: the devil desired happiness brought about on his own initiative instead of in cooperation with God’s grace.[4]

Due to this irreversible rejection of God’s grace and the sinful pride innate in Satan’s act, the devil was banished from heaven. Wright explains, “The Satan, it seems, is a nonhuman being, a type of angel, perhaps in some accounts an ex-angel or fallen angel, and he or it…comes to be opposed to humankind…”[5] 

Indeed, Satan has become opposed to creation as a whole. What God proclaims as “very good” (Genesis 1:31)[6], Satan desires to destroy; where God brings life, Satan fosters death. The means to bring about death to creation is, of course, through sin. “…Sin is the rebellion of humankind against the vocation to reflect God’s image to the world, the refusal to worship God the Creator, and the replacement of that worship and that vocation with the worship of elements of the created order…”[7] 

 The inevitable result of sin is truly death, as sin severs someone from God, the source of all life.[8]

Therefore, Satan exists in this world, lacking a physical being, but powerfully present as a “parasite” on God’s people and creatures.[9] 

 Scripture frequently attests to Satan’s manipulation and derogatory presence among humankind. The Old Testament speaks of a distinct figure called “the satan,” a word that means “the accuser.” In the book of Job, the Satan is present in the heavenly court, acting as a public prosecutor against humankind as Satan solicits God to challenge Job, hoping to provoke Job to transgress God’s commands. Satan appears once again in the Chronicler’s description of David’s census (1 Chronicles 21:1), as well as Zechariah 3:1, Genesis 3, and the apocalyptic visions of the prophet Daniel.[10] 

Within the New Testament, René Girard in I See Satan Fall like Lightning explains that Satan appears as a seducer of humankind. As seducer, Satan tries to convince people following him is easier and preferential to following Christ. Then, as soon Satan is successful in seducing, he accuses. 

In the Old and New Testament, “The Biblical picture of the Satan is thus of a nonhuman and nondivine quasi-personal force which seems bent on attacking and destroying creation in general and humankind in particular, and above all in thwarting God’s project of remaking the world and human beings in and through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.”[12] 

A series of Church authors following the death and Resurrection of Jesus affirm this declaration about Satan. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing after the apostles but before the official canon at the end of the 4th century, confirmed that the world is ruled by the devil, whose purpose is to frustrate God’s plan by diverting people from accomplishing God’s Will and furthering the Kingdom of God. 

The devil confronts all Christians and, therefore, the world is truly a battlefield with lines drawn between Christ and His followers on one side and the devil and his followers on the opposing side.[13]

Certainly, there are those today who reject this concept and notion of Satan. While Satan has a prominent role in the Gospels and Church Tradition, many modern Christians hardly pay him any mind at all.[14] 

Since Satan is such an aloof topic at present, people fall to two dangers when discussing the devil, dangers that are necessary to explain and refute since, if not clarified, pose problems to understanding the classic view of the Atonement.  
These misconceptions of Satan are aptly discussed in C.S. Lewis’ work The Screwtape Letters. One faulty notion is taking Satan too seriously and perceiving him as equal to God. It is always important to bear in mind that, while Satan is powerful and active in the world, his power is only a fragment of the all-powerful God Almighty. A subsidiary of this idea of Satan as equal to God is the precarious perception that all problems and misdeed are attributed solely to Satan. While Satan seduces and manipulates, it is the human person as a free moral agent who chooses a lesser good or, in other words, evil.[15]

The second misperception of Satan is to downplay him. People rightly dismiss the cartoon figure in red tights bearing a pitchfork, as Satan certainly is not this, but in doing so they incorrectly disregard the concept of a Satan altogether. Wright eloquently explains, “There are undoubtedly foolish and unhelpful ways of portraying the Satan, not least the popular imagination, and we are right to avoid them. But we shouldn’t think that by doing so we have eliminated the reality to which these trivializing images point.”[16] This creates the perilous atmosphere where, “Many theologians of the last century have been simply embarrassed by talk of the demonic…”[17] 

Some theologians assert that the language discussing Satan is simply myth and fictitious, attributing Scripture passages dealing with Satan to psychological phenomenon. While this may sound pleasing to the contemporary ear, “both the Bible and massive Christian experience…over the centuries suggest otherwise.”[18] 

Satan is not a person, but also is not an obscure ideology or psychological condition. In order to understand the classic view of the Atonement, one must recognize that Satan is a true, active, and powerful reality. For those who doubt or struggle with this truth, one needs only look to the example of Jesus. Professor Anton Fridrichsen writes in The Conflict of Jesus with the Unclean Spirits, “Jesus actualized Satan, just as He actualized God. Just as He treated with full earnest the coming Divine Kingdom, so He treated also the present dominion of Satan.”[19] 

[1] Wright, 111.
[2] Russell, 78.
[3] Saint Augustine, The De Natura Boni, trans. Brother A. Anthony Moon (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1955), 89.
[4] Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Jean Oesterle (Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1995), 465.
[5] Wright, 108-109.
[6] Translations taken from the New American Bible.
[7] Wright, 109.
[8] Wright, 109.
[9] René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 42.
[10] Wright, 108.
[11] Girard, 32, 35.
[12] Wright, 109.
[13] Russell, 53.
[14] Girard, 32.
[15] Wright, 110.
[16] Wright, 112.
[17] Wright, 110.
[18] Wright, 111.
[19] Anton Fridrichsen, “The Conflict of Jesus with the Unclean Spirits,” quoted in Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of Atonement, trans. A. G. Hebert (Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1931), 76.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Christus Victor

Fourteen wide-eyed six year olds watched me intently as I stood in the front of the classroom one Sunday morning. “Now, can someone raise his or her hand and tell me what happened on Good Friday?” I inquired. One hand shot into the air and then came the prompt response, “Jesus died on the cross!” 

 I nodded, smiling. This lesson was going just perfectly! Ben, meanwhile, sat with a puzzled look on his face. As I began the transition to the next activity, undaunted, he called out above my directions, “Why? Why did Jesus die?”

Thirteen other faces turned toward me expectantly, awaiting my answer. I looked at the crucifix hanging on the wall as my mind flooded with possible explanations. Jesus died because…well, there were historical reasons…but of course there was more to the story…was it primarily to forgive our sins and to open the gates to heaven to us? What about evil? Furthermore, perhaps even more confounding, why the cross? Could not the One who is omnipotent accomplish that same objective by some other means instead of this bloody, horrific form of the death penalty?

I'm no longer a catechist in a Faith Formation program, but now I'm a mom and my daughter asks me the same question. Why the cross? I tell her that Jesus wanted to show us how very much He loves us--to the point that He died for us. I explain how Adam and Eve brought sin into the world and people have sinned since then. Someone needed to fix all the sin in the world and only God could do God came down to earth.

I hope that is satisfactory for my five-year-old. But in my heart, as I look at a crucifix--this astounding sign of unconditional love--I ponder the question of these children: why

What is the best way to understand Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross?

Christ's crucifixion is perplexing, even among the world's literature and religious beliefs. We've become accustomed to the crucifixion because it is so much a part of our lives of Faith, but just reflect how astounding it is. What other religion has a creator God who assumes the weight of creation’s transgressions, a deity dying to give life to His creation?[1] What would we think if we saw someone wearing a small image of an electric chair around his or her neck?

The crucifixion is singular to Christians. It is also our ultimate symbol. Displayed in classrooms, on our jewelry, stationed high atop churches etched against the sky, the cross is undisputedly critical to the followers of Jesus Christ.

However, its pervasiveness does little to clarify its perplexity. Theologians have grappled with understanding the cross throughout the centuries. In their discussions and then continuing throughout Church history, the cross has come to symbolize many different things: a divine necessity to defeat evil, a triumph over Satan, a symbol of identity for Christian believers, a manifestation of God’s agape love, a representation of the renewed covenant between God and the community, a means to heal and raise the dead, the sacrifice enabling forgiveness of sins, and a sign of Jesus’ total obedience to the Father.[2]

Theologians' explanations for understanding the cross are called "Atonement theories." Atonement is the reconciliation of God with man through Christ. How, exactly, did Christ's death on the cross reconcile us to God?

An incarnational atonement theory explains that human nature is redeemed, purified, and restored through Christ becoming man.   When the Eternal Word became man, He deified all men.  St. Athanasius says, "He was made man that we might be made gods."

A second stance asserted by St. Anselm is called the "satisfaction theory."  This focuses on the cross as sacrifice, asserting that Jesus, being both man and God, offered Himself to the Father for the sake of humankind.

Third, some see the Passion as a total act of love as God assumes all the pain of the world.  Abelard asserts that Christ died simply and completely out of love for us.  It is the supreme act that turns man from sin: what else could be more compelling than Christ's laying down His life for us poor sinners?

Finally is the ransom perspective, also known as the classical view. Humankind, in freely choosing to sin, had fallen under the reign of Satan. God, being the only one capable of freeing humans from this prison of sin and death, came into the world as man to break these chains the devil wrapped around His children, securing forgiveness of sins and restoring His relationship with all of creation.[3]

No one theory can completely explain the cross.  It is, ultimately, a mystery.  All the theories offer a valid and necessary understanding into what occurred on Good Friday.  Any one theory, taken in isolation from the others, has the danger of becoming exaggerated and overemphasized, thus misrepresenting the cross.  

In this series of blog posts, I hope to explain the classical view of the Atonement as well as St. Anselm's satisfaction theory.  

The classical view, as one would propose, was developed first.  It is supported by both Scripture and the early Church Fathers.  Gustaf Aulén in his book Christus Victor describes the classical view as Christ’s triumphant victory over Satan. From this perspective, the cross becomes a testament of God’s agape love, a love that casts a shining, victorious light over the darkness the devil had thrust over humanity. 

Foundational to the classical view is the relationship between God, Satan, and humankind. Thus, in order to grasp the classical understanding of the Atonement, it is foremost necessary to establish two foundational concepts. The first comprises who and what Satan is in light of Scripture and Church teaching. Secondly, what is Satan’s relationship with humankind?

[1] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Illinois: IVP Books, 2006), 94.
[2] Dreyer, “Introduction: The Cross in the Tradition,” 5.
[3] Carroll and Green, 258 and Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History (New York: Cornell University Press, 1988), 67.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Lessons from The Axe

...these two, the eldest, kept together, because they knew that, whatever happened, one thing was certain--that they should be together.  This was the only sure thing, and it was good to have something sure.  The boy, growing up alone in the home of a stranger kin, struck root, without knowing it, in her who was promised to him; and his love for the only one he well knew of all that was to be his grew as he himself grew--without his marking the growth.  He cherished her as a habit, until his love took on a colour and brightness that showed him how wholly he was filled thereby. 

Sigrid Undset was a Norwegian author and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.  I had read her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter a couple of years ago, which I very much enjoyed, and have now embarked upon her tetralogy, The Master of Hestviken.  It is considered Undset's masterpiece.

The first book of the series, The Axe, introduces the two main characters: Olav and Ingunn.  They were betrothed as children and Olav was raised as a foster-son by Ingunn's parents.  Their future together seemed a given: Olav knew that he would belong to her and she to him.

That knowledge seemed so secure that one summer night, his blood warm with drink, Olav acted upon it.  Their bodies spoke the language of husband and wife, though no vows were exchanged or blessing bestowed in matrimony.  

And then, everything certain became washed in confusion and unbelief.  Ingunn's father died unexpectedly, before formalizing any wedding plans for his foster-son and daughter.  Ingunn's uncles, they soon learn, have other plans for Ingunn besides marrying Olav.  

Ingunn and Olav had seized upon what they believed to be theirs, only to realize they had acted rashly and preemptively.  Thus commences a long and twisted journey to marriage...or, perhaps better said, a journey deeper into sin.  

There is a sudden contrast between Ingunn and Olav's initial states of innocence and later period of guilt.  They began their lives together as children, as (foster) brother and sister.  It was a childhood of outdoor games, bickering as siblings do, and the calm reassurance of each other's presence.  Then abruptly, when Olav is sixteen, he sees Ingunn differently.  

Olav was ready with an answer; but as she bent down to her shoe, the smock slipped from her shoulders, baring her bosom and upper arm.  And instantly a wave of new feelings swept over the boy--he stood still, bashful and confused, and could not take his eyes off this glimpse of her naked body.  It was as though he had never seen it before; a new light was thrown on what he knew of old--as with a sudden landslip within him, his feelings for his foster-sister came to rest in a new order.

Olav had seen her naked body before in his youth, but now the vision prompts unexpected desires.  We live after the Fall and we are marked with Adam and Eve's concupiscence: with those sexual desires come the temptation to use and exploit another for personal gratification.  

The two travel to town that same day and Olav cannot stop dwelling upon these emotions stirred within him.  Nothing outwardly has changed, but his entire perception and relationship with Ingunn has altered.  As they rest on the way near some water, Ingunn innocently invites Olav to swim with her.  He knows he cannot--he can never return to that simplicity of childhood.  

And all the time he could not help thinking of Ingunn and being tormented by the thought.  He felt plunged into guilt and shame, and it grieved him.  They had been used to bathe from his canoe in the tarn above, swimming side by side in the brown water, into which a yellow dust was shed from the flowering spruces around.  But now they could not be together as before--It was just as when he lay in the stream and saw the familiar world turned upside-down in an instant. 

When Ingunn and Olav act upon their emergent feelings and desires by fornicating, they begin their descent into sin.   They perform their act in the darkness and Olav begins to feel as though he lives in the dense blackness: an unseeing, strained version of his former peaceful, cheerful self.  Though Olav enjoys his secretive night visits to Ingunn's room, deep beneath the pleasure is the unshakeable sense of wrong, of something askew. 
Though both Ingunn and Olav seek to be married, outside obstacles and personal misjudgments cause continuous detours and downfalls.  

Their sins are dominoes, knocking them further down in an escalating movement.  Sin leads you where you don't want to go.  A wrong choice, several steps ahead, is a path you never intended.  Sin--unchecked, unrepented of--is a downward, dizzying spiral.  Suddenly you find yourself doing, thinking, and saying things you never would have thought possible...

They had been playing on a flowery slope and had not had the wit to see that it ended in a precipice.

Thus Olav finds himself a murderer and Ingunn is pregnant with another man's child.  

And as sin clenches its fist tighter and tighter around your wounded soul, it covers the inherent beauty and grace within until they become completely obscured by the trespasses.  Everything becomes dark...sin begins to convince you that there is nothing of worth remaining inside of you.  

Repentance, prayer, work, and the further pilgrimage of life...the thought of all this was repulsive to her.  Even the thought of God was repulsive to her now.  To look downward, to be alone and surrounded by darkness--that was her choice.  And she saw her own soul, bare and dark as a rock scorched by the fire, and she herself had set fire to and burned up all that was in her of living fuel.  It was all over with her.

On this Holy Thursday, the evening of which Judas betrayed his Lord with a kiss, I cannot help but think Judas felt similarly to Ingunn.  It only took one glance, one appeal to God and he could have been saved.  But when one is drowning in sin to the point of death, even a glance can feel too much, too undeserved.

Their sins separate Ingunn and Olav from God.  It likewise divides them from each other.  Ingunn is distraught with guilt, convinced she can never be worthy of Olav after her betrayal.  Olav is enraged with hurt and astonishment that the one he had loved for so long and worked so hard to be with has afflicted him with such a blow.  But when he sees death has almost claimed her life through suicide, Olav's heart is hurt: he realizes that, as one body, Ingunn's pain is his pain, too.  

The boundless pain and distress in her poor eyes--it was that which drew his soul naked up into the light.  Away went all that he had thought and determined...He was left with the last, the inmost cruel certainty--that she was flesh of his flesh and life of his life, and this could never be otherwise, were she never so shamefully maltreated and broken.  The roots of their lives had been intertwined as long as he could remember--and when he saw that death had had hold of her with both hands, he felt as though he himself had barely escaped from being torn to pieces.  And a longing came over him, so intense that it shook him through and through--to take her in his arms and crush her to him, to hide himself with her. 

Sin has divided them, but Undset's first book in the tetralogy ends with a reconciling kiss between Ingunn and Olav--a kiss shared with joint weeping.  The wounds of their sin remain and, while there is always hope God can heal all brokenness, their path from this deep precipice is steep.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Lessons from The Once and Future King

"You are a strange man," she [Guenever] said, "Arthur dear.  You fight all the time, and conquer countries and win battles, and then you say that fighting is a bad thing."

"So it is a bad thing.  It is the worst thing in the world..."

King Arthur--innocent, kind, and tutored from childhood by the wise Merlin--has the best of motivations.  He observes the wickedness and corruption of his kingdom, most notably powerful knights using others for their personal benefit.  He concludes that might does not make right: power is not license for doing whatever one desires.  

What is he, as king, to do to banish this might?  The answer is Arthur's vision of the Round Table: a community of noble, chivalrous knights who use their power to dispel and conquer the vice of corrupt knights.

Herein lies the problem, however: is it permissible to use might to vanquish might?  Can wickedness be purged using wicked means?  Can an evil purposely be used in hopes of achieving a greater good?  

Arthur's vision of a just kingdom remains the same as the novel progresses, but the means to bring about that realization develop.  After Arthur's knights of the Round Table subdue the troublesome knights by force, the former--accustomed to fighting and with no more opponents--begin to quarrel and turn on each other.

The King put his head in his hands and looked miserably at the table between his elbows.  He was a kind, conscientious, peace-living fellow, who had been afflicted in his youth by a tutor of genius.  Between the two of them they had worked out their theory that killing people, and being a tyrant over them, was wrong.  To stop this sort of thing, they had invented the idea of the Table--a vague idea like democracy, or sportsmanship, or morals--and now, in the effort to impose a world of peace, he found himself up to the elbows in blood. 

Arthur proposes that the solution is to elevate the aims of the Round Table from material to spiritual ones.  

...we have used up the worldly objects for our Might--so there is nothing left but the spiritual ones...If I can't keep my fighters from wickedness by matching them against the world--because they have used up the world--then I must match them against the spirit...the ideal of my Round Table was a temporal ideal.  If we are to save it, it must be made into a spiritual one.  I forgot about God...why can't we pull our Table together by turning its energies to the spirit?

The Round Table has a vision of the Holy Grail

However, the majority of Arthur's knights are not up to the task of finding the Holy Grail.  Only the few who begin the quest by going to Confession and having a purity of heart realize success.  Almost all return back to the King, bereft of the Grail and still ridden with the same vices.

Arthur's final attempt to build a just kingdom is the introduction of laws.  

At last he had sought to make a map of force, as it were, to bind it down by laws.  He had tried to codify the evil uses of might by individuals, so that he might set bounds to them by the impersonal justice of the state. 

Yet, his own laws become chains around his will and heart.  Arthur's steadfast commitment to justice places him in the unfortunate position of condemning his wife to death and waging war against his best friend.  

The problem lies in the fact that Arthur's wife, Queen Guenever, has been engaged for many years in an adulterous affair with his best friend and greatest knight, Sir Lancelot.  Arthur, thinking the best of them and not wishing to bring about their downfall, chooses to (literally) turn a blind eye to the obvious romance.  

This action--or lack thereof--allows the situation to climax to the point where it is Arthur's illegitimate, vengeful son who proves Lancelot and Guenever guilty.  Arthur finds himself trapped.  He cannot disobey his own law that condemns an adulterous spouse.  He must condemn Guenever to death and wage war against Lancelot.

The laws Arthur enacted to build a kingdom of peace and justice are the laws that sunder his rule and destroy his key relationships.

"When you are a king you can't go executing people as the fancy takes you.  A king is the head of his people, and he must stand as an example to them, and do as they wish...If I don't stand for law, I won't have law among my people.  And naturally I want my people to have the new law, because then they are more prosperous, and I am more prosperous in consequence...You see, Lance, I have to be absolutely just...The only way I can keep clear of force is by justice.  Far from being willing to execute his enemies, a real king must be willing to execute his friends." 

Ironically, by being willing to execute his wife, Arthur must battle against Lancelot, who saves Guenever at the last moment.  It is exactly Arthur's justice that brings warfare and destruction.

Where did Arthur, noble and earnestly seeking to do good, go wrong?  Was Arthur truly just in sentencing his wife to the death penalty and engaging his kingdom in war against his best friend, a war that brought about far more deaths?

To stand firm by a law, one must be truly certain it is just.  Was Arthur's law just?  Did it take into account original sin?  No matter how firm the laws, no matter how lofty the mission, sin will seep in and tamper with the best of motives.

Did Arthur's law take into account mercy?  God, who is all-just, is also all-merciful.  Lancelot and Guenever were wrong, but was capital punishment the only possible reaction to their sin?

I suppose this is why Arthur's story is a tragedy.  It is difficult to have such a well-intentioned, thoroughly good protagonist meet such a sad end.  

In some ways, it was his own doing.  Arthur chose to ignore the blatant wrongdoing of Lancelot and Guenever.  Sin does not disappear, but ferments and spreads like a nasty infection.  That adultery was a poison in his life and kingdom, which Arthur permitted to continue.  By allowing that evil to go on unopposed, Arthur unintentionally allowed it to destroy all of them, as well as his kingdom.

As Arthur watches his knights prepare to execute his sentence against Guenever, vehemently hoping Lancelot will oppose his own law and save her, Arthur wrestles internally: what is right?  What is wrong? 

Maybe Arthur answered his own question, in a scene much earlier when another knight recounts how his virtuous brother heroically resisted sin.  

"I suppose the moral is," said Arthur, "that you must not commit mortal sin, even if twelve lives depend on it."

Murdering other knights, waging war (that may not have been a just war), sentencing people to the death penalty: this is all the substance of mortal sin.

Civil law should be based on divine law.  Perhaps Arthur could not be absolutely just without also falling into sin.  Perfect justice belongs only to God; for human beings, it is imperfect justice...and for that, mercy is needed.