These personal highlights from Glen Stassen's foreward to J. Denny Weavers book Anabaptist Theology in the Face of Postmodernity (2003) resonated, and continue to do so...realities I long to live into more fully. Thanks to JJ for the 'heads up' on Weavers' book.
All Christians should learn from Denny Weaver’s argument, not just persons in the Anabaptist tradition. In our postmodern time, credibility is won not by making a claim to universal philosophical truth, but by demonstrating what difference Christian faith makes in the laboratory of history. In that laboratory, the Anabaptist tradition has demonstrated that it makes a difference and does witness to the way of Jesus Christ.
That witness also gives us guidance for understanding the meaning of the atonement. All Christians know Jesus died for our sins. But ask how his death took care of our sins, and you are likely to get a puzzled look. Weaver demonstrates, I think beyond dispute, that historically, Anabaptist interpretation of the atonement has emphasized that Jesus’ own way of faithfulness was crucial to the effectiveness of his atoning death. Likewise, following Jesus’ way is a key part of our participating in the benefits of his death for us.
The classic Christus Victor theory of the atonement, interpreted with attention to the way of Jesus in the Gospels—the way Jesus followed in winning victory over the powers of evil, violence, and death—holds more promise than other classic theories of the atonement for Anabaptist faithfulness, and Gospel faithfulness. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God overcame the powers of evil, violence, and death. In his ministry, his teaching, his love, his nonviolence, Jesus confronted the powers. They amassed their forces against him, and crucified him, but he stayed faithful to God, and God faithfully gave him the victory. We participate in the victory through faith that includes following his way, as part of the church community where the victory is won.
The Christus Victor understanding emphasizes that the church is intrinsic to the gospel; salvation is not only an event for scattered individuals. This, too, is an important Anabaptist theme. And, I would add, a theme for many sixteenth century Anabaptists, and now for many “new Mennonites” is the Christus Victor understanding that crucial for the Victory of Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit, empowering and sanctifying (see the book of Acts and the letters of Paul).
Weaver also demonstrates that most historical Mennonites adopted, from other Christians of the time, a substitutionary/satisfaction understanding of the atonement which overlooks these essential Anabaptist themes: the faithful way of Jesus Christ, nonviolence, and the community of the church. Therefore Mennonites began the work of modifying the satisfaction theory to incorporate these classic Anabaptist themes. Carrying that work of correction to its logical conclusion will lead us to adopt the Christus Victor rather than satisfaction view of atonement.
The Christus Victor understanding is at least as “classic” and as biblical as the satisfaction theory. It is strongly affirmed in the Gospels, in the Book of Revelation—and in the letters of Paul, especially 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans. Furthermore, it was taught by the early church fathers, especially Irenaeus. It came to be known as “the classic theory,” or “the patristic theory,” and was also taught by Martin Luther in the Reformation, and Bishop Gustaf Aulén in the twentieth century. It was taught as well by John Howard Yoder, whose growing influence makes his thought, in my judgment, almost a classic already.
In his book Keeping Salvation Ethical, Weaver affirmed that the classic creeds do witness to truth that is essential to Jesus. Similarly, one can affirm that the satisfaction theory, if modified, does have biblical and experiential basis, and does pay attention to Jesus’ suffering on the cross. But the same is true of the Christus Victor theory, which emphasizes the life of Jesus, Jesus’ submission to the cross, and the resurrection. It can readily incorporate the truth in the satisfaction theory.
This is not relativism. The criterion for testing the truth of an understanding of the atonement or any other doctrine is, says Weaver, “a criterion accessible to all, namely the narrative of Jesus” (p. 69).”If Jesus Christ is our foundation, then it is Jesus’ story and the ‘politics of Jesus’—not the shape of a national ethos or fourth- and fifth-century creedal formulas—that should determine the contour of our theological agenda” (p. 47). Here, I believe, is the witness for our time, which looks for credibility in lives that follow Jesus Christ. We need to do the rich exegesis of the gospel story to develop the meaning more fully, and to give thanks to God for what God has done and is now doing in Christ!
Glen Stassen, Lewis Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics
Fuller Theological Seminary