On Christus Victor OR Is the Devil Real?

Chapter 2 of Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death wraps up Part One of the book in which he lays the theological foundation for his thesis that death, not sin, lies at the heart of humanity’s predicament. If chapter one makes clear that the Bible sees death as the problem, then chapter 2 attempts to outline what the solution might be. In short, chapter 2 is Beck’s summary of what has been termed Christus Victor–Christ the Victor–which is usually brought up in discussions about the various views of the atonement. For Beck, however, Christus Victor is more than just a theory of atonement. The word “atonement” itself tends to cause us to think of salvation in terms of deliverance from sin whereas, for Beck, salvation is a more holistic reality that includes, primarily, a freedom from the fear of death. To be clear, freedom from sin is included in Beck’s view of salvation. It’s just that, rather than being the root of the problem, sin is understood as a symptom caused by a larger ailment, namely, the fear of death itself.

So what does Christus Victor say about salvation?

In short, a Christus Victor telling of salvation emphasizes the power of Christ to emacipate, liberate, or rescue humanity from the power of death and the devil. Telling the gospel story through the lens of Christus Victor will highlight Jesus’ clashes with the devil throughout his ministry, clashes that eventually culminated in Jesus’ own death on the cross. Beck quotes New Testament scholar N.T. Wright’s book Simply Jesus:

Wherever we look, it appears that Jesus was aware of a great battle in which he was already involved and that would, before too long, reach some kind of climax. This was not, it seems, the battle that his contemporaries, including his own followers, expected him to fight. It wasn’t even the same sort of battle–though Jesus used the language of battle to describe it. Indeed, as the Sermon on the Mount seems to indicate, fighting itself, in the normal physical sense, was precisely what he was not going to do. There was a different kind of battle in the offing, a battle that had already begun. In this battle, it was by no means as clear as those around Jesus would have liked as to who was on which side, or indeed whether “sides” was the right way to look at things. The battle in question was a different sort of thing, because it had a different sort of enemy…. The battle Jesus was fighting was against the satan. (18)

I’ll be the first to admit that when talking about salvation I often hesitate to do so using the themes of Christus Victor. My hesitation mostly arises from my uneasiness surrounding any sort of talk about “the devil” in the context of our modern scientific age. I spend enough time trying to figure out what I mean by the term “God” that I usually find myself without the desire or the energy to entertain thoughts of a supernatural entity that is responsible for the world’s evil. Thus, I was thankful for Beck’s careful analysis of the devil and what he means to communicate by invoking the term. Beck has two responses to those who want to push back against this sort of language:

  1. His book is focused primarily on the role of death in human psychology. In other words, Beck’s argument in The Slavery of Death can be followed and understood even if one has no desire to use the language of the devil/satan.
  2. Using theological language like “the devil” can be helpful when describing actual realities that we are all familiar with but may lack the terminology to describe.

I found Beck’s latter response to be most intriguing. In essence, even if Satan is not a real person, many of us can bear witness to what it’s like to feel the moral pull of forces that we experience as greater than ourselves. Beck quotes N.T. Wright at length here:

Many modern writers, understandably, have tried to marginalize this theme [of Christ’s conflict and victory over the satan], but we can’t expect to push aside such a central part of the tradition and make serious progress. It is, of course, difficult for most people in the modern Western world to know what to make of it all; that’s one of the points on which the strong wind of modern skepticism has done its work well, and the shrill retort from “traditionalists,” insisting on seeing everything in terms of “supernatural” issues, hardly helps either. As C.S. Lewis points out in the introduction to his famous Screwtape Letters, the modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic powers and those who mock them as outdated rubbish. Neither approach, Lewis insists, does justice to reality. I’m with Lewis on this. Despite the caricatures, the obsession, and the sheer muddle that people often get themselves into on this subject, there is such a thing as a dark force that seems to take over people, movements, and sometimes whole countries, a force or (as it sometimes seems) a set of forces that can make people do things they would never normally do. (20-21)

The forms that these “suprahuman” forces take in our lives is fleshed out more by Beck in chapter four on the principalities and powers. For now, let it be enough to say that I appreciate both Wright’s and Beck’s more nuanced view of the devil/satan because it relates to a real-life thing that is experienced by you and me rather than a supernatural reality experienced only by cooky Pentecostal types or an outdated and ancient “mythology” easily dismissed by highly evolved moderns.

With this excursus on the devil out of the way, Beck turns to a discussion of how salvation is evidenced in the life of one who claims to have been set free from the power of death. Once again, he makes use of the Eastern Orthodox’s perspective on the matter. According to the Eastern tradition, “To be set free from the slavery to the fear of death is to be liberated from self-interest in the act of genuine love. Thus the sign of Christ’s victory in our lives over sin, death, and the devil is the experience and expression of love. This is resurrection and life.” (24)

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Up Next: The Denial of Death

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The Prodigal Son (and God)

11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am nolonger worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

I recently came across some commentary on this passage that helped me understand the thrust of what is being communicated. I couldn’t help but think, “Where has this reading been all my life?” Anywho, I found it worthy of being shared.

In short this is a story about a son who disgraces his father, goes off to a distant land, squanders his inheritance before coming to his senses and returning home to a father who is shamelessly compassionate and a bitter older brother who stayed put all along. The echoes of Israel’s own story–the story of exile and return–are loud and clear.

Exile and restoration: this is the central drama that Israel believed herself to be acting out. And the story of the prodigal says, quite simply: this hope is now being fulfilled–but it does not look like what was expected. Israel went into exile because of her own folly and disobedience, and is now returning simply because of the fantastically generous, indeed prodigal, love of her god. But this is a highly subversive retelling. The real return from exile, including the real resurrection from the dead, is taking place, in an extremely paradoxical fashion, in Jesus’ own ministry. Those who grumble at what is happening are cast in the role of Jews who did not go into exile, and who opposed the returning people. They are, in effect, virtually Samaritans. The true Israel is coming to its senses, and returning to its father, as Jeremiah had foretold (cf. Jer. 31:18-20); and those who oppose this great movement of divine love and grace are defining themselves as outside the true family.

With this context in mind, the ministry of Jesus, characterized by radical inclusivity and compassion as seen in his table fellowship with the outcasts of society, becomes a real life enactment of the celebration feast imagined in the above story. The long awaited restoration of YHWH’s people is taking place in and through the ministry of Jesus and that means that all are welcomed to God’s love feast.

Jesus is claiming that, when he [eats with sinners, welcomes the outcast, etc.], Israel’s god is doing it, welcoming sinners no matter whether they have passed all the normal tests for membership, as long as they will accept the welcome of Jesus.

More than teaching us something about the nature of God, this parable acts. It creates a story world that shatters the normal telling of the story of Israel. It forces those who find themselves in the role of the older brother–that is, those who are opposing the paradoxical restoration of Israel in the person and ministry of Jesus–to make a decision. They are cast into the role of Pharaoh or the Samaritans–those who have always opposed the freedom and restoration of God’s people. What’s more, the parable ends without a great deal of closure. The older brother is left outside the party faced with a decision that he must make.

Perhaps this is the decision that many of us are left with today. How do we view the radical inclusivity and generosity that characterized the ministry of Jesus? In what ways are we uncomfortable with the outcasts that are invited to our Lord’s table? Are we willing to be a part of this restoration movement that has been inaugurated in the person and work of Christ? If so, in what ways can we enter this story?

*The above reflections were inspired by N.T. Wright’s discussion of this parable in Jesus and the Victory of God. The block quotes are taken from that work.

An Untamed Summer

In an attempt to be more reflective and transparent, I’m resurrecting this blog. Plus, it’s just a great way to share fun stuff that I stumble upon while surfing the web. To kick things off I thought it would be appropriate to give a quick update in regards to what’s been going on in my life.  I’m not about to go all the way back to 2008 so I’ll just give y’all a recap of this summer. And just to preface:  Read this particular post as  a series of scratches on the proverbial surface that makes up my summer. These bullet points will serve as sneak peaks at my next few posts. In other words, the details are coming soon!

  • One of my Bible study groups has been going through Alan and Debra Hirsch’s book titled “Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship“. To summarize I’ll say this: WOW. What a great read this book has been. I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on anything and everything that has to do with the church (i.e. What is the church? What models of church are the most successful? How should we even define “success” within the church? Etc…) and a great deal of these reflections have been stimulated by Alan and Debra’s reflections. I’ll most definitely take another post to share more of my thoughts in detail concerning the church and everything related.
  • While I’m on the topic of church I’ll say this: thank God for community. This summer has been a breath of fresh air in this respect. To update briefly, I’m still attending Mountain View on Sunday mornings when I’m around. On top of that I’m attending house churches on Sunday nights and Thursday nights. I’m new to the whole house church thing but so far I’m loving it. Pardon the cliché but less really is more. The small group atmosphere that the house church fosters seems to breed honesty, openness, and transparency. Both of the house churches that I’ve been involved in this summer have been committed to living out 1 John 1:5-10.
  • On that note, I’m making 1 John 1:5-10 my theme verse for this upcoming school year. I leave in just under two weeks to head back up to Columbia Bible College for another year of studies. I’m going to be a Resident Leader again which essentially consists of building relationships with the 11 guys in dorms that God places under my care, facilitating spiritual growth to the best of my ability, and just keeping things under control in the dorms. I was an RL last year and I learned quite a bit and I look forward to taking another crack at it this year.
  • Politically, I’ve been on quite the journey this summer. When the 4th of July rolled around the American flags went up and patriotism was bubbling forth everywhere I looked. I confess that I felt a little uneasy about it all. Some of you know what my political journey has looked like over the course of most of my adult life (for those of you who don’t I will be taking you through it all in another post) but to summarize, due to where I’ve come from I am what you might call hypersensitive to hyper-patriotism. Anywho, my uneasiness led to yet another paradigm shift concerning my political views. To sum up where I’ve landed I’ll say this: Jesus is King. Of course, I’ll be teasing that out in another post.
  • Nothing has changed this summer concerning my man crush on N.T. Wright. I finished “The Resurrection of the Son of God” at the beginning of the summer which I can honestly say has changed my life. His work on the resurrection has changed the way I view the world. On top of that I am almost finished with his book entitled “What Saint Paul Really Said” which is essentially a summary of what many are calling “The New Perspective on Paul“. Without going too in depth I’ll say that despite the recent criticisms of Wright from those who belong to the Reformed circle, his work must be taken seriously due to his commitment to being faithful to the Scriptures. I love that Wright’s aim is not to view Scripture through the lens of Luther and Calvin (which is, in my opinion, the aim of Reformed theology) but instead, to “think Paul’s thoughts after him.” I’ll leave it at that for now.

Anywho,  every one of these bullets are begging to be teased out but, like I said earlier, the deets are coming! Until then I’ll conclude by saying that this summer has been great in regards to learning what it means to be more in love with Jesus. It’s my prayer that every season of my life leads to growth in that respect.