Combinatorial Soteriology

[This is something I posted on my old Livejournal a few years ago; I happened to be thinking of it the other day, and it seemed worth reposting.]

[Originally posted Sept 2010]

On the way home from work the other day, I was idly thinking about soteriology, as one does.

Soteriology, for those of you who didn’t choose to spend a bunch of time in theology school, is the “theology of salvation.” In Christian theology, it is specifically the theology of how we are saved, and what we are saved from, by Jesus Christ.

Back in 1931 a guy named Gustaf Aulén published a book in which he argued that traditional theories of soteriology could be broadly divided into three categories: “Christus Victor” theories, in which humanity was oppressed by sin, death, and/or the devil, and Christ by his death and resurrection had defeated those enemies; “satisfaction” theories, in which humanity owes a debt or penalty to God and Jesus becomes human in order to pay it on our behalf; and “moral influence” theories, in which Jesus’ life and particularly his submission to a painful and shameful death is God’s ultimate example of a selfless and self-sacrificing life.

I was thinking about this, and reflecting on how it seemed that each of these theories emphasized certain aspects of Jesus’ existence over others. Satisfaction theory, for example, hinges on the Incarnation (Jesus had to be human in order to pay the debt for humanity’s sake, and he had to be God in order to be able to pay a debt so great) and the Crucifixion (the moment at which the debt was paid.) Jesus’ life and ministry, and the Resurrection, are not completely ignored in this theory, but they are definitely of secondary importance. Moral influence theory, on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus’ life and his death; in this case, the Incarnation and the Resurrection are secondary. Christus Victor puts the primary weight on the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

At this point the Techer in me pointed out that it appears we have four possible aspects of Jesus’ existence, namely:

The Incarnation — by classical Christian theology, this is the means by which Jesus Christ came to be simultaneously fully human and fully God. (Two natures in one person, if you want to use the neo-Platonic language that the Council of Chalcedon used to explain this apparent paradox.)

Life and Ministry — Jesus’ teachings, his parables, his miracles, the example of how he lived and acted; everything he said and everything he did during his life.

The Crucifixion — the way in which Jesus died.

The Resurrection — the way in which Jesus rose to new life on the third day.

Out of these four aspects, then, each of the soteriologies mentioned above highlights two, and largely ignores two others. Does this mean — I pondered to myself — that we can use this to create a schema for soteriological theories based on which two of these four aspects they emphasize? And if we can, is it useful to do so?

Well, I don’t know if it’s useful, but I’m intrigued to see if it’s possible. Elementary combinatorics tells us that if we take four aspects and choose two at a time, there are six possible results; so we can start by simply enumerating them:

Aspect of Jesus’ Existence Resulting Soteriology
Incarnation Life & Ministry Crucifixion Resurrection
X X Christus Victor
X X Satisfaction/Atonement
X X Moral Influence
X X “Narrative Christus Victor
X X Divinization
X X ???

Let’s take these in order.

Christus Victor: emphasizes Crucifixion and Resurrection

One of Aulén’s models, alluded to above. variations on this were common in the early centuries of the church; by dying and rising again, Christ is victorious over the forces that have oppressed humanity since the Fall. This model often includes the “Harrowing of Hell,” the idea that during the three days that Jesus was dead, he was rampaging through Hell and busting out all of the virtuous dead — who, since there was no salvation before Jesus, had perforce gone to Hell regardless of their virtue. This is the model that fans of The Golden Bough are likely to gravitate to, because it embodies the same kind of “the king must die so that the crops will grow” thinking.

One instance of the Christus Victor model — one which was current around Anselm’s time, and revulsion at which led him to come up with the satisfaction idea; see below — went like this: Because of the Fall, Satan owned the souls of all humans by legal right. God offered Satan a bargain: the soul of Jesus in exchange for everyone else. Satan eagerly accepted, but was foiled when Jesus was raised on the third day. If this sounds familiar, it may be because it was also the model that C. S. Lewis used in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Satisfaction/Atonement: emphasizes Incarnation and Crucifixion

The second of Aulén’s models. Anselm of Canterbury, as noted above, found the version of Christus Victor theory circulating at his time revolting: partly because it suggested that Satan had legal rights that God had to respect, but mostly because it made God a cheater. Anselm wrote a book called Cur Deus Homo — loosely, “Why Jesus Became Human” — in which he proposed an alternate theory: the sins of humanity since the Fall were an affront to the honor of God. (Anselm was writing around 1000 CE, so he had a medieval idea of Creation as a medieval kingdom, with God of course as the monarch; sins of the subjects impugn the honor of the king.) This affront demanded satisfaction; but all of humanity together would be unable to render a satisfaction large enough to be sufficient.

Therefore, God devised the plan of the Incarnation: Jesus would be both fully human, and therefore able to offer satisfaction on behalf of humanity, and fully God, and therefore the satisfaction would be sufficient. The Crucifixion was the manner in which satisfaction was offered, and God’s honor restored.

In time, particularly around the Reformation, this model evolved: rather than a king’s court, it became a legal court, and sin was a crime against the justice of God rather than an affront to God’s honor. Jesus came to pay the penalty for humanity’s crimes, rather than to offer satisfaction. Still, it was fundamentally the same concept. Strictly speaking, this version is known as penal substitutionary atonement, and it is normative in many, many Protestant churches — so much so that many people are convinced that it is the only understanding the church has ever had (it isn’t) and that it is explicitly stated in the Bible (it isn’t, although there are passages in Paul you can read this way if you come at them with that preconception.)

Moral Influence: emphasizes Life & Ministry and Crucifixion

The third of Aulén’s models, and one associated primarily with Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard was a rock star in the medieval academy; a prodigy who blew away his teachers with his dialectic. He famously had an affair with a young woman named Héloïse, which ended abruptly when her uncle had Abelard castrated. He retired to a monastery, where he continued his philosophical and theological work somewhat out of the public eye.

In this view, Christ’s life was intended to demonstrate God’s all-encompassing love for humanity; so great that he would even give up his life and suffer a torturous and shameful death for our sake. This example is intended to influence humanity to strive to emulate it; the “action” of salvation, therefore, is directed not so much at God (as in satisfaction theory) or towards evil forces (as in Christus Victor theory) but rather at humanity itself.

This model is favored in parts of the liberal wing of Christianity. In some cases (not all, by any means) it goes so far as to regard the Incarnation and the Resurrection as mythical, in which case Jesus becomes a great teacher but otherwise a normal human being.

“Narrative Christus Victor”: emphasizes Life & Ministry and Resurrection

The term “Narrative Christus Victor” is taken from a book called The Nonviolent Atonement, by Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver. Weaver is concerned by the violence he finds in the classical Christus Victor and satisfaction theories; he develops a soteriology in which Jesus’ entire ministry is based on themes on non-violence. In this model, the Crucifixion is not part of the divine plan; it is rather the response of violent humanity to the perfect example of non-violence, Jesus. The Resurrection is God’s absolute vindication of Jesus’ life, and the ultimate demonstration that non-violence can triumph over violence without resorting to violence itself.

Weaver’s view is not, I think, a very widespread one — for one thing, most Christian sects are less focused on non-violence than the Mennonites are — but it was the example that came to mind that favors Life & Ministry in common with Resurrection.

Divinization: emphasizes Incarnation and Life & Ministry

The second-century Church Father Irenaeus believed that the purpose of Christ’s coming was to imbue human life with divinity. Since Christ was both human and God, as Jesus lived through the various stages and experiences of human life they would become sanctified and made divine. Jesus was born; therefore birth is shot through with a divine spark. Jesus was a child, therefore childhood is made divine. And so on, up to and including human death; but in Irenaeus’ view, this was merely the culmination of a human life.

This model never really caught on, although it does seem to resurface every now and again.

???: emphasizes Incarnation and Resurrection

Here I’m stuck; I can’t think of a soteriology that emphasizes the Incarnation and the Resurrection, but isn’t much interested in the ministry or Crucifixion. It seems as though such a model would be largely focused on the Kingdom of God and the new life that everyone would inherit then; you could pick up on Paul’s language out Christ’s Resurrection as the first-fruits of the Kingdom, and Christ as the new Adam; but you’d have to step over the parts of Paul that emphasize having to die (to self, to sin, to your previous life) in order to get there. I can’t recall having seen that exact combination, but that doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t done it.

So there it is. Not exactly a great discovery, but an interesting exercise nonetheless. What do you all think?

[After I posted the original post, a comment pointed out that, of the four aspects listed above, “Life & Ministry” and “Crucifixion” are “ordinary” in the sense of not being miraculous; while “Incarnation” and “Resurrection” are explicitly supernatural. This helps explain why the Moral Influence soteriology, which emphasizes only the mundane elements, tends to be favored by the more secular-minded; whereas the missing soteriology, which would emphasize only the miraculous elements, would have difficulty relating to the mundane world of human experience. I think that’s a very useful addition to this analysis.]

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