Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tu Nobis, Victor Rex, Miserere

A couple of weeks ago, after Vespers, we heard an Orthodox priest answering questions from his parishioners. They were a young and engaged crowd, posing some good questions. In response to one, asking him to compare Orthodoxy with Latin Christianity, the priest averred in the politest way possible that he had some doubts about the West's reliance on using the language of the courtroom to describe the majesty of God's work. Ah, yes, we thought; and here comes Aulen versus Anselm.

According to its website, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America includes twelve congregations named Christus Victor. This is an unusual name, and seems to be as distinctively Lutheran as Gustavus Adolphus. We've never heard of a Christus Victor Presbyterian Church, and doubt we ever will.

The oldest of the ELCA's Christus Victors was organized in 1947, the newest in 1988, but most date from the 1960s and 1970s. Now consider the publication dates of Gustav Aulen's influential study of the atonement, Christus Victor: Swedish in 1930; English in 1931 -- and the first American publication in 1969. It seems reasonable to conclude that the idea of giving this curious name was prompted by the gradually increasing prominence of the theory Aulen describes, and which he attributes in various forms to many Fathers and much of the Orthodox world.

Now, we in the West (and, frankly, we at the Egg) generally default to a juridical, Anselmian model of the Atonement. You know: We were (and are) guilty, but Jesus paid the penalty, and therefore the Father treats us all as if we were innocent. There are more sophisticated ways of putting that, but you get the idea. This has been a part of our ecclesiastical culture for so long that it simply seems right, at the most basic learned-it-in-Sunday-School level.

To be brutally honest, it sometimes seems that American Christianity, at least, has a higher regard for the theory of vicarious substitutionary atonement than it does for the doctrine of the Trinity. If true, this ought to give us all pause.

Anyway, we mention this because, thinking about his sermons over the past few years, Father A. sees that the Christus Victor model has assumed a surprisingly important position. Hardly a week goes by anymore in which he does not use some expression on the order of "for our sake, Christ has defeated sin, death and hell." We fully expect to say something along these lines come Sunday, and hope that you will as well. It's an important part of the story.

On the other hand, it may not be the whole or sufficient story. In the wake of the Rob Bell tempest in a teapot, Christianity Today has recently published an editorial warning that when Protestants start to talk about the Atonement as a victory rather than a substitution, they are generally soft-pedaling the reality of sin, and opening the door to universalism (which, for CT, is the Devil). Maybe sometimes. But probably not. A quick review of our own victory-besotted sermons shows that we are quite happy to talk about sin, the uglier and more personal the better. Without that, "the victory over sin death and hell" loses its meaning.

It seems to us that the two models in question, victory and substitution, are held in an admirable tension -- a Lathropean juxtaposition, if you will -- by the traditions of the church. Consider the great (and fairly late, and thoroughly Western) Easter hymn, Victiamae Paschali. It begins, obviously, with the image of Jesus as a sacrifice: "Christians to the paschal victim." And it ends with the title of this post: "Victorious King, thy mercy show."


Pastor Joelle said...

I did not grow up in the church. I never ever got the "I am such a rotten person that God had to kill his son for me". Really I think you have grow up with that for it to make any kind of sense. Now why Jesus overcoming evil by submitting to it should make any more sense to me is a mystery but there you have it, because it does.

Father Anonymous said...

I suppose that, to a complete outsider, both models share the same logical flaw, namely the notion that the all-powerful is somehow compelled (by himself, mind you) to take an otherwise inexplicable action which we are to believe accomplishes a seemingly unrelated goal. Substitution? Victory? What sense do these make if God is the Ground of Being? Or, as every single confirmation student is required to ask at least once, "If God wanted to save us, why didn't God just say 'You're saved'?"

All of which, naturally, leads to the third theory Aulen sketches out, the so-called "Moral Influence" idea, which he attributes to Abelard, and which has since been beloved of theology's liberalest liberals. And which, for all its power to cut the Gordian knot, always makes me snarl in rage. If the value of the Cross is that it reminds me of something -- my badness, God's goodness, or the delightful flavor of pistachio ice cream -- I'n just not all that interested.

Nixon is Lord said...

So if there's no logic behind it, why bother?
Unless you really like dressing up and telling people what to do or it helps motivate people to serve an agenda you find emotionally and personally convincing.
But that just means that you and the Fundies deserve each other.
BTW, how much anti-Semitism is there among the Orthodox today? When are they going to ordain women and the openly gay like Western Protestants?

Father Anonymous said...

Let's be clear: I meant logic in the sense of pure, abstract, geometric-proof logic. That sort of thing rarely exists outside of a mathematics classroom, and it certainly does not exist in the world of religion.

There is another kind of logic, however -- closer to what Donne meant by "reason" in his sermons -- which is different. It is the internal order of a system, once one has entered into it. This is the "logic" of law or even, sometimes, medicine. Same word, different meaning.

So far as emotionally-satisfying agendas go, I have to point out that making a pest of oneself on websites devoted to a different religion than one's own -- and yes, the assertion that God does not exist is a clear statement of religious conviction -- seems to fit the bill nicely.

I can't answer the question about anti-Semitism among the Orthodox. I encounter virtually no anti-Semitism here in Eastern Europe, but then again, they killed most of their Jews. I wouldn't want to be a gypsy, though.

As for when the Orthodox churches will ordain either women or men who are in relationships with other men (let's set aside the possibility of a celibate gay man), there's only one way to be sure: we can go to Hell and check the temperature. When it freezes, they're ready.

Nixon is Lord said...

So why the rage and contempt against the catholics for not ordaining women and non-straight men who are open about it and no interest at all among Mainline Protestants about what the Orthodox feel and do about ordaining women and non-celibate, openly gay men?
If two people do something you dislike (or refuse to do something you want them to do)why the anger towards one party and not even a shrug towards the other?

Father Anonymous said...

Dude, do your homework, You seem to spend hours each day reading the blog, but sometimes miss the point entirely.

Rage and contempt? What rage and contempt? I disagree with Rome on those things, as on many others, but ... rage and contempt? No. I disagree with lots of people about lots of things, and generally manage to do it respectfully. The principal exceptions in this blog are politicians who embarrass my country with their shenanigans. (Dick Cheney. Yes, for him, there's rage and contempt a-plenty). Also members of the clergy -- of an denomination -- who do egregiously stupid or evil things. (Say, robbing a parishioner's house on Christmas Day. Still my all-time favorite).

What little rage and contempt I may express toward Roman Catholicism centers around (a) the failure of its hierarchy to handle sexual abuse cases competently, and (b) its general tone-deafness toward media relations and crisis management.

As for Orthodoxy, well I don't write much about it. And I live in an overwhelmingly Orthodox country, with a strong history of secret police activity. Do the math. But you could also read this post to catch up:

Father Anonymous said...

Missing the point yet again. If putting one's life on the line, were the rationale, every single cop and firefighter would warrant the deduction -- and very few military personnel actually would.

The logic, as I understand it, is that these are two of the very few lines of work in which, often, "base housing" is provided and even required as a condition of employment, thus putting the worker at a disadvantage when it comes time to purchase.