Personal Notes & thoughts on Christology (re: how Jesus saves), taken while reading p.329-365 Thomas N. Finger’s “A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology” (Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004).
On Formal Christology: Formal Christology often distinguishes Jesus’ person from his work. Formal Christology usually begins with the person of Christ and a focus upon his divinity and then moves toward his divinity’s connection to/with humanity. This approach to Christology only moves toward the examination of soteriology - or what Jesus did to usher in salvation (i.e., his life/work) - after the person of Christ and his divinity is established. This approach to Christology actually mirrors that of systematic theology, generally speaking. Systematic theology, in other words, begins with God and then moves toward what God actually means for humanity.
The above approach to Christology is usually tagged with the label “from above,” as far as a description of the approach is concerned. Such an approach usually requires a sturdy grasp of technical jargon, philosophical terminology and theological expertise.
Anabaptist Christology takes a different approach. Anabaptist Christology begins not with the person of Christ, and/or his divinity, but with the life and work of Christ, and/how he saves humanity. This approach to Christology is tagged with the label “from below,” as far as approach description is concerned. It differs drastically from the aforementioned “from above” Christological approach. The difference does not however, result in a diminished view or articulation of the Divinity of Jesus Christ. No, not at all! Trinity is beyond important. The divinity of Christ is non-negotiable. Jesus was completely God; completely human. Trinity. His humanity is not prioritized over his divinity, but the initial starting point in the Anabaptist tradition is the life and work of Christ. Jesus’ ministry was/is a divine work, possible only in as much as Jesus was divine (and human).
Historically, Anabaptists have understood Jesus’ life & work in terms of “Atonement”. Atonement can be defined as “at one” or “at one-ment” with God, specifically as concerns humanity’s standing relationship to/with a Holy, Righteous God. There are more than a few historical approaches to Atonement. Three models characterize Anabaptism. One of these models especially resonates with Anabaptism (and with me), historically and contemporarily (this model will be identified after a few necessary descriptions). These approaches are as follows:
1. Substitutionary Atonement: Substitutionary Atonement advances the concept of a humanity created for eternal life. Eternal life is, however, a reward saved for a humanity that can honor and obey God and God’s Holy Law. Individually, all of humanity has proved to be incapable of honoring and obeying God. Every individual has broken God’s Holy and Righteous Law. We are all guilty. The guilty before God deserve the opposite of eternal life, eternal death. God needs to be appeased, or satisfied, before He will forgive. Jesus’ work is the satisfaction or substitute for our failure and guilt before a Holy and Righteous God. Jesus was perfectly obedient in life and thus capable of taking upon himself our guilt before God, as our intercessory savior. Christ’s work upon cross paid our debt to God. Our individual accounts before God are balanced when we accept the work Christ did for each one of us.
2. Moral Influence: Moral Influence is constructed upon the concept of Jesus’ death as supreme expression of God’s love for humanity. This expression serves as the motivating force for decisions made to live for God, in relationship to/with God. Moral Influence prioritizes God’s incredible love, rather than the necessity of a satisfaction of his divine wrath.
3. Christus Victor: Christus Victor is a title encapsulating the idea of a cosmic conflict between good and evil. Christus Victor advances the concept of a humanity created to be in relationship with God, but instead chose a relationship with the devil. This choice resulted/results in utter corruption and ultimate death. The act finds its final culmination in divine punishment. The punishment does not, however, come directly from God, but from the relationship humanity shares with the devil. The relationship is allowed by God, and the natural effects of it are not prevented by God. Sinners are handed, in other words, over to Satan. Jesus resisted the temptation of such a horrible relationship and instead chose to be/remain in communion with God. He was overpowered, however, on the cross, by the bastardly forces and violent conflict pushing toward evil relationship. The resurrection proved to be God’s vindication of Christ’s death on this cross. The resurrection also proved to be the undoing of these evil forces. Jesus’ victory in this conflict between ultimate good and ultimate evil, made tangible in his life, death, and resurrection, is that in and by which those joined to him find salvation from the dominion powers of this world. Jesus’ victory over evil, as illustrated on the cross, and in the resurrection, is the key to salvation for all who would embrace and accept it. This victory is often referred to as a ransom for those once held captive by an evil dominion (mirrors substitutionary, in that we are saved by Jesus’ work on the cross). A free and right relationship to/with God is the result. Death is conquered! This victory is made manifest in each of our lives by the Holy Spirit.
Number three, Christus Victor, is theologically conducive to the dualistic war between good and evil unarguably found in the overarching story, symbolism and imagery of the New Testament. Too, it identifies the source of death as the natural consequence of removing one’s allegiance to God, the authentic source of life, and offering it to the devil, the ultimate counterfeiter and source of death.
The Substitutionary concept advances the idea of death as divine punishment for breaking a law. This means Jesus’ work on the cross was/is a debt nullifying payment that is transferred to our account, upon our acceptance of it. The New Testament uses court-room symbolism and imagery, for sure. Perhaps this sort of language is not pomo-friendly (Atonement is not pomo-friendly), but it is there. I’m not so sure this language totally points toward a substitutionary idea, but it (the language) is there. Christus Victor gets to the same point without potential symbolic digression (i.e., Christus Victor too says that Jesus death on the cross saves us).
Historically, Anabaptists linked Jesus’ life and work most often with the Christus Victor model, though all three (Christus Victor, Moral Influence, and Substitutionary Atonement) are indeed present in Anabaptist theology and thought. The sharp conflict between church & world literally demanded such a link. It (the sharp conflict) is still present in this world, and still demands it (Christus Victor), in my humble opinion. There are unarguable powers in this world that are inherently hostile to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Who would say otherwise? The conflict between good and evil is there, in the pages of your New Testament! It’s in the Church! It’s at your door! Praise God the dominion has been broken in Christ Jesus, the Lord! Social and individual transformation in Christ is available through the Holy Spirit, and for all who would seek and embrace it!