Mark Galli – Our Atonement Theories Inform Our Worldview

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No doubt we can see this. Do we see Christ as a triumphant victor over the powers or do we see Him as the sacrifice for our sins made to fulfill the judicial requirements of a wrathful God-Judge? Or, like Michael Bird, can we effectively combine them. I am a Christus Victor believer. Period. Okay, well, maybe not period. I think Bird’s viewpoint has merits. In the linked to post above, Bird is taking on Galli’s article on  on the rise of Christus Victor, which seems to be replacing the ‘traditional model’ of the Penal Substitution.

The tag line to Galli’s article is, “An increasingly popular view of the atonement forces the question: What are we saved from?”

I would think that he is asking a question which is not really present in Scripture. It is a question engendered by the questioner. In other words, Mark is asking the question, not Scripture, because he sees salvation as being saved from something. What if salvation was seen as redemption, or as I believe that Irenaeus may have seen it, as recapitulation? In other words, we are a people purchased for God, redeemed from a fallen creation. I tend to view CV as a belief system a lot older, and well within the canonical stream, than PSA. After all, through the OT, YHWH is fighting other gods and nations, etc… for the safety of Israel.

Before I move forward, let me quote Greg Boyd on the conflation of PSA and CV in Barth, a notable figure in Galli’s theological foundation:

It turned out that Adam, who had defended the view that Jesus’ work on the cross appeased the Father’s wrath, agreed with me that the Father wasn’t wrathful toward Jesus. It’s just that God’s wrath against sin was expressed by him delivering Christ up to the Powers in our place. Sin was judged and Christ was our substitute — hence, Penal Substitution. Adam informed me that this is basically the view of Karl Barth, expressed in his Church Dogmatics (which I will now certainly have to look into). Well, I replied, if that’s what you mean by the Penal Substitution view of the atonement, consider me a card carrying member!

Galli begins the article noting that Bell is clearly, as others are doing with their own theological treatments, teaching something along the lines of Christus Victor. I admit, that this atonement model figures heavily into Bell’s worldview, just as PSA figures heavily into the worldview of the Reformed. Bell does pretty well lash out at PSA, and for him, it is a toxic view. But, Galli is not able to accept that his understanding and better, his application, of PSA is not the one traditionally put forth by the loudest voices in Reformed Christian history. Further, I note that Galli judging CV based on the elements (guilt) of PSA and not on purely Scriptural and Historical points. He states, as a measure of self-preservation, that,

With these clarifications, biblical substitutionary atonement in all its nuances (the Bible frames it in subtly different ways: as sacrifice, propitiation, and payment) remains the dominant metaphor for atonement in Scripture.

I disagree. PSA was not the dominant view until Anselm and others starting working the European/Roman/Latin worldview into Christian atonement. It became the dominant view in the Protestant West, but unless we are willing to concede that we are so subjective as to think that the Reformed Protestant Worldview is the historically dominant worldview, then we may want to cease thinking that the PSA, or generally any atonement theory, is actually dominant. He goes on,

Both actually include dimensions of personal guilt and victimhood, but as I listen to the discussion today, it seems that Christus Victor highlights our state as victims.

I don’t really understand that viewpoint, as I can see in the PSA theory the role of victim, i.e., we are all victims of Adam’s sin. With those who I verbally discuss such matters with, none of us see the idea of ‘victim’ in CV, but instead understand the role of Christ as the Liberator, the Victor, the Lord who redeemed us from the powers which we, by our own sinful state, worship or otherwise participate in. Galli also writes,

But I’m concerned at the rising popularity of Christus Victor when it comes at the expense of substitution.

Okay – why do you need substitution? Further, why is he expecting Bell to have written a theological treatise on this? Note Bird and Barth above. I really like how he goes on to state that Scripture only uses CV language ‘momentarily.’ Doubtful, at best, that Galli here knows the full dynamic of the conversation. As Bird pointed out, CV has the most Scripture attached to, and I would go further, in stating that it has the long record of use of any atonement theory. He is right, however, that CV is accompanied with some form of substitution, but I would urge holders to Galli’s view, to note inclusion and conflation of the theories does not one dominant.

His statement here is blatantly false, almost to the point of ignorance:

Add to this the extensive discussion of substitutionary atonement in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews—and no extensive discussions of Christus Victor anywhere in the New Testament—and one begins to wonder how much stock we should put in Christus Victor. In short, should we be so quick to marginalize substitutionary atonement?

One should make such bold statements without substantial support (See Rodney’s view on Galatians). He goes on to note that CV is rising in our society due to social constructions. I find it odd that he fails to note social construction during the rise of PSA or the social constructions of the earliest Christians who held to CV. Christianity didn’t begin with the Reformation, and Christian doctrine didn’t end with the development of PSA.

He ends his article with the note that for some reason, we need a lot of talk about personal sin and the need for forgiveness. This is where Bell comes in at: in that those, today, who seem to hold to CV instead talk about participating in the triumph of God while those who seem to hold to PSA are constantly worried, almost to a legalistic stand point, of sinning and falling out of the Grace of God as if the Grace of God was dependent upon the actions of a single moment. I admit that a strict CV interpretation of Scripture doesn’t seem to hold sway with me. Instead, I like what Boyd said about Barth and what Bird has said about CV. Further, Galli makes excellent points that CV may lead some to think of themselves as a victim. With all of that, I still must caution using our individual atonement models as the final arbiter of what another says. I have often found that in between two extremist positions, there is often the truth.

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7 Replies to “Mark Galli – Our Atonement Theories Inform Our Worldview”

  1. It seems like Galli has more of a problem with Christus Victor being popular, and becoming more popular than PSA or Christ the exemplar models. If it is popular today, it must be bad!

    1. Hey James,

      I totally agree with what you said about PSA.

      Are there any books out there that argue that stories in the bible/micronarratives in the bible are like a golf bag, that Christians, when they are facing slavery, take out more liberating stories, and when they are in exile, use passages dealing with that, and so forth? I think there isnt a metanarrative in scripture, but materials are available in the canon to construct a grand story.

      What say ye?

  2. Not aware of any, although it probably would make a good history of religious thought volume. Personally, I believe there is a metanarrative, but with many micronarratives as in a good symphony with many different instruments all contributing in a unique way to the overall sound.


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