Disenchanted Salvation: Part 1, The Disenchantment of Forensic Salvation

In my course Psychology and Christianity at ACU I spend some classes talking about how in the West our religious experience has been moving from enchantment to disenchantment, from a supernatural world to a secular world. Recently, I've questioned the comprehensiveness of that story, wondering if some of our journey has not been from enchantment to disenchantment, although that's a large piece of it, but from one enchantment to another. Specifically, we're shifting from a transcendent enchantment to an immanent enchantment. Either way, our focus is increasingly on this world.

One of the things I talk about with my class is how, even if you remain a Christian in the West, you still feel the pressures of disenchantment. Many of us are Christians, but we're disenchanted Christians. I'd like to share a few posts illustrating what I'm talking about, with a specific focus upon how disenchantment has affected our visions of salvation.

As many readers are likely aware, penal substitutionary atonement is seen by many Christians as increasingly problematic. I'm not going to rehash those concerns right now. The question I want to ask is this: Why did penal substitutionary atonement become the norm in the West?

As we know, penal substitutionary atonement wasn't the primary way the early church viewed the atonement. To be sure, this point has been overplayed. The early church was aware of and embraced the substitutionary and sacrificial themes of Christ's death on the cross. Still, the dominant framework for the atonement for the early church was Christus Victor rather than penal substitutionary atonement. That is, the early church viewed salvation as emancipation from dark, cosmic forces--Sin, Death and the Devil--whereas we tend to view salvation in forensic terms, as mainly about guilt and the forgiveness of sins.

Why did this shift occur?

I would argue the shift was largely due to the forces of disenchantment. Specifically, Christus Victor is a very enchanted view of salvation. The Devil, for example, plays a large role. The harrowing of hell is also a big deal. So as the forces of disenchantment grew in the West, these enchanted aspects of Christus Victor atonement were put under stress.

Forensic views of atonement, however, like penal substitutionary atonement, are much more disenchanted. You don't need the Devil, for example. The only metaphysical paraphernalia you need in these forensic views is human sin, which is really an empirical issue (just look around and see how terrible we are to each other), and something in the heart of God that demands justice/satisfaction. The death of Jesus then flows out of that mix.

All that to say, penal substitutionary atonement became the norm in the West because it presented us with a disenchanted view of salvation. It just became too difficult to believe the more ancient, enchanted views of salvation that once held sway in the church.

But here's the paradox. When penal substitutionary atonement pushed the "problem" of salvation into the heart of God (i.e., a just God demanding satisfaction), it definitely disenchanted salvation by shifting focus away from the Devil and the cosmic power of Sin. But the price of that shift into the the heart of God was to create a view of salvation that many have found increasingly problematic. Penal substitutionary atonement foregrounds the wrath of God and introduces violence into the equation (i.e., God requiring a death to be satisfied).

Consequently, there's been a lot of pushback to penal substitutionary atonement. And there's been increasing interest in more ancient and non-violent atonement theories, like Christus Victor. And yet, as I point out in Reviving Old Scratch, the people most interested in views like Christus Victor, progressive Christians, are the most disenchanted. So here's the tension. Progressive Christians like the non-violent aspects of Christus Victor, but can they embrace this more enchanted view of salvation? Do they, for example, believe in the Devil? Do they believe in a cosmic force called Sin? Do they think all of humanity is bound over to dark cosmic forces, slaves in Satan's kingdom of darkness?

My hunch is that disenchanted Christians are going to balk at all this. We don't like penal substitutionary atonement, but we struggle in our skeptical, doubting, secular age to embrace the more ancient, enchanted views of salvation.

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