"To Rescue Us From the Present Evil Age": Christus Victor in Galatians

At AAR/SBL this last fall Christian Amondson (Thank you, Christian, very much) made me aware of J. Louis Martyn's seminal commentary on Galatians.

Martyn's commentary is considered to be ground-breaking in that it was one of the first readings of Paul in modern biblical scholarship to highlight the apocalyptic and Christus Victor themes in Pauline thought. We tend to read Paul through the lens of the Reformation and think that Paul's main theological project was to describe how we are saved via "justification by faith."

In contrast to this view, Martyn notes how Paul's soteriology fits better with a Christus Victor frame. As Martyn has written (emphasis added):
Galatians is a clear witness to a basic conviction of Paul: the gospel is not about human movement into blessedness, but about God's liberating invasion of the cosmos.
You can see this Christus Victor emphasis right at the start of Galatians:
Galatians 1.3-4a
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age...
What we see in this is how the work of Jesus, while involving the forgiveness of sins, was critically about "rescuing us from the present evil age." Why rescue? Later in the letter Paul describes our predicament as one of slavery to dark forces:
Galatians 4.3
So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe.
Being set free from these "elemental spirits" and from the "present evil age" sets up a freedom/slavery motif for the entire letter. Two of the central texts of Galatians highlight these themes:
Galatians 4.8-9
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 

Galatians 5.1a
For freedom Christ has set us free
All this is not to deny Paul's focus on sin and the Law and how both place us under a curse. But as these texts make clear (along with many other passages in the epistle that can be cited), Paul isn't thinking in moralistic or individualistic terms. Paul sees sin and the Law as elemental powers that hold us captive.

What is needed, then, is less a matter of forgiveness than liberation and emancipation from enslaving powers. Salvation is less about moral absolution than God's liberating invasion of the world and the establishment of a "new creation" (Gal. 6.15).

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14 thoughts on “"To Rescue Us From the Present Evil Age": Christus Victor in Galatians”

  1. Thank for highlighting this commentary

    Not only Paul, but more importantly Jesus's words have the same perspective. "The truth shall set you free" "all who commit sin are slaves of sin" "liberty to the captives" etc.

    If we viewed ourselves and God's intention for us through "captivity" glasses instead of "depravity" glasses the whole kingdom motif emerges and connects many dots.

    "For he delivered us from the domain (rule) of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son" Coll.1:13

  2. Would you agree that guilt is often one of those enslaving powers to which we are bound? This is why I've found forgiveness so important...for many in religious circles are often bound by guilt and shame.

    This allows one to also incorporate forgiveness into the Christus Victor motif.

  3. Different Words or metaphors for God's work for us.  A guy by the name of Jacob Preus wrote a book called Just Words where he reviews in six buckets 23 different metaphors employed for justification.  Christ the life giver (light, bread, etc), Christ the redeemer (ransom, forgiveness, etc), Christ the Judge/Legal (Inheritance, adoption, etc), Christ the reconciler (peace, etc), Christ the Priest (Lamb, Mediation, etc), Christ the Savior (Liberation, victory, etc.).  Great simple work if just for the grouping review of all the metaphors the Bible uses.

    What I ponder is a couple of things: 1) How Christians get sucked into fights over Victory vs. Forgiveness and atonement theories.  Each has an appropriate place and use.  2) It wasn't always this way, but how the metaphors that people use in politics tend to be the opposite of their preferred theological ones.  Political liberals who today are using legal and medical/health metaphors for political policy which are incremental use the liberation metaphor for theology.  Political conservatives who are given to war and liberation metaphors (struggling against leviathan) are the ones that hold on to the legal and health metaphors in theology.  The deeper question I think is am I applying the right metaphor at the right time?  And what situations am I like the guy with only a hammer, forgetting about the other tools in the chest?

  4. Those are good points. But to clarify a bit, I'm not interested much in debating. To what end? I'm figuring stuff out for myself. This blog isn't trying to be balanced. It's simple a chronicle of what I'm reading and thinking about. And for the past few years I've been digging into Christus Victor theology, so regular readers are going to get a heavy dose of that. I'm aware that there are other powerful metaphors and have, in fact, made defenses of things like penal substitutionary atonement. See: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2008/03/putting-in-good-word-for-penal.html

  5.  I'm sorry.  Don't want to kill a thread.  Agree, debate isn't worth much.  I love the victory metaphor.  This is just a reflection on its parish use.  There is one thing that I have taken to appending to it at all times.  Asking the question: what have you been set free for?  Why has Christ granted you victory?  Or at times Who is the victory over?  I think Paul did that in Galatians in 5:13ff.  Walking in the Spirit we have been given a true choice for the first time since the garden.  Those direct objects of victory are important, because the devil, the world and our flesh will fill them in and make us twice the son of hell as we were before.  The cosmic victory comes down to earth so to speak in each individual heart and life. 

  6. No worries at all. I think it's helpful to point out issues of balance, especially given that I'm not generally striving for balance given how I write about my interests (which can be pretty nichey).

  7. Romans 5 and 6 are pretty clear on it. Grace abounded when sin abounded. Yet Paul says that the we are to not go on sinning to make grace abound more. Then he explains how we die WITH Christ and in doing so we die to sin.

    Thus Jesus, through his death and resurrection, ransoms us from the dominion of sin (condemnation due its wages) and the bondage of sin whereby we leave the old master and submit to the new master. This is why he makes it clear in Rom 6:16 that we are slaves to whom we obey.

    Modern Christianity has totally perverted the message of the Bible which is a message of true redemption and true purity. The false teachers have replaced it with this package system which you just trust in. They have eliminated the aspect where "we die to sin" in the sense that we crucify the flesh with the passions and desires (Gal 5:24) in repentance.

  8.  You are spot on. People have to discard this Penal Substitution nonsense which is taught everywhere.

    Jesus ransoms us from the corrupting influence of sin and gave us an example of victory over the works of the devil in the flesh by walking in the Spirit. We are to partake in His sufferings and overcome the world like He did.

    The blood also purges our consciences of the guilt due our past rebellion.

    Thus we can truly be reconciled and united with our Creator.

  9. We are justified by faith but not in the sense that the reformers teach it.

    The reformers view faith more as a passive trust in something. The Bible describes faith as the active principle by which one submits to God being fully convinced that what He says is true. Thus it is by faith that we entrust our whole being to our Creator. This is the faith that God imputes as righteousness.

    Abraham was the patriarch of faith and his faith was clearly an obedient trusting faith. Abraham yielded to God, he was not in rebellion. By submitting to God we allow Him to work through us producing righteous fruit bearing vessel. God is the light and we are the light globe, yet the difference between us and a light globe is we have the ability to CHOOSE.

    God is calling all men to repent which simply means to change the mind in regards to rebellion resulting in a mind set on yielding. This is receiving the implanted word which saves our souls.

    It really is very simple and it is quite disturbing how so many people get sucked into the false teaching which abound. I find that all false teaching draw the attention away from the absolute necessity of people to submit fully to God.

  10. You might also like Brigitte Kahl's Galatians Reimagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished, which highlights similar themes.  

  11. Martyn's commentary really is something wonderful.  What shocked me was his reading that the Law is equated as one of the elemental forces of the universe, and how he reasons that out.  Glad it is fruitful for you!

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