Divine Violence and Christus Victor: Martyn Smith

Today is a guest post by Dr. Martyn Smith. Martyn is a long time friend of the blog and he's just published his doctoral dissertation, Divine Violence and the Christus Victor Atonement Model: God's Reluctant Use of Violence for Soteriological Ends. Martyn's post below is an introduction to his book.

I'm interested in Martyn's research for three reasons. First, I'm interested in any conversation about Christus Victor atonement. Second, as I describe in Reviving Old Scratch, I agree with Martyn's argument that Christus Victor atonement only makes sense if there is a Satan. It's the same point N.T. Wright makes in his recent book on the atonement.

The third reason I'm interested in Martyn's work is his focus on violence in Christus Victor atonement. Christus Victor atonement is generally described as a non-violent view of atonement. It's true that in Christus Victor atonement God's divine violence isn't being directed at Jesus or human beings. But as Martyn points out, God is directing violence toward Satan and the Powers. For example, "binding the strong man" (Luke 11, Mark 4, Matt. 12), the Harrowing of Hell, and the War in Heaven (Rev. 12) all imply divine violence.

While I'm not in total agreement with Martyn on divine violence (I read all references to divine violence through a cruciform lens), I'm grateful to Martyn for making his scholarly case so clearly and forcefully. Advocates of Christus Victor atonement will need to wrestle with his conclusions.

My main worry, of course, is how arguments for divine violence, even if restricted to the Satan and spiritual realm, can provide warrant for human violence as we battle against evil. So beyond introducing his work in today's post, I've also asked Martyn to wrestle with the moral implications of his explorations. Enjoy!

"Loving Violence" by Martyn Smith

I am not sure who first coined the phrase, ‘all theology is autobiography’, but I owe them a debt of gratitude. Those four words have long provided a lens through which to understand my own, and others, theological endeavors. I’ve tried to work outside this adage seeking the fabled, truly objective idea, yet it’s impossible to escape my conditioning, upbringing, experiences and agenda.

Initially, I was overwhelmed by the vast, perhaps infinite, array of potential topics for my PhD. Much time was spent exploring, then rejecting, option after option, “too boring”, “too limited”, “done better by others.” The moment of revelation came in a chance comment, “the Christus Victor atonement model throws light on this…”, my PhD supervisor said during a discussion - I stopped him short, admitting I’d never heard of it! He explained it was an understanding of the cross and salvation set against the backdrop of God’s cosmic battle with the Satan and his demonic hordes - I knew where my research was headed.

A process started that saw me, seven years later, finish my doctorate, publishing it as Divine Violence and the Christus Victor Atonement Model. A fire had raged over those years, becoming a fixation; every book, movie and conversation providing insights and trains of thought into God’s nature and his relationship, or not, to violence and how this was expressed in his chosen mode of salvation.

If all theology is autobiographical, you’ll have made a response to my thesis title conveying something of your life and outlook; typical evocations range between, ‘God can’t be violent!’, ‘I don’t like the sound of that’, ‘I wouldn’t worship a violent God’, ‘that’s appalling’, to ‘how intriguing’, ‘I’d never thought about divine violence’ and ‘goodness, I can’t wait to read it…’ None of them said anything about my thesis, instead revealing the individual’s agenda, what Peter Cotterell calls their ‘presupposition pool’; that knowledge, experience and understanding held by the writer and reader in their interaction. He also spoke of ‘discourse meaning’, to explain that meaning is not found in individual lexical items, nor isolated sentences, but in the larger discourse.

I confess my enslavement to theology being autobiography; on revealing the topic of my thesis to friends, few expressed surprise, one stating, “Given your life-story, it was inevitable.” I was born in a run-down housing estate, attended an appalling school, embraced football hooliganism, dabbled in the occult, before committing an unprovoked act of violence that put a man in hospital and me in prison. On release things got worse and I was involved in profoundly unedifying relationships and practices until, on 11th May 1988 at 4 am, I had an epiphany that caused me to submit my life to Jesus Christ. I returned to my previously failed academic endeavors with singular ferocity, accumulating two undergraduate degrees, a master’s degree and latterly a PhD, all in theology.

Since my conversion, I’ve pastored two churches and taught religious education, philosophy and ethics to pupils aged 11-18 for fifteen years. That’s my presupposition pool in a nutshell – are you surprised my theology is an eclectic mish-mash of seeming contradictions? To some, I am liberalism personified because I ‘fail’ to condemn homosexuality, others think me an unerring literalist because I believe in the Satan and his demonic realm. These ascriptions, however, say more about those making them, than my theological disposition; as Lesslie Newbigin noted, “The words ‘liberal’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are used today not so much to identify oneself as to label the enemy.”

So, what are the key factors in my thesis?

I’d become uncomfortable with the Penal Substitution atonement model, perceiving it an unsatisfactory means of understanding what happened at the cross with its inference God could only save humanity by handing his son over to torture and death. It also didn’t take the Satan and the demonic host seriously, whilst the Bible, Jesus and the Church Fathers did.

I also believed few were properly engaging with the accounts of divine violence recounted in the Bible; Raymund Schwager, the Girardian theologian, notes that, “The theme of God’s bloody vengeance occurs in the Old Testament even more frequently than the problem of human violence. Approximately one thousand passages speak of Yahweh’s blazing anger, of his punishments by death and destruction, and how like a consuming fire he passes judgement, takes revenge, and threatens annihilation.” I couldn’t overlook this, or justify God’s character and actions, or redefine divine violence to make it look like love.

As my understanding and appreciation of Christus Victor grew, I linked it to God’s violence, realizing only a model incorporating divine violence into the overthrowing of the Satan could account for an actual battle between God and a real enemy. I came to see it as more than a salvation metaphor, revealing that against his primary attribute of love, God reluctantly utilized violence to defeat a real, powerful, enemy who couldn’t be overcome any other way. Again, rejection of the Satan’s existence says more about those asserting it than this being’s reality, Andrew Walker argues if scholars are ‘modernist’ they do so, not because of lack of evidence or authentic bases in the New Testament, but because they don’t believe in him.

I realized the best way of understanding biblical salvation and the God behind it, was to let the text speak for itself, conscious of my presupposition pool, but free from concerns about theological implications for a God who repeatedly exercised violence against anything which stood between him and his goal of saving those imprisoned by sin and the Satan. This raises serious issues, but they shouldn’t be a theologian’s primary concern, instead, the evidence must be followed wherever it leads; if this is unpleasant and unpalatable, it’s better than covering up or explaining-away explicit biblical evidence revealing God’s nature. Ludwig Feuerbach was onto something when he accused Christians of being more concerned to make a God in the image of their own desires and sensibilities, than of embracing him for who he is and what he does as revealed in the scriptures.

In the conclusion of my thesis, I argue that acceptance of reluctant divine violence, conjoined with the Christus Victor atonement model, likens Christian faith to being in a war, following a mighty general we love and trust entirely, regardless of his nature or orders. New recruits have to work with each other and their Leader, their lover, to secure ultimate liberation through a final, decisive victory against an evil, powerful adversary who can only be subjugated and finally destroyed by this God of insurmountable love and irresistible force. These Christian ‘troops’ are unlike a regular army; their role is not to fight, but to be involved in non-violent guerrilla activity behind enemy lines. Christians have long-wrestled with how to engage those forces, institutions and people considered ‘enemies of God’. Here, ‘meaning discourse’ must be carefully and prayerfully applied to protect against the inevitable fallen, human desire to forcefully oppose whatever stands against personally-held Christian beliefs and values. To avoid theological anarchy and worldly bloodshed, clear understanding and application of biblical spiritual warfare must be employed, so one person’s crusade against ‘anti-Christian’ entities does not entail physical violence - never a Christian option.

Three issues are of primary importance in my thesis: the Satan is a real being, the Christus Victor model best expresses Jesus’ achievements at the cross and God reluctantly utilized violence in the Bible, especially in acts of salvation.

Firstly, the Satan is an actual being, but not a person, because personhood includes the possibility of salvation; he is nonetheless real, standing against God and those he loves. Also, he is a spiritual being against whom finite, worldly-bound humans, have no demonstrable power. This may cause a feeling of impotence against this evil enemy, but this is wrong, because the cosmic, eternal battle between God and the Devil requires a human response, but one that understands its role.

St. Paul stated, “…we are not unaware of [Satan’s] schemes” (2 Cor 2:11), but we have far less discernment; so instead of embarking on a personal war against the Devil, humans must act within God’s remit. For example, Jude warns those seeking to engage the Satan on their own initiative, “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”(Jude 1:9). If such a mighty spiritual being demurs at openly confronting the lord of evil, then humans must acknowledge their primary involvement in confronting evil forces is utter dependence on God, who alone is capable of engaging and defeating a powerful and, to humans, ethereal and mysterious, enemy. It is not the role or responsibility of humans to align themselves with those ‘fighting evil’; failing to accede this leads to a false war engaged in by various ‘Christian warriors for truth’, most obviously, the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church or those Christians standing against, or for, Donald Trump, or more subtly by groups with liberal concerns and ‘battles’. Whatever the ‘warfare’, it’s not the role of Christians to counter the Satan – it’s God’s job and he’s the only one equipped to do it.

Even St. Paul, when delineating how humans are to confront the Devil (Eph 6: 10-18), first reminds them the battle is not of flesh and blood, but a struggle against powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms; in other words, stuff humans have no means of encountering. He instructs them to clothe themselves in the ‘armour of God’, before reeling off a list of symbolic items, enabling them to play their part in being ‘strong in the Lord and his mighty power’. Humans aren’t directly involved in spiritual warfare and countering the Satan, but this doesn’t mean they’re without a part to play – a diminutive part, but a part nonetheless – to live in truth and righteousness, to share the gospel of peace, to maintain faith, enjoy salvation and to express the word of God and, of course, to pray in the Spirit and remain alert, or as Karl Barth put it, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Secondly, the Christus Victor model acknowledges the Satan’s role in the story of God’s engagement with the world and his plans for salvation; other models giving him a bit-part, or completely ignoring or denying him. If the Satan is a real adversary to God and all that is good, then he must be subdued and finally overcome - only the Christus Victor model explicitly addresses this. If – for whatever reason – the Devil is taken out of the redemption story, the divine drama is lost and the story loses its meaning. The Christus Victor account is therefore, not just the best, but the only atonement model that does justice to the biblical descriptions of the Satan and the demonic realm, highlighting and addressing the importance of their subjugation before salvation can be won.

Thirdly, a belief in God’s reluctant use of violence demonstrates there is a real enemy to be overcome and the cross, understood via Christus Victor, is the means of doing so; further, only a God willing to use violence could successfully accomplish this. When first mentioning my PhD’s theme to friends, a common concern was voiced, “…but won’t your argument encourage people to pursue violence, believing it’s what God is like and what he wants from his followers?” I replied that when humans can love like God loves, they’ll be able to fight like God fights, until then, viewing the spiritual realm through this ‘glass darkly’, our job is to trust our mighty Leader, who alone is capable of rallying and leading his followers towards a victory over the Satan. Further, because violence has been the bane of human history, it doesn’t follow that God can’t endorse or utilize violence to accomplish his goals. Miroslav Volf rightly notes we must preserve the fundamental difference between God and nonGod on this point, because the biblical tradition insists there are things which only God may do - one of them, he insists, is to use violence.

As we saw, an important issue for Christians keen to be involved in spiritual warfare is the reliability of ascription – what Paul calls the “…discernment of spirits” (1 Cor 12:10). The Bible infers that ‘rulers, authorities and powers’ in this world can so thoroughly manifest the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12) that they warrant violent opposition, but who can be trusted to rightly decide which enemy is authentically demonic. In the 1980s, for example, both Ronald Reagan and the Ayatollah Khomeni, characterized each other’s regimes as “Satanic”, yet tellingly, didn’t go to war against each other. Christians should be cautious, remembering that whilst God, in his unique, objective role as the one who is love, can utilize violence against his enemies, human beings as sinful, subjective and largely spiritually illiterate beings cannot. To reiterate, the role of Christians in this ‘battle’ is to align themselves with their Leader, live lives of love, peace and forgiveness and pray for God’s intervention, by his means, confident of his character and ability to drive home the victory, not to blindly stumble into a conflict they can little perceive, let alone understand or be effectively involved in.

After my conversion, I went to theological college to learn about my new faith and equip myself to effectively share it with others; somewhere along the way I lost sight of this goal, getting distracted in other pursuits. When I finished my PhD, I spent time trying to find the implications of my research until I had my eureka-moment! I realized I needed to go back to where it all started and become an evangelist, understanding that my primary goal ought to be freeing people from the Satan into God’s Kingdom. I believe Christians are embroiled in guerrilla warfare and the liberating of imprisoned souls is the only ‘violence’ they should entertain; or, as St. Matthew put it, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12). Now that’s an endeavor worth fighting for…

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