Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 3: Christus Victor)

The second chapter moves past the distinction between ancestral and original sin into a discussion of the salvation model that Beck’s going to be working from for the rest of the book.

In traditional Protestant (particularly evangelical) theology, the salvation with which Christ provides us is described as a liberation from sin.  This follows directly from the original sin model where we set up sinfulness as the central problem of humanity, and the reason for all the other bad things that happen to us (like being mortal).  More specifically (and this, I think, is particularly a concern of Calvinist theology, although Arminian strains of thought also fall into this kind of thinking), Christ saves us from our sinfulness, which is the part of our nature that God innately hates and can’t allow in his presence.  However you may describe that relationship (God is perfection, and anything made imperfect is unable to return to that state; God’s sense of justice is offended by our inherent sin and must be satisfied by punishing it; God glorifies himself by redeeming some and casting all others into eternal torment), it’s fundamentally about Jesus coming along and fixing something wrong with us that God can’t tolerate.  We’re not victims; we’re criminals.

I’ve known a lot of Christians who get wrapped up in the self-loathing that inevitably follows from identifying oneself above all other things as a reprobate.  I used to be one of those Christians.  It’s not a pleasant experience, and it creates a lot of baggage that only makes practicing the faith (and interacting with other people on a day-to-day basis) difficult.  Everything you do becomes plagued with self-doubt about your motivations as to whether you want to do it because you think it pleases God or because you’re giving in to your sin nature.  Are you eating out with friends because you’re trying to build relationships and community, or is it just that you’re feeling lazy and gluttonous so you don’t cook a cheaper, healthful meal at home?  Do you practice hard learning guitar because you want to make music (that God will find pleasing, natch), or do you do it because you’re actually prideful and want to bask in the recognition that people will shower on you for being a good musician?  These are the kinds of questions that I’ve both asked myself (well, not the guitar thing) and heard asked by other Christians who were struggling with the reprobate problem.  Everything we do might be a concession to our sin nature, so how do we go about doing anything?

Beck takes all of that anxiety and throws it out with his presentation of the Christus Victor model of salvation.

Beginning with a narrative of the conflict between Jesus and Satan as expressed by various proof-texts throughout the Bible (I think I see what Beck is doing here, trying to maintain credibility with proof-texters, but the fact that his initial point is built on a verse from a deuterocanonical book kind of undermines that effort; Protestants that are really invested in proof-texting are more likely to discount arguments based on texts that fall outside the Protestant canon), Beck demonstrates the legitimacy of a reading of the narrative of Jesus as being about his conflict with Satan and his efforts to overcome the power of death in our lives (which Satan uses as a method of dominating humanity).  This is a really different interpretation from the typical atonement theory, because it changes the problem that Christ solves from our sin nature to our mortality.  We’re no longer criminals, but victims.

If it’s not obvious by now, I like this model a lot better than any version of atonement.  A narrative where the primary thrust is liberation from death carries so much less baggage than atonement theology.  We’re not innately sinful creatures who can’t trust our own impulses.  God isn’t angry with us.  Sinfulness can be alleviated.

For people who might object to this model for diminishing the importance of Christ saving us from our sin, perhaps even eliminating the need for Christ (it follows logically that if sinfulness is predicated on the threat of mortality, then alleviating the effects of mortality will in turn diminish sin, so is Jesus even necessary at all for salvation?), I’d point out that changing sin from the root of our problem to a symptom of it doesn’t eliminate the need for salvation.  If anything, I’d say that Jesus becomes even more necessary in a death model because immortality isn’t something that’s within our grasp.  Besides that, the problem isn’t the fact that we die, but the fact that we fear dying.  Hypothetical immortality doesn’t remove that anxiety.

Anyway.

Also in this chapter, Beck addresses the question of Satan as a part of the unholy Trinity.  Because he’s going for an accessible sort of theology that will fit comfortably in either conservative or liberal thought, Beck chooses not to get into questions of the nature of Satan.  For my part, as a relatively liberal Christian, I don’t believe in Satan as a personified supernatural force, but I recognize the usefulness of the demonic metaphor to describe trends and patterns in human systems that work to aggravate our death anxiety and leave us trapped in a state of sinfulness.  It’s a good thing to keep in mind, and I’m glad that Beck addresses this question, because it’s definitely the sort of thing that would bug me if he didn’t have some kind of answer in the book (even though I read his blog regularly and I know he subscribes to a more liberal model in the vein of William Stringfellow).

I’m looking forward next time to getting into the psychology behind Beck’s model, since that’s his area of expertise.

___________

I’m blogging through this book as my participation in the book club discussion that’s happening over at The Burner Blog this month.  Check them out to get some more perspectives on The Slavery of Death.

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