J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).
Reviewed by Telford Work in Theology Today 59:3 (October 2002), 510-513.
A century ago soteriological battles mainly pitted Anselmians against Abelardians. Gustav Aulén's Christus Victor changed all that, returning an overlooked school to the fray. A newer dynamic has been the problem of divine violence. Both developments come together in J. Denny Weaver's The Nonviolent Atonement.
Weaver's principal theological allies are peace church, black, feminist, and womanist theologians who object to any sanctification of "divine violence." His principal theological opponent is the tradition of satisfaction according to Anselm, Luther, and Calvin, because it implicates God in acts of violence, abets further violence in God's name, and subdues its victims. His "narrative Christus victor" vision of atonement exonerates God from the violence of the cross. Weaver refines and intensifies the themes of classic Christus victor theory by paying attention not merely to Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection but to his entire career as a nonviolent confrontation and conquest of the powers of sin and death (96). Weaver develops narrative Christus victor in terms of the theologies of Revelation, the Gospels, Paul, and Hebrews, argues for its potential to solve lingering problems in black, feminist, and womanist theology, and brings it into conversation with "neo-Anselmians."
Weaver, a Mennonite who teaches religion at Bluffton College in Ohio, is on solid ground in affirming Jesus' ethic, response to persecutors, resurrection, and present reign as nonviolent means of reconciliation. His narrative and apocalyptic focus rehabilitates the fundamentals of classic Christus victor atonement, while addressing weaknesses (such as a neglect of Jesus' pre-passion career). Through a careful reading of Anselm he also soundly criticizes popular distortions of satisfaction and penal substitution which sometimes caricature earlier, healthier versions. Some of his critiques of satisfaction are cheap shots (for instance, the charge that it puts atonement "completely outside history," 69 and "says nothing about a transformed life" in response, 79), but many are well placed. These are substantial contributions.
Weaver's denials of all divine violence (widely defined to include racism, sexism, poverty, psychological harm, and even damage to self-esteem, 8) are less convincing. He works from the assumption that Christology and atonement must reject violence, substitutionary or not (7). This causes him to ignore critical themes in both the Old and New Testaments. One senses that God not only refuses to punish Jesus, but refuses to punish anyone (225). All human suffering from sin seems self-inflicted (221). Is this the same heavenly father Jesus likens to a king who tortures the unforgiving (Matt 18:34-35)? Just because the Law (and Gospel) have been twisted to curse innocents does not mean that they never justly curse the guilty.
Weaver's selectivity can be jarring. In appealing to Lev 16's scapegoat ritual on the Day of Atonement, Weaver ignores the bloody scenes on both sides of it, in order to make the astonishing claim that "for the most serious and comprehensive sins, blood is not involved" (60). Weaver cites Heb 10:1-18 but not 10:19-31. Isaiah's Suffering Servant, who pervades the New Testament, is passed over as is Passover itself. Weaver blames the continuing theological power of retributive justice on Constantinianism and punitive Western and American structures of justice, but contrary biblical evidence is a more significant explanation for it, and for the appeal of something like satisfaction theory from as early as Athanasius (not just Anselm!) through today.
Weaver is right that neglecting the apocalyptic Jewish narrative context for Jesus' crucifixion has indeed led to abusive soteriologies. Indeed, his approach suggests a way to rehabilitate legal visions of atonement by broadening their focus from the singular moment of crucifixion forwards to resurrection and return, and backwards to the ministry that begins in a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins and ends in a show trial. Following John Stott, Jonathan Wilson calls sacrifice "the key to [Jesus'] victory and the substance of his example." The context of a life offered up in "obedience even unto death" on behalf of the guilty as well as the innocent can restore soteriology to health. And since vengeance belongs only to God, respecting divine violence endorses neither Christian violence nor passivity in the face of oppression.
If something like representative or substitutionary sacrifice remains the Church's way of explaining why we mortal sinners are not condemned along with the defeated powers of sin, then a transformed narrative account of it might still find a place alongside narrative Christus Victor and other visions of Jesus' reconciling career as, really, they often have in a grander vision of Jesus' multifaceted work on behalf of his creation.