The victory of suffering love

I recently came across this very good talk from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (author of several well-regarded books on Eastern Orthodox Christianity) on “Salvation in Christ.”

Metropolitan Ware offers four questions we should ask when evaluating any proposed model of the Atonement:

  1. Does it envisage a change in God or us?
  2. Does it separate Christ from the Father?
  3. Does it isolate the Cross from the Incarnation and Resurrection?
  4. Does it presuppose an objective or subjective understanding of Christ’s work?

The first question is intended to rule out theories that seem to imply that God’s essential nature or attitude toward us is somehow changed by the work of Christ (e.g., from wrathful to gracious), rather than changing our situation before God. The second is aimed at models that portray the wills or dispositions of Christ and God the Father as somehow at odds. The third emphasizes the importance of holding together Christ’s entire life, death and resurrection as a salvific event. And the fourth posits that the Atonement accomplishes an objective change in the human situation, not just a subjective effect on our attitudes (though the objective and subjective are both essential aspects: As St. Augustine said, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us”).

Met. Ware then considers multiple motifs/models/theories and evaluates how they stack up against these questions. These include what he calls the “exchange” model (the patristic theme that Christ became human so that we might partake of the divine nature), as well as ransom, sacrifice, Christus Victor and loving example. He has something good to say about most of them, suitably understood, although he is highly critical of variants of the sacrificial motif which imply that Jesus’ death was necessary to appease or propitiate God’s wrath. It’s scriptural to say that Christ was our substitute. The emphasis, however, should be that Christ does something for us that we could not do for ourselves. Christ dies “on our behalf” rather than “instead of us.”

One interesting move he makes is to defend the “exemplarist” account (often associated with Peter Abelard) against the common criticism that it reduces Christ to an inspiring example we have to imitate under our own power. This seems to minimize the extent to which sin holds us in its grip and our need of a savior, threatening to lapse into Pelagianism.

However, Ware contends that “this criticism totally misconceives the scope and dynamism of love. “Love is an objective, creative power, not just a subjective feeling. It doesn’t simply provide an example to imitate, but actually effects a change in us. “By loving others we change them. We change the world in which they live.” Thus the subjective/objective distinction collapses.

He goes on to suggest that the example model can be fruitfully combined with a “demilitarized” version of Christus Victor. Christ’s victory is precisely the victory of suffering love. In living out his life of self-giving love, obedient to the point of death, Jesus is unbowed by the powers that would seek to turn him to hatred and violence. In the Resurrection, the power of this love is revealed as stronger than all the “dark things” in the universe and in us. This act of creative, transforming love sets us free.

I haven’t remotely done justice here to the wisdom and warmth in this presentation. If you’re interested in this topic, it’s well worth your time.


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