Pilgram Marpeck and the Christus Victor Motif

By Finger, Thomas | Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Pilgram Marpeck and the Christus Victor Motif


Finger, Thomas, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: The Christus Victor model of atonement is attracting great interest among contemporary theologians, including Anabaptists. This article proposes that Pilgram Marpeck's thoughts on atonement were generally congruent with Christus Victor, as classically expressed by Irenaeus and early Eastern Orthodoxy. Since Marpeck never presented these thoughts in a systematic fashion, this article examines his views of creation, sin, Jesus' life and teachings, his death and descent into hell, the resurrection and ascension, Christ's present reign, and the relationship between atonement and the powers. It concludes by summarizing the implications of Marpeck's perspective for current theology.

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To the surprise of many theologians, interest in the atonement has revived over the last few decades. As far back as the 1930s, discussion of this theme seemed to have reached an impasse, and to be destined for obscurity. At that time, most of conservative Christianity had long accepted a substitutionary model of atonement, first rendered precise by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). The substitutionary understanding, very broadly stated, identified the main barrier separating humanity from God with human violation of God's law, which incurred God's penalty of eternal death. Jesus removed that obstacle by substituting his death for ours, thereby paying that penalty, and also by substituting his obedient life for our disobedience, earning the reward of eternal life. Many "liberal" Christians, however, had long championed a moral influence model, traceable to Peter Abelard (1079-1142). For them, separation from God resulted from moral immaturity and failure to live in accord with God's Kingdom, which was dawning on earth. Jesus removed this barrier to God by the transforming impact of his death and, even more, the transforming power of his life. Both Jesus" life and death revealed God's way and God's love. (1)

By 1930 much theological conservatism in North America had hardened into fundamentalism. Fundamentalist theologians continued to affirm the substitutionary model, but largely vacated the theological arena. Liberals, on the other hand, kept emphasizing Jesus' teachings, but made few connections to atonement. Unexpectedly, however, in that very year Gustav Aulen, a Swedish theologian, proposed that a third model of the atonement, long dominant in Eastern Christianity, was as genuinely theological as the other two. In this paradigm, which he named Christus Victor, demonic forces--sin, death, "principalities and powers'--formed the main barrier between humans and God. (2) During his life, Jesus struggled against them. But the powers instigated Jesus' crucifixion, whereby they apparently defeated him and reasserted their rule over humankind. Through the resurrection, however, Jesus triumphed over these powers and reconnected humans with God.

Since these notions had long sounded mythological to Western ears, its theology, Aulen argued, had largely neglected Christus Victor. The scientific twentieth century might have followed suit had not World War II erupted. In the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the notion that malevolent forces twist and pervert relations among nations and persons, spawning countless forms of sin, began to sound strangely plausible. Then, in the 1970s, various liberation theologies began unmasking the role of massive, systemic and purposive socioeconomic and psychic forces in oppressing whole civilizations and classes. The Christus Victor model became increasingly thinkable, and theology's interest in atonement revived. (3)

As Anabaptist-Mennonites entered higher education during the course of the twentieth century and encountered formal theology, most unreflectively accepted the substitutionary model of atonement. During the 1960s, questions about this model occasionally surfaced, sometimes reflecting moral influence concerns. (4) But not until the early 1980s did comprehensive theologies, self-consciously framed in an Anabaptist perspective, emerge.

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