The Work and Ministry of Christ in an Anthropological Perspective

By Rutschman, Laverne | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Work and Ministry of Christ in an Anthropological Perspective


Rutschman, Laverne, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Behold, I make all things new. (Rev. 21:5)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. (Jn. 3:16)

Where there is a Christian, there is a new humanity. The old has passed away. Behold, something new exists. (2 Cor. 5:17)

The history of Christian thought records many theological responses to the questions relating to the meaning of the work and ministry of Christ. Each response reflects some aspect of the dominant thought or social patterns of the historical context in which it was presented. The classical Christus Victor motif includes, among other emphases, that of ransom that spoke to people especially during the early centuries in the face of the conflict between barbarianism and civilization, a period when travelers were often abducted. It dominated much of Christian thinking until the time of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). His contribution, the "satisfaction theory," spoke to a feudal society. He taught that human sin in the face of a righteous God demands either punishment--that is, eternal separation from God--or satisfaction that would enable God to overlook human sin. Only human beings should make satisfaction, but only God is able to do so. In his great classical work Cur Deus Homo, Anselm resolved this tension within the godhead by involving both the divine and the human in the atoning work of Christ. As the God-Man, Christ through his vicarious suffering and death made satisfaction possible.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142), whose view of the atonement has traditionally been described as subjective, considered the contemplation of the cross adequate to bring about repentance and the transformation of human life. The Christus Victor motif was contextualized by the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen as Christ's victory over the many destructive powers that enslave human beings. (1) J. Denny Weaver has reread the Christus Victor concept with emphasis on its narrative nonviolent aspect in which the death of Jesus is not a divine requirement. (2) For the Socinians (Faustus Socinius, 1539-1604) and other anti-trinitarian humanists, the complex of ideas that speaks of the work of Christ in terms of satisfaction made invalid the gospel of love and divine forgiveness. They, along with other rationalists and more recent liberal theologians, preferred something more subjective, not unlike that of Abelard. The "moral influence" concept, promoted in the United States by Horace Bushnell (1802-76), is an example.

All of these concepts find some basis in biblical teaching, but in their classical form they do not satisfy all biblical criteria and do not speak to us adequately today. In an article in The Christian Century (March 7, 2001), S. Mark Heim observed that many people simply do not buy any concept of atonement relating to the cross.

Jesus is often seen as an itinerant teacher and healer with a message of liberation from oppression and ignorance. Although most Christians would not be satisfied with a pre-Easter faith, it is sobering that it is embraced, consciously or unconsciously, by so many. Despite all, we continue to celebrate Holy Week. Our churches are identified with the symbol of the cross. Cross and faith are inseparable. However, we find it increasingly difficult to speak of the cross in a way that evokes a positive response today from a growing number of people.

There is, however, another approach to the understanding of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that speaks to us in our context. It provides background material for the classical theories described above that have informed theology through the centuries. In Latin America, theologians often speak of the reservoir of meaning found in a given biblical text that allows us to approach the Bible with the assurance that it will address our situation. The added meaning found in a given text does not necessarily invalidate past meanings revealed in very different historical situations. …

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