Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Atonement, Violence and the Will of God: A Sympathetic Response to J. Denny Weaver's the Nonviolent Atonement

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Atonement, Violence and the Will of God: A Sympathetic Response to J. Denny Weaver's the Nonviolent Atonement

Article excerpt

Abstract: In the past generation, criticism of "satisfaction" theologies of atonement has grown in intensity, especially among feminist, womanist and black theologians. Mennonite theologian J.

Denny Weaver has recently added his voice to this chorus of criticism, arguing that satisfaction atonement theology "depends on divinely sanctioned violence that follows from the assumption that doing justice means to punish." In its place Weaver proposes a new, nonviolent model of atonement called "narrative Christus Victor," which takes the nonviolence of Jesus as its starting point.

This article sympathetically reviews Weaver's proposal, then seeks to measure it against the witness of the New Testament. It argues that Weaver is correct in rejecting the violent presuppositions of satisfaction atonement, but wrong in concluding that Jesus' violent death was neither willed by God nor essential to the work of salvation.


Exposure to the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has been one of the most formative influences on my Christian life. My encounter with Anabaptism began with reading key books by Mennonite authors during my student days in New Zealand in the early 1970s. It developed during my four years of doctoral research in Britain in the early 1980s, when my wife and I were members of the London Mennonite Fellowship. It was deepened further by sabbatical leaves at Mennonite institutions in the United States in the early, and then again in the late, 1990s. And throughout the past 25 years it has been continually enriched by fellowship with Mennonite friends and scholars around the world. (1)

From my contact with the Anabaptist tradition, I have come to believe that a commitment to nonviolence is an essential feature of Christian discipleship. At first I saw a peace commitment largely in connection with questions of war and militarism. It is a commitment to forswear lethal violence because it is incompatible with the worship of a crucified God. But I have since learned that violence is systemic and institutionalized, not just episodic and personal. Violence is arguably the primary social manifestation of sin (cf. Gen 4:1-16, 23-25; 6:11); it is all-pervasive in human experience. It shapes the way we view the world and influences how we exercise moral and theological discernment.

Those who take seriously Jesus' call to nonviolence must learn to read the Bible, do theology and think about God in light of this basic commitment, which is by no means easy. The Bible itself is full of violence, much of it ascribed directly to God. Also, the long history of Christian theological interpretation has been affected by the Church's profound compromise with violence, both in sanctioning the violence of the State and also in authorizing violence in pursuit of its own interests. This compromise has rested upon, and has strongly reinforced, a view of God as a violent and punitive deity who gets his own way--whether in the short term, through crusade or inquisition, or in the long term, through eschatological judgment and everlasting torment--by use of overwhelming coercion.

Such a God is increasingly hard for people to believe in. Many people today prefer atheism or agnosticism or some vague form of pantheism to the violent deity of traditional religion. And who can blame them, especially in these days when violence fueled by religious fundamentalism is on the upsurge around the world. In such circumstances, atheism may be the morally better choice. "When persons take leave of God," Clark Pinnock reminds us, "we need to ask what sort of God did they take leave of?" (2) Surely it is better not to believe in God than to believe in a violent God who bullies, hurts and humiliates people for his own ends. Given that religiously sanctioned violence puts the very existence and character of God in the balance, it is incumbent on Christian believers to think carefully about how our hermeneutics, our theological method and our vision of God have been conditioned more by Christendom's longstanding accommodation to violence than by conformity to the revelation of God we see embodied in Jesus. …

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