Loving In The Loser’s Club: The Gospel According To Stephen King’s IT

“A frightening possibility suddenly occurred to him: maybe sometimes things didn’t just go wrong and then stop; maybe sometimes they just kept going wronger and wronger until everything was totally fucked up.”

“OH SHIT! I BELIEVE IN ALL OF THOSE THINGS!” he shouted, and it was true: even at eleven he had observed that things turned out right a ridiculous amount of the time.”

“There was power in that music, a power which seemed to most rightfully belong to all the skinny kids, fat kids, ugly kids, shy kids—the world’s losers, in short.”

One of my favorite things about Autumn is October because, well, Halloween. I mean, Hallowen. HALLO-FREAKING-WEEN. As I wrote elsewhere, I believe Halloween can be observed in a very Christocentric manner, all month long.

My main way to observe this sacred time has been to reread through Stephen King’s masterpiece, IT, once again. I cannot rave about this book enough. If you are even vaguely interested in reading it, please for the love of everything holy and uholy, read it. Haha, get it? IT. What’s that? Puns are evil? Nah.. oh.. okay..

If you haven’t read IT and are still interested in reading this post, please check out this brief plot summary so as to make sense of this gibberish I’m conveying. However, if you’ve seen the original film adaptation, that should be sufficient. If you’ve only seen the first part of the recent remake, be aware there are spoilers ahead.

There are many themes I would love to draw out, but for the sake of brevity let’s tie some random threads together and hope we acquire something sensible! Seriously, though, this book conveys many beautiful truths: the Christocentric gospel, mimetic theory, death anxiety,  and the centrality of love (here I mean agape, not eros) in living a satisfactory life. To name a few.

The first thing I’d like to point out about this book is that Stephen King manipulates the ‘haunted house’ horror trope. He expands this common microcosm from haunted house to haunted town (ie: Derry). Pennywise doesn’t live in a house, It lives in Derry.  Pennywise appears to be an almost omnipresent being in Derry. It can appear just about anytime and anywhere. Derry is Its town – one could say It owns Derry. It influences people and events. In this way, Pennywise is symbolic of the zeitgeist of a town. Now, the dictionary definition of zeitgeist reads as such:

the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time

and while I am using it in this way, I’d like to expand a bit. The zeitgeist is not simply covering a particular period of history, although it certainly embodies that. It can also mean the cultural atmosphere of any place, period of time, or group of people . For example, here are some questions that can get at the zeitgeist of one’s workplace: how casual is one permitted to dress, what goals does one’s workplace have and how does it seek to implement them, and what are the policies for showing up early or late? In relatively simple terms, I’m referring to culture. On a smaller scale this means the culture of a house, a workplace, a family, a person (ie: one’s psyche and way of thinking). On a larger scale, this could look like a county, a state, a nation, a non-geographically connected group of people.

The thing about culture is it is very real, and many ways even tangible, but it is often overlooked. People live in it, and often follow its mandates, without consciously thinking, “I’m obeying the rules of my culture.” Those who don’t obey get punished whether most explicitly via prison, mental asylums, or social stigmatization. Most people do not go through life self-examining themselves to choose what they want to consciously absorb and meld into and what they don’t. People just go with the flow.

Some, though, consciously follow the rules for fear of being cast out. They may theoretically disagree with an aspect of their culture, but we live in the postmodern age, and who knows what the hell is right…right? Let’s just do this thing, or go with this motion – why stir the pot and be looked down upon?

This is Pennywise. It manipulates Derry through apathetic ignorance and fear, just like the zeitgeist. Pennywise is simultaneously Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann. It is in-your-face evil, but It is also the type of evil that apathetically pushes papers and blindly follows orders, irregardless of compassion and empathy.  It is not mere malice, it is willful ignorance, which, I would argue, is just as heinous.

“I started after him…and the clown looked back. I saw Its eyes, and all at
once I understood who It was.”
“Who was it, Don?” Harold Gardner asked softly.
It was Derry,” Don Hagarty said. “It was this town.”

See, almost all of the residents of Derry ignore Its presence. It is implied they are all very well aware of It, but they refuse to really acknowledge It, think about It, talk about It. They quite literally just live with It. But they can’t just ignore the mass murder of children. They have to put the blame on someone or something, even if that blame is not directly or consciously related to the initial problem. In other words, the people of Derry conjure up some form of scapegoat.

This sort of thing plays out everyday in a multitude of ways. On a microcosmic scale, imagine a father having a terribly stressful day at work, not dealing with the problem directly and consciously, but instead taking out his frustrations on his unassuming child. The child becomes the scapegoat for something unrelated to him, and the father’s stress may be relieved (sort of…not to speak of the guilt that should come from within). On a macrocosmic scale, one need only look at the current state of American politics – we have two generalized political bodies blaming the other for seemingly every problem in the nation state. It’s scapegoating on a broader scale.

More specifically I am referring to the Mimetic Theory proposed by Rene Girard. If you are unfamiliar, please read here. Briefly, the scapegoat functions as the guilty person/party, whether directly involved with the issue at hand or not. The scapegoat may be a person of blemish, embarrassment, quirkiness, etc… they just have to be an easy target which the larger body of people can unify against. In Christian theology, the scapegoat is Jesus Christ. On a practical, socio-politic-historical level, the political powers of His day (ie: Caesar) and the religious authorities (ie: the Pharisees, Sadducees, etc…) used Jesus’ crucifixion as a means to unify the people in the midst of political and religious crisis. On a theological metanarrative level, the Trinitarian God lets humanity kill Him in order that His love may be known, and the absurdity of violence and vengeance is shown. In other words, Jesus Christ functions as the scapegoat for humanity’s own self-inflicted harm. However, unlike other scapegoats, the victimization of Jesus Christ leads to the eventual end of violence and the absolution of sin, therefore ending the need for a scapegoat mechanism.

Now, in Stephen King It, the scapegoat just happens to be The Loser’s Club. As stated above, this scapegoat process is hardly conscious. There isn’t the clear and coherent thought: “We have to ignore Pennywise, but deal with this problem. Let’s indirectly take out our frustrations and qualms with the inhumane aspects of our zeitgeist (personified in Pennywise) on these weird kids.” I’d like to point out, as well, that The Loser’s Club may not be the only scapegoats. Because the narrative is centralized around this group of people, they are the scapegoats given, but that does not mean they are the only people of blemish in Derry. For example, King writes that Derry is extremely hostile to the LGBTQ+ population. This group of people are also scapegoats in Derry’s zeitgeist.

The Loser’s Club consists of a ragtag band of outcast kids who all have some sort of turmoil or social abnormality that makes them just not quite…right. These social quirks make them easy targets. Many would consider them to be a curse – but it is these very oddities that bring The Loser’s Club together in the first place. They bond over them, gain the strength to face Pennywise, and learn to love themselves and each other in the process. (Blessed are the persecuted.) The Loser’s Club comes together over their own insecurities and abnormalities to form a community. This community is guided by the gentle voice of the Turtle. The Turtle appears to be an omniscient Being of benevolence. The Turtle occasionally steps in to guide and assist The Loser’s Club toward agape love and victory of evil personified. The Turtle represents the Trinity, especially the Holy Spirit.

In Christian theology, the Holy Spirit guides humanity toward truth, holiness, and love. The Turtle in It does the same, and while I think this comparison is the biggest stretch I provide in this analysis, I still think it works. Some Christians may argue it is a bit blasphemous because the emphasis in the narrative is obviously on the power of love as found in The Loser’s Club and the Turtle is only in the background helping out. The kid’s do not explicitly worship the Turtle, and care far more about loving those around them. But that’s just it – Christ himself calls the Church his body, and therefore any true agape love found in the Church is also the love of Christ manifested on Earth.

Which leads me to my next point: The Loser’s Club is the Church. Now, you may be thinking, “hold on a minute. You’re comparing the scapegoat, outcast, loser group with one of the most powerful religions in the history of mankind?” but just bear with me a second. I do not in any way mean the powerful church, lower case c. I mean the Church, capital C.

Okay, that probably doesn’t clear things up all that much. I’m sorry. What I mean is that I believe the Church is always powerless. If the Church has political power or privilege, it is not the Church, just some piece-o-shit sham. In fact, that church is Pennywise. A modern day example: Pennywise embodies many aspects of the American Evangelical Church movement. This movement, culture, zeitgeist, is full of middle/upper class, white privileged, cisgender, powerful men and blindly submissive women that knowingly (or often more common: willfully and blindly) use their power to oppress many groups of people and spit in the face of Christ. Now, I’m not saying that if you or someone you know considers themselves to be an Evangelical in America that they (or you) are equivalent with Pennywise. But I’m definitely saying there is some truth to the claim that, by and large, American Evangelicalism is heinous, blasphemous, and evil.

Before you flip and get pissed at my statement, I’m not saying that other forms of Christianity aren’t evil, either. I’m pinpointing a group of people I myself am a part of. I’m not singling it out to, well.. scapegoat it. I’m using American Evangelicalism as an example because I am well acquainted with it, and feel more comfortable critiquing my own circle than another’s.

But what does this mean for the real Church? The real Church is, according to the precepts of the ‘world,’ powerless. It is all those Christians who consciously attempt non-conformance to the evils found in the institution of Christianity. It is those who refuse to simply go through the motions to make themselves feel better – to numb themselves with the opiate of the masses, as Marx so eloquently put it. Those actively working against the principalities and powers of the zeitgeist – they are Its explicit enemies. But they don’t work against people, they work for people, all people, seeking the reconciliation of everyone.

The real Church is often oppressed, sometimes willfully so. Oppressed not by “happy holidays,” or some non-existent Islamic overlord, but by choosing to live with the oppressed. The real Church works to end the oppression of peoples everywhere, all the while taking residence with them, if the oppressed are so willing to accept them into their community. The real Church gives up its power to become one with the powerless. The real Church is a co-suffering Loser’s Club. And just like the Loser’s Club, the real Church flips the principalities and powers on their head to reveal it holds true Power, thanks to the co-suffering love given by the Trinity.

The Loser’s Club overcomes the evil of Pennywise twice. The first time is while the members are children. During this period they defeat It, but don’t kill It. However, they hope it is over and finished. They promise each other if It ever comes back, they will reunite and fight It again. Almost 30 years pass, and It resurfaces as strong as ever. They reunite and fight It, of course succeeding because, c’mon, all you need is (co-suffering) love.

All this is sweet and thematic, but the thing I’d really like to point out here is the 30 year gap. King tells us that The Loser’s Club almost completely forget about It as they ‘mature’ into adulthood. Only one original member stays in Derry, and while he does his best to remember and stay vigilant, he eventually forgets. The perspectives of all members as adults are shown to us one by one. Some of them appear content while others appear discontent. All of them are comfortable though – even those in abusive relationships. They are comfortable in what they know, or refuse to admit. But none of them remember any of the others, and life has completely moved on.

Until Pennywise’s activity is made aware to Mike by the Turtle. Once Mike remembers he reluctantly phones each of them. The individual club members are forced out of apathy to confront the zeitgeist, to confront the true way the world works. It wrecks one of them, driving him to the point of suicide. He simply couldn’t deal with the difficult journey of non-conformity.  The rest forcibly move out of the comfort of their blind stagnant lives, and decide to face the current.

But for about 30 freaking years they conformed. They grew into the adults society told them they should be. Self-absorbed, afraid, loveless (agape-less). Despite a very explicit face-to-face victory against evil incarnate, they succumbed to blind ignorance. They assumed one battle, one victory was enough. But that’s not how the zeitgeist works. Evil is paradoxically constant and malleable. As soon as it is conquered (if it ever truly is this side of life), it manifests itself anew. This is why political revolutions just never work. The Church always trips up here. It justifiably stops to celebrate a victory, but quickly gets lost in said victory and loses focus. It quickly conforms to the status quo and trots forward.

Herein lies one of the most important lessons of King’s masterpiece: as a unified group, we are able to maintain our focus. We are able to encourage each other to keep moving, to stay the course. Separated, we become weaker, the temptation toward apathy grows stronger, and we lose sight of everything we once strove for. Agape becomes impossible if we are isolated – there is no one to love.

The other important bit we cannot forget lest our undoing ensue is found in a simple quote from It:

“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”

The point is we are all, always, a little bit apathetic, a little bit compassionate. A little bit evil, a little bit good. One may outweigh the other at a given point in time, but we are ever-moving creatures, always growing, always changing. We are nuanced and beautiful, even at our worst. The person you have demonized as evil is still a person, there is still some good in there somewhere. The person you have glorified as divine is still a person, there is still some evil in there somewhere.

In the novel, people are not the problem that must be overcome. The evil is Pennywise. As stated above, Pennywise is the zeitgeist incarnate. Evil manifested. One must work to lovingly change and challenge the cultural zeitgeist of one’s place. One must fight those things, not people. Love people. Our enemies are institutions, principalities, cultures. Our enemy is Pennywise. Not the people It manipulates. People are always precious. No nuance about that.

While King himself may not agree with this interpretation, and while I have taken some liberties, this shows only a fraction of why I love this piece of literature so friggin’ much.  It’s the gospel in horror narrative form. Many Christians I know find it to be abhorrent, find horror and Halloween to be abhorrent. They’re missing out.

Perhaps they’re too blind to see that

“…God favors drunks, small children, and the cataclysmically stoned…”

 

Peace be unto you this spooky season. May you learn to overcome the ego and the fear of death so as to truly live a life in and for Love. ❤

A Perfect Cocktail of Disgusting Lies!: Matthew Distefano’s “Heretic!”

What Distefano shares with us in his new book, out April 1, is not heretical – it is, on the contrary, welcoming. Welcoming to those Evangelical Christianity has often shunned.

Attending a Conservative Christian university while visiting about one hundred urban churches after having grown up in the conservative Midwest, I have been well acquainted with the dominant manifestations of North American Evangelical Christianity.

I have found it wanting.

My relationship with it still exists, largely due to my introvert personality and general lack of verbally sharing what I truly believe with my conservative peers which make up a significant portion of my circle. One must pick their battles.

That said, Matthew Distefano’s newest book, Heretic! An LGBTQ-Affirming, Diving-Violence Denying, Christian Universalist’s Response to Some of Evangelical Christianity’s Most Pressing Concerns, resonates with me, as I believe it does an ever-increasing number of, for lack of better term, Post-Evangelicals. As the mouthful-of-a-title makes clear, it tackles some of the most heated topics among Evangelical Christians in the North American context with some tongue-in-cheek humor and signature Distefano wit to boot. Also, take the Parental Advisory warning seriously – Distefano uses some, ahem, colorful language.

Now, if you’re an Evangelical Christian, you may be thinking, “Universalism?? LGBTQ?? God as totally and wholistically nonviolent? Are you on pot? (A topic which Distefano has covered elsewhere) Of course he’s a heretic!” Except you’d be wrong, at least according to Christian tradition. Distefano still adheres to the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds (which were largely influenced by theologians who believe a variety of things that Distefano proposes in his book). The term heretic, historically, is less referring to what someone believes within the Christian tradition, and more about being divisive – someone who tears a community apart, often intentionally so.

For example, when an Evangelical church shuns a practicing homosexual – that congregation is being heretical, according to historical definition. When churches separate over minute doctrinal differences such as full or partial immersive baptism. Protestantism is about the most heretical manifestation of Christianity in the 2,000 year history of the religion – it just can’t agree on anything.

What Distefano shares with us in his new book, out April 1, is not heretical – it is, on the contrary, welcoming. Welcoming to those Evangelical Christianity has often shunned: those who refuse to believe that God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is an abusive father who wants to torment 99% of the human population forever, to those who don’t maintain heterosexual relations or feelings, to those who believe violence is a never-ending self-perpetuating cycle. It seeks to cultivate community, not divide it. As far as I can tell, Distefano is even inviting those whom disagree with him to participate – if they can do so without themselves being divisive.

If you’re interested, Distefano’s book officially releases April 1, 2018. For the entire month of April, the Kindle edition will be 99 cents and all proceeds will go to the Preemptive Love Coalition. Check it out!

Distefano was kind enough to send a signed copy of Heretic! to me himself. Of course, I gave a donation to him in return. Being a shunned theologian certainly does not pay the bills very well!

Visit Matthew Distefano’s website!

Suffering: A Test Of Theological Method – A Review

Arthur C. McGill was a brilliant man who is unfortunately barely known in mainstream “progressive” post-Evangelical circles. His name is probably less known than that of William Stringfellow, which, unfortunately, is also not a common name thrown around these days. McGill was a theologian writing most prolifically in the 1960s and 1970s, with a flavour many post-Evangelicals could fit into their palate. What follows is a (short) review of his (short) book, Suffering: A Test Of Theological Method.

(The original review can be found on my Goodreads page here.)

This is a short little theological work, but quite an enjoyable one.
McGill first starts off with the problem of suffering and violence by defining both of them (suggesting that violence and suffering can only exist because of a deeper ontological truth behind humanity and all of creation: we are all extremely needy), and suggesting that because of human neediness, suffering is entirely unavoidable and to be expected, ESPECIALLY as a disciple of Christ (for which reasoning he will explain more fully throughout the book in his explanations of the nature of love as self-expending and the world trying to persecute the true life found in God) in only a few pages of the first chapter. This is, generally, the most one hears of violence/suffering for chapters to come, as McGill has to set a theological precedent before he can explain his thoughts on suffering in a couple short chapters toward the end of the book. From here, he then discusses theological method (a Christocentric one at that), a discussion of the “demonic” and evil forces that extend outside of individual sin and human responsibility, a discussion of the nature of God and God’s power (one of self-expenditure and service rather than one of domination and oppression), the nature of God’s inner self by comparing Arius and Athanasius (ie: Trinitarian theology), the victory of Christ over the previously mentioned demonic/evil forces, death and false identities, an anthropological/theological working of human need through the lens of his Christocentric hermeneutic and by appealing to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (in a way I’d never interacted with before, which was a major paradigm shift in my own theology), proffering practical outcomes of trying to live out the self-expending agape love of Christ and how the “world” will misinterpret one’s actions (just as they did with Christ) all the while vying for the importance of what he calls “Christian sorrow”, and finally concluding with a postscript on theological method, in which he refuses to give a step-by-step method of theological analysis/creative thinking, but at the same time, offers vague guidelines. At the very end, he suggests questions that his work raises – questions that somewhat seem to suggest his own work isn’t credible – which only goes to show his drive for pursuing nuance and wanting to get people to truly pursue the real Person of Christ – not a theological method coined by an academic who needs to churn out a novel doctoral thesis.

John Chrysostom on Being Freed From the Slavery of Death

Our main issue of being human is one of mortality, not morality. Are we moral beings? Yes. But we make immoral choices because we are inherently mortal. The fear and vulnerability (our anxieties) of our own mortality produces our sin. Sin, therefore, is a symptom, not the root issue. Take away the fear of death, show us that we can be resurrected, and we have no reason to be unloving any longer. The devil no longer has a foothold.41H

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” ~ Hebrews 2:14-15

Christus Victor!

“He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying…[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed ‘man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,” [Job 2:4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to him ‘who counteth not even his life dear,’ says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24].
Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?”

Excerpt from Homily IV of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews.

Atonement Through History – A Brief Survey – Part Six: Nonviolent Atonement

“In 2001, just one year after the turn of the century, J. Denny Weaver published his groundbreaking work, The Nonviolent Atonement, in which he sought to display a contemporary model of the Christus Victor view of the atonement that differs from the classic view in many important ways, and deals with a number of issues not usually included in the discussion of atonement. The working assumption in development of this model is that the rejection of violence, whether the direct violence of the sword or the systemic violence of racism or sexism, should be visible in expressions in Christology and atonement, (Weaver 7) and also criticizes the satisfaction theory of atonement because it “is founded on violent assumptions (Weaver 7).” The work was seemingly widely accepted by the Mennonite and Anabaptist communities, of which Weaver is a part, but generally rejected by other mainline denominational communities and traditions, most likely due to the fact many denominations don’t support nonviolence.

Weaver offers numerous criticisms of the satisfaction theory of atonement, as well as other mainstream views, but one of his most notable criticisms is that of the church’s rise to power after Constantine’s legalization of Christianity (Weaver 82). Weaver writes,

The early church’s feelings about harassment, estrangement, and potential extinction, which are visible in Revelation, reflected its lack of legal standing in the empire and the potential for hostile actions by imperial authority against the church. In this pre-Constantinian context, it was the beleaguered church that represented divine providence or God’s working in the world, and this church clearly stood over against the empire. Church confronted empire. The church was uncomfortable with the structures around it. (Weaver 82)

What Weaver is suggesting is the church was originally diametrically opposed to political and social power, and associated such things with bondage and tyranny. However, once Constantine, or more accurately, Theodotius, helped usher in the companionship between the church and empire, the pacifism of the early church quickly diminished.

Rather than posing a contrast or a challenge to the social order, church officials could not use imperial structures as allies if political authorities sided with the particular officials on the issue in question…the church no longer confronted empire and society; instead, the church supported and was supported – established – by the empire. (Weaver 83)

Weaver sees this as one of the greatest tragedies in church history, and as a major influence on a lot of Christian theology up to contemporary times.

Weaver calls for a re-interpretation, or a returning to old interpretation, of the narrative of Scripture, and therefore the meaning of Christ’s life and death. Weaver states,

the cause of Jesus’ death is obviously not God…rather, in narrative Christus Victor the Son is carrying out the Father’s will by making the reign of God visible in the world – and that mission is so threatening to the world that sinful human beings and the accumulation of evil they represent conspire to kill Jesus…Jesus came not to die but to live…While he may have known that carrying out [his] mission would provoke inevitably fatal opposition, his purpose was not to get himself killed. Many stories of missionaries or of parents saving their children – situations in which people faced death willingly and were killed but without willing to die – supply analogies to help us understand how Jesus’ death could be inevitable but still not sought by Jesus nor willed by God. (Weaver 211)

Weaver concludes with, “[Jesus’] saving life shows how the reign of God confronts evil, and is thus our model for confronting injustice (212).” For Weaver, the atonement is not only about confronting evil, but also about discipleship – how a follower of Christ is called to emulate the most extreme agape love imaginable; towards humanity and God.

Given the fact that the 20th century was quite possibly the most horrific century mankind has ever seen on a global scale, it only makes sense that at the turn of the century, there grew a call for a nonviolent understanding of Christ’s life and death. It is a sort of response to the earthquake of injustice every generation hereafter, due to the tumultuous aftershocks, will forever have imbedded into their consciousness.”

—-

For a complete bibliography, please see part one of this series.

Atonement Through History – A Brief Survey – Part Four: Holy Sonnets

“John Donne, a famous Anglican pastor and secular and religious poet who lived 1571-1631, is probably most notable for his collection of sonnets simply called, Holy Sonnets, which has also been called Divine Meditations or Divine Sonnets. Written just before the period of the civil war, it wasn’t until the 20th century that Donne’s work began to gain acclaim. Before that time, he was only popular, extremely popular, among a small circle of fans (PoetryFoundation.com). Nonetheless, his work is full of rich theological insight, as well as deep, heartfelt love.

Depending on which edition one reads, the collection contains either 12 sonnets in the earlier edition, or 19 in the latter. The sonnet examined here is number 11 in the early edition, and 15 in the latter. In this sonnet, Donne emphasizes that Christ’s incarnation and death are in opposition to Satan: what Satan took from God, Christ legitimately purchased back (McGrath 307). This is seen most clearly when he writes, “And, as a robed man, which by search doth find…His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again: The Son of glory came down, and was slain, Us whom he had made, and Satan stole, to unbind. ‘Twas much, that man was made like God before, But, that God should be made like man, much more (John Donne 285).” This echoes that of the ransom theory mentioned previously: that Jesus’ motivation was to save his Father’s precious humanity from the bondage of evil Satan, not to appease an angry God. McGrath notes that Donne’s views of Christ’s work on the cross are a fair example of contemporary Anglican theology of Donne’s time (McGrath 307).”

For a complete bibliography, please see part 1 of my Atonement Through History series.

Atonement Through History – A Brief Survey – Part Three: Reformation

“During the period of time known as the Renaissance, the Christian religion began undergoing its own sort of renaissance, or Reformation, as it is properly called. Without going into a lot of the history behind the Reformation, one notable piece of it was The Institutes Of The Christian Religion, written by the famous, or depending on who one talks to, infamous, John Calvin. There are two editions Calvin wrote during his life time, the 1536 edition, which is a mere 200 or so pages in length, and the 1559 edition, which is roughly 1,500 pages in length (The-Highway.com). The first edition consisted of six rather short chapters. Calvin did not believe this was comprehensive enough, so proceeded to write a much more detailed work, which was the 1559 edition (The-Highway.com). Both editions are highly personable, and Calvin converses with the reader as if he is writing to him or her directly. He almost always directly associates himself with the reader, as if he is writing to his own brother in Christ (The-Highway.com). Although this can be a bit comforting for the reader, it has led to some difficulties in interpretation of his work amongst fans and scholars alike.

Nonetheless, it is fairly well agreed upon that in the Institutes, Calvin builds on Anselm and Aquinas’ satisfaction theory of atonement, and creates what is known to modern theologians as the “penal substitution theory.” This is most easily understood when it is divided up into three key categories: Actual Remission, Salvation For The Elect Alone, and For Whom Did Christ Intend To Die? (The-Highway.com). The first of these topics, Actual Remission, will be the emphasis of discussion, for the sake of brevity. Calvin wrote repeatedly about Christ’s appeasement of God’s wrath, satisfying divine justice, and satisfying (similar to the language used by Anselm and Aquinas) the penalty and suffering due man. What Calvin means, then, by “actual remission” is that when someone is atoned for by Christ, they’re sins have literally been remitted by his death (The-Highway.com). Calvin’s view of the atonement portrays a God who is angry at mankind for their sinfulness, and is unable to procure Himself to give mercy until He is appeased. This lawful transaction between Father God and Son Jesus Christ makes sense, given that Calvin was building upon Anselm and Aquinas’ theories, and he was also a law student who viewed the world through a legal framework (Biography.com).

The Socinians, a group of heretics that originated during the Reformation, wrote the Racovian Catechism, which is in stark contrast and opposition to Calvin’s Institutes. The Catechism was originally published in Polish in 1605 in the city of Racow, which is where it gets its name (McGrath 305). The edition that is most widely quoted from today in discussion is the 1818 English edition translated by Thomas Rees (McGrath 305). The Socinians, offered a very rationalist view of the atonement, which in some forms, still exist among Evangelical conversation today (McGrath 305). The Catechism argued that God was completely capable of forgiving humanity without having to kill Christ. It was wholeheartedly against the idea that Christ’s sacrifice was a sort of divine appeasement or satisfaction, which is clearly seen in this quote,

Did not Christ die also, in order, properly speaking, to purchase our salvation, and literally to pay the debt of our sins? Although Christians at this time commonly so believe, yet this notion is false, erroneous, and exceedingly pernicious; since they conceive that Christ suffered an equivalent punishment for our sins, and by the price of his obedience exactly compensated our disobedience.” (Racovian Catechism 1818 303-304)

The Catechism also criticized Calvin for his views, because they believed that Scripture was silent on the matter, and that such theologians were stringing together inferences that were not rational, and also believed Calvin and his peers were not defining the terms “mercy” and “justice,” in regard to God’s characteristics, correctly(Racovian Catechism 1818 304-305). The death of Christ, therefore, was a form of revealing God’s love for mankind, to compel him toward God, just as prior views espoused (McGrath 306). Thus, the Racovian Catechism still managed to portray a God that was holy, just, and merciful, but without having to commit divine suicide to appease Himself. The Socinians didn’t leave much a mark during their own day, but during the Enlightenment, straight into the 19th century, their view was brought into mainstream conversation, considering how well it lines up with Enlightenment thought (Aulen 3).”

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For a bibliography, please see part one of this series.

Atonement Through History – A Brief Survey – Part Two: Why God Became Man

“There are two major atonement theologies in the Middle Ages. The first of these is quite famous and originates from Anselm of Canterbury, who is probably most notable for his Ontological Argument for the existence of God. However, for this intent and purpose, Anselm is also known for offering the view of the atonement known as “the satisfaction theory,” which first appears in his work Why God Became Man. Before understanding Anselm’s satisfaction theory, one must understand Anselm’s culture. Anselm lived in a day and age where feudal systems ruled. This meant that overlords provided protection for serfs, which provided food and services for their lords. As Gregg R. Allison points out,

In this feudal system, restitution of honor was a key concept. If a serf dishonored his lord by stealing ten chickens, for example, the satisfactory solution to this problem was not merely restoration of what had been stolen – ten chickens. Satisfaction demanded a payment that went beyond what was due, so the serf owed, say, fifteen chickens to his lord. Anselm picked up on this concept of satisfaction and viewed the solution to human sin in the same light [in his theory of atonement]. (Allison 395)

Therefore, the feudal system that which Anselm lived in helps explain why Anselm would write this in regard to the atonement,

Therefore, everyone who sins is under an obligation to repay to God the honor which he has violently taken from him, and this is the satisfaction which every sinner is obliged to give to God…it is [not] fitting for God to forgive as in out of mercy alone, without any restitution of the honor taken away from him…it is a necessary consequence, therefore, that either the honor which has been taken away should be repaid, or punishment should follow. (Anselm 283)

To Anselm, not restoring God’s honor is impossible, so he started to focus on a satisfaction – a means to which to restore God’s honor. Through a long chain of reason, mostly consisting of human beings not being able to restore God’s honor due to their own imperfections, and the necessity of humans ironically having to be the ones to restore honor to God, Anselm arrives at the paradox of needing a God-man to restore God’s honor. From here, Anselm proposes that Jesus Christ is the only one in history who is able to offer satisfaction to God for humanity’s dishonoring of God. Thus, the crucifixion of Christ is the sufficient satisfaction that Christ himself willingly offered to God. The development of satisfaction theory of the atonement, then, makes sense given its historical socio-political context.

However, another theologian proffered just as solid an understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection, Peter Abelard, in his work Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans. A notable outspoken critic of Anselm, he sought to correct what he thought were misunderstandings of the atonement. His “moral influence theory” of the atonement was his response to the “satisfaction theory” of Anselm. His theory stated in its simplest form, “The purpose and cause of the incarnation [and therefore the atonement] was that he [Christ] might illuminate the world by his wisdom and excite it to the love of himself.” (Allison 397) The point here is not that God’s honor need restored, but that humanity needed their love for God stimulated into action by an act of love by God. This act of love is the incarnation and willing murder by God’s own creation. God allowed humanity to inflict all their wrath and fear on Christ, in order to realize there is truly nothing to fear, as Abelard writes, “our redemption is that supreme love shown in our case by the passion of Christ which not only liberates from slavery to sin, but [also] wins for us the true liberty of the sons of God, so that we may fulfill all things from love rather than from fear.” (McDonald 175) The point here is the fear of death and judgment is removed in order that the choice to love God and fellow man may be freely chosen. In essence, Christ lived and died as an example of God’s immense love, which propels the human heart to live like Christ. This has caused many modern scholars to believe that he rejected all other views of the atonement, as seen in Allison’s summary of Abelard, “he rejected both of the prevalent theories of his time – the ransom to Satan theory and Anselm’s satisfaction view.” (Allison 397) However, McGrath, would beg to differ when he writes in response to a passage of Abelard’s, “This passage is of especial importance in that it demonstrates Abelard’s awareness of the importance of the interior impact of the love of God for individuals, but should not be taken to imply that he therefore denied other ideas.” (McGrath 300; emphasis mine) McGrath believes that Abelard was a proponent of both the moral influence theory, and the ransom theory, mentioned earlier in writing about the patristic church fathers, as both views are compatible. That said, Abelard’s moral influence theory is a bit curious, given that it is not a byproduct of the feudal system of his day – in fact, it is a cultural oddity; an outlier of sorts, similar to the risen Christ. Abelard was a man before his time, as will be seen later, his theory will be ripe for the liberal Enlightenment theologians.”


For the bibliography of this post, please see part one in my Atonement Through History series.

Atonement Through History – A Brief Survey – Part One: Muscipula Diaboli, Crux Domini; Esca Qua Caperetur, Mors Domini

One of my final projects for the past Spring semester was a 20 page paper on how various theologians throughout church history have viewed Christ’s atonement. I’d like to share sections from it as a series to introduce to you – the dear reader – that the penal substitution theory of atonement isn’t the only view in existence, and that, Christ’s death, and resurrection, is quite a bit more deep than simply paying for our sins.

Let us start with some of the earliest church fathers.

“Irenaeus of Lyons, who lived approximately from 130-200 AD, is most famous for his work, Adversus Haereses, or, Against Heresies. This work was written in the second half of the second century (Early Christian Writings), and in it, Irenaeus proposes that the death of Christ is to be understood as a ransom to Satan, who held humanity in captivity since the Fall. This is seen most emphatically when he says, “Thus the powerful [Christ] and true human being, ransoming us by his own blood in a rational manner, gave himself as a ransom for those who have been led into captivity.” (Irenaeus V.i.1) He goes on to say, “Rather, it was appropriate that God should obtain what he wished through persuasion, not by the use of force, so that the principles of justice might not be infringed, and, at the same time, that God’s original creation might not perish.” (Irenaeus V.i.1) It’s rather self-explanatory: Iranaeus denies the idea that God used any sort of violence or force to save humanity from the bondage of Satan, but instead used a form of lovely persuasion. Irenaeus seems to view justice as inseparable from mercy; the two go hand in hand. The emphasis for him is not on God’s wrath, but on being prisoners of war to Satan.

Moving forward to the fourth century, one finds a famous anonymous work that cannot be dated with any specificity, minus being dated sometime in the fourth century (McGrath 291). McGrath calls it “An anonymous paschal homily inspired by the Treatise on the Passion of Hippolytus.” It views the cross, and therefore Christ’s death and resurrection, or the atonement, as set against a cosmic backdrop, suggesting that what Christ accomplished on the cross doesn’t just affect humanity, but the whole universe. Anonymous writes, “It is fixed, as an eternal growth, at the midpoint of heaven and earth. It sustains all things as the support of the universe, the base of the whole inhabited world, and the axis of the earth.” (McGrath 291) To this author, the cross is the glue that holds the universe together. Without the crucifixion happening at some point in history, followed by the resurrection, the universe would most likely collapse in ruin. The Writer continues, “By its peak which touches the height of the heavens, by its base which supports the earth, and by its immense arms subduing the many spirits of the air on every side, it exists in its totality in everything and in every place.” (McGrath 291) In essence, the atonement is the end all be all of Christian theology. It is the center piece of all the Scriptures. The important point in all of this is that the cross’s effects are not limited to humanity, but affect all of creation.

Also in the fourth century was Rufinus of Aquieia (345-410 AD), another huge influence on atonement theology, who wrote, Exposito Symboli 14. Rufinus viewed the atonement in a similar fashion to Iranaeus. He wrote,

[The purpose of the incarnation] was that the divine virtue of the Son of God might be like a kind of hook hidden beneath the form of human flesh…to lure on the prince of this world to a contest; that the Son might offer him his human flesh as a bait and that the divinity which lay underneath might catch him and hold him fast with its hook. (Rufinus of Aquileia 151)

Basically, Rufinus was a proponent of what has come to be known as the “fish-hook,” or “mousetrap,” view of atonement. Christ’s death and resurrection was a trap set for Satan, because Satan had humanity so far in bondage that God could not redeem them any other way than by tricking the ultimate trickster. Rufinus continues, “The gates of hell were broken, and he was, as it were, drawn up from the pit, to become food for others.” (Rufinus of Aquileia 152) Satan was tricked into thinking Jesus was merely a human, and was therefore trapped by his divinity. It should be noted that this view came under a lot of criticism due to the questionable moral portrayal of God implied by it. The idea that God would deceive, or lie, even to Satan, was too scandalous and seemingly hypocritical to be widely accepted.

The final patristic era church father that will be mentioned is the famous Augustine of Hippo. Augustine rarely addresses the topic of atonement in his writings, but touched on it frequently in his sermons (McGrath 294). He generally supported the “fish-hook” view that Rufinus purported in his writings. This is seen in one of his oft-quoted sermons, where he said,

The devil was conquered by his own trophy of victory. The devil jumped for joy, when he seduced the first man, and cast him down to death. By seducing the first man, he killed him; by killing the last man, he lost the first from his snare…The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; and by the very death of Christ the devil was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap…The Lord’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord. (McGrath 295)

For Augustine, the seduction of the first man was the Fall of humanity, and the death of the last man was the crucifixion of Christ. The devil thought he won, but in reality, was tricked by God, and lost everything. It is interesting that Augustine, who is considered by many theologians to be one of the solid foundations for modern theology, held such a criticized view of the atonement. The final line of the previous quote is famous in its original Latin form: “Muscipula diabolic, crux Domini; esca qua caperetur, mors Domini.” The Latin word “muscipula” literally means a “fly-trap,” which is where a lot of the “fish-hook” and “mousetrap” analogies come from for this view of the atonement (McGrath 295).”

There you have it – an extremely brief simplification of atonement theology in the first few centuries of the church. Things get more complex and drawn out as time moves along. The early church fathers didn’t focus immensely on Christ’s death and resurrection, as they were focused on other important theological matters at the time.

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Also, just so I have all my sources up beforehand, here are my citations:

Bibliography

Allison, Gregg R., and Wayne A. Grudem. Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine: A Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

Anselm, Jasper Hopkins, and Herbert Richardson. Anselm of Canterbury. the Incarnation of the Word: Why God Became a Man: The Virgin Conception and Original Sin: The Procession of the Holy Spirit: Three Letters on the Sacraments. Toronto: Edward Mellen, 1976. Print.

Baker, Mark D. Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. Print.

Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <http://www.biography.com/people/john-calvin-9235788&gt;.

Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <http://www.biography.com/people/cs-lewis-9380969#teaching-career-and-wartime-broadcasts&gt;.

Donne, John, and John Davy. HAYWARD. John Donne … Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. Edited by John Hayward. London: Nonesuch Press; New York: Random House, 1932., n.d. Print.

“Irenaeus of Lyons.” Irenaeus of Lyons. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/irenaeus.html&gt;.

Irénée, Louis Doutreleau, François Sagnard, Adelin Rousseau, Bertrand Hemmerdinger, and Charles Mercier. Contre Les Hérésies: Édition Critique D’après Les Versions Arménienne Et Latine. Paris: Ed. Du Cerf, 1979. Print.

“John Calvin’s Position on the Atonement” by Paul Helm.” “John Calvin’s Position on the Atonement” by Paul Helm. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <http://www.the-highway.com/articleJuly02.html&gt;.

“John Donne.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-donne#poet&gt;.

Lewis, C. S. Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe MOVIE-TIE-IN. N.p.: HarperCollins Canada, 2005. Print.

McDonald, H. D. The Atonement of the Death of Christ: In Faith, Revelation, and History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985. Print.

McGrath, Alister E. The Christian Theology Reader. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Rees, Thomas. The Racovian Catechism: With Notes and Illustrations, Translated from the Latin ; to Which Is Prefixed a Sketch of the History of Unitarianism in Poland and the Adjacent Countries. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1818. Print.

Rufinus of Aquileia. Expositio Symboli 14. 1961 ed. Vol. 20. Brepols: Turnholt, 1961. Print. Corpus Christianorum: Ser. Latina.

Shultz, Gary Lee. A Multi-intentioned View of the Extent of the Atonement. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2013. Print.

Weaver, J. Denny. The Nonviolent Atonement. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001. Print.

Wesley, John, Robert Wallace. Burtner, and Robert Eugene. Chiles. A Compend of Wesley’s Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 1954. Print.