Over at Evangel, I have a few thoughts on the relationship between two formulations of the atonement–propitiation and Christus victor–and how we ought understand the Gospel in light of them. I want to include both in the Gospel, even if we locate and prioritize them differently. It seems to me that while ignoring propitiation for the sake of Christus victor tends to produce the vices of the “social gospel,” ignoring Christus victor for the sake of propitiation leads to an individualized, de-socialized Gospel. The former error might be more destructive, but neither positions are right.

There are lurking issues here about the relationship between doctrines like the atonement and justification and anthropology, or how we conceive of being human. For most of us Protestants, the starting point for our reflection about these questions is the polarized relationship of Law and Gospel–as David Koyzis’ argues in a post that really should be read. For Koyzis, the question of justification leads to the subsequent question of what we are saved for. Living out a gospel-centered life means living out a properly human life.

This level of anthropological reflection is possible within Protestant theology. After all, John Calvin’s Institutes begins with a preface to the King of France and ends with a section on the political order (which, curiously enough, is included in a section entitled “The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds us Therein”). While I disagree with his notion of the political order and its relationship to the Church, that he included it in his aide to reading the Bible well suggests that his notion of the Gospel is broad enough to include questions of its implications for politics (and art, science, etc.). He is, in this sense, much closer to the medieval idea of non-coercive Christendom than most people give him credit for.

Still, I’m with Luther that legalism is a perpetual threat, and antithetical to the Gospel. But I also don’t think that it’s helpful to frame the Gospel solely as a response to the Law, as it precedes the giving of the Law in the order of salvation (I read the “gospel” as being rooted not only in creation, but in God’s promise to Abraham that through him he would “bless all the nations of the world”). In making the law our starting point, we impair our ability to properly judge the shape the Gospel is supposed to take both individually and corporately.

The early Church, we might say, introduced the Church calendar not because it was quickly succumbed to the temptations of legalism, but because humans are the sort of people who live best when they live ordered, structured, rhythmic lives. The Church understood that, if anything, it was a human church. Yet so many conversations among evangelicals about worship styles have nothing to do with the nature of music, time, eternity, and humanity, but rather are limited to preference, taste, freedom and other similar concepts. This is not to (re)start the worship wars, but to point out simply that evangelical ethical reflection is often stunted by our inattentiveness to the countours and dimensions of anthropology, and that is largely because we are quick to jump to the relationship between the Law and the freedom of the Christian. So in talking about music, we talk not about human nature, but about pragmatics and emotions.

The short version, then, is that to adequately address many of the challenges the church is facing, evangelicals need a more robust theological anthropology. But then, I’ve said as much in different ways before.

*Updated to correct a grammatical error.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I would be interested in your thoughts on the connection between a proper “theological anthropology” and one’s ability to create Christian culture. They seem inseparable to me. You mention in the post on Evangel that Christian subculture is bad while Christian culture is good. My first reaction is that this must be because Christian sub-culture is reactive, a kind of baptized secularism that is dependent on the ebbs and flows of whatever is new, while Christian culture is developed with an eye to the nature of God, man, and (lastly) society. So write about that, OK?


  2. Cate,

    Heh. What if I told you I already had? : )

    And I came to pretty much the exact same conclusion you did–except, of course, in 10 times as many words, as I do.

    Check out my brief response to John Mark’s essay here:


    Also, don’t think that I won’t repeat myself. I’m not above shamelessly quoting my own material. If Handel can do it, so can I!


  3. I have no clue as to what you are talking about but I am commenting just to see if I was registered and all that stuff. My son has to do all computer technical functions for me. At work I know how to access the programs I need and thats about it.

    Sincerely Jeff Allen


  4. Jeff,


    I’m glad you registered, but sad you’re confused. : ) Anything I can try to clarify? I confess I’m often not a model of clearheadedness–I sometimes lose people in my attempts to probe beneath the surface of things…..



  5. HI Matt, I’m sure you and your friends are very clear writers. I just need to learn the terminology. What are some basic books that can get me up to speed?
    Also I think there is a way to have new stuff pop up somewhere so you don’t have to go searching in the web site. Is that possible

    PS, I saw the article in Christianity Today. Thats where I learned about Mere Orthodoxy. I read the Christian Century at the library too. It seems to be written at a higher level. There’s alot in it that I can’t follow but it is obvious that they aren’t too comfortable with basic Christian morality. Don’t wamt to say anymore than that.

    Sincerely Jeff


  6. Jeff,

    Book recommendations are not something I’m great at, but you might try (if you haven’t) John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ,” which is a great introduction to the doctrine of the atonement.

    As for the tech stuff, we’re several years overdue for a website redesign, but currently don’t have the funds to do it. Best I can say right now is that if you look on the right, you’ll see a list of the latest comments. And new posts will always be right on the front page, mereorthodoxy.com.

    I don’t read Christian Century, but I’m intrigued by your take on it. I do like First Things and Touchstone, if you’re not familiar with them…




Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *