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.