Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement: The Nonviolent Atonement (Part 4)

All this week, The Search for Piety and Obedience has been focused on the topic of the atonement. We’re getting ready for Saturday’s conference, “Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement,” sponsored by the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College.

On Monday, we got our bearings on the conference by learning about the presenters and their approaches to the notion of atonement.

On Tuesday, we asked (and tried to answer) the question, “What is atonement?

Yesterday, we offered a brief (but by no means comprehensive) outline of the historical Brethren in Christ perspectives on the atonement.

Today, we take up a divisive and controversial topic in contemporary Christian theology: the nonviolent atonement. (At Saturday’s conference, Messiah College philosopher Robin Collins — an expert on the idea of nonviolent atonement — will deliver a lecture on this topic.)

So what is nonviolent atonement?

The concept of nonviolent atonement originated in Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver’s 2001 book, The Nonviolent Atonement. Here’s a publisher’s blurb on the book:

Evangelical Christians sing hymns in which blood figures prominently; one in particular is called “Nothing But the Blood.” Such Christians may have to change their tune after reading J. Denny Weaver’s The Non-Violent Atonement, which proposes that the idea of “satisfaction atonement” must be jettisoned in favor of a nonviolent approach. Jesus’ death, says Weaver, was not planned or sanctioned by God the Father; it was the inevitable result of sinful humans taking matters into their own hands. Perhaps the new hymn can be called “Everything But the Blood”?

Perhaps you can tell right away why Weaver’s new theological paradigm might strike some evangelicals as controversial. In the main, it discards centuries of atonement theology — the idea of “satisfaction atonement” as articulated by Anselm, Luther, and Calvin, among others — for a different paradigm that runs counter to the way that Western Christianity has commonly thought of atonement. (Here’s where the reference to “Nothing But the Blood” seems most important.) It makes a provocative (some might say heretical) claim about the nature of God: that God did not plan or sanction Christ’s death on the cross, but that it occurred as “the inevitable result of sinful humans taking matters into their own hands.” And it emphasizes nonviolence as a critical component of Christian atonement theology — something uncommon in previous historical and contemporary atonement theologies, and an idea not too popular in some evangelical circles.

Is there anything good about Weaver’s atonement paradigm — anything non-controversial? Here’s a bit more on the book and the theology, courtesy of theologian Telford Work’s review in Theology Today:

Weaver’s principal theological allies are peace church, black, feminist, and womanist theologians who object to any sanctification of “divine violence.” His principal theological opponent is the tradition of satisfaction according to Anselm, Luther, and Calvin, because it implicates God in acts of violence, abets further violence in God’s name, and subdues its victims. His “narrative Christus victor” vision of atonement exonerates God from the violence of the cross. Weaver refines and intensifies the themes of classic Christus victor theory by paying attention not merely to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection but to his entire career as a nonviolent confrontation and conquest of the powers of sin and death (96). Weaver develops narrative Christus victor in terms of the theologies of Revelation, the Gospels, Paul, and Hebrews, argues for its potential to solve lingering problems in black, feminist, and womanist theology, and brings it into conversation with “neo-Anselmians.”

The emphasis above is mine — I think this is an interesting, compelling, and not-that-controversial component of Weaver’s paradigm. Evangelical Christians of the past, by and large, have focused more on Jesus’ death than on His life. (This, some would say, is a difference between revivalist evangelicals and Anabaptists.) By placing a renewed focus on Jesus’ atoning work while he was alive, Weaver seeks (as far as I can tell) to revive attention to the great and important work of Christ for many years prior to the crucifixion.

Can’t we, as Brethren in Christ who read the Bible through the life and work of Christ and who seek to pattern our lives on His life, see at least some value in such a notion? It seems to me that, for us Brethren in Christ, Jesus’ life was just as important as His death.

Having not read Weaver’s book or done much thinking about the topic before now, I’m hesitant to draw too many conclusions. I’ll be interested to see what Robin Collins has to say on the topic on Saturday.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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2 Responses to Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement: The Nonviolent Atonement (Part 4)

  1. David Byer says:

    Devin, the Telford Work paragraph above is from the introduction to his review of the book. It is important to read Work’s entire review. He start his critique in the next paragraph:

    “Weaver’s denials of all divine violence (widely defined to include racism, sexism, poverty, psychological harm, and even damage to self-esteem, 8) are less convincing. He works from the assumption that Christology and atonement must reject violence, substitutionary or not (7). This causes him to ignore critical themes in both the Old and New Testaments. One senses that God not only refuses to punish Jesus, but refuses to punish anyone (225). All human suffering from sin seems self-inflicted (221). Is this the same heavenly father Jesus likens to a king who tortures the unforgiving (Matt 18:34-35)? Just because the Law (and Gospel) have been twisted to curse innocents does not mean that they never justly curse the guilty.”

    So the Crucifixion was not part of the Divine plan? I don’t think so.

    David E Byer

    • Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

      David: Great point! I am hoping in tomorrow’s post to explore some of the problematic aspects of the nonviolent atonement theory, and Work’s review is a great start to that.

      His words, I think, situate this book in a larger discussion in contemporary theology about the nature of God. A question might be posed this way, “Can a holy God use a phenomenon as unholy as violence to accomplish divine purposes?” Proponents of both “yes” and “no” answers could, I suspect, find scripture to support their conclusions.

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