Anabaptism and Atonement: Thomas Finger

This from Thomas Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, 361-362, where we find one of Anabaptism’s finest theologians seeking to do justice to both the Anabaptist tradition (which he says was most centrally Christus Victor) and to the Bible, articulates his own view as follows:

What do you think of this explanation of atonement? Adequate? Sufficient? Need more?

Christus Victor conceives death as the inevitable consequence of transferring one’s ultimate allegiance from God, the source of life, to less powers who are likewise turned toward death. Since these powers are stronger than anyone, no one can avoid death on their own. Though death, or final separation from God, at bottom results from turning from the God, the powers, so to speak, actually administer it, or inflict this punishment.

Since Jesus walked the human path as God intended, he inevitably opposed the powers — but in the peaceful way consistent with it. The powers, however, ultimately operate by violence. Jesus, a true human who remained within human limitations, was weaker than they. Consequently, they inflicted violent death upon him. Because their punishment finalizes separation from God, Jesus experienced death in this sense. Did this accomplish something we could not do for ourselves?

Jesus passed alone through the horror of final separation from God, but he was raised to life by his Father through the Spirit. Consequently, when people joined to the risen Jesus are dying, this one who was crucified accompanies them. They are not abandoned to death but are finally raised to life. People under death’s dominion cannot do this for themselves.

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  • John W Frye

    Scot, at one level I’m OK with Finger’s idea, yet it seems to ignore the idea of the brokenness of we Eikons–sin’s massive inward powers.

  • This bears some similarity to J. Denny Weaver’s recent “narrative Christus Victor” theory of atonement; for him, it is axiomatic that there is no violence in God, and so there is no sense in which it is proper to say that God caused, willed, needed or brought about the death of Jesus.

    One disagreement I have with this is that this theory of atonement cannot do justice to early Christian convictions about the appropriateness of seeing in Isaiah’s Suffering Servant a picture of Christ. Part of what makes that servant imagery so powerful is that the servant’s suffering was, in some way, intended by God; in Isaiah, the servant is mocked by others because they, assuming they know God’s intentions, think that the servant’s punishment is due to disobedience or sin; the irony is that the servant’s punishment IS for sin – but for the sins of others; the servant himself is blameless.

    Two other areas of disagreement (and these relate more specifically to Finger’s account above): First, If this were an adequate account, it is difficult to fit Paul’s argumentation in Romans 1-3 (specifically 3 and God’s wrath) into it. It seems to me that we would be forced to say that Paul gives a mistaken place to God’s wrath (what it is, against what/whom it is directed, what changed these circumstances). Regardless of how you specifically understand wrath, it seems clear that it plays a central role in those passages (and elsewhere – Wright points out Rom. 8:3, in which God condemned sin in Jesus’ flesh, the force of which seems difficult to escape), and I’m not sure that this specific way of formulating Christus Victor adequately accounts for that.

    Second, a motivating factor in such formulations sometimes seems to be the need to avoid positing that God acts in any way or willed any action that could be construed as violent. I am in full agreement that Jesus was nonviolent; but doesn’t Christus Victor – especially coupled with some sort of eschatology that posits a decisive divine intervention at some point in future history – still necessitate seeing that God the Father (and Christ, if we hear Paul’s language in 1 Cor. 15 about enemies being subjugated to him) as doing something to the powers in some way that constrains, limits, and stops them in a very ultimate and epoch-altering sense? I know that there are obviously crass and inappropriate ways of talking about God’s intervention in such matters, and with regard to atonement theory specifically, but it is difficult for me to see how, if such victories are to be real and lasting, there will not be some sort of force or subjugation involved that could be construed as violent.

    I am very much in favor of awareness and appreciation for the breadth and depth of New Testament imagery used to communicate atonement, and I am not one who equates ‘penal substitution’ with ‘gospel’ by any means. But I am also in favor of accounts that attempt to do justice to the varied and sometimes startling nature of such imagery; God’s wrath is startling to us, but I cannot get away from the central place it holds in some NT discussions of atonement.

  • Dan Jones

    I haven’t read Finger, but the above concerns me in regards to the incarnation and Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity. Obviously, any talk of what happened(happens) on the cross is going to be challenged by the hypstatic union. and the dangers of sliding into modalism. This explanation of Christus Victor doesn’t acutally make Christ a victor. Instead, it makes Him weak and helpless…until the God Father raised Him…after what, allowing Him to be victimized by the ‘powers’ similar to all other humans.

    Also, this sentence here, “Though death, or final separation from God, at bottom results from turning from the God, the powers, so to speak, actually administer it, or inflict this punishment,” is confusing at best. Perhaps because it’s out of context. I find talk of ‘punishment’ related to Christus Victor very confusing.


  • Dan Jones


    I like what Scot has written recently about perception and how it might relate to God’s wrath. I believe it’s the Orthodox who do not believe in a ‘wrathful’ God but only a loving and gracious God who when acting in both loving and gracious ways toward His (whole of) creation might experience those ways as what one might perceive as wrath…depending on their personal and corporal status in regards to God.

    God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. When one dies in unrepentant or grievous sin and experiences the loving and gracious presence of the all-consuming fiery God, they experience it as wrath. When one who follows, believes, and is repentant and they die, when they find themselves before the same God, they experience it as
    gracious, loving, cleansing warmth.

    A little off topic but relevant I think to what you wrote.


  • “This explanation of Christus Victor doesn’t acutally make Christ a victor. Instead, it makes Him weak and helpless…until the God Father raised Him…after what, allowing Him to be victimized by the ‘powers’ similar to all other humans.”

    Dan, what’s so wrong with that? You mentioned a concern about the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus in Finger’s position, but it seems to me like you are more concerned about the divinity of Jesus being greater than his humanity on the cross. I have a deeply kenotic understanding of the incarnation, so that may be tainting my understanding of what you are saying.

    I personally don’t care for Finger’s explanation, though I like and agree with what he is saying. It’s confusing and dry.

  • @DJ That sounds very similar to some things you can find in Lewis, and I would be inclined to agree. I guess what I sometimes can’t square is the specific role wrath seems to play in Paul’s argumentation; it is difficult to get away from his language giving God an active role in expressing wrath, which may or may not be different than what you’re getting at, which seems to be more passive – in other words, God is one and holy, and that holiness is perceived by persons differently depending on their make-up.

    And you’re right, this is a bit beside the point. I have been convicted, though, that wrath is something I am uncomfortable with, and that I have a tendency to want to explain it away or cover it up; but that is bad when it comes to exegesis, especially if you have a strong conception of biblical authority.

    One thing I really like about Finger’s explanation (and other Christus Victor-centered explanations) is that they reaffirm the centrality of resurrection to Christ’s work in a way that seems sometimes to be lacking in other formulations. An interesting question might be whether some advocates of Christus Victor make the word ‘atonement’ refer to too much; this was something my theology professor, Graham Cole, suggests in his book on atonement. He thinks that the moment of atonement is specifically the cross, but to speak fully about God’s purposes in atonement we have to talk about God’s entire atoning project, which includes reconciliation and working through Israel and resurrection and eventual consummation / new creation. I think “re-storying” atonement along those lines might help solve some of the tensions created when some accuse others of downplaying certain images of atonement or only focusing on some to the exclusion of others.

  • Stacey Douglas

    While I appreciate what Finger has written and like it, it isn’t enough. It seems limited to one facet of Christ’s atonement and what it accomplished. There is more – much more – than this.

  • tim e

    An online article that i have really found helpful on an anabaptist view of the atonement.

    i was recently in scotland and had offered to help with university ministry there. i was kicked to the curb because i didn’t adhere exclusively to penal substitution view. i love being an anabaptist, and i was not born one, i am one by persuasion.

  • Cal

    I don’t think Christus Victor is solely the Anabaptist view. One can see Penal substition reflected in other earlier Anabaptist writings.

    I don’t see how the two are mutually exclusive. I consider the Anabaptists as being heirs to some of the major teaching of the Apostles.

  • Susan N.

    “Consequently, when people joined to the risen Jesus are dying, this one who was crucified accompanies them. They are not abandoned to death but are finally raised to life. People under death’s dominion cannot do this for themselves.”

    I haven’t read all the commentary, which upon first glance seems to concern very high level theological debate which I’m not (presently) invested in.

    I did want to comment specifically on the last three sentences. The imagery of the crucified Jesus accompanying / guiding a dying person over the threshold to what’s beyond was a blessed comfort to me during the last hours of my grandma’s life. While we sat vigil with her through a protracted final stage of dying (several hours of chain stoke breathing, non-communicative), I remember holding onto the image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, guiding my grandma and being substantially present with her. The thought of her going alone and being afraid grieved me. After she could no longer respond to or perhaps sense my presence with her, I prayed for that crucified (and risen) Jesus to stay with my grandma so that she would not be afraid. She had, in fact, previously expressed some fear of dying and what awaited her beyond this life.

    Another time, a friend had lapsed into an unresponsive state. As I prayed aloud over, with, and for her and all of us around her who desired to comfort and care for her, I, again, invoked the promise of the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep, and whose sheep know His voice.

    Jesus’ parting promise to his disciples that He would be with them/us, even to the end of the age, I take as a guarantee that even in the transition from death to whatever comes beyond, Jesus is *with* us. I truly hope that, in that most feared, unknown journey, Jesus is *most* tangibly present in the dying person’s *full* awareness.


  • I appreciated the interactions, here, between Dan Jones & Rory Tyler. Thank you, both!

  • Joshua

    Does anyone know of a could survey of the varying views on atonement (ie. Christus Victor, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, etc.)? I’d like to see them explained, compared and contrasted.

  • @Joshua Try “The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views,” edited by Beilby and Eddy.

  • Thomas Finger

    These few paragraphs were excerpted without my permission from a 34 page discussion of the Work of Jesus Christ (often called Atonement) where most of the questions & objections raised in the Comments here are treated in detail. Tho I appreciate my book being acknowledged on this site, there’s no way that so deep a subject can be adequately represented by so short an excerpt. I hope that those who are puzzled or want more information or think they disagree with me will consult the book itself.