In this session we focus on the first of the theories from the previous discussion which characterises our redemption through Christ in terms of liberation. At its core: Christ in his crucifixion identifies with us and shares our suffering; in his Resurrection Christ is victorious over all the powers that oppress us. The connotations this liberation has as a victory won by your leader in battle makes it rather different from moksha– an equivalent of salvation found in Indic religion which is usually translated as ‘liberation’, but means one’s individual release from the cycle of rebirth.
In Gustaf Aulén’s 1931 book Christus Victor he argued that this theory was held universally among Christian theologians until the end of the 11th century. But even this one theory has been interpreted in various ways. The question is the nature of Christ’s victory and how is it achieved. The questions we discussed were:
- In what ways does it make sense to think of salvation as liberation?
- How does Jesus liberate us?
In the early Catholic Church, Christ’s liberation was understood to be a victory over the demonic powers which humankind had become subject to through the Fall. Because Jesus described himself as “a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) Origen (185-254) suggested that Jesus’ death was a ransom paid to devil. This suggestion, however, was rejected because it would require the devil to exercise power over God. (Note also that the reality of a personal devil -needed if there is going to be such a transaction- has never been proclaimed a dogma of the church.)
To account for this problem, Pope Saint Gregory the Great used the image of a baited hook to explain that because Christ -as divine- cannot be held captive, the devil was tricked into giving up his hold over sinful humanity: “The bait tempts in order that the hook may wound. Our Lord therefore, when coming for the redemption of humanity, made a kind of hook of himself for the death of the devil.” This idea seems to be expressed in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, (and perhaps also in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,) but this was not an interpretation that came across in our discussion.
At the end of the 11th century St. Anselm of Canterbury devised the first formal substitutionary theory of redemption (developing on remarks made by earlier theologians, particularly St. Augustine of Hippo). This approach which focuses on the satisfaction of God’s justice became the predominate way of understanding the crucifixion as a transaction. Reference to demonic powers declined but this theory did not become dominant in Catholic circles; many resisted the simplification of the mystery of the cross involved in presenting it as a transaction.
A somewhat vaguer approach remained popular, particularly since Peter Abelard in 12th century gave new life to the third of the three theories from the previous article. This particularly because Abelard’s particular interpretation (commonly called the moral influence theory but which Aulén terms the subjective view in contrast to the objective view of Gregory) easily blended with the idea of Christ as liberator. While Anselm’s approach was developed into penal substitution (theory two from the previous article) by John Calvin and consequently became the default view among many Protestants, many other Protestants accept variants of the liberation and moral influence theories.
These approaches are the sort that came up in our discussion, that:
We gain release through knowing what Jesus has already been through.
As the incarnation of God, Jesus provides a route to prayer- allowing us to access God. This alleviates our daily concerns, tapping into the bigger picture.
Jesus shows us how humans should be: sharing food and conversation with sinners and other outcasts. This is liberation through others- relationships and communities of faith.
Jesus critiques bad religion and vindicates our anger at injustice and shares our doubts.
Jesus challenges endless systems of violence and retribution with forgiveness, and guides our practise.
3) Lastly, we have the Liberation Theology tradition. Although this is not a theory of what happens at the crucifixion but a more general school of thought in theology, as an application of the Gospel to politics it is largely inspired by the above theory, particularly the final point. This article dispels the prevalent misconception that this tradition has died since being ‘condemned’ by Pope Benedict XVI. In fact all that happened was that small number of theologians of this school were censured by the Catholic church for presenting Marxism as Christianity, but as the most famous figure of the movement, the South American martyr Bishop Oscar Romero said: “Every form of liberation, whether social, political or economic, which fails to reach the depths of this liberation from sin or to scale the heights of the grace of divine adoption, is not genuine Christian redemption.”