I've been reading through Andrew Hill's NIVAC commentary on Chronicles with Sam, and I was intrigued by one of his so-called Contemporary Application sections (which in Hill's commentary sometimes stretch the boundaries of what I think the NIVAC series intends for those sections, often verging into abstract, theoretical constructs that have not much more than tangential connection with the text and not a very clear practical value). In his application of I Chronicles 18-20, a section about David's military victories, Hill spends four pages explicating the classic Christus Victor view of the atonement (literally "Christ the Conqueror"). In the process, he cites Greg Boyd's God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, which argues that the battle between God and Satan does a lot more work philosophically and theologically than most evangelicals want to allow for. I happen to think Boyd goes way too far with this by accepting that God can't predict what Satan will do and by coming a little close to a dualism that treats God and Satan as near-equals. He insists that God will win in the end but doesn't give much philosophical or theological ground for how even God knows that Satan won't win in the end, never mind for us to be assured of it. Since this is largely a response to the problem of evil, I don't think it ultimately succeeds. The most crucial element of the Christian response to the problem of evil is that God's plan contains all the details of what will happen, and even the smallest details of what will happen are included in God's perfect, sovereign plan. So I've never thought that Boyd's overall view is even good at doing the one thing that he wants most of all to achieve with it.
But on the Christus Victor issue, I think Boyd has a point (although I hope to show that his point needs to be dulled, as my brother used to say). For the record, my general view of the atonement is that most of the theories of the atonement reflect part of what the atonement accomplishes. Jesus' death surely does serve as an example for us to sacrifice ourselves in love, but that doesn't come close to expressing its main purpose. Jesus' death also provides a redemption, i.e. a buying back of those who belong to sin and death to bring them into life and into service of God rather than slavery to sin. It takes care of a legal death penalty that all fallen human beings deserve for committing the highest of all crimes, rejection of the perfect and loving creator. It removes the corruption that cannot enter God's presence and makes us holy and thus allows reconciliation with God. [A great place to investigate this subject in detail is to read Rebecca Stark's blog series The Purposes of Christ's Death.]
And yes, Boyd is right that it constitutes a conquering of all evil raised up against God, signaling victory over all God's enemies. It is thus the fulfillment of all the divine warrior imagery throughout the Hebrew scriptures, including the kind of thing said about God fighting for his people Israel, which the psalms and prophets did attribute to David's military victories. Thus it's not that much of a stretch for Hill to bring this in with a discussion of I Chronicles 18-20. But I think Boyd takes this too far, as most who emphasize just one element of the atonement do. While he doesn't make the mistake of reducing the atonement to Christus Victor, he does take it to be the fundamental purpose of the atonement, on which all the other elements are based. On that point, I can't agree.
Boyd explains the standard Protestant view that atoning for sin (perhaps alongside a few other elements of the atonement that have to do with human beings) counts as the primary purpose of the atonement. He then goes on:
I by no means want to minimize this aspect of Christ's work, for it is a profound source of freedom and joy for the believer, [sic] and is certainly deeply rooted in Scripture. At the same time, however, I cannot agree that the primary significance of the cross is found here. From the perspective of the New Testament, I maintain, the anthropological significance of Christ's death and resurrection is rooted in something more fundamental and broad that God was aiming at: to defeat once and for all his cosmic archenemy, Satan, along with the other evil powers under his dominion, and thereby to establish Christ as the legitimate ruler of the cosmos, [sic] and human beings as his legitimate viceroys upon the earth. [Boyd, p.240]
I have two problems with this. First, reversing of the logical order of God's purposes means reordering the priorities within God's desires in a way that seems to me to conflict with how the scriptures present God's motivations. If God's purpose is first of all to defeat Satan and to conquer all evil, and God's means to doing that is to achieve reconciliation with humanity, then it seems as if reconciliation with humanity, indeed even God's love for humans, is just a means to an end, the end of victory over Satan. I'm not going to go through all the places I think I can see scriptures that conflict with this, but it strikes me that God's motivation for saving people is God's love, not God's hatred of Satan. It's because of God's love for us that he hates what Satan wants to achieve in keeping us separated from God. Satan seeks to have people reject God, but the reason God doesn't like that isn't merely because it would be a victory for Satan. It's because God loves people. Boyd says the traditional Protestant view is backwards, but it seems to me that Boyd is the one who has God's motivations backwards. Ironically, John Piper, a vigorous opponent of Boyd's open theism, has a similar view to Boyd's on this issue. I've criticized Piper's version briefly here, and see Wink's more substantive post here.
The second problem is that Boyd seems to me to be left with an explanatory difficulty. If God's purpose is first of all to defeat Satan and to conquer all evil, and God's means to doing that is to achieve reconciliation with humanity, then we still need an explanation of why ransoming the lost, achieving reconciliation with God's human enemies, covering the legal death penalty of sinners, and so on amount to a victory over Satan. Keep in mind that those things aren't as good in themselves as beating Satan is, so they can't be what makes beating Satan so good.
One way to beat Satan would be to throw him into the lake of fire and be done with it, but that's not what Boyd says is going on here. He seems to think the atonement beats Satan because it does these other things that aren't God's first purpose of the atonement. God does them primarily in order to achieve victory over Satan. So beating Satan can't be just to do him in. It's got to be a specific kind of beating Satan that God cares about. But the most plausible suggestion as to the kind of victory God has over Satan is ruled out. It can't be that God's primary desire is to reconcile lost believers to himself by dealing with the penalty for sin and purchasing them from slavery to sin. Boyd has already insisted that God's primary desire is to beat Satan.
So what is it about these things that constitutes beating Satan if God's primary desire is not reconciliation, freeing people from slavery to sin, removing the death penalty, etc.? I don't think Boyd can really get his view going without either accepting the traditional view or having something unexplained about why the atonement is good. If God's primary desire is what the traditional view says, then God can beat Satan by achieving those things. But if God's primary desire is just beating Satan, it's strange to say that God does it by achieving these less important desires. If beating Satan is constituted by doing these other things, then these other things must be what God really cares about.
So in the end I'm not happy with Boyd's view of the atonement. Even if he rightly admits that there are other purposes to the atonement than Christus Victor, I think he still goes too far by taking it to be the primary purpose. I don't think you can put some of the core purposes of the atonement into a hierarchy with one as the most central. Even if you could, I don't think this would be the center.
I'm not sure he's fair to the traditional Protestant view in claiming that it does the same thing, but I'm not going to fight that point here. Surely some people have done what Boyd says the traditional view does. My point here isn't to defend the traditional picture but to point out that these are all very important aspects of what God achieved on the cross. Taking one purpose to be fundamental and the others as mere servants of the central purpose seems to me to be the result of wanting a theological system to be so systematized as to be able to put even the most basic motivations of God into a hierarchy whose details we can know. I'm not sure the God's motivations can be so easily tamed, and even if there is a correct model of that sort, why do we think we could be the ones to figure it out when there isn't any systematic presentation of such orderings in scripture?