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Spring 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 1 · pp. 28–40 

Confessing Jesus Christ from the “Margins”

J. Denny Weaver

With reference to Christian history, whether of Europe or North America, Mennonites have appeared on the margins. In the larger story of the sixteenth-century Reformation, their story seems less significant than that of the “great reformers” Martin Luther and John Calvin. In accounts of religion in North America, Mennonites rarely rate attention beyond footnote references or inclusion in lists of “other” small groups after the larger and important groups have been treated. The stories in Martyrs Mirror, the accounts of Mennonite pacifists harassed during several American wars (as told in the volumes of the series “Mennonites in America”), speaking German, and wearing “plain” clothing all contributed to this marginalization that was sometimes forced on Mennonites and sometimes chosen by them.

Adopting models of the atonement from other traditions has marginalized what is central to Mennonite theology.


That apparent marginalization has spilled over into theology as well. With some notable exceptions, Mennonite theologians have had only secondary roles in theological conversations about supposed mainstream or general theology that applies to all Christians. The corollary is that what theology Mennonites did produce served primarily the needs of the Mennonites on the presumed margins. The marginal quality of Mennonite theology appears in a more profound way in the assumption that most Mennonite theologians share with theologians from the supposed “mainstream,” namely that when discussing the classic issues (such as {29} Christology and atonement), theology for Mennonites should develop out of the classic creeds and formulas of western, European Christendom. As a relatively new and very small group, it is assumed, Mennonites will have little or nothing to contribute to general discussions of Christology and atonement.

This perceived marginality of theology for Mennonites is actually a backhanded way to anoint another tradition as the authority. To understand theology for Mennonites as marginal or as necessarily linked to a foundation located in some other tradition is to declare the other entity to be more true or authentic; and it means that our credibility as believing people comes through association with that supposedly more authentic mainstream.

Names denote the perceived marginal character of a theological perspective. Attaching a specifying name, such as “Mennonite” or “black,” appears to mean that the perspectives in view have little relevance either for each other or for the mainstream whose existence defines them both as marginal.

But appearances can be deceiving. I want to explain why neither black theology nor Mennonite theology is really marginal, and why black theology is not only relevant for Mennonites, but can in fact make a very important contribution to the future of Mennonite churches as peace churches.

The supposedly marginal Mennonite tradition professes to believe that following Jesus produces a community of disciples in visible contrast to the world, and that rejection of the sword is integral to the teaching and life of Jesus who forms the community. These beliefs provide a different perspective on the classic formulas than that found in the standard books on the history of doctrine.


The benchmark Christological formulas of Christendom came from the councils of Nicaea (325 C.E.) and Chalcedon (451 C.E.). Nicaea proclaimed Jesus as “one substance with the Father,” and Chalcedon added that Jesus was both “truly God and truly man.” These formulas are not wrong in and of themselves, if one is asking the questions that they answer. However, Jesus identified only in the abstract categories of “man” and “God” cannot be followed. These formulas lack reference to the particularity of Jesus that appears in the New Testament’s narrative. Most specifically, these formulas denote Jesus apart from his rejection of the sword and teaching about love of enemies. Identifying Jesus in terms of abstract categories of humanity and deity allows one to claim Jesus {30} without acknowledging and being shaped by the life and teaching of Jesus. These formulas do not give shape to the peaceable community that poses a contrast to the world. In effect, they marginalize ethics from Christological understanding, or provide the space for an approach to ethics which expresses convictions that do not stem from the particularity of Jesus.

Similar observations and conclusions apply to the several versions of satisfaction atonement which developed from its first full articulation in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? (1098). Some version of satisfaction has been the prevailing atonement image since the medieval church. The satisfaction atonement image understands the problem of sinful humanity as being unable to satisfy the debt owed to God. In Anselm’s version, Christ as man offered his death to satisfy the debt owed to God by humankind, while at the same time Christ as deity satisfied the debt since only God himself could do so. For Anselm, Christ’s death thus explained the necessity of Jesus as God and man. For later Protestantism, Christ’s death bore the penalty of sin which a wrathful God required of sinners. 1

In either version, Christ’s death satisfies a requirement established by God, and the sinner who accepts Jesus’ death escapes the debt owed or the penalty deserved and is thus reconciled to God. In either case, atonement consists of an abstract, legal transaction between God and the sinner, which takes place outside of history, and without reference to the particularity of Jesus except for his sinless death. It results in the sinner’s salvation, but does not change the ongoing life of the saved individual.

Abelard (1079-1142) proposed what has come to be called the moral influence theory, which most books on the history of doctrine consider an alternative to the satisfaction theory. In the moral theory, the death of Jesus responds to the distorted image sinners have of God. They perceive God more as a harsh Judge than a loving Father. When the Father gives his Son to die, the death of Jesus then demonstrates God’s supreme love for sinners, who consequently cease rebelling and turn toward God when God’s love is perceived. Although more intrinsically inclined toward an ethical dimension than the satisfaction theory, the moral influence motif still focuses on the death of Jesus and it fails to make use of any particular aspect of the life or teaching of Jesus.

As a general rule, atonement images or theories can be classified in three families of doctrines. Tracking the object of the death of Jesus helps to identify motifs that belong to the same family as well as making clear that the families really do differ from each other. Two of these families of motifs consist of the variations of satisfaction and penal {31} substitution identified with Anselm, and variants of the moral theory identified first with Abelard. Among the versions of the satisfaction theory, the object of Jesus’ death is either an offended God or the penalty required by the divine law. For the moral influence theory, sinful humankind—and their distorted moral perception in particular—is the object of Jesus’ death. Discussion of the third family of atonement doctrines follows below. 2


Like the Christological formulas, these atonement formulations symbolized by Anselm and Abelard allow one to claim salvation in Christ while neglecting or rejecting Jesus’ teaching and example on the sword. Emperor Constantine, who declared Christianity a legal religion of the Roman empire in 313 C.E., is a symbol of the early church’s change to accommodate the sword and of the rise of Christianity as the favored religion of the empire. The marginalization of the particularity of Jesus from the formulas of Christology is reflected, I believe, in the fact that although their origins were earlier, these formulations emerged as the prevailing consensus statements in the church of Constantine (and later) which was fast becoming the state church. 3 It was from that church that Anselm’s formula for salvation and Abelard’s alternative emerged.

I object to Christendom’s assumption that the characteristics which should shape theology for Mennonites as a peace church are marginal to the gospel. On the contrary, it is intrinsic to the gospel—the good news—about Jesus Christ that following Jesus produces a community of disciples in visible contrast to the world. Rejection of the sword is likewise integral to the teaching and life of Jesus who forms this community. Mennonites ought not allow the superior numbers of Christendom to tell them what is central or marginal to Jesus’ gospel.

With respect to the issues about the normativity of Jesus and a visible, witnessing, peaceful community, it is really Christendom’s theology which is marginal to the story of Jesus and to the good news about life in Christ. Acquiescing to build a theology for Mennonites as a peace church upon the classic creeds and formulas of Christendom is to enlist a foundation which has already made peace church assumptions marginal.


As an alternative to Christendom’s foundation, I suggest that our peace church construction of Christology and atonement might begin with a revised version of the atonement motif known as “Christus Victor.” Its several variants comprise the third family of atonement theories. {32} One version envisions a cosmic battle between the forces of God and the forces of evil, which held captive the souls of humankind. Although Satan killed Jesus, the reign of God triumphed through the resurrection of Jesus, and souls were freed from Satan’s clutches.

Another version made Jesus’ death a ransom payment to Satan in exchange for the human souls he held captive. Again Jesus’ resurrection defeated Satan and freed humankind. The resurrection victory provides the most common name of this family of images, namely “Christus Victor.” In Christus Victor, the object of Jesus’ death is quite obviously Satan. Christus Victor was the prevalent atonement motif in the early church. It regained visibility in the twentieth century through Gustav Aulén’s study, Christus Victor, first presented as lectures in 1930. 4

My reconstruction of Christus Victor is anchored at both ends of the New Testament. It is important to acknowledge this biblical foundation, and then its relationship to the specific ecclesiology of the early church. These points contrast with the conventional depiction of the motif, which consists almost entirely of cosmic imagery. Aulén made neither the biblical nor the ecclesiological connection that I show in what follows.

The symbolism contained within the book of Revelation shows a multifaceted statement of Christus Victor imagery. The symbols of Revelation refer to first-century figures and events as well as to the Old Testament. For example, the seven-headed dragon with seven crowns and ten horns is a transparent reference to Rome, which according to legend was built on seven hills. The seven crowns and ten horns represent the seven crowned emperors and three pretenders (for a total of ten emperors and pretenders) between the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and the date of the book’s composition. Such historical antecedents make clear that the confrontation of the reign of God and the reign of Satan has occurred in the historical arena. It was understood to involve Jesus Christ and his church (the earthly manifestation of the reign of God) in a struggle with the Roman empire (the earthly representative of all that is not under the rule of God). 5

At the other end of the New Testament, the Gospels depict the same confrontation between the representative of the rule of God, namely Jesus, and everything and everyone that is not under the rule of God. These reconstructions of what I call a historicized Christus Victor also constitute a narrative Christology that needs the particularity of Jesus. It is this particularity that shows how God’s rule confronts evil and that reveals the nature of God’s reign in history. To be reconciled to God—to be saved—means to become part of that story of the reign of God, made {33} visible by Jesus, that stretches from creation to the eschaton. Since Jesus makes present the rule of God, it is indisputably clear that God’s rule confronts evil nonviolently.

This story is about God’s grace to sinners. On their own, they are helpless before the reign of evil, and it is God’s grace that catches them up and calls them into God’s reign. It is also a story of human responsibility since it is the lives of believing people who make visible and testify to the reality of the reign of God in the world. Our participation in this story clearly fits Paul’s words, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).

The image of Christus Victor gradually died out after Constantine. When the church became the state church and came to embrace the world rather than witness to it, an atonement image of confrontation between reign of God and reign of Satan no longer made sense. It was replaced by the atonement image developed by Anselm. But it is the recovered and reconstructed Christus Victor, I contend, rather than the now-prevalent Anselmian atonement, which is best suited to express a modern peace-church shaped understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. 6


I had made such observations and had an early concept of their implications in mind before I encountered black theology in a systematic way a few years ago. 7 But having these ideas in mind made it a startling experience to read God of the Oppressed, written by James Cone, the “father” of black theology. 8 In some form, every point just made about a supposedly marginal theology for Mennonites is also identifiable in the development of Cone’s theology.

African-Americans have occupied a marginal location in North America—brought here against their will, forced to live in slavery, and still marginalized and worse by the majority white society after the Civil War supposedly resolved the slavery problem. That marginal social location gave African-Americans a different view of the classic theology of European Christendom.

If slaves became Christians, they did not accept the proffered Christianity outright. When the white owners read the Bible aloud, they stressed “Slaves, obey your masters,” and said that a future home in heaven depended on obedience to earthly masters. Behind that warning was a theology that depicted Jesus as a spiritual savior who delivered {34} people from sin and guilt but did not say anything about conditions in this world. This spiritual salvation could be offered to slaves by owners without challenging the master-slave relationship, and offered to supposedly free African-Americans who were still very unwelcome in white churches. 9

But when the Bible was read, the slaves actually “heard” something else. They “heard” the Exodus as a story which placed God squarely on the side of slaves. The story thus promised that one day God would also free the African slaves in America. Slaves “heard” the story of Jesus who lifted up the lowly. They saw Jesus as a liberator, whose salvation included freedom from the physical bondage of slavery, and a supporter in the struggle against the continuing evils of segregation and racism in post-slavery America. 10


In Cone’s analysis, the white reading of the Bible rests comfortably on the christological formulations of Nicaea and Chalcedon and Anselm’s satisfaction atonement. In themselves the abstract categories of “humanity” and “deity” of classic Nicene-Chalcedonian theology lack an explicit ethical content, which reflects its location in a church which was growing in favor with the Roman State. According to Cone:

Few, if any, of the early Church Fathers grounded their christological arguments in the concrete history of Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, little is said about the significance of his ministry to the poor as a definition of his person. The Nicene Fathers showed little interest in the christological significance of Jesus’ deeds for the humiliated, because most of the discussion took place in the social context of the Church’s position as the favored religion of the Roman State. 11

White theologians could claim Jesus as defined by Nicaea and Chalcedon, thus claiming—correctly—to stand in the orthodox theological tradition. But at the same time they could own slaves and later continue racial segregation and discrimination.

Cone emphasized that reconciliation is “primarily an act of God.” Yet this act of God is not a mere inward state nor a mystical transaction but happens “in history.” It produces “a new relationship with people created by God’s concrete involvement in the political affairs of the world,” whether biblical Israel or oppressed peoples of the modern world. {35} 12


The link between liberation and reconciliation provides the basis for Cone’s critique of classic atonement concepts. This link, Cone said, has been cut for most of the history of Christian thought. A major reason for the cut was that the post-Constantinian church “produced a ‘gospel’ that was politically meaningless for the oppressed.” Reconciliation was separated from God’s liberating acts in history, and definitions of atonement developed “that favored the powerful and excluded the interests of the poor.” 13

Cone applied this critique specifically to Anselm’s satisfaction theory, which depicts salvation in terms of a spiritual transaction with God that spoke neither to the social conditions of Africans in slavery nor to the oppressive character of racism in modern society. Cone called it “a neat rational theory but useless as a leverage against political oppression. It dehistoricizes the work of Christ, separating it from God’s liberating act in history.” 14

Cone’s reconstruction of an atonement motif anchored in the concrete reality of history builds on Christus Victor. Cone noted that Christus Victor focused upon the “objective reality of reconciliation as defined by God’s victory over Satan and his powers.” 15 This image offers an opportunity for contemporary theology “to return to the biblical emphasis on God’s victory over the powers of evil.” Included among the powers confronted and ultimately defeated by the resurrected Christ are not only the powers of evil mythically expressed in the figure of Satan but such earthly realities as “the American system,” symbolized by government officials who “oppress the poor, humiliate the weak, and make heroes out of rich capitalists”; “the Pentagon”; and the justice system that treats African-Americans so differently from whites. 16

James Cone and I come from two distinctly different “marginal” American backgrounds. But those who have followed this discussion will have observed that those “marginal” starting points produced remarkably similar critiques of the classic formulas for Christology and atonement. The difference was that where I noted that the formulas accommodated the violence of the sword, Cone depicted their accommodation of the violence of racism and slavery. And each of us constructed alternatives that appealed to the specifics of the narrative of Jesus, and that used a restructured version of the Christus Victor atonement motif. I believe these parallel and now intersecting theological trajectories suggest some important truths for the future of theologizing by Mennonites.

Black theology developed out of the black church and it spoke to the black church with a two-pronged agenda when it first emerged in the 1960s. It was a response to black militants, who rejected Christianity {36} entirely as the oppressive religion of white folks. And it challenged the black church, which too willingly accepted the gospel of white theology that supported the continued marginalization of African Americans. 17


But black theology also speaks to white Christians. It is a powerful challenge about the need for white Christians—including white Mennonites—to reexamine both their attitudes and their theology. Mennonites need to face that challenge if they expect to be a faithful church, a church which values ethnic and cultural diversity in a world that contains apparently increasing racial and ethnic strife. I suggest a few implications for Mennonites of the conversation with black theology.

(1) We should discard the idea that the formulas of Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology and Anselmian atonement are a theological given, a kind of standard theological program that every theology should build on. The independent but parallel critiques of these classic formulas in this essay show that they have a particular orientation and social context just as surely as does black theology or a Mennonite theology. The peace church is free to read the Bible afresh and to develop new images that articulate better than Nicaea-Chalcedon-Anselm the peaceful and just reign of God made visible in the New Testament’s story of Jesus.

(2) Some Mennonite theologians advocate that a modern theology for Mennonites should build on the classic formulas of Christendom. But if those formulas were the best foundation for a theology that fully articulated the peaceful and just reign of God made visible in Jesus, then most western Christians would already be pacifists, and slavery and racism would not have existed among so-called Christian peoples.

(3) Black theology provides a necessary reminder for contemporary Mennonites that the gospel has social dimensions and that God’s salvation has social dimensions.

(4) In recent years the commitment of Mennonites to peace and nonviolence has been eroding. There are many signs of a willingness to accommodate the military. But an expressed willingness for the peace church to accommodate the military ought to feel as out of place as a willingness to accommodate slavery and racism.

(5) The conversation with black theology makes abundantly clear that the question of violence is not limited to the issue of pacifism and refusal of military violence. It is no mere coincidence that Cone and I articulated parallel statements about the absence of ethics in the classic formulas. Slavery, racism, and the enactment of white superiority are forms of violence just as surely as violence with guns. So are poverty, {37} male dominance, and patriarchy. The list could continue. Concern about violence must encompass a wider range of justice issues than has been the case in the Mennonite past, and engagement with black theology makes plain that failing to deal with those issues contributes to oppression. In particular, Mennonites need to confess the extent to which our theology has been silent about racism and has thus contributed to the assumption of white superiority that permeates United States society.

(6) Recognizing that violence comes in systemic forms such as racism (as well as sexism and patriarchy, poverty and more) makes clear why the principle of “nonresistance” is now an inadequate peace stance. Nonresistance may have meaning when it constitutes a refusal to reply to evil with another evil act. It means little, however, in the face of systemic violence such as racism or poverty. In fact, not resisting in that context is to accept the status quo and its systemic violence. To resist systemic violence may mean engaging in active nonviolent resistance. And it is the church founded on Jesus Christ, who makes visible the reign of God in history, which should be the locus of such nonviolent social change. If the church is not confronting injustice, then it is not being the church.

(7) Black theology and a theology for the peace church are not identical nor even in agreement on all major points. Their conversation will be a dialogue, and sometimes an argument, among brothers and sisters. Some disagreements will concern the use of violence. And in a related area, further analysis may reveal that James Cone’s understanding of the relationship of the church (as faith community) to oppressed social groups opens the door to another version of the Constantinian temptation that his theological analysis challenged so effectively.

At this point, however, the conversation need not fall into such debates about differences. The more profitable and mutually enriching discussion might proceed by clarifying together the various forms of violence and oppression that we encounter at all levels in the world around us, and then together developing appropriate ways to resist the violence and work toward liberation.

This essay began with reference to groups on the margin. The discussion has demonstrated, however, that if the peace church is truly the peace church, what western Christendom has considered marginal is really integral to our understanding of Jesus Christ. The same is true for African-Americans and black theology. It is my hope and prayer that the peace church has the courage to live as though what the world considers marginal is integral to our lives, and the courage to engage others with similar concerns. {38}


  1. This formulation of classic atonement concepts follows John Bossy, Christianity in the West: 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University, 1985), 5-6, 93-94.
  2. To see a variety of atonement motifs in biblical configurations, see John Driver, Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church, foreword C. René Padilla (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1986).
  3. In defense of the classic formulas, some writers have argued that the classic christological formulas received no substantial shaping by the coincidence of their development within the church of the so-called Constantinian shift described by John Yoder, and it has been claimed that finding the formula in a pre-Nicene writer invalidates the argument for the link between formulas and ecclesiology. However, these arguments neglect to consider that the Constantinian shift happened in evolutionary fashion, that its beginnings are apparent already in the second century and its culmination is indeed later than Constantine. Finding an early version of the classic formula thus actually testifies to the evolutionary nature of the shift, and arguing that the Nicene-Chalcedonian formulas became widely accepted only later than the time of their proclamation further underscores that they reflect the church identified with the empire rather than the New Testament narrative of Jesus. I would further suggest that denying a substantial link between the classic formulas and the church in which they developed runs counter to the assumptions of social history and of much recent historical work, which would place great stress on understanding any given formulation in terms of its context.
  4. Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: A Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. A. G. Herbert (New York: Macmillan, 1969).
  5. For the detailed development of this interpretation of Revelation, see J. Denny Weaver, Keeping Salvation Ethical: Mennonite and Amish Atonement Theology in the Late Nineteenth Century, foreword C. Norman Kraus (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1997), 40-43.
  6. I am arguing that a biblical, historicized Christus Victor is the best understanding of atonement for the modern peace church. A number {39} of other theologians take a different approach. They would agree that Christus Victor is a neglected model that recovers some important themes, but they would nonetheless claim that all models have something to offer and that a full-orbed theology will encompass all theories. I am posing my suggestion quite specifically in contrast to this synthetic view for a number of reasons. Space limitations permit only the barest outline of the argument in this setting.

    The synthetic argument assumes that atonement images exist as doctrines independent of ecclesiology and are transportable without regard to context. In contrast, I have demonstrated that the book of Revelation is Christus Victor, which links the motif quite clearly to the specific ecclesiology of the pre-Constantinian church. It is also evident that the narrative of Jesus in the Gospels fits within this motif as well. The third biblical anchor is the New Testament’s most important theologian, namely Paul. Christiaan Beker’s discussion of the apocalyptic orientation of Paul’s thought shows that Paul is fully consonant with the argument here presented. See J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), ch. 8.

    When the correlation with early church ecclesiology is made, it is quite clear that Christus Victor disappeared in the aftermath of the Constantinian synthesis—an atonement motif of church confronting the world no longer made sense. It was replaced by a motif that clearly reflected a medieval feudal outlook. The offended God of Anselm’s satisfaction theory reflects the lord of medieval feudalism. This discussion of context makes it evident that atonement motifs are not independent of ecclesiology. For the modern peace church/believers church to retain Anselmian atonement is to put a Constantinian or established church atonement motif into free church ecclesiology. John Driver (see note 2 above) lists a number of biblical images. However, one can ask how these motifs can be expressed within the biblically dominant motif of Christus Victor, rather than lifting out several as independent theories (none of which is really a complete theory). Beyond these arguments, there are additional series of arguments that emerge from black, feminist, and womanist theology that add additional weight to the support of Christus Victor in contrast to the synthetic approach. Following sections of this essay deal with black theology.

  7. For glimpses of this evolving reconstruction of non-Constantinian theology see J. Denny Weaver, “Christology in Historical Perspective,” in Jesus Christ and the Mission of the Church: Contemporary {40} Anabaptist Perspectives, ed. Erland Waltner (Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1990), 83-105; idem, “Atonement for the Non-Constantinian Church,” Modern Theology 6 (July 1990): 307-23; idem, “Christus Victor, Ecclesiology, and Christology,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 68 (July 1994): 277-90; idem, “Narrative Theology in an Anabaptist-Mennonite Context,” Conrad Grebel Review 12 (Spring 1994): 171-88; idem, Keeping Salvation Ethical, ch. 2.
  8. James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997).
  9. Ibid., 42-52.
  10. Ibid., 52-76.
  11. Ibid., 107.
  12. Ibid., 209; emphasis Cone’s.
  13. Ibid., 211.
  14. Ibid., 211-12, quote 212.
  15. Ibid., 212.
  16. Ibid., 212-13.
  17. James H. Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1984), 10-18, 32-39, 54-62, 79-84, 101-105.
J. Denny Weaver is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of History and Religion at Bluffton College, Bluffton, Ohio. He teaches courses in theology and ethics.
Some of the material from this essay will appear in a more developed form in a chapter of the John Howard Yoder Festschrift, forthcoming from Eerdmans Publishing.

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