In his book Suffering Not Power: Atonement in the Middle Ages, Benjamin Wheaton, a PhD graduate from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, challenges the conventional narrative popularized by Gustav Aulén that Christus Victor was the prevailing view of the atonement throughout the Middle Ages until Anslem’s focus on expiation and propitiation in his work Cur Deus Homo deviated from this consensus in the late eleventh century.1 Wheaton explains that Aulén’s narrative is worth refuting because its misinterpretation of the Middle Ages also falsely paints the Reformation’s emphasis on penial-substitutionary atonement as a departure from the prevailing thought of the Middle Ages.2 Wheaton refutes Aulén by examining the work of three Medieval writers from disparate times, places, and contexts, demonstrating in each case how the atonement was fundamentally understood as “a sacrifice of expiation and propitiation made by God to God.”3 In this way, Wheaton argues that neither Anselm’s theocentric view (focused on God’s work of reconciling fallen sinners to himself) of the atonement, nor the Reformation’s assertion of penial-substitutionary atonement, represent a break in continuity with the essence of the Medieval view of the atonement. As for Christus Victor, Wheaton does not deny the presence of images of Christ overcoming the power of death and the devil on the cross in the Middle Ages, but rather, shows that these images were inseparably linked to a discussion of how Christ satisfied God’s justice, by paying the penalty for sin, and his mercy, by reconciling humanity to God.4
In defense of his claim that the atonement was broadly understood as “a sacrifice of expiation and propitiation made by God to God” throughout the Middle Ages, Wheaton examines the work of the famous, late Medieval poet Dante Alighieri, the sermons of Caesarius of Arles (a bishop in Gaul in the late fifth and early sixth centuries), and Haimo of Auxerre (a monk during the Carolingian era) as three “vignettes” of Medieval thought regarding the atonement. In addition to exegeting texts by these, and other Medieval authors, Wheaton carefully engages a host of secondary sources, especially the work of the early twentieth-century Roman Catholic theologian Jean Rivière. Although citing the need to refute Aulén’s contended narrative of Christus Victor as the dominant view of the atonement in the Middle Ages, to the exclusion of anything resembling penial-substitution, Wheaton chooses to focus his discussion of secondary literature on Rivière’s contemporaneous refutation of Joseph Turmel (who argued along similar lines to Aulén). Perhaps taking inspiration from Dante’s Virgil, Wheaton presents Rivière’s work as a guide to both himself and his reader throughout the book before offering his own insights and ultimately moving beyond him. Wheaton’s work, therefore, instead of engaging Aulén head on, seems to strategically suggest that Aulén’s arguments had already been refuted in Rivière’s refutation of Turmel before they ever got off the ground.
Wheaton’s work is carefully researched, clearly articulated, and artfully expressed, never sacrificing precision in its concise delivery. Though clearly a work of scholarship, (with full Latin citations provided in the footnotes) the book is accessible to the ambitious lay reader and will prove rewarding for readers of myriad backgrounds. Methodologically, the work is explicitly descriptive and delightfully historical, contextualizing each author and text in its time and place. From Florentine politics to Carolingian oblates, Wheaton puts historical background to interpretative use, ultimately strengthening his arguments by displaying his intentionally diverse body of evidence. In its conclusion, however, the book does make some mention of the theological benefit of its historical analysis to Protestant Christians, and it does not hide the fact that it is written from a Protestant Christian perspective.
Though chiefly a work of history in terms of academic discipline, the subject matter of Wheaton’s historical argument is of inherent value to any theologian interested in the atonement or the doctrine of justification in Jesus Christ. By demonstrating that mainstream Medieval theologians did not consider Christ’s victory over sin and death to be one primarily of overpowering the devil or tricking him to forfeit his rights over fallen humanity (as in Aulén’s Christus Victor model), but one of taking the penalty of sin (God’s wrath) upon himself and meriting righteousness before God in his suffering, Wheaton shows continuity between the Medieval period and what came before and after it. On one hand, he reveals how the Reformation did not introduce new ideas or break away from the Middle Ages when it focused on how God made humanity right with God through a substitutionary sacrifice of propitiation and expiation. Though he never explicitly uses the terms, the careful reader will see the parallel between what is articulated in these Medieval authors and Reformation era discussions of the active and passive obedience of Christ at every turn.5 On the other hand, by showing that the Middle Ages was focused on Christ’s suffering and humility in human flesh, Wheaton ground’s the Middle Ages in Nicene orthodoxy. Jesus’s identity as the incarnate God, fully God and fully man, was inseparable from what he accomplished on the cross for both Medieval and Patristic writers alike. Wheaton explains that the incarnation was widely thought to be necessary to salvation because it was the only solution to human rebellion against God that could satisfy both God’s ratio (reason) and his iustitia (justice or righteousness).6 Thus, the relationship between Christology and Soteriology pervades Wheaton’s analysis of the Middle Ages, shining particularly brightly in his discussion of Caesarius of Arles.7
Wheaton’s claim that Medieval theologians thought of the atonement chiefly as a satisfaction of God’s wrath accomplished through suffering instead of a subduing of the devil by mere power, is exceptionally relevant to the landscape of Christian theology today (for both Protestants and Roman Catholics). Wheaton’s lukewarm assertion of the relevance of his own thesis, however, is his book’s biggest weakness. Wheaton is not wrong to focus on how his own research further validates Rivière’s refutation of Turmel, however, the reader is left wondering why one Roman Catholic scholar’s refutation of another nearly a hundred years ago is worth revisiting for Protestant Christians today. Wheaton does explain the value of Rivière’s work for correcting Aulén’s errant claims, but he says nothing of the prominence of Christus Victor in Liberation Theology (where something resembling Aulén’s narrative enjoys sustained influence in both Protestant and Roman Catholic circles), or how his own revisitation of Rivière’s work might be of value to more recent engagements with Christus Victor in the theological scene. For Christus Victor lies at the center of Liberation theology, which asserts that liberation form death and the devil in Christ’s victory on the cross also necessarily implies a “political liberation” from oppression and societal injustice.8 By demonstrating that even Medieval authors considered Christ’s suffering on the cross primarily in terms of propitiation and expiation, Wheaton’s work inherently challenges the idea that historic Christianity ever taught what Liberation Theology states when it proclaims that Christ’s suffering on the cross was chiefly about God’s identification of himself with the oppressed. Although Wheaton’s work is historical in nature, since he admits a desire for his book to be of particular value to Christians, an allusion to the value of his historical argument to contemporary theological discussions would have been appropriate in his conclusion.
Wheaton does not make claims beyond what his evidence allows, nor attempt to erase the complexity of Medieval theology, but permits Augustinian and Semi-Pelagian sources to stand side-by-side in his argumentation. His claim that neither Anselm nor the Reformation offered anything particularly innovative by focusing on the problem of God’s wrath instead of the devil’s hold over humanity is proven carefully, honestly, and thoroughly. Although he does not expound upon the relevance of his historical claim to contemporary theology, the carful reader will doubtless discover its importance. For those who are convinced of the power of Christ to justify fallen sinners before a holy God, it is difficult to imagine that any carful study of what Christians have said about the atonement in the past could be irrelevant. Just as all theology is practical theology when rightly understood, so too is all history relevant history when its subject matter is the truth of the gospel of Christ.
©J. David Edling. All Rights Reserved.
1. Benjamin Wheaton, Suffering, Not Power: Atonement in the Middle Ages, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022), 3–5.
2. Ibid, 4–5.
3. Ibid, 241.
4. Ibid, 158.
5. Ibid, 21–3, 78, 114–9, 143.
6. Ibid, 110.
7. Ibid, 126–9.
8. Both Jürgen Moltmann, a foundational theologian for many Liberation theologians, and Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of Latin American Liberation Theology, argue that liberation in Christ means political liberation from injustice. In both cases, liberation from sin (“vicious cycles of death in Moltmann) is not discussed in terms of the expiation of one’s personal sin so as to be spared from God’s wrath, but in terms of how one might become free form the external oppression of sin inflicted upon the individual by others within society. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 40th Anniversary Edition, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 459–94, and Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 100–5.
9. Ibid, 129–42.
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