Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matthew 4:1-3, NIV)
I’ve been reading Gustaf Aulén’s classic book Christus Victor this week. I was not reading it to guide my study of this week’s gospel lectionary text, but it sure has set off some interesting resonances.
Aulén argued in his book that there are three broad types of atonement theories. The objective model, represented by Anselm and subsequent satisfaction and substitution theories, describes the primary focus of the atonement upward toward the Father. The cross is the place where the debt created by humanity’s sin is paid off.
The subjective model, first articulated by Abelard and widely influential in the West since the 19th century, describes the primary focus of the atonement downward to those of us at the feet of Jesus. The cross creates a change in us.
Against both of these models, Aulén argues for what he calls the “classic” theory, which he says goes back to the apostles. This theory views the atonement as an act in an unfolding dramatic conflict between God and the devil. We might think of it as a horizontal focus of atonement. The atonement defeats the devil.
I thought of the book while reading the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
By Aulén’s thinking, the temptation is really just the opening skirmish in a contest that will be carried forward all the way to the cross and the empty tomb. The testing in the desert is not merely about teaching us some responses to difficult life challenges. It is not merely validation of Jesus’ status as the unblemished one who can reset the scales of divine justice by his death. It is the start of a battle that will be fought, not with guns and bombs, but with weapons of the Spirit.
This is a reading of the text that passes through the cross, which therefore means it is shaped by our understanding of atonement. Whether that is a useful way to read and preach the text this week, I’m not certain. I’ll let the Spirit guide on that one.