I forget where, but I remember Todd Hunter making some comment about the fact that for hundreds of years within the Christian church there was no clear understanding of what exactly happened at the cross, but he presumed that people were still getting saved anyway. That comment points to the fact that while our understanding of the atonement is important, it isn't the be all end all to salvation that we sometimes make it. So right now I am reading a book named Keeping Salvation Ethical, by J. Denny Weaver which relates quite closely to the discussion earlier about the lack of connection with Christian creeds to the life of Christ, as it makes a similar point about the later atonement theories and their lack of connection to anything but the death of Christ. First Weaver lays out the three main views of the atonement in the history of the church - Christus Victor, Anselm's satisfaction theory, and Abelard's moral influence theory (in an online article here Weaver gives a short version of what he outlines in the book). Christus Vistor emerges the earliest in church history, while the other two came on the scene over 1000 years later. So the basic thrust of the book is that the Christus Victor theory is the most appropriate because it connects the way of Christ in his life and teachings to the work of Christ at the cross.
He talks about the weaknesses of the satisfaction theory, which has been the norm in evangelical and fundamentalist circles during the 20th century:
... These solutions to the atonement question require the essential categories of humanity and Deity, and situate them in the context of legal relationship between God and humankind. However, understanding atonement in terms of a legal construct removes it from our world or places it outside of the historical world in which we live. But it is precisely in that historical world that we discuss how to live in ways shaped by the reign of God. Stated another way, atonement defined in terms of a legal paradigm does not make use of what is learned about Jesus from the story-shaped and story based Christology sketched above...
Then he makes the point that post-Constantinian Christianity became incompatible with a theory of atonement that paid close attention to the life and teachings of Christ, so revised understandings emerged:
... The sword provides perhaps the most easily understood example of this separation of ethics and salvation. The church accepted the sword and acquiesced to the imperial army fighting in the name of Christ and under a banner bearing the cross. In doing so, the church had shifted the orientation of its ethics from Jesus to the exigencies of the social order. The functional question for ehtics was no longer "How can we live within the story of Jesus?", but "What must we do to preserve the social order?" The normative reference for ethics had shifted from Jesus, who reflected the reign of God, to the emperor, whose policy was determined by the needs of his empire. Ethics had become separated from atonement and salvation, and the atonement motifs of Anselm and Abelard fit that context. This argument is not a claim that Anselm and Abelard were unconcerned about ethics. It is rather a recognition that their atonement motifs reflect a church which came to consider the content of ethics and the characteristics of the saved life apart from the teaching and particular narrative of Jesus.
In contrast to satisfaction and moral influence theories, the historicized Christus Victor motif as sketched above anchors the discussion of atonement and salvation in the particular, historical life of Jesus. The story based Christology that also constitutes a statement of Christus Victor uses the life of Jesus as its foundational categories. To be saved means to be located within the particular narrative of Jesus and to have a life shaped by that story. This approach pays particular attention to the life Jesus lived as a human. That life reveals the character of the reign of God, which Jesus embodies.
He goes on to outline what he sees as the strengths of the Christus Victor theory:
... In opening his public ministry at Nazareth, Jesus use of Isaiah 61 poses the reign of God in social and historical terms - good news to the poor, release of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom of the oppressed - as a contrast to the kingdoms of the world. That it is a clash of reigns is acted out in the expulsion of Jesus from Nazareth. In the course of Jesus' mission, healings, exorcisms, and nature wonders such as a miraculous catch of fish or stilling of a storm indicate the power of the rule of God over the physical and spiritual forces which enslave individuals, as well as over the created, natural order. The confrontation between the reign of God and rule of Satan reached its culmination with the crucifixion. In apparent weakness, the reign of God as present in Jesus confronted strength. Brute force killed Jesus in what appeared, momentarily, to be a triumph for the powers of evil. Three days later God raised Jesus from the dead, displaying the power of God's reign over the ultimate enemy - death. The victory of the resurrection inaugurated a new era for the reign of God in our history.
... this confrontation between church and empire constitutes the historical matrix [ooo, matrix] for the atonement called Christus Victor. This image portrays salvation as escape from the forces of evil, as being transformed by the reign of God and taking on a life shaped within the story of Jesus, who makes visible the reign of God in our history. This view of salvation understands becoming Christian (or identifying with Jesus Christ) and the discussion of ethics (or how Christians live) as two dimensions of the same question.
The language in the last quote so closely echoes Wimber's preaching on Kingdom theology, that it made me ponder a little bit about why so many of us young Mennonites were attracted to the Vineyard. Wimber, coming from a Quaker background, preached a great deal about Kingdom theology and the kingdom of light breaking into the kingdom of darkness. This motif strongly reflects the Christus Victor rendering of the atonement, where "the life of Jesus is understood as a making of the reign of God present in the historical realm". I haven't read the book yet, but do any of these atonement themes come up in Morphew's book, Breakthrough?? Anaways...
I think that to young anabaptists like myself, Wimber added to "peace" and "the poor" the more supernatural side of the confrontation with darkness in areas like healing and the prophetic. Putting them altogether, for me, was (and is) attractive for its complete attention to the life of Christ, but that sort of holistic approach seems to be a rare bird indeed.
Incidentally, the book was a good read in light of an essay I wrote some time ago on my thinking on the atonement. From what Weaver says, I suspect my thoughts were roughly a re-stating of Abelard's moral influence theory, just with more of a connection to the life of Christ perhaps.