Salvation According to Peter
In the theological circles I am most involved in there is consistent low-level debate about two ways of thinking about salvation. One of these ways, substitutionary atonement, is the standard salvific model in the Western church and is probably familiar to everyone who reads this blog. Indeed, it’s easy to be entirely unaware of any other way of thinking about salvation. However, for the sake of completeness, substitutionary atonement is essentially the idea that we are all sinners (criminals), that Christ takes the penalty of our crimes for us by being crucified, and that this action frees us from those penalties and allows us to avoid Hell, the fate which we were previously condemned to. The other idea of salvation, Christus Victor, has a different focus. Within this model we are primarily afflicted by sin (which is more like a disease or a slave-master), Christ takes our affliction on himself when he is killed by our sinfulness, but Christ then triumphs over the power of sin by rising from the dead. Death is the power of sin and when Christ breaks the power of death sin loses its power over us.
I’ve written some about these ideas elsewhere but it’s worth pointing out some of the ways these differences play out. In substitutionary atonement sin is effectively crime, something that people are responsible for and need to be punished by. In Christus Victor sin is primarily something that afflicts people – you are afflicted both by the sins others against you and by your own sins that trap you in a cycle that leads into death. In substitutionary atonement the major action of Christ’s redeeming work happens on the cross. In Christus Victor the important scene is the empty tomb. Obviously these are simplifications and elements from both views can be combined to create something richer and realer than the pale stereotypes I’ve had time to paint here. However, I’m not primarily interested in hashing out these two viewpoints here as I am in addressing how the Bible approaches these issues.
As I said in the first sentence I am accustomed to debate about these perspectives. Which one is right (or more right)? Many times I see people insist that one or the other model is the primary one of the Bible. Passages that appear to suggest the other are then thought to be the product of the author trying to communicate other things or perhaps an author whose language tends to favor particular words that in the mouth of another author would suggest something else. The reason one has to do this, of course, is that passages that suggest both options are common in the Bible. In fact, passages that suggest opposite options can often be found in close proximity to another. It appears that the Biblical writers are not actually very interested in separating out these various mechanical models with the sort of clarity many modern readers would like. (Of course, modern readers always want Jesus and Paul and Peter and John and the rest to address modern controversies straight on instead of addressing the controversies of their day that we no longer care much about.)
The book of 1 Peter is relatively short and, conveniently, one I’m reading in a Bible study right now and so I will demonstrate this general principle by reviewing what this book says about salvation.
First, Peter does not actually lay out the mechanics of salvation at any point. It would be nice if he did, if he launched into a discourse on how exactly Jesus’ death and resurrection acted to save his audience but he doesn’t. Instead, his references appear to be meant to remind his audience of things they already apparently know in order to reinforce other points that Peter is primarily concerned with. However, Peter writes in a Greek style with sentences that are far too long for modern English and with clauses containing complete thoughts. Some of these complete thoughts highlight a lot about how Peter thinks salvation works. One of them, 1 Peter 2:24, is one of the best proof-texts for substitutionary atonement. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed,” Peter says, quoting chunks of a passage of Isaiah he has just referenced. This particular theme is also present in 1 Peter 1:19 where Jesus is called “a lamb without blemish or defect”, recalling the sacrificial system’s requirements for sacrificial animals1, and in which Peter tells us that it is Jesus’ blood that has redeemed us. Problematically, if we expand the partial thought of 1:19 to cover 1:18-19, the whole English sentence in most translations, we realize that 1:18 is full of redemption language, of buying people from the slavery of their old ways. This sound much more like Christus Victor – sin as the slave-master whom Christ frees you from. This same emphasis also appears in 1:3 where Peter speaks of our new birth into a living hope as being accomplished not by Christ’s death but His resurrection. While this makes perfect sense, that birth would be tied to the “birth” back from the dead, it easily lends itself to Christus Victor which finds such language very natural. Similarly, in 3:21 it is again Jesus’ resurrection that saves people. In four or five mentions (depending how you count them) Peter manages to come close to an even split between passages that favor Christus Victor and passages that favor substitutionary atonement.
Of course, deciding theology is not a matter of counting passages as if they were votes. In this case the Christus Victor passages include some “weaker” passages (although 1:18 seems to be very clearly a ransom model of salvation) and so we might be tempted to give the match to substitutionary atonement. However, I think we have more to learn from the closeness of the match. Indeed, if Peter were particularly worried by our concern to get the model of salvation right he surely could have used more precise language or avoided misleading metaphors altogether. In fact, the case that I want to make here is simple: if Peter uses language that seems to imply two different theological models so close together and without explanation then our version of events with two competing models probably isn’t Peter’s. Perhaps it isn’t Peter’s because Peter lives too close to the resurrection for there to be factions that split over the means by which Jesus’ death and resurrection save us but it’s equally likely that Peter’s worldview just wouldn’t recognize some of our modern positions as anything but extreme versions of two complementary perspectives. In fact, Peter’s view of salvation seems to be too large to be neatly boxed up by a single mechanism (hence his use of multiple metaphors). This seems a point worth paying attention to.
 Actually, this itself is a good deal more complicated than we generally think. It’s not at all clear that the sacrificial animals in the Old Testament took on the sins of the sacrifice and bore them into death as Christians commonly think. Instead, in the one instance in which it is perfectly clear that a particular animal does bear sins (the scapegoat of Leviticus 16) the animal is released into the wilderness. Moreover, the man who releases the goat must wash himself before re-entering the camp which strongly suggests that the sins the goat bears render it unclean and unfit for sacrifice.