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Hans Boersma: Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross

The heart of the book is formed by a discussion of the moral influence theory, the substitutionary model, and the Christus Victor model. Boersma wishes to preserve the essence of the penal substitution theory but is critical of its scholastic Reformed interpretation that has overemphasized the judicial, non-historical and individual elements of a strict economy of exchange at the cost of obscuring the hospitality of the cross. What makes Boersma’s approach to these theories significant is his insistence on their interpretation and evaluation in light of the concept of divine violence.

No other thinker has influenced the contemporary theological discussion on violence more dramatically than René Girard. The reader unacquainted with this discussion will find Boersma’s work a stimulating and challenging introduction. At the same time, Boersma offers a challenging critique to Girard’s theory that opens up a bold interpretation of the atonement.

Girard’s theory is based on the idea that all violence emerges from an escalation of learned, “mimetic” rivalry. He postulates that human culture derives from the redirection of mutual violence away from the mimetic rivals and toward a third party and surrogate victim: the scapegoat. Girard’s work suggests that the violent execution of Jesus represents a public disclosure of mimetic violence which ultimately renders the mimetic process unworkable by bringing the sacrificial culture to an end. The vision of non-violent relationships thus arises out of the violent context of the death and resurrection of Christ, who submits to and overcomes the mimetic structures of desire and violence and thereby frees humanity from their dominance. Violence is defeated in principle by the death of Christ. However, this consequence of the cross is typically misunderstood and the mechanism of mimetic desire ignored, revealing the radical human incapacity to understand its own violence.

Boersma argues that Girard’s theory exposes the critical function of the cross yet offers no positive role of Christ’s death in revealing God’s hospitality. Instead, he suggests that hospitality can be seen as central metaphor for God’s love that necessarily includes violence in a finite world marked by injustice as long as juridical categories are not neglected.

Boersma locates these categories particularly in the Christus Victor theme cast in an Irenaean framework. The latter takes not the penal aspect of the atonement but the hospitality of God as a starting point. Irenaeus embraces in his thought elements of all three models of the atonement by focusing on the idea of recapitulation rather than the economy of exchange. The result is a greater emphasis on God’s sovereignty despite the affirmation of violence in the life of Christ and of the Christian. Boersma thus trusts the Christus Victor theme as a warrant of God’s eschatological hospitality. In this light, the violence of the cross is seen as a proper instrument in ascertaining the hope that the entire cosmos will one day be embraced by the divine hospitality of the kingdom of God. For Boersma, this paradox forms the heart of redemption.

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Category: Fall 2006, In Depth

About the Author: Wolfgang Vondey, Ph.D. (Marquette University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), is Reader in Contemporary Christianity and Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is an ordained minister with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). His research focuses on ecclesiology, pneumatology, theological method, and the intersection of theology and science.

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