Christus Victor: the biter bit

Chapter 11 of René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (see previous posts 1 | 2 | 3) is titled “The Triumph of the Cross”, and in it Girard sets out a fascinating reinterpretation of the “Christus Victor” view of the atonement.

Girard starts with St Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 2:8:

If the princes of the world had known [the wisdom of God] they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (p.148)

This statement formed the basis for “a thesis that played a great role in the first centuries of Christianity, that of Satan duped by the Cross“:

The thesis interprets the Cross as a kind of divine trap, a ruse of God that is even stronger and cleverer than Satan’s ruses. Certain Fathers amplified this idea into a strange metaphor that contributed to its distrust in the West. Christ is compared to the bait that the fisher put on the hook to catch a hungry fish, and that fish is Satan. (p.149)

This interpretation of the Cross fell under suspicion in the West as “magical thought” that “attributes to God a role that is unworthy”, one of using deception and trickery to overcome Satan. The result has been to reduce the importance of the devil in Western theology. As Girard continues:

His disappearance is troublesome to the extent that Satan is the same thing as mimetic contagion, which alone can clarify the true meaning and validity of the patristic metaphor of Satan duped by the Cross. (p.149)

(Note that Girard is basing his argument here on his understanding of “Satan” as a symbolic figure who is to be identified with mimetic contagion. However, I think his argument works even if one thinks instead of mimetic contagion being the principal means by which a more traditionally-considered Satan operates.)

The essential point of mimetic contagion is that those undergoing it are unaware of its operation, and are convinced of the actual guilt of the “single victim” whose expulsion restores their unanimity. This is true both of mythical-ritual societies and of modern “scientific” systems: all the “powers and principalities”, the “princes of this world”. These are the same forces that crucified Jesus, and they did so because:

they expected the results of this event to be favourable to their interests. They were hoping that the victim mechanism would function as usual, protected from any suspicions, and that they would thus rid themselves of Jesus and his message. (p.148)

By the time the princes of this world understood what had happened in the crucifixion – that the mimetic contagion and “single-victim mechanism” had been unmasked and disarmed from within by Jesus – it was too late: “Jesus had been crucified, and the Gospels had been written”. Had the princes understood this was to be the outcome of Jesus’ crucifixion, then “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”.

Girard continues:

The Greek Fathers had it right in saying that with the Cross Satan is the mystifier caught in the trap of his own mystification. The single victim mechanism was his personal property, his very own thing, the instrument of self-expulsion that put the world at his feet. But in the Cross this mechanism escapes once and for all from the control Satan exercised over it, and as a result the world looks completely different. (p.151)

This perspective on the Cross avoids the charge of “unworthiness” (or the implication that Satan had some legitimate claim on sinful humanity) that turned the Western church against some versions of “Christus victor”:

The idea of Satan duped at the Cross is therefore not magical at all and in no way offends the dignity of God. The trick that traps Satan does not involve the least bit of either violence or dishonesty on God’s part. It is not really a ruse or a trick; it is rather the inability of the prince of this world to understand the divine love. (p.152)

So however much Satan may rail that he has been deceived (like Gollum wailing about “nasty, tricksy hobbitses”), in fact all that has happened is that he has been undone by his own deception, his own mechanisms by which he had kept humanity captive.

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7 Responses to Christus Victor: the biter bit

  1. phil_style says:

    I’ve always thought that Girard was onto more than he was given credit for, and i think this strand of thinking connects to that.

    But i need to read your post some more times to clarify it.

    Can some clearer connection between Girard and the early church fathers be found? One of the main issues with Girard is that if his understanding of the work of the resurrection is “right” then why is it so complex (hidden) and not obvious? Or is it?

  2. John H says:

    Phil: I don’t really know enough about the Greek fathers to answer your first question, though it seems to me Girard is seeking to recover elements of their thought for the West.

    As for the question of the complexity/non-obviousness of Girard’s understanding, I suspect there are at least two answers to that question. The first is that, as I understand it, Girard argues that some people have reached the same conclusions as him about the nature of desire (e.g. literary figures such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky).

    The second is that the very nature of mimetic mechanisms is that they hide themselves from us. We believe that our desires are “ours”, and struggle to accept that our desires might arise from another source: it offends our sense of independence and individual autonomy. Similarly we are always inclined to believe that the expelled victims of our society “really deserved it”, and it takes the patient work of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word to open our eyes to what is really going on in such situations.

  3. phil_style says:

    John, I’m a big fan of Dostoevsky, and I think you’re right that some of this thinking does come through in his work. Crime and Punishment seems to be to be a good example….

  4. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » The cross, horizontal and vertical

  5. Matt J. says:

    Another stumbling block for people approaching Girard is that he doesn’t ever describe Satan as an actual person – a real demon who is actually prowling around out there somewhere. It smells of gnosticism (as if Satan has got to be just as material as Jesus to hold our faith together?!). It sounds similar enough to a theological liberalism that tries to explain away hell that they might get hung up on it.

    However, as John pointed out, I don’t think Girard’s theory breaks down ONE BIT if you just shift it a little so that inciting mimetic rivalry is the chief TOOL of a real, traditional Satan. It’s his main schtick. Tempting people and having demons possess a few folks here or there is pretty minor compared to the main show: pitting us against each other in invisible envy. In fact, what is he tempting us toward of not that in the first place?

  6. John H says:

    Matt: agreed. It’s a bit like Ellul’s account of demonology: while claiming to be an alternative to the traditional view, it can also be seen as highly illuminating of that view.

  7. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Satan, the Spirit and personhood

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