The Spirit of the Lord, §4.4: Munus triplex

Fourth, Jesus Christ’s work of reconciliation is not only forensic but also ontological and moral. This thesis regarding the doctrine of the atonement summarizes the previous theses by explicating the work of Christ according to the three categories of forensic, ontological, and moral: (1) as a forensic transaction in which the Christus Vicarius bears the divine judgment upon our sin so that we might be pronounced righteous extra nos in him; (2) as an ontological event in which the Christus Victor destroys our ontic estrangement from God and corresponding bondage to sin so that we might become new creatures who exist in union with God; and (3) as a moral example in which the Christus Magister exemplifies divine love and forgiveness so that we might live in moral correspondence to his prototypical life in the Spirit. The Protestant tradition emphasizes the forensic dimension over the others, sometimes exclusively, and thus often obscures the interrelation between the three ways of interpreting the reconciling work of Christ. A solely forensic account of atonement will tend toward a strictly spiritual interpretation of Immanuel and miss the ontological and moral implications of Christ’s advent. An account of the atonement, therefore, which holds all three understandings together will be superior to any one of the accounts singled out on its own.

While it is not our concern here to present a constructive doctrine of the atonement, it will be sufficient to point out the implications of understanding the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ in ontological and moral terms, in addition to forensic. To put it simply, the primary implication is that our whole being is involved in the event of reconciliation. Our ontological identity and moral activity are defined by the actuality of the atonement in Jesus Christ. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation”: in the coming of Immanuel the new reality of resurrection irrupts into the world as a proleptic event which is constitutive of the reality of those who are “in Christ” by virtue of God’s election of humanity into the covenant of grace. Our very identity—understood in ontic and ethical terms—is defined by the event of Jesus Christ. What Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection determines not only our status before God, but also our being and our life, both of which are brought into correspondence to God in him.

The munus triplex outlined above and central to Reformed dogmatics provides an essential framework for interpreting the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ in terms that are forensic, ontological, and moral. The legal or forensic imagery which is at the heart of Western theology focuses primarily on Christus Vicarious: Christ as the High Priest who, according to the author of Hebrews, accomplishes the once-for-all sacrifice for sins on the cross in the place of humanity. The sacrifice of Christ is generally spoken of in forensic terms as the establishment of sinful humanity’s justification before God. According to Paul, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:6, 8-9). The Eastern tradition, however, tends to focus on Christus Victor: Christ as the King who liberates enslaved humanity from the powers of sin and death. The emphasis is not on a legal transaction but on an ontologically new reality; humanity is redeemed from its enslavement and freed for a new existence as the children of God. The final aspect of Christ’s atoning work is traditionally expressed by the Christus Magister: Christ as Prophet who proclaims a new way of life which does not negate the law and the prophets but instead fulfills it. Christ inaugurates a moral framework controlled by love of God and love of neighbor—and not just love of one’s neighbor, but in fact love of one’s enemy.

The munus triplex has been critiqued by numerous theologians from Schleiermacher to Barth to Pannenberg. But regardless of the merits of these criticisms, the “threefold work of Christ” remains an important reminder both of the multivalent nature of the atonement—forensic, ontological, and moral—and of the close connection between Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross and the Old Testament sacrifices of Israel. The former ensures that we do not reduce the cross to a legal transaction which has no necessary impact upon our being or our lived existence. The latter ensures that we do not disconnect the cross from its historical-cultural moorings in the Hebraic understanding of sin, sacrifice, and atonement. The importance of this rootedness in the Hebraic tradition is felt especially in the concern of this essay: that we cannot understand the peace of Christ, the peace of Immanuel, apart from the Israelite context in which the prophecy of this Prince of Peace was made known to God’s chosen people. We cannot speak of the shalom which Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection as if it is unrelated to the ontic and ethical dimensions of human existence, or as if it is unrelated to the Hebraic conception of atonement found through the Old Testament scriptures. The munus triplex provides a way of speaking about Christ’s atoning work that takes the Old Testament into consideration, and this is an essential component in combating modern Gnosticism.