Earliest Atonement Theories

In the deepest and earliest Christian creed, what can be called the gospel creed, here’s how atonement is expressed:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (1 Cor 15:3-5).

In the Nicene Creed, some three hundred years later and with miles of developments between the two creedal statements, here’s the atonement lines:

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.

Put in other terms, the mechanics of atonement were not part of the creed. Yet, redemption is at the core of our faith, so much so that world religions writers call Christianity the religion of salvation. In Ronald Heine’s book, Classical Christian Doctrine, we get a brief sketch of early Christian theology of the atonement. In history there has been three major views, he says: subjective (Abelard), satisfaction (Anselm), and cosmic or Christus Victor (early church).

The earliest understandings of the atonement were less emphatic on the individual and more emphatic on the cosmic, but the cosmic made provision for the individual (but emphasis here matters). Jesus comes to earth to do battle with the one who holds the cosmos captive, Satan, and Jesus conquers by binding the strong man and liberating his victims. If the subjective affects humans and the satisfaction theory God, this one affects Satan.

Irenaeus is the earliest theologian to discuss atonement. Jesus binds Satan and conquers death and brings life. But the theme is cosmic battle. Origen focused the battle on the cross, at which event Jesus surrenders his soul to Satan. Many early theologians saw Christ’s offer to Satan as a deception or trickery. The deceiver was deceived by the truthful one (Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine).

Many today are attracted to Christus Victor but in so doing they socialize the cosmic battle into systemic injustice while for the early theologians this was very much a spiritual battle. Is the attraction today a secularization of the Christus Victory theory? I say Yes. What say you?

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  • Susan_G1

    A year ago, I would have answered this easily – Christ redeems Creation. But lately, as my theodicy has been challenged, ans what I thought was fallen is perhaps not, I am not sure.

  • Rick

    Great post, but when you wrote “In the Nicene Creed, some three years later”, did you mean “some three hundred years later”?

  • The injustice of mankind was on full display on Calvary. The justice of God brightly shone when the stone was rolled away a few days later.

  • Brian Metzger

    I’m attracted to Christus Victor but I can’t for the life of me see how I’ve secularized it. I’ll have to give this a ponder.

  • Tiago de Oliveira Cavaco

    Great work!

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    Wonderful thoughts, Scot!

    In more Pentecostal/Charismatic circles (in which I was born again into and can’t quite leave), the victory of Christ is very important. But it is acted out by faith in things such as miracles and divine healing. Those are kind of ground war tactics in the cosmic defeat of Satan at the cross. Some can go overboard into absurdity but I can’t dismiss that sort of stuff because I think it has some validity. Among those who appear to be attracted to Christus Victor these days I see an absence of that kind of application of it.


  • Bev Mitchell

    Great question Scot and I only have a waffle answer – yes and no. Both answers can be seen, for example, in Beilby and Eddy “Understanding Spiritual Warfare: Four Views” it’s probably fair to say that all authors secularize the Christus Victor view at least by recognizing the very real evil in humanity, sometimes without being clear as to its source.They all seem to at least nod to the possibility of spiritual evil, but two have qualms about being very specific. Two other authors clearly argue for the view that evil has an active spiritual, quite real and specific side, much as represented in the NT (depending of course on the reading).

    It seems to me that many things only fall into place when we do recognize real spiritual evil as the ultimate source of all evil. The temptation of Christ is very important in illustrating this. The simple question is “Was it possible for Jesus (God) to yield to Satan’s offer to take the coercion/power road and abandon the love road?” In short, was this temptation authentic or not?

    As for a fallen world, yes, it is fallen and prone to fall. But it is also God’s good and very good response to real spiritual opposition that would have things chaotic, void and without purpose. Sorting out which is which in nature, for example, is no easy matter, but it is in no way all bad (unless we are gnostics). As for what’s good and bad in us, that’s also difficult, often because of our great powers of self-deception and the spiritual battle for our affections. But, the Holy Spirit works with us to help sort these things out and point us to Christ (if we work with her).

  • Rocky Munoz

    Great post! As others have already said, I think that people can socialize Christus Victor, and often times do. And, to some degree, I think this is a good thing. After all, our theology should always be incarnational in some way. A theology with no practical application is effectively worthless.

    On the other hand, I think what really draws many people to Christus Victor today (myself included) is the advantage that it provides for our theodicies. Many Christians today are simply not interested in worshipping a judgmental God that they believe wants to violently punish us to satisfy a sense of justice. Moreover, we are tired of trying to convince ourselves to love and worship a God who is the ultimate source behind all things (including evil).

  • chrismayeaux

    Does it really matter to what we are attracted to? What is the truth that was preached by the apostles and preserved in the Church? The Paschal hymn summarizes it nicely. Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

  • trin

    Lots to think about.
    If one sees in the creation story man giving to Satan the earthly dominion that God had given man, combined with John’s statement that Satan is in control of this domain, I think there is more to Christus Victor than we grant.

    But, is the NT understanding of “real” evil more cultural than actual (God spoke in 1st century days in 1st century ways)? You say, “It seems to me…real spiritual evil [i]s the ultimate source of all evil.” I believe evil is the result of free will, that evil actually requires an act of will to exist (i.e. things we call evil that do not involve the will aren’t evil – they may be terrible horrors & tragedies, but they are not evil. I don’t think cancer is evil; a tsunami is not evil). Perhaps the temptation wasn’t about an embodied Satan having a little talk with Jesus, but rather, Jesus’ own acceptance of the road ahead of him – a very real temptation, for if it wasn’t possible to act differently, there really wasn’t any temptation (just as our creation story is very real, although none of it actually happened).

    Thanks for making me think whether creation was “God’s response to spiritual opposition.” Was the forming and filling of Genesis a battle against a cosmos that was “chaotic, void and without purpose?” Given the ANE context and what we now know about the cosmos, it seems to me God designed creation for man from the get-go, to extend that eternal, perichoretic trinitarian love – to bring us into himself (we are to be IN Christ, to remain IN Christ as we live Jesus Creed daily, and that relationship survives death, i.e. is “salvation.” I am coming to dislike that word, simply for the messes it seems to create [Blue Parakeet?!] . . . being IN Christ, united TO him seems to make much more sense).

    So then, it would appear, that atonement was Jesus being the lamb (the sacrifice in the Jewish cultic context, perhaps so Israel would get it??) that allows us to be united with him, one with him, IN him (yes, in his death & resurrection), and thereby IN God – brought INTO the trinitarian relationship of love . . . even NOW!, not just when we’re fully depreciated physically.

    Perhaps our grappling with these things apart from God as trinitarian love – relationship! – takes us down lots of dead ends.

    Thanks for making me think, Bev!

  • trin

    Scot: “Many today are attracted to Christus Victor but in so doing they socialize the cosmic battle into systemic injustice while for the early theologians this was very much a spiritual battle. Is the attraction today a secularization of the Christus Victory theory? I say Yes.”

    I am confused due to 2 things: I assumed by “many today” you were thinking Christians, but then you said “secularization” which made me think your “many” may be contemporary culture at large.

    If the “many” is the church then, aren’t we supposed to socialize all of our faith? What good is faith if it isn’t socialized (John)? Jesus’ faith ACTED socially; he lived Jesus Creed which is pretty socialized. But then why use secularized?

    “Is the attraction today (to Christus Victor) a secularization of [that] theory?” Whose attraction? Is the church or the world secularizing Christus Victor? If it’s the church, how is that possible, living in Christ 24/7? If it’s the world, how is that even possible? To secularize it means is has no spiritual basis, i.e. there is no Christus Victor left – so I don’t even know how the world COULD secularize it.

    So, that means I’m left to think you mean the church. But socializing something isn’t secularizing it. Maybe it is your moving from the one to the other that is confusing me.

    At any rate!!! . . . in living Jesus Creed don’t we socialize all of our faith? And as Christians, can we ever really secularize anything (ALL of life is worship)?

  • Ben Wheaton

    I think people have secularized Christus Victor. But the history of atonement images mentioned in the post is too simplistic. Here’s an interesting quote from a sixth-century bishop of Poitiers by the name of Fortunatus.

    “Since the stars themselves were not pure in the sight of God on account of human sin, and the whole earth was polluted, Christ was suspended in the air in order to purify the earth and stars together. As well, he was hung on the cross to fulifll the words the Creator had proclaimed: “As Moses raised up the serpent.” As well, he was hung in the air so that he might, as a Reconciler placed in the middle, take away a stumbling-block [scandalum], since there was great discord between heaven and earth. Placed in the middle between heaven and earth, he was restoring peace between mankind and God after there had been hatred.

    As well, since he was fixed to the cross next to a serious criminal, Christ chose this as his main punishment [supplicium], so that he might absolve mankind from original sin, which had been their main torment. As well, the Lord was hung on the cross in order to weigh out on a scale, like a merchant, the ransom-price of his body for our captivity.” Fortunatus, Carmina 11.1.25-26

  • danaames

    I think CV has been “secularized” into social theory in the wake of the Enlightenment, which seeks to secularize everything – marginalizing and dividing the “spiritual” into another dimension entirely, making reality into two storeys. As for CV being only a “spiritual battle,” the great theologians and preachers of the 4th century had very strong things to say about caring for the poor and infirm in their day. Basil of Caesarea spent money, his personal money as well that given to the church, on hospitals, orphanages, hospices and sanitaria that were built together at the edge of the city, and eventually were called the Basileum. People served there because they cared about those needy folks. Their faith was not divorced from their real life.

    CV was about God in Christ defeating death. Scot, you stopped the quote of the Creed too soon; it should extend to “on the third day he arose again, according to the scriptures.” The crucifixion/suffering death and the resurrection were together the “mechanics” of redemption. Ransom as the secondary view was another way of saying we are delivered from death, as all those 4th century theologians were in agreement that the ransom was “paid” neither to God nor to Satan, but to humanity in our condition of death. Think about it… God “paid the ransom” to us… If death is truly overthrown, then we need no longer fear it, and we can begin to live the way God wants us to live with the help of the Holy Spirit through the tools of prayer (in its many forms), almsgiving, and fasting – the “spiritual disciplines” (Matt 6).

    In this view, God is good, and his hands are not tied by any of his attributes or by our sin.


  • Edward Fudge

    Thinking further along the same or similar lines at http://www.edwardfudge.com/atonementseries.docx

  • Bev Mitchell


    Thanks for thinking with me and questioning. As for atonement theories, I like Scot’s conclusion in “A Community Called Atonement” : we may prefer, even emphasize one over the others but we don’t have to choose one to the exclusion of the others. I was brought up with CV as a fairly strong option and still think it works for many things that Christian theology has to think about. It’s especially good when it comes to theodicy problems. (see Rocky Muñoz earlier).

    As for evil coming from a will opposed to God, absolutely. But are there wills opposed to God that are not human? Is there spiritual opposition to God that also influences us, and what is its source? And, was this spiritual opposition to God present before the material universe was created? I don’t think Scripture nails down solidly the order of created things with respect to spirit and matter, so a pre-matter spiritual conflict is thinkable. Original rebellion could be very old indeed and we new-comers are not well equipped, outside of Christ, to deal with the temptation to rebel.

    For an orthodox Jewish take on this specific issue (the timing) check out Jon Levenson’s very biblical argument in “Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence”

  • Mark Pixley

    Like others the idea that CV has been secularized seems a little weird to me…if I am not mistaken a truly grounded CV perspective will have root in the incarnation, which kind of kicks the secular idea in the teeth…from what I have seen the Victor model has Jesus redeeming humanity (cosmos) from sin, death, the devil…more of a modified “Ransom” perspective, but if we take the “cosmic” idea into full logic then the triune “nothingness” (to paraphrase Athanasius) of sin, death and the devil have root in our fallenness and not outside of us…there is no “secular” world, only the real one…obviously Anselm and the Calvanist will have issue with God doing ransom business with the devil, but the script will demand the Author Himself was “IN” Christ reconciling the world (cosmos) to Himself…if anything I think our modifications are not secular vs. sacred as much as they are making God schizophrenic…which CV tends to avoid a bit better than the other models…your mileage may vary…

  • scotmcknight

    You’ve rephrased a solid CV, one not often articulated in some how adhere to CV today. For many CV is liberation from systemic injustice — take a look at Wink, no?

  • scotmcknight

    Dana, yes, but I’m summing up how Heine focuses on atoning phrases.

  • scotmcknight

    trin, depends I guess on how we are using the terms “socialize” and ‘spiritual.” Take a look, as I said above, at Wink. The spiritual forces are turned from real spiritual beings into more or less mythological forces at work in systemic structures.

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Thanks, Scot. I share your concern. There is a tendency among certain circles in contemporary Christianity to depict the cross of Christ solely in terms of God’s nonviolent confrontation with “the powers”–meaning, political powers–such that the victory of the cross points to a liberation from political oppression. I would call this the “historicization” (rather than “secularization”) of the cross: the saving work of God is reduced to the historical plane of political struggle. It is for this reason that, even though the way of the cross is manifestly nonviolent in human terms (Jesus practices non-retaliation toward his human persecutors and executioners to the end–cf. 1 Peter 2), I am wary of identifying the cross with nonviolence. For when we consider the cosmic sphere, the dominion of sin and death (cf. Romans 5-6), we see Paul using patently violent images to depict the saving work of God through the cross of Christ: Christ “murders hostility” through the cross (Ephesians 2), God “crucifies” sin and the death-demanding law (Colossians 2). Such imagery points to a spiritual battle of God against the dominating powers of sin and death, and God’s victory over these powers is won through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Now, the cosmic victory of God DOES have historical-political implications for humanity. And, Paul tells us, the first implication is the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ: former enemies, two peoples formerly at war with each other, are remade into a single people of God through the peace of the cross (Ephesians 2). The cross of Christ, that is, creates a new “body politic”–the church! And this has further political implications: the church faces the fallen powers of the world with the power of the cross and in hope of the resurrection, dressed in “the armor of God” (Ephesians 6). These fallen powers are not only “spiritual forces of evil” but also “rulers and authorities”–that is, the victory of God in Christ enables Christian resistance to both spiritual and political evil in this world.

    If you’d like to read more along these lines, see my book: Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012).

  • scotmcknight

    Thanks much, Darrin. Whatever term we use, I think we’re saying nearly the same thing… maybe “socialization”?

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Right. I don’t intend to quibble on what to call this. I suspect the term “secularization” might have thrown off some readers (one of whom was wondering if you might have been referring to non-Christians, which you weren’t!). Another way to put this is to say that on the view you’re identifying the cross is reduced to the human plane–the God-approved nonviolent act of the human Jesus against human powers to free human beings from human domination. So, perhaps “humanized”?!

  • Mark Pixley

    A lot of our approaches seem informed from a sort of “cultural syndoche” (culturally to see the part as the whole, I sort of made it up)…I might be leading the question a bit but it seems that most arguments about injustice in atonement models come from a cultural perspective steeped in Western justice models rather than seeing that God found us in Christ BEFORE sin lost us in Adam? I think any sense of injustice comes from not going back far enough, we usually start with Adam, both Paul and John will start with the Christ, before creation…if we hold to a CV model that starts in the fall, we can very well misunderstand justice/justification/Justifier because we have left parts of the “cosmos” out of the equation…from my perch a true CV model has no plan “B” only a perfect and complete plan “A” from the foundations of the cosmos…justice becomes simply Gods love aimed at whatever opposes His love…and of course love always is Victor…

  • I can’t agree with the last statement. Theories of Atonement address different aspects of the human experience as well as that which is beyond the human experience that still effects us (cosmic). It would seem correct to say that the individual is caught up in the cosmic. That same principle of which you wrote could also be applied to social dimension of systemic injustice being caught up in the cosmic spiritual battle.

    In short, I guess what you did with “but the cosmic made provision for the individual” could be applied to the cosmic spiritual battle making provision for the social dimension of systemic injustices. No secularization takes place, just a natural step in the evolution of atonement theories and their applications.

  • josenmiami

    Great post and interesting discussion, thanks!

  • Andrew Dowling

    “In short, I guess what you did with “but the cosmic made provision for
    the individual” could be applied to the cosmic spiritual battle making
    provision for the social dimension of systemic injustices. No
    secularization takes place, just a natural step in the evolution of
    atonement theories and their applications.”

    Very well said.

  • Bob Robinson

    I must be missing something as well. Does not the CV view of atonement encompass Christ’s victory over actual, physical oppression? Doesn’t it explain the significance of Mary’s Magnificat and Jesus’ proclamation in Luke 4 that he was anointed to proclaim good news to the poor?

  • I’m a fan of Wink, but I take a bit of issue with saying his reading of Christus Victor is throwing out the spiritual in favor of the secular. Rather than throw out the spiritual, he brings the spiritual into focus, demonstrating just how profoundly it affects our world.

    The only thing “less spiritual” about Wink’s portrayal is the move away from depicting spiritual forces as a Frank Peretti, Casper-the-unfriendly-ghost, caricature.

    I assume that the spiritual forces addressed in the scriptures are real, and as reality, they will stubbornly refuse to look like our cartoonish depictions.

    In fact, I would say that the mark of truth is that it will look dramatically different than what we imagined.

  • Marshall

    Sometimes maybe people make too much of a distinction between secular and spiritual things. So surely socialized evil exists in this place where we actually live, a mixture of natural and spiritual.

    So I wonder if Paul is saying Christ died because of (hyper, not anti) human sin. As a result of the institutionalized bad (sinful) choices of humans (the Fall, the demand for a King), those Winkian institutions (Rome, Temple, and Demos) going on to make a particularly bad choice.

  • Billy North

    It’s understandable that the early Christians overemphasized the spiritual aspect of the CV model due to their cultural context. A more modern view of CV would tend to deemphasize that. A contemporary view of the CV model should embrace the clear categories of sin and death while including the more abstract categories of spiritual forces and powers. The CV theory of the atonement more accurately reflects the biblical narrative and the character of God articulated in scripture.