Christus Victor

Christus Victor June 3, 2013

As I was writing about the Rob Bell controversy a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that one of the major issues raised by Bell’s conservative critics is Atonement theology. One of the major examples of a doctrinal boundary that is extremely important to traditional evangelicals but not characteristic of the Christian tradition as a whole is the doctrine of penal substitution. For some conservative evangelicals, penal substitution is at the heart of the Gospel. And too often, the only alternative presented is a doctrine of “atonement” in which Jesus’ death simply shows God’s love or represents resistance to unjust political structures or something of that sort (wonderful as those things are, they don’t do justice to the Biblical and historical themes of atonement and blood sacrifice).

Frequently, a third alternative is presented: “Christus Victor,” in which Jesus redeems us by overcoming the powers of evil. This “theory” is generally ascribed to the Church Fathers. Unfortunately, I find that often people don’t do justice to the richness of patristic atonement theology when they set up “Christus Victor” as an alternative to penal substitution. Defenders of penal substitution are right to point out that in fact substitutionary language is all over the Fathers. Early Christians did not simply believe that Jesus rescued us from evil, but that he offered Himself as a sacrifice to the Father and paid the penalty for our sins. This language is there in the early Church, and a “Christus Victor” theology that ignores it is a pale shadow of what the Fathers actually taught.

The use of the term “Christus Victor” to describe a type of atonement theology seems to derive from the English title of the Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustav Aulen’s lectures on the subject, delivered at the University of Uppsala in 1930 and published in English the following year by the S.P.C.K., having been translated by A. G. Hebert. (I’m using the 1950 reprint.) Aulen contrasts both the “objective” and “subjective” views of the Atonement with what he calls the “classic” view found in the Fathers and Luther. Briefly, the first two views are contrasted thus:

The “objective” view, which Aulen finds first fully formed in Anselm, though prefigured in the Latin Fathers, holds that Jesus atones for our sins acting as a human being, paying on our behalf the debt we owed to God. This may take the form, as in Anselm, of Jesus paying the debt through His perfect obedience, or it may take the form of Jesus directly being punished for our sins (Aulen doesn’t distinguish as sharply between these as I would like).

The “subjective” view, on the other hand, holds that Jesus saves us by his perfect obedience, which serves as an inspiration to us, changing our hearts rather than changing something objective about our relationship to God.

Aulen argues that these two views, while opposites, are two sides of the same coin. They share a number of features that distinguish them from the “classic” view. First of all, according to Aulen they are theories which attempt to explain the atonement through some sort of key idea, whereas the traditional view is a “model” but not a full-blown theory–it has room for a number of different emphases and permutations and allows for more mystery than the two later theories do. The most important feature common to these two theories, however, is that they see Atonement as something Jesus does primarily as a human being, rather than as something Jesus does as God. Atonement, while certainly God’s work in the sense that God initiates the chain of events and in the sense that Jesus is 100% divine, is in a formal sense the activity of a perfect, sinless human being. Jesus’ divinity allows the human being Jesus to atone for us–in the “objective” view by giving His sacrifice infinite value, and in the subjective view by making Jesus a perfect representation of the Father’s love who had no inner alienation from God to content with on his own behalf. But in both theories, Jesus’ humanity holds center stage, whereas in the “classic model” the Atonement is above all else the act of God Himself.

(To be continued)

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