Christus Victor, Part II

Christus Victor, Part II August 25, 2013

According to Aulen, the “classic” view is superior to both the later Latin theories in part because it  preserves both “objective” and “subjective” elements, whereas the two Latin theories each stress one aspect at the expense of the other. Like the Anselmian/penal substitution approach, the “classic model” recognizes that there is something objectively alienating us from God, beyond our own subjective disposition. The classic view takes seriously the idea that Jesus’ death is necessary in order for God to be able to forgive us. But whereas the Anselmian view sees the necessity as arising from the legal claims of God’s honor, the classic view identifies the necessity with our subjection to the powers of evil and death. In conquering those powers, God is indeed satisfying His own justice, but in a richer and fuller and less legalistic way than that posited by the Anselmian theory.

Furthermore, Aulen argues that whereas the Latin theories see atonement as primarily the act of Jesus according to his human nature (offering the atoning sacrifice or serving as the perfect example), the “classic” view sees it as God’s act of redemption. Yes, Jesus is the perfect atoning sacrifice, and His humanity is central to His sacrificial work. But for Aulen’s “classic model,” the role of the divine nature is far more decisive. This is one of Aulen’s most interesting arguments, though it’s open to a lot of dispute.  One can question whether Aulen’s either/or is really necessary, and one can also perhaps question the Christology that lies behind it (does it perhaps downplay Jesus’ humanity too much?). But whether he’s entirely fair to Anselm and other classic Atonement theorists, it’s certainly true that modern Christians tend to think of the Atonement as Jesus-the-man (or Jesus-the-loving-Son) propitiating the angry Father-God. And certainly this misinterpretation is harder to fall into with the Christus Victor theory.
Aulen’s stress on divine action in the Atonement is important because of his final move. He argues that Martin Luther departs from the typical patterns of second-millennium Western theology and recovers the richness of the classic patristic model. Luther’s doctrine of justification, Aulen argues, rests on a “Christus Victor” atonement theology in which Jesus’ death frees us from the power of Satan, sin, death, hell–and the Law. Aulen suggests that for Luther the Law plays essentially the same role that Satan played in patristic theology. Certainly he’s right that Luther tends to identify Satan with the Law–the Law’s primary function is to accuse us, and so is Satan’s. (One of the most hilarious, though annoying, bits of anti-Lutheran polemic I’ve come across is a 17th-century Catholic tract pointing out that Luther admitted having gotten his arguments against late medieval Catholic practices from Satan. This because in one of his writings Luther describes Satan interrogating him on the Scriptural basis for the practice of offering private masses, and claims to have been entirely unable to answer Satan’s Scriptural arguments. The polemicist, of course, missed Luther’s rhetorical point, which was that Satan torments our conscience and if we aren’t firmly rooted in the Word by faith, we will fall into despair and be damned by his accusations.) Aulen sees Luther’s view as even more profound than that of the Fathers, since it deals more adequately with the fact that Satan’s claims against us are indeed rooted in God’s justice, so that God is, in a sense, overcoming Himself. (One could put this down, of course, to Luther’s being far more a product of typical “Western” atonement theology than Aulen is willing to admit.) Alas, says Aulen, later Lutherans failed to maintain Luther’s position in its integrity, reverting to a more typical “Western” atonement theology.
I’ve described Aulen’s arguments in some detail, because I think they have a lot of value for people who are looking for alternatives to the “traditional” penal substitution view. (Of course, you should really read Aulen and not just trust my summary, especially since I’m finishing this review quite a while after having read the book!) Aulen’s version of “Christus Victor” (and bear in mind that he invented the phrase–the Fathers did not go around claiming to believe in something called “Christus Victor atonement theology”) contains far more elements of “penal substitution” than most people realize. It is not simply about God “overcoming evil,” as some banal summaries of Christus Victor imply. In Aulen’s hands, Christus Victor _is_ a form of substitutionary atonement in which Jesus satisfies the claims of the Law. But He does so not through legal fiction or through passively bearing God’s wrath, but through actively defeating the forces of evil, taking the full brunt of the assault of death’s powers and swallowing them up in victory. 
I find Aulen’s portrayal fundamentally persuasive, and I think that the patristic model as he describes it is substantially correct as a historical portrait of what the Fathers taught _and_ as the most adequate theological model available to us to describe the mystery of the Atonement. But there are some legitimate questions to be raised. As I said above, it’s not clear that he’s entirely fair to Anselm in particular. The Orthodox theologian David Hart has apparently argued that Anselm actually _did_ remain faithful to the patristic understanding of Satan’s role in Atonement theology. That isn’t my reading of Anselm, but I need to read Hart and see if he convinces me. A more serious objection, from my point of view, is Aulen’s almost Marcionite reading of Luther, and for that matter of the Scriptures. (Marcion was the early Christian theologian who wanted to throw out the Old Testament.) Aulen repeatedly identifies the Western view with an Old Testament, “Jewish” understanding of God in fundamentally legal, vindictive terms. He thus interprets Luther’s “Satanization” (my term, not Aulen’s) of the Law as a rejection of this Old Testament understanding. This is wrong on several counts. For one thing, Luther did not identify the Law simply with the Old Testament. According to Luther, the Sermon on the Mount is the perfection of the Law–it does not belong to the Gospel. For another, I can’t see anything like the Western theology of Atonement in the Old Testament. Yes, of course blood sacrifice is there, but not in the same context or with the same significance as in later Christian theology. It was a ritual act dealing with ritual pollution. The prophets, who focus on moral and spiritual offenses against God, tend to criticize ritual sacrifice and certainly don’t present it as the way of dealing with such offenses (well, maybe Joel does). I’m not saying that later Christian interpretations, which harmonize Leviticus and Isaiah, are wrong–in fact, I think one of the strongest Christian arguments (if we want to engage in argument with Jews, which is generally a bad idea at this point in salvation history) is precisely that we can harmonize Leviticus and Isaiah seen through Christ’s sacrifice. But this _is_ a later Christian interpretation, and it’s historically wrong to read such interpretations back into Old Testament Judaism. Certainly post-Christian Jews find Christian Atonement theology, particularly penal substitution, to be weird at best. 
Even more fundamentally, Aulen repeats the typical mistake made by most Christian interpreters until recently, by ascribing to the Old Testament and to the Jewish tradition a belief in works righteousness. The consensus of most contemporary scholars is that this too is just wrong. Jews today do not tremble under God’s wrath and desperately seek to justify themselves through the law. Nor is there any evidence that they did so in the first century. Whether Luther’s understanding of the Law is right or wrong, it’s radically different from the Jewish understanding. 
I don’t think these objections are entirely irrelevant to contemporary discussions of atonement theology among “post-evangelicals.” It’s fatally easy for Christians to lapse into simplistic talk about the loving, gracious Jesus freeing us from the terrible burdens of Pharisaic Judaism, and then ascribe the supposed evils of first-century Judaism to contemporary forms of conservative Christianity. It’s important, in the context of that temptation, to underline that Atonement theology is a Christian thing. Yes, it’s rooted in Yom Kippur and blood sacrifice, but the connotations we read into those Old Testament practices are alien to Judaism. In fact, that’s a major reason to _question_ penal substitution. It’s so radically alien to our Jewish heritage that it’s hard to see how it can be right. Christus Victor theology, to me, looks a lot more like a legitimate “development” of the Biblical tradition in light of the radical newness introduced by Jesus’ saving work. Aulen really drops the ball here, in a way that weakens his argument. (In all fairness, though, his misreading of Judaism was common until recently and shouldn’t be laid to his door in particular. Aulen helped promote a richer understanding of patristic theology among modern Christians, but the time for a similar revitalization of our understanding of Second Temple Judaism had not yet come.)
In spite of these weaknesses, Aulen’s book is well worth reading. A lot of good books on the Atonement have been written since, but Aulen was the first Western Christian scholar I know of who questioned the Anselm/Abelard dichotomy and opened up the possibility that there might be a “third way,” which was in fact none other than the genuinely “classic” view held by pretty much all Christian theologians of the first millennium.

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3 responses to “Christus Victor, Part II”

  1. Just a quick note on "maybe Joel does": did you realize that Crenshaw argues that, in the book of Joel, it is not at all clear that there is any sin being spoken of at all? As he reads it, the catastrophe of the locust plague brings up all sorts of theological motifs, including the motif of "returning" to Yhwh, but there is no clear indication that the plague was a result of specific sin. Hence the focus on sacrifice may well be a ritual way of dealing with breakdowns that are not (clearly) ethical/ moral in nature.

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