Christus Victor Revisited

Bill Evans head shot

CT Editor Mark Galli has a nice piece on the Christianity Today website entitled “The Problem with Christus Victor” (reblogged on TheAquilaReport here).  Galli takes issue with a trend he detects in contemporary Evangelical circles toward the “Christus Victor” theme of the Atonement—the idea that the Atonement is to be understood as Christ’s decisive victory over the power of sin, death, and the devil.

Galli rightly notes that according to Scripture Christ’s death on the cross was a mighty victory over sin and death, that the devil was decisively defeated at the Cross.  He also concedes that we are “enslaved to powers beyond our control, both personally and corporately,” and that the death of Christ has cosmic implications that go far beyond more individualist concerns about “me and my salvation.”   His concern seems to be that the Christus Victor theme is being presented by some (e.g., Rob Bell) as an alternative to the substitutionary view (which Galli regards as the “dominant metaphor for the Atonement in Scripture”) that Christ dies in the place of sinners, taking the punishment they deserve and that is required by divine justice.  When this happens “personal sin and guilt take a back seat,” and Galli closes by suggesting “that Christus Victor may not be a theory that Protestants, and evangelical in particular, should tie their wagons to.”

I should indicate at the outset that I share Galli’s concerns about the eclipse of the forensic dimension of the Atonement among some current champions of the Christus Victor theme, and I think he has identified some good reasons why that development should not be applauded.  That being said, I still think that Galli may have been a bit hasty in his dismissal.

The Christus Victor theme of the Atonement moved to the front burner of twentieth-century theology with the publication of Gustav Aulén’s Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, which first appeared in English in 1931.  In brief, Aulén argued that this theme, which Aulén dubbed the “classic” theory of the Atonement, is dominant in the New Testament and the church fathers.  But then Anselm of Canterbury messed things up with his “juridical” satisfaction theory.  Martin Luther valiantly recovered the classic theory, before later Protestant Orthodoxy returned to the juridical view of Anselm, and the problems inherent in this juridical “Latin” view then spawned the subjective “humanistic” theories associated with Protestant liberalism.  Such is the somewhat simplistic narrative of Aulén, whose account has been challenged on both biblical and historical-theological grounds.

On the popular level, the Christus Victor theme got a big boost in evangelical circles from C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Recall how the White Witch relinquishes her claim on Edmund in order to kill Aslan, only to find herself undone and defeated by the “deep magic”—a pretty straightforward Christus Victor presentation of the matter.  Interestingly, elsewhere Lewis presents a rather different account of the Atonement similar in some ways to the imprecisely named  “vicarious-repentance theory” of John McLeod Campbell (see C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity [HarperCollins, 2001], pp. 56-59).  It is nevertheless clear, however, that Lewis didn’t have much time for the traditional substitutionary understanding of the Atonement.

Close examination of the church fathers (at least the better ones) suggests, however, that Christus-Victor and subsitutionary themes were not mutually exclusive.  St. Athanasius of Alexandria, for example, though he certainly emphasizes Christ’s death as a mighty victory, also recognized that the legal claim of the law demanding death for sin had to be satisfied (see Athanasius, “On the Incarnation,” in Christology of the Later Fathers [Westminster, 1954], pp. 64, 74), and Augustine in the Latin-speaking West is similar.

Of course, it is one thing to say, with Scripture (see, e.g., John 12:31-33; Colossians 2:15), that Christ’s death is a mighty victory over sin and death.  It is another to explain how it is so, and the early-church theories likely strike many of us as odd.  The Christus Victor theme is often associated with so-called “ransom to the devil” theories of the Atonement.  The idea here was that the death of Christ was a “ransom” to the devil, who, in killing Christ, loses control over sinful human beings who are united with Christ.  This is explained in a variety of ways—the cruder ones implying a deception of the devil while the more sophisticated ones (Ambrosiaster, Augustine) suggest an abuse of authority by the devil.  For example, Gregory of Nyssa famously spoke of Christ’s deity as the “hook” hidden in the “bait” of his humanity.  Upon swallowing, as it were, the divine-human Christ the devil found he had been caught and defeated (see Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” in NPNF2, V: 494).

More interesting is Augustine, who treats the death of Christ under two main categories—sacrifice and ransom.  On the one hand, Christ’s death is a substitutionary sacrifice to the Father in which Christ pays the penalty which sinful human beings deserve.  As he puts it, “Christ, though guiltless, took our punishment, that he might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment” (“Contra Faustus Manichaeus,” in NPNF1, XIV.4).  Thus, as Eugène Portalié and others have noted, it is quite foolish to say that Anselm invented the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement.

On the other hand, Augustine also understands Christ’s death as a ransom to the devil which breaks the power of the devil over those who are joined with Christ.  On this line of thinking, God has granted the devil the right to inflict death on sinful human beings, but in killing the sinless Jesus the devil abused his power and thus forfeited his rights over those in union with Christ.  While this language is not without some difficulties, it does enable Augustine to relate the work of Christ on the cross directly to both our acceptance before God and our triumph over the bondage of sin, and that is no mean achievement.

Given this background, it is not in the least surprising that the Christus Victor theme finds expression and even some emphasis in the Reformed tradition.  According to Robert Peterson (Calvin’s Doctrine of the Atonement [P&R, 1983], p. 46), “One of Calvin’s favorite themes of the atonement was Christ as victor, who conquers the foes of His people.”  And while the theme is perhaps less prominent in the Reformed confessional tradition, it is present (see WLC Q. 52).

Galli’s article underscores the problems associated with doing theology by reaction.  To be sure, people like Rob Bell may minimize personal sin and guilt, and use the Christus Victor theme as a means to that end.  But there is no necessity in this.  After all, Augustine, whose development of the theme is extensive, can scarcely be accused of minimizing personal sin and guilt.  Unfortunately, the story of Protestant understandings of salvation has often resembled Luther’s proverbial drunken German peasant trying to ride a horse, leaning first far to one side, and then overcorrecting and leaning far to the other.  For example, some seek to exalt forensic justification and the substitutionary atonement, but they sometimes end up making salvation abstract and unconnected from the life of faith.  Others respond to that imbalance by falling into legalism.

As Christians we are redeemed from both the guilt of sin and the power of sin.  It seems to me that we desperately need theological language that enables us not only to describe that glorious transition from wrath to grace in justification, but also to denominate the sanctifying transformation that takes place within us, and to relate all of this directly to the person and work of Christ.  As Augustine and Calvin have demonstrated, the theme of Christus Victor is theologically useful in this regard.

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