Christus Victor Theory of Atonement
Christus Victor (Latin for “Christ is Victorious”) is a view of the atonement closely related to and often lumped together with the ransom view that was discussed in last week’s blog post. However, the Christus Victor motif avoids some of the problems that the ransom theory falls into. It may be fair to say that the Christus Victor view is the healthier version of the ransom view. In essence, the Christus Victor model says Jesus defeated all the power of sin, death, and the Devil by his coming to earth as a man, his righteous life, death, and resurrection. Whereas Gregory of Nyssa and Origen took this view and taught that the ransom of Christ was paid to Satan in exchange for humanity’s freedom, a view most evangelical theologians reject, other early fathers avoided these errors and emphasized the victory of Christ over evil (including Satan). This form of the Christus Victor model of atonement has enjoyed resurgence in recent decades and deserves a good treatment.
Christus Victor in the Bible
Without doubt, the Christus Victor theme is found within the pages Scripture and must be a part of any well balanced and fully formed view of atonement. We read in 1 John 3:8, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” Of course, as is often the case, these themes do not suddenly pop up in the New Testament, but are based on Old Testament teachings. Greg Boyd, a modern proponent of Christus Victor, goes as far as to say, “Though the motif of spiritual warfare is rarely given its full due, the biblical narrative could in fact be accurately described as a story of God’s on-going conflict with, and ultimate victory over, cosmic and human agents who oppose him and who threaten his creation” (Boyd). In the Old Testament we see the warrior God at work. God fights against other gods and against nature. The famous description of leviathan in Job 41 is a good example. The beast is described in truly horrific terms and it is clear that none, but God, could stand against it. Many scholars believe that the leviathan is symbolic of Satan. In Daniel, we read of the angelic battle that was going on behind the scenes as God was answering Daniel’s prayer.
Dan 10:12-14 Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. (13) The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, (14) and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.”
II Kings 2: 16 we see more spiritual warfare. “Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”
Then in II Kings 19:35-36 we read of the angel destroying the army of Assyria. “And that night the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh.”
The theme of spiritual warfare continues in the New Testament. John often refers to Satan as the “ruler” or “prince” of the world (ἄρχων in the Greek), a word commonly used to refer to Roman governors in the first century (see also John 14:30 and 16:11). We see this idea again when John writes his Revelation. In Revelation 11:15 he writes, “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” The fact that the kingdom “has become” the kingdom of God indicates that it was someone else’s kingdom prior. Other writers have similar language:
Luke 4:5-6 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, (6) and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.
Ephesians 2:1-2 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins (2) in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—
In Ephesians six Paul famously uses an extended analogy between the Christian life and war to illustrate the battle between good and evil that we are still engaged in now, during the dispensation of the church.
It should be observed that it is not just humanity that Satan is the ruler of, but the entire earth. When man fell into sin, all creation fell with man. In the Bible, man and creation is also depicted as under the influence, or captivated by, sin and death. In Genesis 2:17 God clearly states that the penalty for eating from the tree of knowledge was death. Most scholars agree that the death in question is both physical and spiritual death. Man’s soul is now corrupted by sin and spiritually dead.
Romans 6:19-21 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (20) For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. (21) But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.
John 8:34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.
In I Corinthians 15, Paul spends a great deal of time arguing that man must be saved from the corruption and impurity of death. The good news is that man, and all creation with him, is not left in its state of slavery to sin and death. Satan is not allowed to keep his rulership of the earth. In Christ these powers are defeated and we, as well as creation, are ultimately set free.
1 John 3:8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.
Romans 6:10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.
Hebrews 2:14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
John 8:34-36 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. (35) The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. (36) So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Luke 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
Colossians 2:15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
For a more detailed description of all the Bible has to say about this theme see Greg Boyd’s blog (Boyd). In his blog Dr. Boyd sums things up nicely when he states:
the Christus Victor model can wholeheartedly affirm that Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many, but without supposing that Jesus literally had to buy off either God or the devil (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28; cf. I Tim. 2:6; Heb 9:15). The word “ransom” simply means “the price of release” and was most commonly used when purchasing slaves from the slave market. (18) Hence, the Christus Victor model can simply take this to mean that Christ did whatever it took to release us from slavery to the powers, and this he did by become incarnate, living an outrageously loving life in defiance of the powers, freeing people from the oppression of the devil through healings and exorcisms, teaching the way of self-sacrificial love, and most definitively by his sacrificial death and victorious resurrection (Boyd).
Irenaeus (AD c. 130-202)
Again, we look to Irenaeus for early teaching on the atonement. He does use the ransom analogy in reference to the death of Christ, but his teaching on atonement is much broader and can be better characterized as emphasizing the recapitulation and victory of Christ. We will discuss recapitulation in the next post, and focus on the victory motif currently. For Irenaeus, God’s defeat of Satan and death was really a vindication of Himself. Had death continued to reign over creation, argues Irenaeus, God would have, Himself, been defeated by the evil and deceit of Satan.
…[This was necessary,] too, inasmuch as the whole economy of salvation regarding man came to pass according to the good pleasure of the Father, in order that God might not be conquered, nor His wisdom lessened, [in the estimation of His creatures.] For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly [and for ever] abandoned to death, God would [in that case] have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God … and by means of the second man did He bind the strong man, and spoiled his goods and abolished death, vivifying that man who had been in a state of death (Schaff “Against Heresy” 3.22.1).
Notice, in the above quote, how the “strong man” (Satan) is bound and death is abolished. The victory of Christ is performed through His strength and ability to overcome the powers of evil. Irenaeus teaches that man was held captive (either by sin, Satan, or death) and that Christ frees man from that captivity. “…wherefore he who had led man captive, was justly captured in his turn by God; but man, who had been led captive, was loosed from the bonds of condemnation” (Schaff Against Heresy 3.22.1). Language of captivity and freedom is common in Irenaeus. In Book five of “Against Heresy” Irenaeus describes Satan has having man bound by “transgression and apostasy”, but Christ frees man from that bondage and then binds Satan with the very sin he had used to bind man. This victory is provided through Christ, by the grace of the God, “in order that man might learn by actual proof that he receives incorruptibility not of himself, but by the free gift of God” (Schaff “Against Heresy” 5.21.3).
Athanasius (AD c. 296-237)
The Christus Victor theme continues throughout the early fathers and time does not permit us to look at every occurrence of it. However, the contribution of St. Athanasius to the development of the doctrine of the atonement is too huge to ignore. While Athanasius is best known for his avid defense of the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy, his short work “On the Incarnation” contributes much to our current topic.
By the time of Athanasius, Origen had been dead for more than fifty years. Both of these early fathers were from Alexandria and it is nearly certain that Athanasius was familiar with the work of Origen. Yet, in Athanasius we see virtually no trace of the ransom analogy Origen used. It may be that Athanasius was not only aware of Origen’s teaching, but that he was actually attempting to correct it. For Athanasius, the foes that needed to be defeated were primarily death and corruption. Athanasius says that, “…by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to end” (Athanasius 29). Death is characterized as mighty foe (Athanasius 6), but not strong enough to stand against the might of Christ who vanquishes it.
Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of His body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ Who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally (Athanasius 29).
Athanasius makes clear that this victory over death is total for all that place faith in Christ and His cross. He goes all the way back to Genesis and the conflict between Christ and Satan foretold. The way in which Christians were willing to face persecution and death in the name of Christ was, for Athanasius, proof that death had been defeated and it had lost all power over them so that they fear it no more. He compares the attitude of martyrs to that of children making fun of a lion. Surely such a sight indicates that the lion is tamed or dead.
…Himself gives the victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith and bear the sign of the cross? No one in his senses doubts that a snake is dead when he sees it trampled underfoot, especially when he knows how savage it used to be; nor, if he sees boys making fun of a lion, does he doubt that the brute is either dead or completely bereft of strength (Athanasius 29)
For Athanasius, the resurrection is the “monument to His victory over death” (Athanasius 22) and the assurance of victory for all the saints that embrace the cross. His resurrection body is a pledge that assures believers of being granted the same. The resurrection body is free of all corruption, and thus, the ultimate proof of victory.
Of all the early fathers Athanasius comes closest to the penal substitution model that will not be fully fleshed out until the reformation. Athanasius contribution to the motif of penal substitution will be discussed in a later post, but for now it’s important to note that Athanasius saw the death of Christ as a sacrificial substitute. This substitution was the way in which death was defeated. Athanasius emphasized that death was the penalty for sin that man was under since the fall. By His death, Christ paid that penalty and by union with Christ the penalty is paid for all.
…there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection . . . Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it . . . (Athanasius 20, 22).
Furthermore, the victory that Christ won by is incarnation, life, death, and resurrection was not only a victory for humanity, but for all creation.
In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image (Athanasius 13).
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)
The Christus Victor motif continues to be the paramount view of atonement for more than more than 700 years. Various theologians emphasize different aspects of Christ victory, but the general theme of Christ’s victory is clear throughout the patristic era. The ransom view discussed in the previous post is really just an offshoot of Christus Victor that places the emphasis on God defeating Satan. As we will see later the Christus Victor is still a poplar theme today. In truth, the Bible does contain this theme and a fully formed doctrine of atonement must include it. However, later authors found it insufficient for explaining the atonement fully. In the eleventh century Anslem’s classic “Cur Deus Homo?” provided an explanation of the atonement that appealed strongly to the feudal mindset of his day. The ripples created by his contribution are still evident today, but we will leave that discussion for another day. The Christus Victor theme waned in the Catholic Church (it remained more popular in the Eastern Orthodox Church) until the reformation. It may surprise some to find out that Martin Luther, that herald of penal substitution, also breathed new life into the Christus Victor motif. Notice how, in his commentary on Galatian 3:13, Luther develops both ideas together:
Our merciful Father in heaven saw how the Law oppressed us and how impossible it was for us to get out from under the curse of the Law. He therefore sent His only Son into the world and said to Him: “You are now Peter, the liar; Paul, the persecutor; David, the adulterer; Adam, the disobedient; the thief on the cross. You, My Son, must pay the world’s iniquity.” The Law growls: “All right. If Your Son is taking the sin of the world, I see no sins anywhere else but in Him. He shall die on the Cross.” And the Law kills Christ. But we go free.
Let us see how Christ was able to gain the victory over our enemies. The sins of the whole world, past, present, and future, fastened themselves upon Christ and condemned Him. But because Christ is God He had an everlasting and unconquerable righteousness. These two, the sin of the world and the righteousness of God, met in a death struggle. Furiously the sin of the world assailed the righteousness of God. Righteousness is immortal and invincible. On the other hand, sin is a mighty tyrant who subdues all men. This tyrant pounces on Christ. But Christ’s righteousness is unconquerable. The result is inevitable. Sin is defeated and righteousness triumphs and reigns forever (Luther Commentary on Galation 3:13).
In Luther we see the development of a multi-dimensional atonement. Luther was a strong believer in the penal substitutionary atonement, but he also saw the cross as Christ’s ultimate victory. These themes are not mutually exclusive for Luther. Unfortunately, some later theologians have attempted to isolate Luther’s statements in an attempt to show that he never really embraced penal substitution (Aulen).
Eastern Orthodox Church
The Eastern Church continues to hold to the Christus Victor model as its preeminent way of understanding the work of Christ. Like the church fathers, they place a greater emphasis on the incarnation than most western Evangelicals. Bishop Kallistos Ware, a retired Eastern Orthodox bishop in the U.K., was interviewed by Christianity Today in 2011 and when asked to describe “What is the center of the Christian message?” he responded:
I would answer, “I believe in a God who loves humankind so intensely, so totally, that he chose himself to become human. Therefore, I believe in Jesus Christ as fully and truly God, but also totally and unreservedly one of us, fully human.” And I would say to you, “The love of God is so great that Christ died for us on the cross. But love is stronger than death, and so the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection. I am a Christian because I believe in the great love of God that led him to become incarnate, to die, and to rise again.” That’s my faith. All of this is made immediate to us through the continuing action of the Holy Spirit (Ware).
Notice how Bishop Ware emphasizes the incarnation. If an Evangelical leader was asked the same question the answer would likely place an emphasis on faith and mention of the incarnation would be less central. While I think the Bishop does under emphasize faith and the substitutionary aspects of the Cross, we Evangelicals would do well in elevating and meditating more upon the importance of the incarnation.
When asked about the “transaction” that takes place when a person puts faith in Christ Bishop Ware responds:
It’s true, we Orthodox would, on the whole, not use the word transaction. It’s also certainly true that we do not emphasize legal language. We prefer the image of Christ as victor over death, love stronger than death, the kind of victory that we sense at the Paschal service Easter midnight in the Orthodox Church, when there is a constant refrain, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs he has given life.” That is the image of Christ’s work that we chiefly stress.
But certainly within the New Testament there is a whole series of images. There is no single systematic theory of the Atonement, and we should make use of all these images. So, yes, we should find a place for the idea of substitution, which the Orthodox don’t stress so much. It is there in the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He who was without sin was made by God to be sin for us, that we in him might become righteousness.” The idea of the sacrificial Lamb is also a profound scriptural image. We should make use of those images as well as Christ the Victor (Ware).
This is a very honest and instructional reply. The Eastern Church does not totally reject the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s death, but they place the spotlight on Christ as the victor. Evangelicals do not reject Christus Victor, but we place the spotlight on substitution. Both segments of the church would do well to broaden their respective lights. However, it should be noted that the Bishop and the Eastern Church do not view the atonement as a legal transaction required by the justice and glory of God. They place love as the motive of God in saving man (Ware). While Evangelicals agree that God was motivated by love, we also give a prominent place to some of God’s other attributes. Evangelicals generally view the cross as satisfying the demands of God’s justice in redeeming man. However, Bishop Ware explicitly rejects the idea of “satisfaction”.
I don’t care so much for the idea of satisfaction. Satisfaction is not a scriptural word. The legal imagery, I think, should always be combined with an emphasis upon the transfiguring power of love. The motive for the Incarnation was not God’s justice or his glory, but his love. That was the supreme motive. “God so loved the world.” That is what we should start from (Ware).
Bishop Ware is a good representation of the modern Eastern Orthodox Church. His book “The Orthodox Church”, which he wrote as a young man, remains a standard introduction to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Bishop Ware was the Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford University until his retirement in 2001.
Gustaf Aulen (1879-1977)
No discussion of Christus Victor can possibly be complete without discussing the groundbreaking work of Gusaf Aulen. Aulen’s book “Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement” brought renewed attention to the Christus Victor theme in the Western church and sparked a debate that continues still. Aulen argued that the early farther had no penal substitutionary thinking on Christ and the cross. He argues that until Anselm the Christus Victor model was virtually alone as a doctrine of the atonement (Jones). As we will see when we discuss the penal substitutionary view of atonement, Aulen’s treatment of the early fathers seems to ignore a great many passages that he didn’t reconcile with his thinking. However, many took Aulen’s arguments and ran with them; using Aulen as a platform from which to attack the penal substitutionary atonement. As mentioned earlier, Greg Boyd is prominent proponent of Christus Victor, and he is also opposed to penal substitution. Here is what Dr. Boyd has to say on his blog:
Along the same lines, in the Christus Victor view, Jesus was afflicted by the Father not in the sense that the Father’s rage burned directly toward his Son, but in the sense that God allowed evil agents to have their way with him for a greater good. This is how God’s wrath was usually expressed toward Israel in the Old Testament (e.g. Jud 2:11-19; Isa 10:5-6). It’s just that with Jesus, the greater good was not to teach Jesus obedience, as it usually was with Israel in the Old Testament. Instead, God the Son bore the Father’s wrath, expressed through the powers, for the greater good of demonstrating God’s righteousness against the powers and sin (Rom 3:25) while defeating the powers and setting humans free from their oppression (Boyd).
We will look at evidence from both Scriptures and the early fathers that seems to show there was indeed the idea of penal substitution in both, but that will be reserved for a later blog post. For now, it is important to note that there is a current attack on the penal substitutionary atonement going on. Unlike the Eastern Orthodox Church, which does have a strong sense of personal guilt, many of the modern proponents of Christus Victor seem to minimize this aspect.
Many interesting comparisons can be made between the two theories. Both actually include dimensions of personal guilt and victimhood, but as I listen to the discussion today, it seems that Christus Victor highlights our state as victims. Substitutionary atonement focuses on our guilt. In Christus Victor, we are liberated from hostile powers out there. In substitution, we are forgiven, and liberation is from ourselves and our addiction to our sin. Naturally, both models speak to truths of the human condition! And both have nuances worth exploring. But I’m concerned at the rising popularity of Christus Victor when it comes at the expense of substitution (Galli).
So, the Christus Victor motif is both Biblical and traditional. It was the most commonly seen view in the early fathers and has a rich history in the church. Modern Evangelicals would benefit from a renewed emphasis on its truth. However, the Christus Victor model, as seen in Scripture and early tradition, is not the antithesis of penal substitution. Both are important aspects of the atonement that exist together and shed light on the fullness of what Christ accomplished.
Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Kindle Edition, 2001.
Aulen, Gustaf. Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. Wipf & Stock Pub, 2003.
Boyd, Greg. ReKnew. 8 January 2008. Blog. 10 September 2013. <http://reknew.org/2008/01/the-christus-victor-view-of-the-atonement/>.
Galli, Mark. Christainity Today. 7 April 2011. 9 September 2013. <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/aprilweb-only/christusvicarious.html?paging=off>.
Hagan, Kenneth. “Luther on Atonement – Reconfigured.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 61.4 (1997): 251-276. 13 September 2013.
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Jeffery, Steve, et al. Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Wheaton: Crossway, 2007.
Jones, Tony. A Better Atonement: Christus Victor. 29 Feb. 2012. Blog. 14 Sept. 2013. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2012/02/29/a-better-atonement-christus-victor/>.
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On the Atonement: Irenaeus vs. Aulén (Round Two). 14 April 2008. 13 September 2013. <http://rester.us/HistoricalTheoBlogy/?p=35>.
Schaff, Phillip. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Early Church (Complete). Library of Alexandria. iBooks, n.d. E-Book.
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Ware, Kallistos. Q & A: Bishop Kallistos Ware on the Fullness and the Center David Neff. 17 July 2011. www.christainitytoday.com. 14 September 2013. <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/july/fullnesscenter.html?start=1>.