The Christus Victor View of Atonement

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“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45)

It will surprise many readers to discover that the Penal Substitution theory of atonement is a more recent development in the history of the Church and her doctrine. The theory that lays claim to being the standard view for many centuries prior to the Protestant Reformation was the Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) theory in which the atonement was seen as victory over Satan and the forces of evil. The central theme of this classic view is that Christ—Christus Victor—fought against and triumphed over the evil powers of the world to which humankind was in bondage. His demise overcame the hostile spiritual powers and, as a result of His sacrifice and victory, captive sinners were freed and given eternal life. This interpretation (known variously as the Classic, dramatic, or ransom theory) was the dominant church view for 1,000 years and remains the view of some contemporary theologians.

Christus Victor is a complex theory as viewed through the Scriptures. The reader must first see the motif of spiritual warfare that winds its way throughout the Bible. If this motif is placed in a primary position, the entire narrative of the Bible is viewed as the story of God’s ongoing battle with spiritual and human agents who oppose Him and threaten harm to His creation and His ultimate victory. The OT view that what occurred in the spiritual realm affected human history is encapsulated in Job 1-2 (Ps 82; Daniel 10). Yahweh is portrayed as continually at war with these forces and it is through his strength alone that chaos is held at bay. There is an acute awareness that the earth is held hostage to these evil forces such that only a radical move by God would be able to overcome them. Jesus spoke to the belief that Satan was the ruler of this world (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). [This should not be understood as Satan higher in order than Jesus. Instead, he is to be viewed as the functional lord of this world.] Satan is portrayed as possessing ‘the kingdoms of the world’ (Luke 4:5-6; 1 John 5:19) and as having authority over them. Paul attributed the fundamental evil of the world’s systems (Gal 1:4) to this rule. Viewing the atonement through this prism logically sees Jesus as overcoming this rule and restoring control to the Trinity.

Ireaneus interpreted this motif by seeing Adam’s disobedience as placing humanity under the dominion of Satan. Rising from the dead, Christ conquered Satan releasing sinners from his control. This victory was foreseen in the great proto-evangelism of Genesis 3:15: …he will crush your head. Ireaneus wrote “Redeeming us with his blood, Christ gave himself as a ransom for those who had been led into captivity.” (Ireaneus, Against Heresies) Origen followed suit in this belief maintaining that because of sin, human beings were bound by Satan. He said that as a ransom payment for these souls, Satan demanded the blood of Christ. As God handed over Christ, Satan released his hostages. Later patristic writers such as John of Damascus took umbrage with the trade of the precious blood of Christ to Satan suggesting that what the devil received was an empty shell of Christ, tricking him.

The Theological Advantage of the Christus Victor View

Proponents of this view of atonement suggest that it is the superior theory because all of the other views are encompassed within its framework. It further offers that there is no temptation for people to suppose that they are participating in the kingdom when there is no evidence of the kingdom in their lives in contrast to the individual outlook of the western Church. Its focus is on the demonic dimension of fallen social structures. Theologically, the advantage proposed of the Christus Victor view is that it solves multiple problems simultaneously. Through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the All-Wise God was able to:

  • Defeat Satan and his cohort (Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8)
  • Reconcile all things to Himself (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-22)
  • Forgive our sins (Acts 13:38; Eph 1:7)
  • Healed our sin-corrupted nature (1 Pet 2:24)
  • Poured His Spirit on us and empowered us to live in relation to Himself (Rom 8:2-16)
  • Gave us an example to follow (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet 2:21)

Those who apply this theory of atonement see that it encompasses the variety of atonement views under a single theory where the others tend to emphasize one or two of the above points but not all of them.

Conclusion

Christ releasing humanity from the bondage of sin and Satan lies through His sacrifice is core of the Christus Victor view of atonement. It is a theory that spans the whole of the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20 and it was the dominant view of the early church. This theory is most often proposed as the framework into which the other narrower views can be organized because it covers such a wide range of theological issues. It also encourages the Christian to take seriously the devil, an idea which has fallen from favor in the modern Church.

Image by Leonard Matthews

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10 thoughts on “The Christus Victor View of Atonement

  1. Christus Victor wasn’t reall solidified until the 1930s though…Gustaf Aulen was really rephrasing the ransom theory of the atonement, while trying to remove any aspects of penal substitutionary atonement it seems.

    The problem with Christus Victor in the modern church is that the attempt here is to make the atonement “non-violent”. Most modern proponents of Christus Victor actually deny the penal aspect of the atonement totally. Its popular in emergent and liberal Anabaptist circles. They’ll talk about the early Church holding a “christus victor” (more accurately a “ransom” view) of the atonement but totally ignore the penal aspects of the atonement in early Church theology. I do question whether a lot of people who hold this view of the atonement REALLY do embrace the variaty of atonement views. Everyone I’ve met who’s really pushed Christus Victor has been either some emergent “scholar” wearing Pearl Jam shirts telling me about how penal substitutionary atonement makes God a cosmic child abuser or some liberal Anabaptist who is so hell bent on being non-resistant that they strip God of any and all holy wrath because that’s not very pacifist.

  2. I’m not sure about ‘solidified’ through Aulen but certainly given a new name for the ransom theory as you said. You are correct about the modern interpretation as seeking a kinder and gentler atonement. By making Satan and his demonic institutions ultimately responsible for our fall and continued corruption it does cause the believer to begin to see themselves as not responsible or bad in any way. Not bad = no penalty due.

    Okay, since you mentioned the Pearl Jam shirt I can unburden myself. We worshipped with the Riverside Baptist family yesterday to receive the word from Jim Shaddix ( http://www.oneplace.com/ministries/Hope_for_today ) and under his untucked shirt he had a black t-shirt on and my mind kept wandering to the question – does he have a Rush 84 World Tour shirt on?

  3. “You are correct about the modern interpretation as seeking a kinder and gentler atonement. By making Satan and his demonic institutions ultimately responsible for our fall and continued corruption it does cause the believer to begin to see themselves as not responsible or bad in any way. Not bad = no penalty due.”

    Wow that really gets to the heart of it! That is the core problem w/ the “non-violent atonement” issue.

    I wonder what our pastors wear under their Geneva gowns…maybe Slayer shirts.

  4. As a small point of historical accuracy. Origen was the first to popularize the ransom theory. But it was hardly a monolithic view of the early church. Irenaus who died around 200 A.D. proposed a subsitutionary view of the atonement similar to penal subsitution. Augustine did hold to a ransom theory, but was not confined just to that. He also held a vicarious atonement view that Christ took our punishment for us. Augustine writes, “He took on himself, being without guilt, our punishment, that he might put away our guilt and put an end to our punishment.”

    It is incorrect to say that penal substitutionary atonement is relatively new. It is older than the ransom theory. Christ is certainly victor. Amen to that. But over Satan and over the guilt of our sin. He did it by his death.

    I would preach with a shirt from “the shins” if I had one.

  5. I am curious as to where Ireneaus proposed a substitutionary view similar to the penal substitutionary view. I have been reading the early church writings, and although I have not finished yet with Ireneaus, the main view that he proposed was that Christ, as the second Adam, redeemed mankind by ‘recapitulating’ each stage of life in righteousness. This spanned birth to death, so that as in Adam all who are human die, in Himself all who are human might live. As an addition to this conversation, while I was reading through Justin Martyr, I came across several passages in his ‘Dialogue With Trypho’ that I found pertinent, and which seem to fly in the face of the penal view.

    “Nay, more than this, you suppose that He was crucified as hostile to and cursed by God, which supposition is the product of your most irrational mind.” {Chapter 93, (near the end)}

    “Then I replied, “Just as God commanded the sign to be made by the brazen serpent, and yet He is blameless; even so, though a curse lies in the law against persons who are crucified, yet no curse lies on the Christ of God, by whom all that have committed things worthy of a curse are saved.” {Chapter 94, (near the end)}

    “For the statement in the law, ‘Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree,’ our hope which depends on the crucified Christ, not because He who has been crucified is cursed by God, but because God foretold that which would be done by you all, and by those like to you, who do not know that this is He who existed before all, who is the eternal Priest of God, and King, and Christ.” {Chapter 96, (at the beginning)}

    Like I said, I am still reading through the early writings, and would appreciate any references you might have on the existence of the penal view in their writings.

  6. I dont know about Ireneaus, but Justin Martyr had some very clear statements to show he believed in the penal substitutionary side of the atonement. Oddly enough he does so in the same exchange you quote. “If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourself?”

    If you have time, check out this book (its on google reader). It goes through a good glimpse at the historical support for P.S.A. throughout the Church’s 2000 yr history.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=ImpYBKRuwGMC&dq=pierced+for+our+transgressions&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=NK7hSp3XGeivtgf91_23AQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CBMQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    As I said before, I believe the Church has always held to a view of the atonement that embraces MANY sides. This would explain why we can quote Church Fathers (and sometimes the same father!) to support an array of views.

  7. Interesting that you should recommend looking at the book, Pierced For Our Transgressions, because one of our pastors had just given me that book to read, thinking that it would be a corrective to my views on the atonement. I am working my way slowly through the book, but so far I would have to agree with N.T. Wright, who termed it as ‘sub-bilical’, even though he himself claims to believe in penal substitution. They in fact refer to Justyn Martyr as one who supported the penal substitutionary view, but quote selectively in order to support their argument. They use a quote from chapter 89 where Trypho a Jew, concedes that the Scriptures announce that the Christ had to suffer, he doubts that the Christ should be shamefully crucified, because those crucified are said to be accursed in the Law. Jeffrey, Ovey, and Sach then skip Justin’s statement in chapter 93, which is the first quote in my previous post. They do include the last half of the quote from chapter 94 in Justin’s first argument, where he states that God, when He commanded Moses to set up the brazen serpent, was doing something which He, in the Law had commanded not to do (i.e. set up any graven image)and yet be innocent, then Christ could be hung on a tree without Himself being cursed. They then quote the first half of chapter 95, from which you quote in your post, and then conclude by stating, “In summary, Jesus took upon himself the curse of God that had rested upon ‘the whole human family’. This explains why he was crucified even though he himself had committed no sin. It also amounts to a clear statement of penal substitution: although Christ was innocent, he bore the curse due to sinful humanity, enduring in his death the punishment due to us. Justin is a very early example of a writer who explained the doctrine on the basis of the ‘curse’ vocabulary of Gal. 3:13 and Deut. 21:23.” Yet they ignore what Justin writes in chapter 96, the title of which is. “That curse was a prediction of the things which the Jews would do.” The first sentence of this chapter, which I quoted in my previous post, includes the explicit statement by Justin that Jesus who was crucufied was not cursed by God! This is a very different take on Justin’s explanation of the ‘curse’ vocabulary of Gal. 3:13, than what the penal substitution proponents would have us believe. The next of the early writers quoted as proponents of the penal theory is Eusebius, writing about 314 -318. That is over 200 years after the apostolic era, which begs the question, if the penal theory is THE lens with which to view Christ’s work here on earth, why is there so little direct support in the earliest centuries, indeed in the N.T. writings themselves. Not a single verse in the N.T. unambiguously states that Christ satisfied God’s wrath, or that God was punishing Him instead of us. Nor does it state that God could not forgive us our sins without punishing somebody, namely His Son, in our place. I agree with you that there are many aspects to Christ’s work, but I find scant evidence for the particular form of penal substitution that seems so prominant today.

  8. I’m willing to concede that the historical section of that book is a bit weak. The writers seemed to have put more into the Biblical study of the issue (as well they should). Have you read the Biblical portion of the book? Just curious because I have to be honest, I only skimmed it. I was more interested in the historical aspect. You have a good point that there is a bit of silence in the book for a couple hundred years…though I believe that a more in depth study of the Early Church may turn up different findings. The history portion to me seemed a bit rushed at times.

    The other section I was interested in was the one where they respond to common challenges to PSA.

    • I have skimmed the Biblical portion of the book, and found it not compelling; in fact, I found myself taking considerable issue with their way of deducing a penal view from the texts. So, I have started going through the Biblical portion of their book and set out where they go astray in their interpretation. This is a very busy time of year for me, and so I haven’t gotten very far yet, but I can give perhaps an example of what I am talking about. Towards the bottom of pg. 35 in their book, they state that, “The Passover lies at the heart of God’s salvation in Exodus. And, as we shall see, penal substitution lies at the heart of the Passover.” They try to argue that there are two distinct, but related acts of salvation in the Exodus story, both of which are to be seen in the last plague, the death of the firstborn. In this last plague, Pharoah’s stubborn refusal to let God’s children go is broken and the Israelites are released from their bondage, and thus God’s judgment on Pharoah is the means of Israel’s liberation from Egypt.
      They then look at Ex. 12:1-28, where “we learn how the Israelites were to be delivered not from Pharoah, but from the judgment of the Lord. It is here that we find an unambiguous affirmation of penal substitution,” (pg. 36, bottom). They point out that in this last plague, the distinction between Israel and Egypt is conditional; those of the Israelites who wished to be spared the death of their firstborn needed to kill a lamb and apply its blood to the lintel and doorposts of their respective houses. Then they begin to take what I would see as leaps in their logic, when they state that “thus the lamb becomes a substitute for the firstborn son, dying in his place” (pg.37). This is not stated in Ex. 12; rather the passage talks of God inaugurating a new era with this being the beginning of months, the first month of the year (vs. 2); and God’s institution of a memorial feast to be celebrated as a perpetual ordinance (vs. 14). God also institutes the Feast of Unleavened Bread as a perpetual ordinance in observance of His deliverance of the Israelites from out of Egypt. It is not the death of the lamb that saves; it is the blood of that lamb when applied to the lintel/doorposts that is the sign. When God sees the blood, He will not allow the destroyer to enter into that house. Obviously, to obtain the blood for the application to the door and for the meat for the feast, the lamb had to die, but that is not necessarily substitutionary in the sense that the lamb dies in the place of the firstborn. Had the substitutionary element been intended, would not one have expected that the lamb by necessity be a firstborn lamb; and if a penal substitutionary view was intended, then would it not have been better for the Israelites to tie up the lamb at their doorway so that the destroyer could kill it rather than their firstborn? I know, I’m stretching things a bit, but it’s to make the point that there is no explicit reference to substitution in a general sense, much less the penal form of substitution.

      They next refer to the ceremony of the consecration of the firstborn as found in Ex. 13:11-16, saying that it “served as an enduring reminder…and specifically of the substitutionary element inherent within it.” This is where things get twisted a bit. The LORD says to Moses that the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both man and beast, was to be sanctified to the LORD, belongs they belonged to Him (vs. 2). When they come into the promised land, the Israelites are to devote (lit. to cause to pass over) to the LORD every firstborn male. They are to be sacrificed to the LORD, except that the firstborn of donkey and of man are not to be sacrificed, but redeemed with a lamb, which was sacrificed in their stead. There are two elements of substitution found here, but they are not that of the Passover lamb/kid! The explicit reason given for this ceremony is found in vs.15. God killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, except those of the Israelites; therefore all of the firstborn of the Israelites from then on belong to the LORD. In one sense, the Israelite firstborn subsequently are considered as ‘payment for’ or ‘in lieu of’ those whom He had spared. This contains the element of substitution. Secondly, in the case of the firstborn of both donkey and man, they too belonged to the LORD, but they were not to be sacrificed, but rather redeemed with a lamb. This also, I would view as substitutionary, but note that there is no hint of any penal element. The lamb that was given as a redemption was offered to God because it belonged to Him, not because He was in any way angry or upset with any of the firstborn and needed to punish them. There is perhaps another analogy present, in that it is repeated that God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt with a powerful hand (vs. 3, 9, 14, 16). Israel was His firstborn (Ex. 4:22), and He redeemed his firstborn from out of Egypt; thus the Israelites were to redeem their firstborn sons as a reminder of what God had done for them.

      Then Jeffrey, Ovey, and Sach then include a paragraph on Ex. 12:3-4, where God says that each household is to select a lamb for themselves, but that if the household is too small they are to go together with a neighboring household and divide up a lamb according to what each should eat. The authors say that this implies a wider application of the Passover, but they don’t specify what they mean by that. Are they implying that because of the proportionality involved, this somehow is substitutionary? Their logic is baffling, especially when they say that vs. 4 “would seem somewhat superfluous if intended only as a piece of culinary etiquette to guard against wasting food.” Are they serious? God is instituting rules concerning the observance of the Passover sacrifice and feast, telling them not to leave any of it over until the next morning (vs. 10). He does this with other sacrifices as well (cf. Ex. 23:18; Lv. 7:15-18; also Ex. 16:19 concerning manna). I would simply let this paragraph slide, except that immediately thereafter they say, “The substitutionary element in the Passover is therefore beyond dispute.” They have taken three passages, none of which explicitly mention the Passover lamb/kid as being substitutionary, and end up concluding that the ‘substitutionary element is beyond dispute’!
      Then they proceed to draw in the penal element: “Moreover, given that the plagues function unambiguously as instruments of divine judgment, penal substitution is plainly taught here.” (pg. 38) They do note that it might seem puzzling why God would be judging His people, and all the more surprising given that the plague on the firstborn is described specifically as ‘judgment on all the gods of Egypt'(Ex. 12:12). But to resolve this they bring in Ezekiel 20:4-10, where God speaks to the exiles, relating how when He had called them in the land of Egypt to bring them out, He had told them to put away all of the detestable things from before their eyes and not defile themselves with the idols of Egypt. He went on to say that they had not done so, and He had resolved to pour out His wrath on them in Egypt; but He had not done so, because He acted for the sake of His name, that It might not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived. The authors read a lot into the Exodus Passover narrative, based on this reference in Ezekiel, and deduce that the Israelites were guilty like the Egyptians and were just as deserving of God’s judgment. “Only by God’s gracious provision of a means of atonement, a substitutionary sacrifice, were they spared.” There are a number of disconnects going on here. First off, it should be noted that the plague on the firstborn is not described specifically as judgment on the gods of Egypt. They take place at the same time, but are not exactly the same thing. This is perhaps not as clear in Ex. 12:12, but is more so in Num. 33:4, where it mentions all the firstborn whom the LORD had struck down, and then says, “The LORD had also executed judgments on their gods”. Secondly, not once in the Exodus narrative does it mention the Israelites worship of Egyptian gods, or God’s anger towards them for such. Not that it didn’t happen, because Ezek. makes it clear that it did, but that it was not tied up in the judgments which God was carrying out upon the Egyptians. Just as there is no mention within the Exodus narrative of what Ezekiel mentions, neither is there mention in Ezekiel that the Passover sacrifice had anything to do with God choosing not to carry our His wrath on the Israelites idolatry while they were in Egypt; rather it explicitly says it was that His name would not be profaned among the nations. Likewise, in the Exodus narrative, it is explicitly stated by God that the plague on the firstborn was in response to Pharoah’s refusal to let the Israelites go. “Thus says the LORD, ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn…but you refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.'” (Ex. 4:22-23) The greater part of the Exodus narrative makes explicit reference to the fact that God is making a clear distinction between Egypt and Israel; and, this includes the last plague, the killing of the firstborn (Ex. 11:4-7).
      Thus the authors slowly but surely morph the narrative of the Passover into a penal substitutionary sacrifice, and based on their interpretation argue that, “Whereas the old Passover focused on the body and blood of a lamb, slain as a penal substitutionary sacrifice for the redemption of Israel, the Lord’s Supper focuses on the body and blood of Christ, who gave Himself as a penal substitutionary sacrifice for His people.” (pg. 39) Never mind that Christ’s body is the unleavened bread and not the flesh of the lamb, and I could go on and on. But I have rambled on long enough the way it is, so I will post this. I don’t know if what I’ve written makes any sense to anyone else, but I have tried to humbly point out what seems so clear to me.

      In Christ,
      Russ

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