Redemption, part 6: Christus Victor
In terms of an articulate and comprehensive treatment, the final model of this series – Christus Victor – is one of the more recent developments in atonement theory. This is not to say that the model does not have roots in scripture or that it finds no affirmation among theologians ancient and modern; quite the contrary. But in terms of being a fully developed theory, Christus Victor has really only been around for about eighty years, having its full genesis in a book of that title published by Gustav Aulén in 1931.
I must admit I have read only smatterings of the original text, but Aulén’s argument is fairly easy to follow. He begins by identifying three broad streams of atonement theory: 1). the Scholastic view (satisfaction theory) 2). the Idealist view (moral influence) and 3). his own theory, which he termed the Classical view (Aulén links it closely with a ransom model, though there are nuanced differences). He then proceeds to trace these three threads up until the Protestant Reformation, arguing all the while that Christus Victor is the oldest and most appropriate model of atonement.
Aulén’s model is – like all models – at once both simple and complex. At its simplest point, Aulén’s model claims that oppressive and unjust forces hold humanity enthralled, and that the death and resurrection of Christ is a victory over those dark forces. Allowed to develop beyond that simplest point of contact, however, it becomes much more than that.
Primarily, Christus Victor is a powerful critique (intentionally so) of an Anselmian satisfactory model. Aulén believes that when Anselm developed a system requiring the Son and the Father to have different purposes (the Son to suffer, the Father to judge) he introduced a divine discontinuity into the Trinitarian life of God. By making honor and the Law the basis of atonement, Anselm creates a system where the two members of the Trinity must be in open conflict.
Aulen’s critique runs even deeper than the divine discord, however, and he argues that not only is the Law a poor basis for a system of atonement, but it is actually an enemy that must be (and is) defeated through Christ’s death (something mentioned in Col. 2:4). By condemning and holding cursed an innocent man (Jesus) the law is shown to be inherently corrupt. Moreover, Christ is resurrected (breaking the power of sin, death, and the devil in the process) and as this resurrection represents the Father’s favor (despite the law’s condemnation and curse for those who hang on trees) Aulen claims the law loses its ability to condemn and that both Father and Son are herein joined in the purposes of redeeming mankind, rather than playing at judge and criminal in satisfaction of some impinged honor.
Aulen hardly calls it a system or a theory at all. To him, it is divine drama, the grand narrative of the redemption of humanity (later Christus Victor theologians will eventually produced a modified version of Aulen’s that they term Narrative Christus Victor). Aulen places little stock in systems and transactions and instead focuses on the drama of the act itself, casting it in terms of a great battle. The Law is overthrown and death is defeated.
It is a beautiful system, and many have interpreted it in beautiful ways. Particularly striking is the image of the diminished and naked Christ, who, far from representing the judgmental God of fear, experiences the depth of human alienation and condemnation himself. In this we see not the necessity of God to change something within God’s self, but bear witness to the depth of the divine love that will do anything within its power to break the powers that hold humanity enthralled. God wins by losing, lives in dying, and creates a new justice by suffering the worst of the unjust system of dominance.
But death and evil still exist in the world. The Law continues to condemn, despite the revelation of its bankruptcy. Thus Christus Victor has been modified over the years. While Aulen saw the death and resurrection as the singular triumphal victory, others have come to identify it with a great victory, a tide turning battle (think D-Day), but believe that the final victory (VE Day) waits in the eschaton. Still others focus on the subversive nature of Aulen’s theory, clinging to the hope found in Jesus’ revelation that the system of dominance is morally bankrupt. Many have begun to weave threads of feminist and liberation theology into this subversive tapestry (but I must sadly confess I am not conversant with these).
But there are a few issues that even the newer Christus Victor developments do not address. Primary among these is the lack of a fall narrative; nobody explains how evil came to be the dominant system in the world. Some have accused Christus Victor of ignoring the reality of personal guilt while focusing on humanity’s status as victims. Still others argue that Aulen’s interpretation of the Law is inconsistent with a close reading of Paul.
It has its flaws, to be sure, but many theologians speak of Christus Victor as the fastest growing model of atonement in the Church today. The narrative speaks of passion and avoids both the need for an angry God and neurotic obsession with our own guilt. It honors the marginalized by emphasizing victimhood, and it subverts the dominant power structures of the world. It will be fascinating to reflect on the place of Christus Victor in atonement theory fifty years from now.
In the coming days, I’ll finally finish up this little series with what I’m sure will be a rambling reflection on my own understanding of atonement. Thanks for sticking with me!