Christus Victor is a phrase I imagine very few of my readers are familiar with. In fact, I’ve had to do a little study on it myself … because we in the Churches of Christ don’t spend much time talking about atonement theory.
Christus Victor is the name given to the theory that held sway among Christians for about 1,000 years — until Anselm argued for substitutionary atonement. Christus Victor is thus the theory of the early church fathers.
CV falls under a broader umbrella called the Ransom Theory. In this understanding, the original sin of Adam and Eve placed all of humanity under subjugation to Satan. Christ, the second person of the Trinity, came to Earth and died, giving his life as a ransom for many.
At this point, CV may sound like the penal substitution model that many of us grew up with. But that’s where Aulén said we’re wrong. The early church did not understand the death of Christ as paying a penalty in some transactional sense that only God’s son could pay. The crucifixion is not, in that sense, cosmically necessary to reconcile God and humanity.
Instead, Christ’s death is God’s victory over sin and death. God conquers death by fully entering into it. God conquers Satan by using the very means employed by the Evil One.
Thus, the crucifixion is not a necessary transaction to appease a wrathful and justice-demanding deity, but an act of divine love.
God entered fully into the bondage of death, turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, and thereby liberates humanity to live lives of love without the fear of death.
It’s a beautiful thing, the crucifixion, in this view. And, for those of us who are robustly trinitarian, it maintains an egalitarian view of the Trinity — one in which the Son and Spirit are not junior partners in the atonement.
(emphasis in original).
A key passage in support of this theory is —
(Rom 5:17-18 ESV) 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
Before the resurrection, Death reigned (basileuo = reign as a king) — was king! — but through the cross and the resurrection, death was dethroned and Jesus crowned.
Satan – who had the power of death – no longer holds the sovereignty, but now those who are in Christ have been put back in their rightful place as viceroys over God’s creation. (Gen. 1:26-28). In Adam we are slaves, but in Christ we are more than conquerors, and seated with Christ at God’s own right hand. (Rom. 8:37, Eph. 2:6)
As our substitute, Christ willingly allows himself to be overcome by the full force of Satan’s kingdom to be our substitute, thus taking what we deserved and erasing the Law, which gave Satan access to accuse us and lord it over us.
Origen explains the atonement this way, according to Ray Shelton —
But it is Origen (c.185-c.254 A.D.) who raises the question to whom the ransom was paid, and denies that it was paid to God, affirming that it was paid to the Devil. Origen asks:
“But to whom did He give His soul as a ransom for many? Surely not to God. Could it, then, be to the Evil One? For he had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, even the life (or soul) of Jesus, since he (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength (thasanon) greater than he was equal to. Therefore also death, though he thought he had prevailed against Him, no longer lords over Him, He (Christ) having become free among the dead and stronger than the power of death, and so much stronger than death that all who will amongst those who are mastered by death may also follow Him (i.e. out of Hades, out of death’s domain), death no longer prevailing against them. For every one who is with Jesus is unassailable by death.”
Christ’s death, Origen declares,
“not only has been set forth as an example of dying for religion, but has effected a beginning and an advance in the overthrow of the evil one, the Devil, who dominated the whole earth.” From the moment of His birth, Christ’s life was a conflict with the powers of darkness. His passion and resurrection signified their final defeat.
Origen appeals to Col. 2.15
(“He [Christ] disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross].”)
I have to agree that Christus Victor picks up an essential theme of the atonement that modern Protestants often overlook. We simply don’t speak in terms of Christ’s victory over the powers, especially Satan and death. Not really. This is truly a biblical point of view.
Christus Victor has lately become very popular among many scholars because it avoids the difficulty of having to satisfy God’s wrath by the death of his Son. Yes, there is something about God’s wrath that the atonement deals with, but under Christus Victor, it’s not the need for justice or to appease God’s anger. Rather, it’s God’s ultimate victory over all evil — including death and Satan.
Through Jesus, God took Satan’s best shot, overcame Satan, and thereby freed God’s people from slavery to sin.
Moreover, there is nothing in Christus Victor that contradicts what’s been said earlier. God’s honoring his covenant with Abraham and Jesus’ learning obedience are also entirely biblical, and it makes sense that God’s covenant with Abraham ultimately blesses all nations by defeating the powers and authorities that stood against God. How else could the nations be blessed? Wasn’t it obviously necessary that God defeat that powers that kept them apart from God?
And what is truly ultimate obedience if not taking the best blow of God’s greatest enemies? You have to be willing to take the hit to prove that you can take the hit. It all fits together perfectly well.
The Christus Victor theory makes better sense if you take seriously the Bible’s teachings on the “powers.” It’s a subject that almost entirely foreign to most Bible students. It’s only recently come into evangelical conversation through the writing of John Howard Yoder and other neo-Anabaptists, but even they tend to ignore most of what the Bible says.
You see, as much as we claim to be “literal” and “conservative” readers of the Bible, we Americans all tend to be a little guilty of demythologizing the Bible a la Bultmann. We don’t deny the virgin birth or the resurrection, but we do tend to ignore or even deny much of what the Bible says about the powers that God defeated in Jesus. You see, it’s just so … not scientific.
For example, Peter writes,
(1Pe 3:21-22 ESV) 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Any halfway decent Church of Christ preacher can exegete v. 21! But who can tell us what the “powers” in v. 22 are?
Just so —
(Eph 6:11-12 ESV) 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
— every child who’s spent much time in Sunday school knows about putting on the armor of God. But who understands the “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”? Those passages don’t make it into our Sunday school classes and sermons.
The neo-Anabaptist view interprets “powers” and “authorities” largely in terms of earthly powers that stand against the realization of the Kingdom in its fullness — greed, corruption, unbelief, etc. And this is not so much wrong as incomplete.
We’ll consider what Peter and Paul have in mind in the next post or two. After all, we really can’t consider what it means to defeat Satan and the “powers” if we aren’t familiar with the Bible’s teachings on the powers.