One of the most devisive theological subjects of all time is the atonement. There is a lot that has been written on this subject, and it is really kicking a dead horse to continually revisit the past 2,000 years of theology and polemics, but I think that when we understand the atonement better, we understand our nature as followers of Jesus. It is therefore important that we at least spend a healthy amount of time discussing the topic. Even if we disagree with others about the doctrine, knowing where we are coming from will certainly help our dialogue.
As you can tell from the title, eventually I am going to bring this discussion back to the idea of Christus Victor – a term first coined in 1931 by Gustaf Aulen although the idea goes back much, much farther. But for now, we should take a quick survey of the history of the doctrine of the atonement.
Survey of Various Views
The Ransom Theory
For the first thousand years of organized Christian doctrine (dating roughly from the mid-2nd century CE), the prevalent view of the atonement was what is know today as the Ransom Theory. It is difficult to find the origin of this theory, but it dates from at least Irenaeus (c 125 – 202 CE). The view was particularly prominent in the Greek Church around the time of Origen and ultimately became the doctrine of atonement in the Post-Nicene Church.
As Irenaeus believed it, Jesus had ransomed the Church by his blood. This much is supported by Scripture. Jesus [Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45], Paul [1 Tim 2:6] and John [Rev 5:9] all agree on this point.
But the issue that soon came to the forefront was to whom was the Ransom paid. It appears that Irenaeus believed the ransom was paid to God, but later proponents like Origen would redefine the payment as to Satan rather than to God. This may have been a compromise of sorts with the Latin church leaders who held a different view.
Primitive Christus Victor
First, a side note about the vocabulary I have chosen here.
The word primitive has some negative connotations tied to being somehow incomplete or unevolved. This meaning as come about since the advent of the theory of evolution, and has unfortunately robbed the word of its true meaning. The word means “first of its kind” and does not imply any need to progress to a better form.
Thus, I have chosen to dub the belief of the Latin Fathers’ view as primitive Christus Victor. Primitive means “first of its kind” and not “unevolved.” When we look at the works of these writers, we are looking at essentially the same belief in Christus Victor but it is the first incarnation of it.
In the Latin Church, as expressed by writers like Augustine and Ambrose, the term ransom is a metaphor. To them, what Jesus did was not actually pay a ransom but rather he freed his followers from the bondage of the world, the flesh and Satan. This is a reflection of the Biblical literature, especially the work of John and Peter although Paul also writes about the freedom gained in Christ.
There is some disagreement (and really no way to resolve it) about whether primitive Christus Victor and the Ransom Theory were actually contemporary and if so, which came first. Those are really open questions. The fact is that both camps extracted their beliefs from the writings of the apostles and believed strongly that their particular interpretation was the correct one.
Anselm’s Satisfaction Doctrine
In the late 11th century, Anselm of Canterbury reformulated the Ransom Theory and produced a theory that became the standard doctrine of both Catholics and Protestants (the Eastern Catholic Churches adhered to the Ransom Theory and most of the Orthodox Churches held to Christus Victor).
Anselm, who lived in feudal Britain and was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, brought a feudal perspective to the idea of redemption. To the upper class of feudal Europe, everything was a business transaction. In some way or another, a price must be satisfied in order to redeem anything – an animal, person or even a kingdom. There was a requirement to be met by someone.
Thus, Anselm held that Jesus did not simply pay a ransom for the souls of the Church. He must have satisfied their price – in this case, their punishment for their sins.
Because the Catholic doctrinal system became locked in a struggle with the Protestants in the 16th century, Anselm’s interpretation became their standard and because most of the Protestants were recovering Catholic priests, they brought the Satisfaction Doctrine into their various national churches. Often, the Protestants would revisit this doctrinal position and fuse bits and pieces of the Ransom Theory with the Satisfaction Doctrine.
The Rediscovery of Christus Victor
During the Reformation and the Enlightenment periods of European history, some significant political and economic shifts took place that rendered the Satisfaction Doctrine obsolete. Feudalism faded as nationalism and imperialism became dominant once again. Continental Europe consolidated into several imperialist powers – all of whom laid claim to the right of Charlemagne and thereby the Roman Empire.
This started long before the Reformation but it was really during these periods following the Age of Exploration (or perhaps more appropriately, the Age of Exploitation), the possibility of a massive, continent spanning empire became evident and almost immediately nations began justifying acts of violence to take over other nations.
And in counterpoint to these emerging imperial ambitions, the idea of individual liberty and freedom developed and started taking root. As individuals of various strata of society and eventually also of various races, creeds and genders, were seen as equals to even the greatest of men, there was no longer a need for a theology built around Jesus as a sort of feudal lord buying the Church as property from God (Satisfaction) or Satan (Ransom). In fact, such an image became unappealing, especially to those oppressed by the imperial nation-states.
Thus, theories based on medieval feudalism became increasingly unsatisfactory. Theologians attempted to reform the existing theories but just produced theological bedlam.
In 1931, Gustaf Aulen proposed the revival of Christus Victor in the Western Church. The idea was simple. The ransom was paid for the liberation from sin. Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection were not meant to buy off God or Satan but to show his victory over death, hell and sin. In essence, Aulen proposed that Christus Victor could embody both Ransom and Satisfaction. Jesus was Savior because he became human and defeated humanities enemies.
In reality, Christus Victor had never been abandoned. It had simply been in exile in the Eastern Church.
What Does Christus Victor mean for you and me?
For most of us, our beliefs in Jesus as our atonement is something we experience externally. We receive the atonement as a component of individual salvation. Because of this, we do not allow the atonement to define how we behave. We allow it to define what we perceive Jesus doing; we perceive it as part of Jesus; but it is not seen as part of us or our thinking.
But in Christus Victor, we have a Christ who has fundamentally altered the nature of our existence as individuals and as a group of people. It becomes the root of our actions rather than a theological idea that is added onto our belief structure.
Because we are freed from sin in Christ’s victory, any sin that exists in our hearts and minds has already been overcome. We overcome because he overcame. We are victorious when he is victorious, which is always.