Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christus Victor - Part 1

A couple weeks ago, I bought Gustaf Aulen's Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement (I can only assume it's snappier in the original Swedish (or German? Maybe German). Its main object was to trace the development (and unfortunate decline) of the view of the Atonement known as Christus Victor: Christ the Victor.

CV (Christus Victor) was, as it turns out, the dominant view in the Church for the first thousand years of its existence. From some of the very earliest of theologians (including Irenaeus, writing around 170-180 AD), the primary view of Atonement has nothing to do with Penal Substitution ("for on that cross where Jesus died/ The Wrath of God was satisfied"), the view that Jesus affected a "legal restitution" for our sins, payed to God. That view didn't arise until Anselm around 1100 AD. Instead, the primary view of atonement was that of victory: Victory over Sin, Hell, and Satan.

One of the first extant proponents of this doctrine (outside of Scripture, which we'll cover later on in this post) is Irenaeus, one of the "Church Fathers." He was born in the early second century, and what's incredibly interesting here is that he was a student of Polycarp, and even earlier leader of the Church. And as for Polycarp, he's traditionally accepted as a disciple of the Apostle John.

That's right: Irenaeus is only twice removed from one of Jesus' original disciples. How crazy is that? Anyway, Aulen poses the question: For what purpose did Christ come down from heaven? He quotes Irenaeus: "That he might destroy sin, overcome death, and give life to man." He develops this answer in a longer quote:

""Through the Second Man [Christ] he bound the strong one, and spoiled his goods, and annihilated death, bringing life to man who had become subject to death. For Adam had become the devil's possession, and the devil held him under his power, by having wrongfully practised deceit upon him, and by the offer of immortality made him subject to death...Wherefore he who had taken man captive was himself taken captive by God, and man who had been taken captive was set free from the bondage of condemnation."

See the theme here? There are a couple really interesting assumptions here, that are further developed by later theologians:

  • First, that the devil is literally in possession of mankind. Man is under the power of the devil, by virtue of being subject to death. He is "captive" to the devil.

  • And second, that Christ's goal in his life, death, and resurrection is to annul and destroy the power the devil has over us, and to free us from our captivity to the devil.

That sense of conflict and victory is the central point of the doctrine (hence the name). Even more interesting, however, is the manner in which this victory is achieved. There comes up again and again the sense that God tricked the devil: That the devil was deceived by Christ's humanity.

In fact, Gregory of Nyssa, in the late 300's, actually compared the deity of Christ with a baited fish hook!

"Since the hostile power was not going to enter into relations with a God present unveiled, or endure His appearance in heavenly glory, therefor God, in order to render Himself accessible to him who demanded of Him a ransom for us, concealed Himself under the veil of our nature, in order that, as happens with greedy fishes, together with the bait of the flesh, the hook of the Godhead might also be swallowed."

And what is the result of this trickery?

"And so, through Life passing over into death, and the Light arising the darkness, that which is opposed to Life and Light might be brought to nought. For darkness cannot endure when the Light shines, nor can death remain in being where Life is active."

There is the sense that God actually lures Satan to him: That Satan snaps at Christ's human body as a fish snaps at a hook, and is undone in exactly the same way. Normally, Satan would not dare to even approach God in His radiance: In Christ, however, Satan not only approaches him but actually brings him into the the heart of his kingdom (as Christus Victor is closely linked to the slightly later developed doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell). And then Life arises in the midst of death, and the Light of creation blooms in the darkness, undoing and conquering both.

Of course, the awesomeness of the theology is not, in and of itself, an argument for its truth. And while it was the dominant theory of the Atonement for the first thousand years of Church history, that too does not constitute proof. For that, we must look to Scripture...but here, Christus Victor is most certainly not lacking (and indeed, it's difficult to conceive of the idea gaining such prominence without Scriptural support!).

Indeed, we find hints of a war of some kind even in the Old Testament. God casually mentions the storehouses of hail in Job, which are "reserved for the time of trouble,for the day of battle and war": God himself makes preparations for the conflict. This is even more fleshed out in Daniel, where an angle states that he was detained - genuinely, "physically" held back - by the "prince" of Persia: This conflict was only resolved when Michael, "One of the chief princes", comes in for back-up.

But the language of conflict is not merely present in the New Testament: It is actually built on an assumption of war, of an ongoing conflict between that which is truly, absolutely Good...and that which is really, genuinely Evil. But these are not generic categories...the sides are not abstract in the least. On each side we find distinct, active agents constantly working, constantly planning and scheming, constantly maneuvering for advantage across the battlefield of the world.

That is why Paul can speak casually of Christ "destroying every rule and every authority and power," and how "the last enemy to be destroyed is death." (any why at the end of the chapter, he speaks of the victory of Christ not only over sin, but over its weapon as well: The Law.)

It is why Paul can speak of the "present evil age" in opposition to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It is why Paul goes into such detail about the "authorities", "cosmic powers", and "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." This is no mere abstraction...the forces arrayed against Christ and His Church are personal and active in their warfare.

And this war has been going on for a long time, and there have been casualties. This is no mere skirmish or invasion: It is also a rescue mission. That is why Christ calls himself " a ransom for many", and we would do well to remember that ransom is a very specific term: It is the means by which captives are released. And this is spelled out nowhere so clearly as in Hebrews, where the author clearly lays out the necessity for this rescue mission: "Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil),"

There is a war going on, and all of humankind are casualities and prisoners of war. And Christ comes to free the captors, to tie up the devil, take his property, and plunder his house (man, Mark 3:26-27 is awesome when read through Christus Victor...). There's actually quite a bit of nuance here, which I'll get into in the next post, but the main theme is clear: Christ is victorious over his enemies, and we are liberated by that victory.

This is not the analytical, nearly mathematical theology of Anselm onward. It can't be spoken of in terms of debt and legal obligation, of payment and restitution - at least, not to God. Instead, it is a drama, a romance in the truest, Chestertonian sense of the word. It is an adventure, a heroic quest, and a battle. Ladies and gentlemen, Christus Victor.

See Part 2 for a more detailed discussion of why I really love this doctrine. 


  1. When I saw your title, I knew I had to wait to read this until I had time. (That is, until I was back from vacation and had time without kids to distract me.) The whole topic of Christus Victor is fascinating, particularly since the Substitutionary Atonement viewpoint has dominated Evangelical thought for so long to the exclusion of other views. C. S. Lewis seems to have held to the Christus Victor belief to a large extent, which makes it interesting that Evangelicals have embraced him at all.

    The Harrowing of Hell is also an interesting idea, and I must admit it does tend to tweak the more typical teachings these days, doesn't it? As in, maybe Rob Bell isn't a complete heretic? Just thoughts.

    The two questions that come to mind on this are the following. 1. If Satan/Hell/Death possess mankind, how is this manifested? What does this mean for us? In what way are we in bondage? Obviously, death claims us in this life, but not in the life to come. How does this bondage manifest itself these days? (More questions than answers here...)
    2. My own personal experience has been that Charismatics tend to adhere to Christus Victor *in practice* more than the run-of-the-mill Evangelical and particularly the Calvinists. I have some significant (and largely positive) experience in the Charismatic movement, but I am not a big fan of their version of spiritual warfare. How do we further the Kingdom in a Christus Victor sense?

    Don't think I am expecting easy answers here, or that I disagree with you on this. Just some questions that I find myself asking.

    1. Good questions all, and thanks for them!

      Of course, Lewis has LOTS and LOTS of beliefs that make it puzzling that Evangelicals have embraced him: Alcohol, creation vs. evolution, inclusivism...given all of that, CV is probably his most subtle deviation from standard Evangelicalism!

      And yes, Harrowing of Hell is awesome. One of the first times I was exposed to it was Inferno, where Dante witnesses the ruined bridge, destroyed when Christ conquered hell.

      As for how that captivity manifests itself, I think at least part of it is evident in the contrast between Ecclesiastes and the New Testament. I talk a bit about this shift here: and here: (although at the time of writing those, I hadn't even considered Christus Victor). Solomon was living in enemy-controlled territory, under siege (to use Space Trilogy terminology) by God, and everythign was meaningless when seen in that light.

      And today, I think it manifests itself simply in the fact that things happen that God does not want to happen. God's rule, although begun, is not yet in full affect ("The kingdom is here"/"the kingdom is coming."). However, we have the tools - and the will - to fight back, and to do so out of more than a sense of fatalistic duty (as in Ecclesiastes).

      I can't say I've had a whole lot of experience with Charismatics, good or bad. I've HEARD both very good, and very bad things. As Lewis says in the Great Divorce, the greater the angel, the stronger the demon: That might be how it is with Charismatics, where their doctrine holds potential both for great good or great evil.

      These are just my thoughts, sparked by your questions.