Retrieving Christus Victor
Despite the criticisms levelled against Mel Gibson’s The Passion, especially from Protestant quarters, his portrayal of Gethsemane is profoundly theological. After pleading with the Father to be spared the cross, Jesus stands up and crushes a snake’s head. This striking imagery alludes to God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This has traditionally been called the protevangelion (‘first gospel’). It promised that even though the reality for fallen humanity would be conflict with evil powers (Genesis 3:14), the promised end of that strife is victory. As Gibson depicts, Christ’s life was marked by conflict yet it ended in God’s promised conquest. But where was that victory won? Identifying the serpent as Satan, in Revelation 12:11-12 we read that Satan was conquered by the blood of the Lamb. Mysteriously then, it is through his death - and resurrection - that Christ triumphs over evil and brings us back to God. To use an old but obscure word: at the cross Christ achieves ‘atonement.’
In my own experience, we often tend to downplay this dramatic struggle between God and evil when speaking about the atonement. But standing at either end of history we see a promise of conflict and that same struggle climaxing in God’s victory. For these reasons, the Eastern Orthodox tradition (following the early church fathers) has long treated the Christus Victor view of atonement as primary—sometimes exclusively so. This view of the atonement received renewed attention amongst Protestants in the 19th century, thanks to Gustav Aulén. Aulén outlined three views of the atonement: classic or dramatic (Christus Victor); objective (Latin); and subjective (Christus Exemplar). But for Aulén these were not three aspects of Christ’s unified work. Rather he set his classic view, or Christus Victor, over against the other two. Aulén’s view of the atonement centred on “divine conflict and victory.” But as I have argued, in the numerous posts linked above, the New Testament speaks of Christ’s atoning work in a variety of ways. These are related, even mutually dependant. Thus Kevin Vanhoozer urges us to think of a plurality of metaphors rather than polarised models. In the remainder of this post I will briefly unpack Christus Victor using Aulén’s book and point out some of its undervalued strengths.
Introducing Christus Victor
In Aulén’s presentation of Christus Victor: Christ’s victory over the evil powers brings about a new relation between God and man, which we might call reconciliation or atonement. In the work of the Son, God reconciles man to God through conquering mankind’s enemies. This victory was dramatic, but not dryly rational. In fact, Aulén described this divine drama as contra rationem et legam (against reason and law). It was not man atoning God through bearing his righteous judgment in our place, appropriated by an intellectual faith and resulting in imputed righteousness. As Robert Letham writes, “Today there is almost universal distaste for thinking of God and salvation in legal categories.” Aulén certainly felt that the Latin (objective) view of the atonement was too rationalistic and abstract. There is some validity in his criticisms.
Where Aulén comes unstuck is in claiming that Christ suffering the legal penalty for sin in our place cannot be fitted with the motif of victory. One of the church’s leading historians, Justo González, writes, “From the very beginning the church proclaimed Jesus as its Saviour, and in the patristic age there had been a variety of views as to how Christ saves sinners”. Thus Aulén overstates his position in claiming that Christus Victor dominated the church’s doctrine of salvation for the first millennium of its existence. Might we not see, in this variety of positions on the atonement that none can exclusively address the whole work of Christ? As Donald Macleod writes, “The motifs of conquest and victory are not alternatives to expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, satisfaction and redemption. None of these can stand alone; and none can claim priority or dominance over the others”. Jesus is both the lion and the lamb (Revelation 5). This critique aside, let us briefly consider two strengths of Christus Victor for Christians’ understanding of salvation.
Two strengths of Christus Victor
Firstly, returning to Genesis 3, and our introduction, it is impossible to ignore the motif of victory in Christ’s work. Therefore Aulén’s contention that Christus Victor has been understated among Protestants is worth consideration. Towards the beginning of his book, Aulén outlines four reasons he believes the classic view has been neglected. One of them is his claim that many moderns find conflict imagery to be disagreeable, even primitive and crude. I saw this myself when sharing Oh, Sleeper lyrics with a friend. In one their tracks, God sings to Satan: “You’ll bow at my feet, or I’ll rip out your knees / and make of your face, all the carnage you crave.” My friend thought the imagery was unnecessarily violent and unsettling. But then so is a lot of what we read in the Bible. I worry that our unease with the dramatic language of conflict and conquest is due to an increasingly abstract view of salvation. Banging our Reformed drums to the tune of sola fidei we cannot think of faith beyond belief or assent that makes us right with God. But Paul likened our faith to a shield, while righteousness is associated with a breastplate (Ephesians 6:15-16). This implies conflict. For we are locked in a fight against cosmic powers and the devil’s schemes (Ephesians 6:11-12). In the atonement we can celebrate a God who fights for his people. Salvation is enjoying Christ’s victory (see Ephesians 4:8-10).
Secondly, following from the previous point, Aulén defines what we might call ‘biblical dualism.’ Similar to the writings of Augustine, Aulén says evil is radical but not absolute. This is a very important qualification. For it keeps us from understanding the conflict between God and Satan as delicately balanced struggle. Aulén writes, “The opposition between God and that which in his own created world resists his will; between Divine Love and the rebellion of created wills again him”. In other words, evil does not exist independently from God. To quote Oh, Sleeper again, in their song Son of the Morning, God sings, “If you could see like me you’d see / you haven’t won anything / if you could see like me you’d see / it’s by my grace you’re breathing.” The evil powers at work in our world, along with Satan, are no more than wayward creatures. They are no threat to the Creator. Regardless of how powerfully they rail against him, God is not troubled, let alone truly challenged. God’s victory over Satan is therefore doubly emphatic. This should be a comfort to Christians. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12) - which to overly rational minds appears unthreatening, even if Paul meant the opposite - those powers are no match for God. Yet our experience reveals a cosmic struggle. And at the cross, through the blood of the Lamb, those powers have been defeated. Therefore, we should preach Christus Victor, since it is both biblical and able to brace believers against the very real evil at work in our world.
As someone who is firmly ensconced in the Protestant tradition I delight in Christ’s place taking, substitutionary death. For it means that not only will I be spared God’s righteous judgment against my sin - past and present - but also through faith I am dressed with Christ’s righteousness and obedience. As question 29 of the New City Catechism (NCC) puts it: we are saved, “by faith in Jesus Christ and in his substitutionary atoning death on the cross; so even though we are guilty of having disobeyed God and are still inclined to all evil, nevertheless, God, without any merit of our own but only by pure grace, imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Christ when we repent and believe in him.” But earlier, in question 24, the NCC says, “By his substitutionary atoning death, he alone redeems us from hell.” Christ is both the sacrificial lamb and victorious lion. In fulfilment of that first gospel promise in Scripture, Jesus is both the Son of God and son of Adam (Luke 3:38). He is our Christus Victor.