Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

A Broad Critique of Christus Victor

A Broad Critique of Christus Victor

My previous post introduced this series, which will reflect specifically Gustav Aulén’s Christus Victor and more generally on that view of the atonement. In the first post we considered the strengths of Christus Victor: its sensitivity to spiritual conflict, both in our lives and throughout the Bible. I also suggested that one of the reasons we are hesitant to speak of Christ’s work in terms of conquest and triumph is that Western Christianity has traded in the richer biblical story for an overly abstract and rational view of salvation. Therefore I recommend reading that first article before delving into this critique of Aulén’s Christus Victor. Below we will address some of the broader theological weaknesses in certain expressions of Christus Victor, particularly Aulén’s.

Selective Bible handling

Aulén argues that theological polemics and controversy hampers our reading and exegesis of Scripture. He goes further, claiming that theological debates never yield the best theology. He is correct, but only to a degree. Theological orthodoxy is often forged in the fires of controversy. That being said, he may be onto something when he suggests that theological debate results in both sides lacking freedom of judgment in approaching Scripture. We need only look at Christian debates online, where proof texting is barely distinguishable from mud-flinging. But debate does sharpen theological convictions, as long as all parties involved are humble, teachable and generous. Furthermore, debate and controversy can result in theologians working harder in the biblical text. Exegesis can be energised by theological disagreement, for — if nothing else — it should drive us back to Scripture, prayerfully and impartially.

Unfortunately, without being able to comment on Aulén’s prayer life, his handling of the Bible leaves much to be desired. It is selective to a fault, often overlooking key details that would broaden the atonement to include penal substitution (PSA). On the other hand, some of those passages that Aulén regularly cites make no mention of the devil (Romans 3; 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 5). For example, Aulén appeals at length to 2 Corinthians 5, but he omits any reference to 5:21, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”.

Aulén’s commitment to Christus Victor drastically shapes his approach to the New Testament. As I showed in the previous post, while there is great merit in giving pride of place to the early church fathers (or patristic theology), this that cannot come at the expense of Scripture. This point will be explored at length in a later post.

Conflict between Old and New Testaments

Following the previous point is Aulén’s exaggerated tension between the Old and New Testaments. He pits Christianity against Judaism, identifying Old Testament law as one of the evil powers or tyrants that held humanity in bondage. Because he treats the law in this way, justification has not place in his view of the atonement. Aulén writes, “Justification is altogether the fruit of God’s redeeming work; the righteousness of which we can partake depends wholly on God’s grace.” We would not disagree with this entirely, for true Christianity jealously guards God’s glory in matters of salvation. But Aulén’s aversion to Christ suffering on mankind’s behalf (penal substitutionary atonement) results in an antinomy between God’s love and his law. The unfortunate and unforgivable implication of this is that it leads us down the path of two gods: one in the Old Testament and another in the New. Contrast with this approach, robust biblical theology, pioneered by the likes of Irenaeus (130-202 CE), shows us that while the law is regulative in demanding faith and obedience, God’s grace is constitutive to enable and underwrite it. So as Karl Barth writes in his commentary on Romans, “the gospel is a communication which presumes faith in the living God, and which creates that which it presumes.” While we acknowledge certain biblical tensions we must reject claims of internal conflict.

God’s love supplants his justice

Another weakness is Aulén’s claim that the objective or Latin view of atonement is too rational. In fact, he sets up an irreconcilable ultimatum, forcing his readers to choose between the objective and classic views. According to Aulén, Christus Victor “shows a continuity between the divine action and a discontinuity in the order of justice,” whereas “the Latin type [shows] a legal consistency and a discontinuity in divine operation”. More recently, Stephen Furtick demonstrated a similar view when he said that ‘God broke the law with his love.’ We have already noted that Aulén is uncomfortable with any godward movement in the atonement, implying that God’s justice is satisfied by man. But in addition to this he believes that the objective view trades God’s character for pure justice. This remains a criticism of penal substitutionary atonement to this day.

I sympathise with Aulén on this point, as does contemporary theologian Robert Letham. But in holding together Christ’s obedience, the biblical story of covenant, God’s justice and his love, Letham writes, “The atonement stems from the love of God and, since God’s love is just love and his justice is loving justice, the cross is a demonstration par excellence of that love in a way that is commensurate with his justice.” Despite Aulén’s dismissal of the objective view at this point, his classic view certainly has worse implications. For even if the atonement is rescued from being coldly transactional (or “stock-exchange divinity”) the alternative appears little more than arbitrary. This brings us to our final criticism.

Christ’s inexplicable cross

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Aulén fails to explain how God’s victory is won. Importantly, he is critical of the deceit inherent to the early church’s ransom theory, which believes that a price was paid to Satan. Aulén warns his readers of the dangerous and absurd implications of this view. He also emphatically affirms that the atonement is a work of God, not man—even if this has problematic ramifications for the incarnation. All that Aulén can really affirm is that the Son is God’s effective agent in a victorious atonement that is nothing other than God’s. But as Henri Blocher says, “The main query is basic indeed: how is the battle fought and the victory gained? If the metaphor [or classic model of Christus Victor] is to bear doctrinal fruit, it should yield at least some intelligence of the mode and process.” Aulén’s reticence to think of the atonement in more rational terms is a frustration for many readers. For in the end his position lacks both clarity and precision. Now I am not ignoring the benefits of this vivid picture, its attention to the spiritual realities of our world and the profound existence of evil, nor God’s crushing victory over those powers and ultimate triumph in Christ. But, as Blocher asks, “If the whole truth of the atonement is sufficiently expressed in terms of God overpowering Satan, what about the demands of justice and holiness as they confront sinful and unclean people?”

My next post will consider some New Testament passages in furthering this dialogue with Aulén. But a brief reflection on the Gospels will serve as a fitting conclusion to this post. Aulén cannot properly or persuasively explain why Christ goes to the cross. The Greek noun for victory (νῖκος) is surprisingly rare in the New Testament. Apart from 1 Corinthians 15, it appears in Matthew 12, where Jesus teaches that his ministry was a conflict between two kingdoms: God’s and Satan’s. This fits well with Aulén’s “biblical dualism.” Thus Jesus’ numerous demonstrations of power showed his authority over the evil forces that haunt human life. But Jesus speaks about a “victory” (12:20). The strong man was already bound (12:29). But if the strong man was bound, visibly proving that Christ’s kingdom is greater, why does the king still die? Aulén offers no clear answers here.

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