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.

Christus Victor and the New Testament

Christus Victor and the New Testament

The Bible presents us with a victory motif, often brought together under the Christus Victor view of the atonement. This post is the third in a series considering Gustav Aulén’s defence and development of this view. So far we have considered some of its strengths and also offered a broad theological critique. Because we are engaging with Aulén’s presentation, my observations will at times only apply to his work, titled Christus Victor. But we should not forget that he is arguably the position’s most influential spokesperson. Therefore there is signifiant overlap between Aulén’s packaging of Christus Victor and the early church’s. This post will assess Aulén’s handling of the New Testament and aim to present a more well rounded view of the atonement in light of it.

Christus Victor is not exclusive

One of the criticisms I made in my previous post was his exclusive preference for the atonement as conflict and victory. The overbearing note in Aulén’s work is the divine conflict that crescendoes in conquest. But he fails to harmonise that note with the larger symphony of God’s biblical narrative. His Christus Victor view drowns out the other voices and instruments—if you will indulge my metaphor. Though Aulén refers to Christ’s death as a sacrifice or “self-oblation,” God’s costly punishment, these amount to little more than passing mentions. They only delay the inevitable conclusion: God’s victory comes by raw power, which overthrows his opponents.

As we saw in the previous post, Aulén’s refusal to explain the connection between victory and vicarious suffering warrants this criticism. For God’s victory, though powerful and decisive, lacks love and any fulfilment of his justice. Henri Blocher writes, “If Satan’s opposition to the Lord were a matter of mere power, the rebel’s finite resources would equal zero confronted with infinity. But the Accuser can appeal to justice.” He then rightly asks, “What about the demands of justice and holiness as they confront sinful and unclean people?”

Making a better biblical case for Satan

As we will see in a later post, Aulén claims that Christ’s death as substitutionary only rose to prominence in the middle ages, before being centralised at the Reformation. But his reading of theological development and church history is poor. Furthermore, his attention to what the Bible teaches us about Satan is anaemic. Within the biblical narrative, and consistent with Aulén’s dualism, Satan is most certainly an enemy of God and his people. But he also fulfils other roles: temptation and accusation. The first, tempting, is indicative of a power to destroy but not create, since God alone is Creator. The second, bringing charges against people or accusing them, is informed by God’s law and our own guilt or sin.

Let’s consider the second in some more detail. Biblically, we might say that Satan’s power is nothing other than God’s righteous wrath. In Zechariah 3 we meet Satan as a functionary of the heavenly court whose role it is to accuse human beings of wrongdoing” (Andrew Hill), which is similar to how we see him operating in Job 1-2. Represented by Joshua, Israel stand before Yahweh in filthy clothes or sin, which the accuser latches onto as he brings them before God (Zechariah 3:1-3). As the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions write, “Satan appeals to God’s justice, calling upon him to punish humanity as we deserve. Consequently, the defeat of the devil must involve the removal of our guilt, and it is in precisely this way that the New Testament presents it.” In other words, what makes Satan such a powerful adversary and force in our world is his awareness of human sin.

His defeat demands more than pure power. God must strip Satan of source energising his power to accuse—human guilt. Let us consider how this is developed in the New Testament.

Linking victory to penal substitutionary atonement

Galatians and Colossians

Galatians 4:1-5:1 speaks at length of our freedom from spiritual forces and elementary principles. This liberation flows from Paul’s robust presentation of the cross as God’s curse suffered by Christ, in whom justification can be found through faith, in the promise of God made to Abraham (Galatians 2:15-3:29). The link between believers’ liberation and Christ’s substitutionary death can be found elsewhere in Paul’s writings.

Turning to Colossians, those persuaded by Aulén might hastily clutch onto the language of deliverance and redemption (Colossians 1:13-14). Yet when we read on, “his beloved Son, in whom we have…the forgiveness of sins.” In fact the theme of forgiveness in Christ is pervasive and tied to both: [i] the reconciliation of all things (Colossians 1:20), and [ii] the disarming of rulers (Colossians 2:15). All of this takes place because Christ suffered the debt for breaking God’s legal commands by his death at the cross (Colossians 2:14).

Hebrews and Revelation

Though probably not Pauline, Hebrews is similar. The destruction of the devil’s works is the result of Christ’s propitiating death (Hebrews 2:14-17). To this point we might add that Hebrews’ is considered by many to be a ‘sermon’ majoring in Psalm 110, which describes God’s conquest over his enemies and the seating of his Son at his right hand. Yet central to the epistle is the author’s emphatic treatment of Christ’s death (see Hebrews 8-10).

Likewise, as we noted in the first post of this series, in Revelation the Son is both victorious Lion and slain Lamb (Revelation 5:1-7). This tension is captured in the opening of John’s ‘apocalypse’ where Christ is at the same time the “ruler of the kings on earth” who freed his people with his own blood, or death (Revelation 1:5). Though the letter exhorts its readers to persevere and ultimately conquer, there is no missing the emphasis on Christ being the one who has already who conquered (Revelation 3:21; 5:5; 17:14). Furthermore, those who are called to conquer appear to do so in no way other than the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 3:21; 12:11).

1 John

Aulén cites 1 John 3:8, “Christ came to destroy the works of the devil.” But, somewhat predictably and frustratingly, he does not explain how this victory is won. Even brief attention to this verse’s context is useful. For the Son came to remove our sin, which is lawlessness (1 John 3:4-5). In keeping with the major theme of 1 John, those who live in fellowship with God will have lives marked by righteousness (1 John 3:6-7). Thus the Son’s defeat of Satan is concerned both with the eradication of our sin or guilt and the reinstatement of justice—or righteous living. Furthermore, 1 John links justice and love to the forgiveness of sins (1 John 1:9). There is no conflict between these elements. Our forgiveness is grounded in both God’s love and the fulfilment of his justice. Those who are set free from their guilt before God by Christ’s penal substitutionary death now become those who practise God’s righteousness. His love towards us does not abolish the law but empowers us to fulfil it through loving others.

From this brief survey of a few New Testament passages we can see how Aulén fails to consider the symphony of biblical ideas and harmony of melody lines in Scripture that comes to us as atonement. God’s victory is not divorced from his justice. For through Christ’s work Satan was stripped of his gravest power: appealing to God’s legal demands and just wrath, rightfully accusing us of our sin.

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