Christus Victor in Patristic Theology, Irenaeus and Martin Luther
Much of Aulén’s Christus Victor is devoted to historical theology—or dogmatics. His treatment is delightfully broad. However, many of the criticisms made regarding his use of the New Testament apply here. He selectively handles aspects of theologians, particularly Martin Luther, and shoehorns them into his system. Of course, as we have already noted, the theme of dramatic and divine conflict pervades the Bible. But on its own it cannot explain the vast riches of God’s work on our behalf. This was my broader theological critique of Christus Victor. Therefore, as we will see in the survey below, Aulén does well to highlight the Christus Victor theme in the atonement throughout church history and theology. Where he missteps is in his insistence that Christus Victor is exclusive, the fount head for understanding salvation.
The early church: patristic theology
Even the briefest survey of the church’s theology in the first 500 years reveals a wide range of views concerning the nature of the atonement. The idea of ransom, for example, commanded much space among the patristics or church fathers. Aulén attempts to present this understanding as if it contained an unrefined Christus Victor theme. He deals with a few prominent patristics: Tertullian (CE 155-240, Cyprian (CE 200-258), Augustine (CE 354-430) and Gregory the Great (CE 540-604). However he always seeks to narrowly define their theology. Therefore while he admits there is evidence of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) he makes little of it.
This smoothing over proves unsatisfactory. Generously citing primary texts, the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions rebut the notion that the doctrine of PSA was a late development. Aulén claims its fullest expression only appeared in the 11th century, with Anselm. But the evidence is against him. We should not forget that the phrase “sweet exchange” came from Origen (CE 184-253); and Justin Martyr (CE 100-165) wrote, “We trust in the saving blood”. Throughout his Institutes (see 2.17.4-5), Calvin quotes extensively from Augustine in his presentation of PSA. Thus Aulén’s thesis simply does not stand when confronted with the diversity of emphases in the early church’s theology of atonement.
Irenaeus and recapitulation
Aulén builds much of his dogmatic case on Irenaeus (CE 130-202). The problem here is that modern scholarship credits Irenaeus not with Christus Victor but the recapitulation theory of atonement. Robert Letham summarises this, “In the incarnation Christ united himself to humanity and so attaches humanity to God.” Therefore Irenaeus’ understanding of the atonement placed considerable weight on Christ’s humanity. As Paul’s second Adam (see Romans 5:12-21), Irenaeus taught that Christ retraces his steps and obeyed God where Adam failed. To paraphrase one of Irenaeus’ more famous phrases, “Christ became what we are so as to make us what he is.”
My reason for this brief foray into recapitulation is that it indicates the gap between Aulén and Irenaeus. How so? We’ve already seen in earlier posts that a major shortcoming in Aulén’s view was his treatment of Christ’s humanity. But, as Michael Horton writes, “Irenaeus’ view underscores Christ’s life as well as death as undoing humanity’s collective transmission.” We cannot downplay Irenaeus’ emphasis on Christ’s humanity, which is precisely what Aulén does in order to align him with his own Christus Victor.
The incarnation and atonement was a work of God. But it is more than a movement within God, external to us. Christ took on humanity to reconcile God to man. He is our representative, our new head, and the last Adam. Irenaeus famously set out to answer the question: Ad quid descendebat? For those of you whose Latin is a little rusty, it means something like: what is the purpose for coming down? In the context of Irenaeus’ theology: why did Christ become incarnate? Aulén offers his own answer, “Christ came down from heaven because no power other than that of God himself was able to accomplish the work that was to be done. Incarnation and atoning work are thus set in the closest possible relation to one another; both belong to one scheme.” Unfortunately this scheme does not explain the necessity of Christ’s humanity, therefore it fails to properly engage Irenaeus’ theology. This significantly weakens Aulén’s appeals to Irenaeus.
Anyone who has read Luther will be aware that he was not shy of using graphic illustrations and vivid imagery. He was also very fond of the dualistic or conflict language inherent to the classic view. However Christus Victor was not central to his understanding of the atonement. Donald Macleod admits that there are clear echoes of both Gregory of Nyssa’s ransom language and the classic view of the atonement in Luther. Yet attention to both his Small Catechism and the Large Catechism reveal that his theology of deliverance and victory was far more nuanced than Aulén suggests. Added to this is the Reformed tradition’s celebration of Luther for refocusing the 16th century church on the vicarious suffering of Christ, which spares us God’s wrath and grants us righteousness.
One of the points I appreciate most in Aulén’s work is his view that hymns reveal the prevailing theology of their day. Applying this point to a selection of Luther’s hymns we encounter a well established substitutionary view of the atonement. In Agnus Dei, Luther’s refrain is, “Lamb of God, O Jesus, who dost bear the whole world’s sins”. There are countless echoes of this theme: “Outpoured is thy precious blood / For our sins sufficing good”; and “Born whom Mary sinless hath / Bore he for us God’s wrath,” from In The Mist of Life We Are. I am not claiming the absence of Christus Victor. But it is impossible as well as irresponsible to reduce Luther’s theology as Aulén does. In addition to these hymns and his theological writings, such as the The Freedom of a Christ, we should note Luther’s involvement in the Augsburg Confession, which says believers are, “freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe…their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by his death, has made satisfaction for our sins” (citing Romans 3-4).
Similarly to Calvin, Luther vigorously affirmed the connection between the victory motif and Christ’s vicarious substitution. In other words, we do not find in him loosely and unrelated aspects of the atonement but a coherent theological system. So in his Lectures on Galatians we read, “The freedom by which we are free of the wrath of God forever is greater than heaven and earth and all creation. From this therefore follows the other freedom, by which we are made free through Christ from the Law, from sin, death, the power of the devil.” Yes, in Luther we find many of Aulén’s emphases. But in the end these two theologians identify vastly different centres. For Luther Christians are first freed from God’s wrath through Christ’s death, which only then results in freedom from the powers. This is consistent with what we saw in the post on the New Testament: Satan’s power is not only derivative from God but also driven by God’s justice.
Conclusion: Reformed theology to present
This post is much longer, and more technical, than is usually my intention at Rekindle. Forgive me. Let me offer two points by way of conclusion. Firstly, Aulén’s singling out of Luther among the Reformers is rather shortsighted. For starters, the Reformed development of Christ’s munus triplex (prophet, priest and king) challenges the idea that the Reformers were unconcerned with Christ’s victory. In his Institutes (2.15.3-5), for example, Calvin explores the implications of Christ’s kingship. These include a guaranteed victory in the end owing to Christ’s power in the present. However, they are grounded in his defeat of evil powers at the cross. As Robert Letham warns, “When talking of Christ exercising a threefold office we must beware of separating the various functions. Together they cohere in the one work of Christ.” Aulén fails to recognise the implications of this for Reformed theology—and in Luther. The Reformers did not ignore or abandon Christus Victor. However, they located it within the fuller biblical picture of God’s gracious work.
Secondly, something we’ve touched on in previous posts, Aulén’s accusation that the Reformed emphasis on satisfaction and substitution in the atonement is merely rational or legal thinking is unfounded. Herman Bavinck provides a litany of biblical passages that point to motifs of dualism, conflict, spiritual powers and victory, but says they are more than metaphors or illustrations. He adds that Scripture must shape our view not only of evil but also God’s conquest of these powers. The Christian faith is therefore more than both dry rationalism and dangerous superstition. Aulén’s presentation is skewed in his disparaging remarks about Reformed reason. Without collapsing the atonement into an ultimately mysterious, even inexplicable victory, Reformed theology retains the rich biblical language while also employing it to help us plumb the depths of the atonement. Hear Calvin (Institutes 2.16.11) effectively wielding biblical dualism, after stating that at the cross Christ died in our place, “By his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell, he was victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up”.