Mysteries of the Kingdom

            in awe of scripture, viewing it through the lens of the kingship of Jesus






Christus Victor Untangled

Does torture satisfy God?

Thanks to a book by Gustaf Aulen, the term ďChristus VictorĒ (or CV) has become shorthand for the traditional Christian view of the atonement prior to the work of Thomas Aquinas. The view of the cross by Aquinas and the subsequent view of Protestantism are both commonly referred to as ďPenal Substitutionary AtonementĒ (or PSA). Without taking sides between these two views, I hope to clarify three misunderstandings about Christus Victor:

  1. First, Aulenís writing focused so heavily on one aspect of the atonement, that many people today misunderstand Christus Victor.
  2. Second, the name given to Aquinasí view of the atonement (ďpenal substitutionĒ) gives the mistaken impression that CV denies the substitutionary nature of Jesusí death.
  3. Third, CV is often misunderstood as if it fails to address Godís wrath against sin.

 

THREEFOLD VICTORY

In 1930, Lutheran bishop Gustaf Aulen published Christus Victor, promoting the ancient Christian view of the cross as an act of victory, in opposition to the atonement theories born from the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Aulen credited too much of Western atonement theology to Anselm, rather than Aquinas. His greater error however, was to focus too heavily on just one aspect of the victory of the cross. In chapter two of Christus Victor, Aulen writes:

ďThe work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers that hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.Ē

Despite using words like ďfirst and foremost,Ē Aulen then fails to elucidate a second or third victory in the ďwork of Christ.Ē Since Aulenís book almost single-handedly brought Christus Victor theology into modern Western minds, the Western definition of Christus Victor tends to reflect Aulenís limited presentation, rather than the threefold victory displayed in Scripture and early Church writings. Traditionally, CV recognized that King Jesus not only liberated humans from bondage, but also from the disease of sin and from the inherent human disposition to rebel against God. To define the classic view of the victory of the cross more fully than Aulen does:

Christus Victor is the ancient Christian understanding of how Jesus conquered
the bondage of humans, their disease of sin, and their rebellious nature.

While Aulen stopped short of addressing Godís wrath against sin, the second and third victories above do address Godís wrath. More importantly, the second and third victories display Jesus as our sacrificial Lamb in terms starkly different from the atonement theories of Aquinas and mainstream Protestantism.

 

THE SUBSTITUTION

In his book, Aulen attempts to prove that Martin Luther held the ancient Christian view of the cross. In so doing, Aulen spends much of chapter six of Christus Victor explaining how Lutherís description of Jesusí substitutionary suffering disagrees with the prevalent Western view of the cross. He goes so far as to claim that Lutherís statements which most clearly reflect Aquinas were inserted into Lutherís writings after the fact.1Subsequent to Aulen, however, the substitutionary and sacrificial aspects of Christus Victor tend to be minimized or ignored in theological discussions.

The minimizing of substitution in Christus Victor discussions can arguably be attributed to Aulenís deficit in explaining the vicarious nature of our Lordís suffering and its relationship to Godís wrath. Aulen openly considers a rational explanation of the substitute suffering to be unnecessary, since the desire for reason and rationality is merely human in his eyes, rather than divine. He even lauds Lutherís avoidance of rationality on the point:

ďBut just at this point Luther turns the train of thought the other way up, refusing to contemplate a rational solution of the difficulty, but rather insisting on the triumph of the Divine Love over the Divine Wrath by the way of self-oblation for our sake.Ē2

Aulenís silence about the substitutionary nature of the cross either reflects Lutherís genuine silence or reflects Aulenís lack of familiarity with places in which Luther explains the substitution; I know not which. Aulen displays in chapter two, however, a rich familiarity with Irenaeus of Lyons, who not only offered the Christus Victor perspective, but also explained the substitutionary nature of our Lordís suffering, specifically as the ďLast Adam,Ē<as summarized here>.

Western reliance on Aulen has therefore largely misunderstood the Christus Victor perspective, as if it does not affirm and explain how Jesus is the propitiating and substitutionary sacrifice for humans. Hence the term ďPenal Substitutionary AtonementĒ or (PSA) has been applied to the Aquinian atonement theories of both Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism. Consequently, we get articles like <this one> by Michael Vlach, which appeared in John MacArthurís ďThe Masterís Seminary Journal.Ē Vlachís article offers penal substitution quotes from Christians before Anselm, mistakenly believing that such quotes support Aquinian PSA theory and/or Protestant PSA theory.

What separates Christus Victor from the prevalent Western view of the cross is not penal substitution, but the claim that God is satisfied by the torture and suffering of King Jesus. Vlachís article quotes many ancient Christian references to penal substitution. Yet not one of those quotes claims that Jesusí death satisfied Godís wrath. Here are the three main views of the cross, all of which affirm Jesus as the sacrificial and substitutionary Lamb:

  1. In Roman Catholic PSA, humans tortured Jesus, who then presented His substitutionary suffering to God the Father as a propitiation of His wrath and justice.3
  2. In Protestant PSA, God the Father tortured Jesus as a substitute for humans and found His Sonís suffering to be a propitiation for His wrath and justice.4
  3. In Christus Victor, humans tortured Jesus, whose obedience and subsequent indwelling of them propitiates God toward humanity.

The first two offer a clear and succinct solution to Godís wrath against sin. They present Jesusí sufferings as resolving Godís wrath. Christus Victor offers Jesusí victory, rather than His tortured sufferings, as resolving Godís wrath.

 

VICTORY AND WRATH

The Christus Victor resolution of wrath depends on the two victories which Aulen neglected in his book. Jesus did not conquer Godís wrath. He conquered that which evoked Godís wrath: sin in humanity.

Christus Victor resolves divine wrath by affirming Jesusí role as the ďLast Adam,Ē as depicted in Romans 5:9-21. By the first Adamís act of rebellion, all humanity became rebellious (Rom 5:19). By the first Adamís rebellion, we began to, not only commit sin, but also endure it, both as humanityís pandemic disease and as humanityís now inherent, fallen nature. Christus Victor sees Jesus as conquering not only the dominion of sin, but also the disease of sin and the genetic defect of sin.

The disease of sin could not be quarantined nor medicated. The cure for this disease required destroying the flesh in which it resided. Oneís DNA cannot be repaired by placating the ire of a judge. The only escape from a genetically faulty birth is a second birth devoid of the first genetic shortcoming. The human disease could not be cured apart from the grave. The human birth defect could not be corrected apart from a new birth. Godís wrath is poured out on the <sons of disobedience and children of wrath>, not on the children of God, born of His own Spirit and <made completely new>.

In the prevalent Western view of the cross, a sinner who trusts in Jesus need not be punished because Jesus has been adequately punished. In Christus Victor, a sinner who trusts in Jesus need not be punished because that sinner is dead. He was made a rebel by the single rebellious act of one, but made righteous by the single obedient act of One (Rom 5:19). The human who trusts that Jesus is the Psalm 2 Anointed (Christ) King is born again. Dead men donít go to the stocks, because dead men are dead. There is no one left to crucify for that old person is dead. Therefore Paul writes in Romans 6:4 (as translated in the NKJV):

ďTherefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.Ē

 

WHY THE TORTURE?

Why did Jesus have to suffer, rather than die in peace and comfort? Since the Scriptures offer the suffering as necessary without explicitly stating the reason for their necessity, I can only point to the obedience verses which appear to require it. Romans 5:19 refers to our Lordís act of obedience as effecting the believerís transformation, and Philippians 2:8 ties that obedience to the cross, a torturous form of obedience. God the Father and God the Son <glorify one another> through the cross, perhaps as the ultimate contrast to Adamís comfortable rebellion in paradise.

 

CONCLUSION

Since relatively few Westerners are familiar with Christus Victor, this article may raise more questions than it answers. It is intended as the first in a series, however, to continue clarifying the ancient view of atonement. Hopefully, this article has properly expanded on Aulenís limited presentation of atonement (more than just the victory over our bondage) and more clearly affirmed the vicarious nature of our Lordís death. Most of all, I hope that it has made plain the ancient Christian understanding of how Godís wrath was resolved. Christus Victor does not claim that the torture of Jesus satisfied Godís wrath, nor did any Christian prior to Thomas Aquinas make that claim. Rather, Christus Victor sees the cross as the place of conquest and the propitiation of God through one <triumphant> and <transformative> act of obedience, <ďeven the death of the cross.Ē>


Click Here for the 2nd Article on Christus Victor




  1. Aulen, Gustaf, ďChristus Victor,Ē (Wise Paths Books: Austin, 2016) Kindle edition, chapter 6, subsection 4, paragraph 9.
  2. Aulen, ch 6 sub 4, para 12.ĒIt is true of course that sin incurs the anger of the Just Judge, and that this is averted when the debt due to Divine Justice is paid by satisfaction.Ē
  3. From the Catholic Encyclopedia via http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02055a.htm.
  4. ďGodís wrath is satisfied in Christ.Ē https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/five-truths-about-the-wrath-of-god
"Christus Victor Untangled" by Matthew Bryan was first published at www.conciliarpost.com. All rights are reserved.