Christus Victor Clarified
Does torture satisfy God?
Thanks to a book by Gustaf Aulen, the term “Christus Victor” (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 “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” (or PSA). Without taking sides between these two views, I hope to clarify three misunderstandings about Christus Victor. First, Aulen’s writing focused so heavily on one aspect of the atonement, that many people today misunderstand Christus Victor. Second, the name given to Aquinas’ view of the atonement (“penal substitution”) gives the false impression that CV denies the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death. Third, CV is often misunderstood as if it fails to address God’s wrath against sin.
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:
“The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers that hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”
Despite using words like “first and foremost,” Aulen then fails to elucidate a second or third victory in the “work of Christ.” Since Aulen’s book almost single-handedly brought Christus Victor theology into modern Western minds, the Western definition of Christus Victor tends to reflect Aulen’s 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 God’s wrath against sin, the second and third victories above do address God’s 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.
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 Luther’s description of Jesus’ substitutionary suffering disagrees with the prevalent Western view of the cross. He goes so far as to claim that Luther’s statements which most clearly reflect Aquinas were inserted into Luther’s writings after the fact.1 Subsequent 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 Aulen’s deficit in explaining the vicarious nature of our Lord’s suffering and its relationship to God’s 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 Luther’s avoidance of rationality on the point:
“But 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.”2
Aulen’s silence about the substitutionary nature of the cross either reflects Luther’s genuine silence or reflects Aulen’s 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 Lord’s suffering, specifically as the “Last Adam,” 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 “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” 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 MacArthur’s “The Master’s Seminary Journal.” Vlach’s article mistakenly offers penal substitution quotes from Christians before Anselm, 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. Vlach’s article quotes many ancient Christian references to penal substitution. Yet not one of those quotes claims that Jesus’ death satisfied God’s wrath. Here are the three main views of the cross, all of which affirm Jesus as the sacrificial and substitutionary Lamb:
- 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
- In Protestant PSA, God the Father tortured Jesus as a substitute for humans and found His Son’s suffering to be a propitiation for His wrath and justice.4
- 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 God’s wrath against sin. They present Jesus’ sufferings as resolving God’s wrath. Christus Victor offers Jesus’ victory, rather than His tortured sufferings, as resolving God’s 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 God’s wrath. He conquered that which evoked God’s wrath: sin in humanity.
Christus Victor resolves divine wrath by affirming Jesus’ role as the “Last Adam” – as depicted in Romans 5:9-21. By the first Adam’s act of rebellion, all humanity became rebellious (Rom 5:19). By the first Adam’s rebellion, we began not only to commit sin, but also to endure it, both as humanity’s pandemic disease and as humanity’s 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. One’s 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. God’s 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 don’t 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):
“Therefore 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.”
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 Lord’s act of obedience as effecting the believer’s 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 Adam’s comfortable rebellion in paradise.
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 Aulen’s limited presentation of atonement (more than just the victory over our bondage) and more clearly affirmed the vicarious nature of our Lord’s death. Most of all, I hope that it has made plain the ancient Christian understanding of how God’s wrath was resolved. Christus Victor does not claim that the torture of Jesus satisfied God’s 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, “even the death of the cross.”View Sources
- Aulen, Gustaf, “Christus Victor,” (Wise Paths Books: Austin, 2016) Kindle edition, chapter 6, subsection 4, paragraph 9.
- Aulen, ch 6 sub 4, para 12.”It 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.”
- From the Catholic Encyclopedia via http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02055a.htm.
- “God’s wrath is satisfied in Christ.” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/five-truths-about-the-wrath-of-god