It is impossible to ignore the motif of victory in Christ’s work. Therefore Aulén’s contention that Christus Victor has been understated among Protestants is worth consideration. Towards the beginning of his book, Aulén outlines four reasons he believes the classic view has been neglected. One of them is his claim that many moderns find conflict imagery to be disagreeable, even primitive and crude. I saw this myself when sharing Oh, Sleeper lyrics with a friend. In one their tracks, God sings to Satan: “You’ll bow at my feet, or I’ll rip out your knees / and make of your face, all the carnage you crave.” My friend thought the imagery was unnecessarily violent and unsettling. But then so is a lot of what we read in the Bible.
Despite the criticisms levelled against Mel Gibson’s The Passion, especially from Protestant quarters, his portrayal of Gethsemane is profoundly theological. After pleading with the Father to be spared the cross, Jesus stands up and crushes a snake’s head. This striking imagery alludes to God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This has traditionally been called the protevangelion, meaning ‘first gospel.’ It promised that even though the reality for fallen humanity would be conflict with evil powers (Genesis 3:14), the promised end of that strife is victory. As Gibson depicts, Christ’s life was marked by conflict. Yet it ended in God’s promised conquest.
But where was that victory won? Identifying the serpent as Satan, in Revelation 12:11-12 we read that Satan was conquered by the blood of the Lamb. Mysteriously then, it is through his death—and resurrection—that Christ triumphs over evil and brings us back to God. To use an old but obscure word: at the cross Christ achieves ‘atonement.’
In my own experience, we often tend to downplay this dramatic struggle between God and evil when speaking about the atonement. But standing at either end of history we see a promise of conflict; and that same struggle climaxing in God’s victory. For these reasons, the Eastern Orthodox tradition (following the early church fathers) has long treated the Christus Victor view of atonement as primary—sometimes exclusively so. This view of the atonement received renewed attention amongst Protestants in the 20th century, thanks to Gustav Aulén.
Aulén outlined three views of the atonement: classic or dramatic (Christus Victor); objective (Latin); and subjective (Christus Exemplar). But for Aulén these were not three aspects of Christ’s unified work. Rather he set his classic view, or Christus Victor, over against the other two. Aulén’s view of the atonement centred on “divine conflict and victory.” However, the New Testament speaks of Christ’s atoning work in a variety of ways. These are related, even mutually dependant. Thus Kevin Vanhoozer urges us to think of a plurality of metaphors rather than polarised models.
In the remainder of this post I will briefly unpack Christus Victor using Aulén’s book and point out some of its undervalued strengths.
Introducing Christus Victor
In Aulén’s presentation of Christus Victor, Christ’s victory over the evil powers brings about a new relation between God and man, which we might call reconciliation or atonement. In the work of the Son, God reconciles man to God through conquering mankind’s enemies. This victory was dramatic, not dryly rational. In fact, Aulén described this divine drama as contra rationem et legam (against reason and law). It was not man atoning God through bearing his righteous judgment in our place, appropriated by an intellectual faith and resulting in imputed righteousness.
As Robert Letham writes: “Today there is almost universal distaste for thinking of God and salvation in legal categories.” Aulén certainly felt that the Latin (objective) view of the atonement was too rationalistic and abstract. There is some validity in his criticisms. Where Aulén comes unstuck is in claiming that Christ suffering the legal penalty for sin in our place cannot be fitted with the motif of victory.
An Atonement Theme; Not the Whole
One of the church’s leading historians, Justo González, writes: “From the very beginning the church proclaimed Jesus as its Saviour, and in the Patristic age there had been a variety of views as to how Christ saves sinners.” Thus Aulén overstates his position in claiming that Christus Victor dominated the church’s doctrine of salvation for the first millennium of its existence. Might we not see, in this variety of positions on the atonement that none can exclusively address the whole work of Christ?