Graham Heslop

Retrieving Christus Victor

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.’
Atonement Theories
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?
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Don’t Wait for the Rebuke: Repent and Confess Your Sin

Contrary to my notions about sin always needing to be rebuked, here Jesus calls on his followers to search their own hearts and minds—to assess their lives and identify sin. They might have done something that led to a brother or sister holding something “against them” (Matthew 5:23). They may very well have sinned against someone else but no rebuke was issued. Just as in Matthew 18 Jesus calls for us to rebuke sin with the aim of repentance, in Matthew 5 he commands us to confess our sins to one another—to seek reconciliation (Matthew 5:24).

There are many reasons Christians don’t rebuke one another. But perhaps the one that runs deepest is that we just want people to like us. We fear coming across as self righteous, imagining that by calling out sin we will be alienated from other Christians. This is not an unreasonable fear. For even among Christians it is not difficult to be labelled judgmental and scorned for interfering in other people’s personal affairs. However, when sin is apparent, that is precisely what Jesus calls us to do: if someone sins against you, go and tell them. Naturally this must be tempered, as Christians navigate between rebuking sin and becoming judgmental or hypocritical. That being said, Jesus’ directive for us to rebuke sin stands.
For many years I treated Matthew 18:15-20 as if it was the only thing Jesus said about dealing with sin—both our own and others’. My operating assumption was that the sin-rebuke dynamic ran in one direction: if someone is sinned against then they must rebuke the offender. This led me to making remarks such as: ‘If Tim has an issue then he should bring it to me,’ and, ‘If Jeffrey thinks I’ve sinned then he must say so.’
Admittedly, it is wonderfully convenient to live like this, for at least two reasons. We’ve already touched on the first: most Christians are afraid to rebuke sin. Thus as long as I’m waiting on other Christians to identify and call out my sin, rebukes and any related repentance will be rare. Secondly, it doesn’t require me to evaluate my own actions or words, for this is the responsibility of others rather than my own. Furthermore, I can easily dismiss my conscience and make light of sin, since most Christians battle to rebuke one another.
“Confess Your Sins to One Another”
But this operating assumption was recently dashed as I read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, especially Jesus’ teaching on reconciliation. Jesus says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go” (Matthew 5:23-24).
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