Atonement Theory Week: Christus Victor

Welcome to Atonement Theory Week! We are planning on running four posts: this one, and then posts by Joey Phillips, Ryan McLaughlin and Benny Phillips. In it, we’ll be describing three of the major theories of the atonement, and then our pastor, Benny, will explain why understanding the atonement theories is important to our daily lives.

First, though, a quick introduction. What do we mean by “atonement theories”? At the risk of being reductive, the “atonement” in Christian theology is a description of how human being are reconciled to God through the death of Christ. In other words, it seeks to explain how Christ’s death actually reconciled sinners to God. It’s also important to remember, as the incomparable J.I. Packer said, “[multiple] Scriptural views of atonement can work together to present a fully-orbed picture of Christ’s work.” In other words, atonement theories are not necessarily contradictory. Today, I’m going to talk about the “Patristic” atonement theory, or “Christus Victor.”



The origin of the “Christus Victor” atonement theory helps explain why it is considered the “Patristic” atonement theory, or at least the dominant one. Although the term itself comes from a early-20th century book by Lutheran scholar and theologian Gustaf Aulen, the theory dates back to the Church Fathers. Most theologians and scholars consider “Christus Victor” to be the view of the atonement held by most of the Church Fathers, and the dominant view on the atonement up through at least Augustine, and perhaps all the way to Anselm (11th century).


So what is the “Christus Victor” understanding of the atonement? Although it’s perhaps the toughest of the atonement theories define, it essentially portrays the atonement, ultimately, as the moment in history in which Jesus conquered death, sin and the Devil. It emphasizes the cosmic power of Jesus’ death and resurrection; instead of emphasizing the individualistic nature of salvation (although it doesn’t deny that we are personally reconciled to God), it focuses on redemption’s story. Because of Adam’s sin, all of creation was tainted and marred. The death of Christ reversed the power of sin over all of creation; by conquering sin and death and removing its power, Christ reconciled creation with its Creator. Salvation, then, is not so much from God’s wrath (as penal substitution would say) but from the natural consequences of sin, that is, death and suffering.

Another element of “Christus Victor” is what is known as the “harrowing of Hell.” The Apostles’ creed calls this the moment that Christ “descended into Hell” and in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant denominations, it is commemorated on Holy Saturday. Proponents of “Christus Victor” more literally interpret Jesus’ parable about binding the Strongman and plundering his land, Ephesians 4. Philippians 2, 1 Peter 3:19-20 and other passages of Scripture.  John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Cantebury, describes the “harrowing of hell” in The Paschal Homily as: “By descending into hell, he made hell captive/He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh/And Isaiah, foretelling this, cried: 'Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.’”

Although numerous Scriptures are used to defend and explain the “Christus Victor” view on the atonement, perhaps the purest distillation of the theory is found in Colossians 2:15, “He [Jesus] disarmed the rulers and authorities, and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him,” and 2 Corinthians 5:19, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.”


The strength of the “Christus Victor” view on the atonement is that, perhaps more than any other theory, it encompasses the scope of the atonement by synthesizing with the federal headship of Christ. (Eds. note: When we shared this post for feedback with a few people, Ryan McLaughlin pointed out that “federal headship” was not necessarily a term that the Church Fathers would have contemplated or used. To be clear, we are not implying that “federal headship” is indisputably an element of “Christus Victor”, but only that, in our minds, one of the positives of “Christus Victor” is that it is easily synthesized with federal headship).

In Adam, all of creation suffers the natural consequences of sin; creation is decaying, and we are all going to suffer and die. By dying, Christ subverted the reigning powers and principalities over this earth, conquered and ended their effects. By becoming part of God’s chosen people, we become a part of a community, a part of a story that stretches from glory to glory, one thread in the fabric of redemption. Some of the early Medieval art and iconography depicting the harrowing of hell, for instance, depicts Christ as taking the hands of Adam and Eve. Christ is indeed the better Adam.

Another positive of “Christus Victor” is that it brings greater emphasis to the Incarnation. Rather than viewing the atonement as somewhat of a “business transaction” where Christ pays a penalty to satisfy the demands of justice, the atonement is portrayed as an Incarnational story where Christ enters into our misery, thereby redeeming it. The act of coming into our world, then, is emphasized almost to the same extent as the actual death and resurrection of Christ.  Irenaeus encapsulated this element of the theory: “Jesus became what we are so that we could become what He is.”


One major criticism of the “Christus Victor” view on the atonement is, as Mark Galli put it, its deficient understanding of anthropology. In other words, “Christus Victor,” according to this criticism, focuses not on humanity’s guilt, but on its victimhood.  We are trapped and in need of rescue, and Christ successfully freed us from our entrapment. Although there is truth to the metaphor, it also could be misconstrued. It could position humans as straining against our chains, desperately wanting to be freed from our captors, which doesn’t quite square with biblical teaching about the state of our souls prior to salvation.

Another criticism is, as Dr. John Piper has said, it takes Colossians 2:15 out of context. The two verses before verse 15 say: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, and having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” In other words, Jesus did “disarm the rulers and authorities” and “triumph over them” as verse 15 says, and He did this by “canceling the record of debt” and satisfying sin’s “legal demands.” According to this line of criticism, Christ conquered sin and death and the Devil by becoming our substitute.

A response to this criticism would be to go back even a little further to Colossians 2:11: “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ.”  Thus, according to this response, Colossians 2:13-14 is contextualized by Colossians 2:11, which holds that circumcision and other Old Testament law is obviated by our union with Christ in His death.

Another criticism comes from St. Anselm.  He linked “Christus Victor” with the similarly patristic “Ransom” theory.  In other words, he viewed “Christus Victor” (although it wasn’t called that during Anselm’s time) as wrongly teaching the God was paying a ransom in order to free us from sin’s dominion. In Anselm’s view, this was all backwards — God owed no ransom at all, so why should he pay it? Rather, we owe a ransom to God. Anselm also pointed out that even if the “Christus Victor” view was correct, it didn’t explain why Jesus had to actually come and die, except perhaps arbitrarily. Anselm’s satisfaction theory (and the subsequent “penal substitution” theory) has Scriptural support for why Christ actually had to die.  (Eds. note: some proponents of "Chritus Victor" would deny that their theory is linked to the "Ransom" theory, and that St. Anselm was creating a strawman.  Aulen himself argued that "Christus Victor" was distinct from the "Ransom" theory.  However, some scholars, such as Anabaptist theologian J. Denny Weaver, are both proponents of "Christus Victor" and consider it a more developed form of the "Ransom" theory)

Fleming Rutledge, drawing on the Patristics, does a good job of answering that criticism. In doing so, she does not so much deny the forensic elements of the atonement, but argues that the atonement is much more than that, and properly understood, it is more about transformation and liberation. As Derek Rishmawy summed her position up, we are indeed “forensically vindicated” but much more so, we are “totally delivered.”


There is much to be learned from the “Christus Victor” view of the atonement. It is beautifully broad, and reminds us of historical-redemptive and covenantal aspects of the atonement. The work of Christ is huge and incredible and awe-inspiring; it is simultaneously Incarnational and Apocalyptic. “Christus Victor” quite literally reminds us of the joyous victory of our King. It reminds us that the atonement is less like a scholar scribbling into a ledger, and more like a preacher emerging from a desert with a booming story; an awful story; a beautiful story; a story we scarcely believe but dare to imagine. It encourages us to join the battle of our King and to, along with Chesterton, “assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, and behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine Captain…fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.”

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