Christus Victor

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The Harrowing of Hell, depicted in the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, 14th c. illuminated manuscript.

The term Christus Victor (meaning "Victorious Christ") is the name of Gustaf Aulén's groundbreaking book, first published in 1931, which drew attention to the classic early church ransom understanding of the Atonement.[1] In Christian theology, the ransom view of the atonement is the original theory of the meaning of Christ's death that emerged in the writings of the early Church Fathers, particularly Saint Irenaeus (d.c. 200) and Origen (d.c. 254). The theory teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom, usually said to have been paid to Satan, in satisfaction of his just claim on the souls of humanity as a result of sin.

This particular doctrine of the atonement attempts to explain why the death of Jesus was necessary to compensate and reverse the fall of Adam plus the sins of his offspring. Jesus is understood as the "last Adam" (1 Corinthians 15:45, NIV), the unblemished "Lamb of God" who could redeem humanity for eternal reconciliation with God.

The ransom view of the atonement derives from the exegesis of several biblical passages (Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Rom. 5:18-19; Heb. 9:11-12) and was the main view of atonement through the first thousand years of Christian history. However, the theory was heavily criticized in the Middle Ages when theologians argued that it would be absurd for God to pay the Devil a ransom. Nevertheless, the theory has made a comeback in the twentieth century through the writings of Aulén's Christus Victor.

Historical context

The word "Redeeming" literally means "buying back." In ancient times, the ransoming of war captives from slavery was a common practice. In a theological context, the ransom theory of the atonement developed from both the prevalent cultural practice of ransoming war captives as well as biblical exegesis of Mark 10:45 ("For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many") and 1 Timothy 2:5-6 ("For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time"). Other biblical passages seemed to reinforce this perspective:

Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:18-19, NIV).

The ransom theory was the main view of atonement through the first thousand years of Christian history, though it was never made a required belief.[2] Robin Collins summarized it as follows:

Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil's clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ's death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ's death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan's grip.[2]

Aulén's theory

Aulén's book consists of a historical study beginning with the early church and tracing their Atonement theories up to the Protestant Reformation. Aulén argues that Christus Victor (or as Aulén called it the "classic view") was the predominant view of the early church and for the first thousand years of church history and was supported by nearly every Church Father including Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine to name a few. A major shift occurred, Aulén says, when Anselm of Canterbury published his “Cur Deus Homo” around 1097 C.E. which marked the point where the predominant understanding of the Atonement shifted from the classic view (Christus Victor) to the Satisfaction view in the Catholic and later the Protestant Church. The Orthodox Church still holds to the Christus Victor view, based upon their understanding of the Atonement put forward by Irenaeus, called "recapitulation" Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is.

Aulén argues that theologians have misunderstood the view of the early Church Fathers on the atonement. He argues that a proper understanding of their view is not concerned with the payment of ransom to the devil, but with the motif of the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. As the term Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) indicates, the idea of “ransom” should not be seen in terms (as Anselm did) of a business transaction, but more in the terms of a rescue or liberation of humanity from the slavery of sin.

Aulén states that the chief distinction between Christus Victor and Satisfaction Theory is the role each gives to God and the Law. Satisfaction Theory, Aulen claims, contains a divine discontinuity and a legal continuity while the central emphasis of Christus Victor is of a divine continuity and a legal discontinuity. Since Satisfaction Theory arose from the penance based system of Anselm of Canterbury, its focus is on Law. God is unable to justly forgive without satisfying the Law's demands and since only a man can fulfill man's obligations to the Law, Christ must become a man in order to keep the Law perfectly and then suffer the punishment intended for us at the hands of his Father. This view, Aulen claims, inserts an opposition into the Divine relationship that does not exist in Christus Victor, and maintains a legal emphasis that is reversed in Early church thought.

Aulén points to the Law as an enemy in the writings of Paul and Luther (who he claims was a forceful advocate of Christus Victor), and claims that the penance systems of Satisfaction Theory and Penal Substitution place an undue emphasis on the role of humans and on God's obligation to the Law. Instead by suffering a death that, before the Law, meant an accursed status, Christ, instead of satisfying an obligation, overthrew the power of the Law, since its condemnation of a perfect man was unjust. His subsequent Resurrection, a mark of the Father's favor despite the Law's curse, deprived the Law of its ability to condemn. God the Father and God the Son are thus not set at odds by Calvary, but are united in seeking the downfall of the devil's system of sin, death, and Law that enslaves humanity. This view, Aulen maintains, keeps from the errors of penance systems emphasizing Law and man, and reveals the unity within the Trinity's redemptive plan and the freedom of the forgiveness shown by God through Christ.

Unlike the Satisfaction Doctrine view of the Atonement (the “Latin” view) which is rooted in the idea of Christ paying the penalty of sin to satisfy the demands of justice, the “classic” view of the Early church (Christus Victor) is rooted in the Incarnation and how Christ entered into human misery and wickedness and thus redeemed it. Aulén argues that the Christus Victor view of the Atonement is not so much a rational systematic theory as it is a drama, a passion story of God triumphing over the Powers and liberating humanity from the bondage of sin. As Gustav Aulén writes, "The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: Sin, death, and the devil."[1]

While largely held only by Eastern Orthodox Christians for much of the last one thousand years, the Christus Victor theory is becoming increasingly popular with both paleo-orthodox evangelicals because of its connection to the early Church fathers, and with liberal Christians and peace churches such as the Anabaptist Mennonites because of its subversive nature, seeing the death of Jesus as an exposure of the cruelty and evil present in the worldly powers that rejected and killed him, and the resurrection as a triumph over these powers. As Marcus Borg writes, "for [the Christus Victor] view, the domination system, understood as something much larger than the Roman governor and the temple aristocracy, is responsible for the death of Jesus… The domination system killed Jesus and thereby disclosed its moral bankruptcy and ultimate defeat."[3]

The Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver, in his book “The Nonviolent Atonement” and again recently in his essay "The Nonviolent Atonement: Human Violence, Discipleship and God," traces the further development of the Christus Victor theory (or as he calls it “Narrative Christus Victor”) into the liberation theology of South America, as well as feminist and black theologies of liberation.[4]

This trend among Progressive and Liberal Christians towards the Christus Victor view of the Atonement marks a shift from the traditional approach of liberal Christianity to the Atonement known as the Moral Influence view espoused by theologians such as Schleiermacher.

Criticism of the ransom view

St. Anselm, the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury argued against the ransom view, saying that Satan, being himself a rebel and outlaw, could never have a just claim against humans.[2] The Catholic Encyclopedia calls the idea that God must pay the Devil a ransom "certainly startling, if not revolting."[5] Philosopher and theologian Keith Ward, among others, pointed out that, under the ransom view, not only was God a debtor but a deceiver as well, since God only pretended to pay the debt. Others, such as Gustaf Aulén, have suggested that the meaning of the Ransom theory should not be taken in terms of a business transaction (who gets paid), but rather understood as a liberation of human beings from the bondage of sin and death. Anselm himself went on to explicate the satisfaction view of atonement.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gustav Aulen (transl. by A. G. Herber) Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (Macmillan: New York, 1977).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Robin Collins, Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory. Retrieved August 9, 2008.
  3. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (Harper: San Francisco), p 95.
  4. J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Eerdmans); J Denny Weaver, "The Nonviolent Atonement: Human Violence, Discipleship and God," Stricken by God? (Eerdmans, 2007).
  5. The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Doctrine of Atonement. Retrieved August 9, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anselm of Canterbury. "Cur Deus Homo?" In A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham. Edited by Eugene R. Fairweather, 100-183. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1956. ISBN 978-0664244187
  • Aulén, Gustaf. Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement. Translated by A. G. Hebert. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1978. ISBN 0020834004
  • Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. HarperOne, 2004. ISBN 978-0060730680
  • Erickson, Millard J. Introducing Christian Doctrine, 2nd edition. Edited by L. Arnold Hustard. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001. ISBN 0801022507
  • McIntyre, John. The Shape of Soteriology. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1992. ISBN 0567096157
  • Sherman, Robert. King, Priest and Prophet: A Trinitarian Theology of Atonement. New York: T. & T. Clark, 2004. ISBN 0567025608
  • Weaver, J. Denny. The Nonviolent Atonement. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2001. ISBN 0802849083

External links

All links retrieved February 20, 2017.


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