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Christus Victor

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s/t: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement
The term Christus Victor comes from the title of Gustaf Aulén's groundbreaking book 1st published in '31 which drew attention to early Church understanding of the Atonement. In it he identifies three main types of Atonement Theory:
The earliest was what he called the "classic" view of the Atonement, more commonly known as Ransom Theory or since '31 known sometimes as the "Christus Victor" theory. This is the theory that Adam & Eve made humanity subject to the Devil during the Fall, & that God, in order to redeem humanity, sent Christ as ransom or bait so that the Devil, not knowing Christ couldn't die permanently, would kill him, & thus lose all right to humans following the Resurrection.
A 2nd theory is the "Latin" or "objective" view, commonly known as Satisfaction Theory, beginning with Anselmian Satisfaction (Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind satisfying the demands of God's honor) & later developed by Protestants as penal substitution (Christ is punished instead of humanity, thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive). Some have argued that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was expressed by early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr c.100-165, Eusebius of Caesarea c.275-339 & Augustine of Hippo 354-430.
A 3rd is the "subjective" theory, commonly known as the Moral Influence view, that Christ's passion was an act of exemplary obedience which affects the intentions of those who come to know about it. It dates back to Anselm of Laon's protégé, Abelard, its originator.


First published January 1, 1930

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About the author

Gustaf Aulén

27 books6 followers
Gustaf Aulén (1879-1977) was the Bishop of Strängnäs in the Church of Sweden and the author of Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement in 1931. This classic work analyzes the doctrine of the atonement of Jesus, suggesting that the three main interpretations in Christian history are the Christus Victor theory, the Satisfaction theory, and the Moral Influence theory. Aulén is also known in the Swedish Lutheran Church as a composer of widely used church music.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 71 reviews
Profile Image for Joel Wentz.
1,000 reviews60 followers
January 25, 2014
This classic work of theology is indispensable reading for anyone who grew up in the Western church tradition. Aulen was a prominent theologian in the early 1900s, and this short book is one of his most well-known works, and for good reason! Growing up in the evangelical church, I had always assumed that "penal substitution" was simply the only way of understanding Christ's atoning work. As an historical overview, Christus Victor clearly shows that this tradition emerged from what Aulen calls the "Latin" understanding of atonement, which wasn't clearly articulated until around 1100 years into the church's existence! Rather, Aulen argues that the "classic" understanding of atonement (Christ's victory over sin and death) has the strongest historical precedent. While Christus Victor isn't an apologetic for any one atonement tradition (though it's clear that Aulen is convinced the "classic" understanding is the strongest), it is a supremely helpful survey of how different strands of atonement doctrine have emerged through our history. For me, it helped me understand some of my own discomfort with "penal subsitution", as well as the scope of how the body of Christ have wrestled with this doctrine through the ages. Highly, highly recommended!
Profile Image for Elijah Lamb.
22 reviews184 followers
May 19, 2023
while i enjoyed this piece my biggest critiques are that: 1) it was highly repetitive & 2) it contains technical language that is very vaguely defined and then used heavily - this makes understanding the author’s arguments somewhat difficult. overall it was helpful in understanding how the doctrine of the atonement developed.
Profile Image for Misael Galdámez.
110 reviews3 followers
May 9, 2022
A classic for a reason. I thought it was a well-written, compelling read on the idea of "Christus Victor"—Christ defeating sin, death, and the devil in his death and resurrection. Penal substitution understandings of the atonement formed me in my early 20s (ie. Man deserves death due to sins, Jesus died on the cross for our sins), and I found his work illuminating in detailing the underpinnings and problems with strict PSA views.

For one, framing the atonement solely as substitution defines humanity's relationship to God as legal and moralistic. Divine love is viewed with suspicion and can only operate to the extent that it does not infringe on his justice. Second, this view of the atonement only really needs Christ's humanity, as it is an offering to God by man. Why should he need to be God? Last, it is rationalistic.

Personally, I am coming to terms with the atonement fundamentally as mystery. While we can understand what Christ has done to a certain degree, we must also trust what God has done in and for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (whether or not we fully understand it).

Of course, the book is not without its challenges. I don't necessarily see the law as a hostile power in my reading of the NT (rather a misunderstanding of the Law! For the end of the law is Jesus). And I also find his readings of Luther a bit humorous. He is very generous in his readings of Luther as supporting "the classic idea."

All in all, I highly recommend.
Profile Image for Graham Heslop.
211 reviews7 followers
March 30, 2016
The synopsis of this work provided by Goodreads is adequate, so I needn't provide an outline of Aulén's work. I also realise that my low rating is insignificant, since this work is undoubtedly seminal. In fact, I really hope to properly review it and engage with some of the ideas elsewhere. But for now, and here, I will merely outline a few of the weaknesses I perceived in the argument, in no specific order:

(1) In his treatment of Luther, which is prefaced by the point that the German Reformer's subscription to the Classical view is interwoven with his emphasis on justification, Aulén entirely fails to treat Luther's view of justification (that is, the imputed righteousness of Christ attained through faith). This is no minor quibble, for a denial of the Latin view of atonement by conclusion threatens the Reformed touchstone of sola fidei.

(2) I appreciated the historiographical point that in order to understand a text (in this case, the New Testament) one must study its interpretation by the following generations that subscribed to it. But that is no excuse for smoothing over the primary text by importing a thesis garnered from the secondary ones. (It is worth adding that Aulén is guilty of something similar in his reading of Luther; he uses a tenuously developed theme as the interpretive key to all of Luther's writing.) Aulén simply does not provide exegetical proof for his conclusion that the New Testament contained the resources that were refined by the Apostolic Fathers into the Classical view.

(3) As a product of his environment Aulén is unfortunately dismissive of the Old Testament law, reducing it at points to nothing more than impotent manmade religion and forgetting that the law has always possessed an important place in Christian life and theology, which extends beyond it being a tyrant to be overthrown. Aulén introduces a tension, one he believes only the Classical view resolves, between Divine love and the law. He then makes love the ruling factor while simultaneously dismissing law as being too rationalistic.

(4) Central to his his thesis is the idea that the Classical view (most clearly seen in Irenaeus, of the Apostolic Fathers) was supplanted in the medieval period and rediscovered or repurposed by Luther over a millennium later. What I found quite ironic at this point was that the dualistic language of the Fathers posited three enemies - sin, Satan, and death - whereas Luther provided five, adding wrath and law. The strength of Aulén's argument and tension (above) he believes only the Classical view resolves hinges on the law, an enemy that was only truly considered and unpacked centuries after the Classical view was held.

(5) Lastly, and I imagine this point is one that entire books have been written about, the important conjunction between incarnation and atonement does not necessarily only hold in the Classical view. Though this point rests on the perhaps overemphasised distinction between God's work from above versus that from below, I am convinced that the Latin view of the atonement does not inevitable conclude with satisfaction being the work of man offered to God. That is to disfigure it so that it fits with the categories of the Classical view.

That's enough for now. I thoroughly enjoyed Aulén's style (excellently structured to help the reader, summaries provided on each key point, and simplistic presentation). His treatment of Christian history is insightful and there is no doubt he knowledge of it and the significant contributors is brilliantly broad. He demonstrates good theological praxis in setting out the arguments of others and enumeration as well as then developing his criticisms. Aulén provides some important criticisms of the standard Protestant position on the atonement (the Latin view) that need to be answered, while he rightly ameliorates the subjective view. Finally, there are too many excellent asides and thoughtful supporting points made to mention. This work is one worth numerous revisits and serious engagement.
Profile Image for Judah Ivy.
23 reviews2 followers
July 14, 2009
Aulen's book was a much-needed elucidation for me. Before reading it I'd only heard references and short descriptions of the "Christus Victor" view of Christs' work of atonement.
It's a very informative work. He details the origin and development of the three main types of atonement theology:
The Classic view, which he puts forward as the authentic type, and shows to have been the main idea of the atonement held by the early church fathers.
The Latin type: proposed in its detailed form by Anselm
The Subjective type: proposed first by Abelard in opposition to Anselm, but not adopted as a main view until the enlightenment.
He states multiple times in the book that he's not writing an apologetic work in favor of the "classic" (Christus Victor) view of the atonement, but it's obvious to see where his sympathies lie.

The most confusing part of the book is that Aulen uses about three to five different names for each "Type" -referring to the Classic view as the "Dramatic/Luther's, The "Latin" view as the Objective/ Juridical/Orthodox/Anselmian/medieval, The "Subjective" view as the Liberal/Abelard's/humanistic.
Once you get the hang of it it all makes sense.

Aulen has me convinced that the "Classic" idea of the atonement is the most scriptural and true way of looking at the Work of Salvation/Atonement, however I have a couple reservations.
He keeps on saying that the "Classic" type (over against the "Latin" type) emphasizes the importance of the Incarnation, but I don't see how. To quote from the section "An Analysis of the Three Types":
"[in the classic type:]...His true manhood receives full emphasis. But yet again, this does not mean that the redemptive work of Christ is regarded as performed by him purely as man, or that it gains increased value through the association of the Deity with the Humanity."
That characterizes his explanation of the "classic" view throughout the book, but if it were true that the redemptive work of Christ took on no added meaning because of his Manhood, then what was the point of God becoming Man in Jesus Christ? Why not just defeat the "enemies" in His unveiled Godhood?

At the end of the book he points out that the "Classic" (Christus Victor) view has never been and will never be a "rational" theory or doctrine, but rather a motif, a theme, an Idea. Not because it is indefinite, but rather because of the pairs of apparent contradictions it involves (e.g. the absolute Sovereignty of God coinciding with the Dualistic view of his battle with the "enemies").

He ends with saying that "The images are but popular helps for the understanding of the idea, It is the Idea itself which is primary", which almost convinces me that C.S. Lewis read this book as well, considering this quote from Mere Christianity:
"We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ's death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself."
Profile Image for Jacob Aitken.
1,582 reviews266 followers
August 4, 2011
Triumphing over the powers, July 15, 2008
This book provides an historically-faithful alternative to the substitutionary and exemplary models of the atonement. Its strength lies in its presentation of a vivid and robust picture of the work of Christ. Its (the book, not the model) weakness is its simplistic reductions of other theologians' thoughts.

The Christus Victor model presents the work of Christ as a triumph over the devil, powers (demons), bondage of sin, and the "law." Accordingly, given its Eastern overtones, the atonement and the Incarnation are inseperable. Christ united humanity to his nature to redeem it. He redeemed it (still united to his nature) on the cross.

This is to be contrasted with the Latin views of the atonement, which are narrowly penal. The Latin views incorporate merit and penance in the atonment model. For Aulen, this move removes the work of God from the work of Christ in redemption.

Criticisms of the work:
This is why I give it 4 stars. I do not think he dealt as fairly with St Anselm as he could have. David Bentley Hart (*Beauty of the Infinite*) has shown how St Anselm and St Athanasius do not fundamentally disagree. Another problem I had is that biblical students need to see that the Bible incorporates all 3 models of the atonement (Mark 10 = substitutionary; Colossians 2:15 = Christus Victor; Peter 2:21 = exemplary). Aulen also used language that begged the question in favor of his position.

Aside from the above criticisms, this is a paradigm-shifting book.
Profile Image for Ryan Dufoe.
31 reviews19 followers
April 15, 2020
I gave it a 4 as a classic within the history of the church and NOT as a free-standing work. I think much better anthologies of thought on atonement theory have been written, but the importance this book has in bringing the Christus Victor view back into the conversation is part of the reason why the other books are so good. I appreciated the read among my other readings in the field for what it was. For a better read covering multiple theories, see Pugh's "The Atonement: A Way Through The Maze" for a short book with an academic bent, or check out Rutledge's "The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ" for a full book that starts with the scriptural images rather than man-made theories.
Profile Image for Rick Lee Lee James.
Author 1 book32 followers
April 24, 2021
Christ The Victor!

Christus Victor Summary

Aulén argues that theologians have incorrectly concluded that the early Church Fathers held a ransom theory of atonement. Aulén argues that the Church Fathers' theory was not that crucifixion was payment of a ransom to the devil, but rather that it represented the liberation of humanity from bondage to sin, death, and the devil. The term Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) indicates that the idea of “ransom” should not be seen in terms of a business transaction, but more in the terms of a rescue or a liberation of humanity from the slavery, and sickness, of sin.

Aulén states that the chief distinction between Christus Victor and the satisfaction view is the contrary emphasis given to the Trinity and the Law. The satisfaction view, Aulén claims, contains a 'divine discontinuity' and a 'legal continuity' while Christus Victor emphasizes a 'divine continuity' and a 'legal discontinuity'.

Christus Victor depicts Christ's sacrifice, not as a legal offering to God in order to placate his justice, but as the decisive moment in a war against the powers of darkness; the law included.

Furthermore, death, sin, and the Devil (personalized forces in Christus Victor), are overthrown since Jesus' subsequent resurrection breaks the dominion they once held over human life. Since the resurrection is a mark of the Father's favor despite the Law's curse on crucified men, the atonement, far from reinforcing the Law, deprives and subverts the Law of its ability to condemn. Thus God the Father and God the Son are not set at odds by the cross with the first in the role of Judge and the second in the role of sinner, but are united in seeking the downfall of the Devil's system of sin, death, and Law that enslaves humanity. This view, Aulén 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 to us by God through Christ.
Profile Image for Lee Irons.
72 reviews29 followers
September 21, 2019
I’m sure you’ve noticed the rising popularity of the Christus Victor theory of the atonement. It is has always been the standard view in Eastern Orthodoxy, but it is making inroads in Mennonite circles and in the left wing of the evangelical movement who are trying to develop non-penal and non-violent ways of understanding the atonement. N. T. Wright holds to his own particular version of it. So I decided I really needed to read this book for myself.

Swedish theologian Gustav Aulén (1879–1977) wrote this hugely influential book in 1930, and it appeared in English translation the next year. His main claim in a nutshell is that there are three main ideas of the atonement in the history of Christian theology: (1) the classic idea (not theory) of the atonement (= Christus Victor), (2) the satisfaction doctrine of the atonement, and (3) the subjective moral influence theory.

He sees the New Testament and the church fathers from Irenaeus onward as strongly embracing the classic idea, that is, the emphasis on the victory of Christ over the devil. The context of this view is the apocalyptic conflict between God and the devil over the fate of humanity. God rescues humanity through the instrument of the divine Son who took on flesh in order to “bait” Satan and defeat him. The humanity of Christ was the bait, but the divine nature of Christ was the hook hidden beneath by which he tricked Satan, thus freeing humanity from the grip of sin and death. The descent of Christ into hell (or Hades) between his death and resurrection is of critical significance, since this is the moment when the hook took effect. Satan took the bait and caused the death of Christ, but once dead, the divine Son still hypostatically united to his human soul, stormed the devil’s fortress (hell or Hades). Then on the third day, he burst through the doors of the devil’s shattered fortress, thereby releasing humanity from the devil’s power. (Of course, Aulén makes clear, we don’t need to take these crude images literally.) On the classic idea, then, the deity of Christ and his resurrection are the key to his gaining the victory over Satan. His death in his human nature only provides the bait that makes the victory possible.

Aulén’s sympathies clearly lie with the classic idea of the atonement. He spends a whole chapter arguing that Luther’s writings are filled with Christus Victor motifs, and he charges Luther’s successors (Melanchthon and the Protestant scholastics) with engaging in a deliberate cover-up, even tampering with the text of his writings, in an attempt to hide Luther’s true teaching on the atonement. His claim is that we need to get back to the classic idea, and he seems to be suggesting that we can do so through a theological retrieval of the authentic views of Luther, an argument that may have had some appeal in his Swedish Lutheran church context.

Turning now to the satisfaction theory, Aulén traces its origins to Tertullian’s legal mind and his concept of penance as a satisfaction for sins. But this theory really gets a hold of the Western Latin-speaking church through Anselm in his treatise Cur Deus Homo? (written in the late 1090s). The concept of the divine moral law is the backbone of this view. Humanity has violated God’s law and deserves to be punished. Therefore Christ becomes a man in order to suffer the punishment demanded by the law and satisfy the distributive justice of God (which Aulén calls a “chilly juridical term”). On this view, the humanity of Christ is more important than the deity of Christ, and the death of Christ plays a more important role than his resurrection.

The subjective moral influence theory can be traced back to Abelard, but its greatest exponents are Schleiermacher and Ritschl in the 19th century. The essence of their view of the atonement is that humanity’s problem is neither bondage to the devil, nor the violation of God’s moral law, but humanity’s misunderstanding of God’s essential character as a God of pure love. Sin is essentially mistrust, doubting God’s love. But when we behold Jesus going to the cross out of love for us, it reveals God’s love, melts our heart, dissipates our misapprehensions of God’s true nature based on fear and distrust, and makes us turn back to God to be reconciled to him.

I appreciate Aulén for reminding us of a neglected theme in the doctrine of the atonement – the theme of Christ’s victory over Satan through his death, descent into Hades, and resurrection. It is surely a biblical theme. However, I think it is unfortunate that his historical analysis sets the classic idea and the satisfaction doctrine in such polarity against one another as if they were irreconcilable. But they belong together and are perfectly compatible with one another. Is not the satisfaction of divine justice the legal ground of Christ’s victory over the devil? This is argued well by Jeremy Treat in The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology, Chapter 8, “Atonement: Reconciling Christus Victor and Penal Substitution.”
Profile Image for Patrick Williams.
19 reviews5 followers
June 15, 2014
GREAT BOOK! Written in German from lectures Gustaf Aulen presented in the early 1900's. Gustaf was a professor at a college in Switzerland and taught historical dogma (doctrine). This book explores what the earliest church's model of the atonement was - which was the "Chrisus Victor" or "the Classic Model" (as Gustaf called it. It is also known as the "ransom theory"). The Christus Victor model shows that Christ battled for us against the destructive powers that had us in their bondage (death, sin & the devil) and he explains how this was the teaching of the Church for the first 1,000 years until Anselm. He explains how the legalistic model of the Western Church arose: first, he said, Tertulian planted the first seeds of a legalistic view of the atonement (he was a lawyer by trade and came to Christianity around the age of 40, so it was only natural for him to use legal terminology to express his thoughts). Tertullian, however, only used some legal language but it was Cyprian who built on that (he, also, came to Christianity when he was 40years old or so and, before becoming a Christian, he was a Roman administrator or high goverment official; thus, he, too, thought in Roman terms with it legal mindset/worldview). Even these two, however, never expounded it like Anselm did -it was under Anselm that the modern model came into being and, modified by the reformers, became the dominant model today. The earliest Church, however, never viewed the atonment exactly like we do today and that is what the Christus Victor book explains. Very good - read to understand what the earliest Chrisitans believed concering the atonement.
Profile Image for Joseph Sverker.
Author 3 books54 followers
September 4, 2015
Man kan helt klart förstå attraktionen av den här boken och varför den fick det enorma genomslag den fick. Aulén skriver och argumenterar med otroligt tydlighet för hur "den klassiska försoningsläran" fallit i skymundan i teologin p g a 1700 och 1800-talets ensidiga fokus på subjektiv eller objektiv försoningslära. I detta kan han säkert ha rätt, att diskussionen i mångt och mycket verkat ha handlat om subjektiv eller objektiv försoningslära. Boken har dock mycket av äreräddning av Cristus Victor-motivet och Luther får en något märkligt position p g a det. Aulén är ju tvungen att nämna att Luther använts åt sidan med den latinska försoningsläran, men i kapitlet om Luther får man intrycket av att han helt och hållet verkade vara inne på att beskriva den klassiska försoningsläran. Jag (eller egentligen en kollegas kritik) är inte heller övertygad om att Auléns tolkning av Anselm är helt övertygande. Tveklöst är Anselm mån om att Gud inte kan agera emot sin rättvisa, men man kan undra om det handlar om juridisk eller estetisk syn på det hela. Nåja, helt klart en klassiker och en god hjälp i att börja tänka om försoningsläran inom kristen teologi. Men den är långt ifrån problemfri i sina tolkningar av tidigare teologer. Ska man kritisera Aulén är det nog tyvärr så att, i mångt och mycket, "the devil is in the details" och man är tvungen att dyka in i källorna i sig.
Profile Image for James.
1,493 reviews107 followers
March 27, 2015
I finally got around to reading this book. Aulen's stated purpose is to outline the classic view of the atonement and to compare it to the objective (latin) model and the subjective (exemplar) model. Aulen does an excellent job of describing the patriotic view and the development of penal substitution. One major difference he sees between the classic model and the later penal models is an emphasis on Christ's divinity in the former and Christ's humanity in the latter. The classic view posits that Christ's incarnation and atonement was God's way of defeating the demonic powers that held humanity captive from within. In the satisfaction model, God becomes man in order to pay the penalty due sinful humanity. Both of these models are objective, but while the penal view rescues humanity from God's punishment, the Christus Victor view sees the atonement as rescuing humanity from demonic oppression.

Aulen deals less with the subjective view, though he treats its main proponents. Before Aulen wrote this book, the Latin and subjective models were treated like a binary in atonement views. Aulen helped us recover the patriots (and Luther's) view.
Profile Image for Ispeakinglish.
32 reviews
January 14, 2021
I mean this isn't light reading or anything, but it is a good explanation of the history of the theology of Atonement.
Profile Image for Chungsoo Lee.
64 reviews34 followers
August 30, 2022
2000 years of theological history in 162 pages--this alone is quite an accomplishment. But after all these years, do we really understand the meaning of the Cross or have we exhausted all of its meaning? Aulén is a great thinker of categories. He is able to see through the complex, symbolic, and loose language of theologians (both ancient and modern) and categorize and trace the theme of atonement into three groups: the "classical," the Latin, and the "subjective." The progression of these three groups or categories roughly align chronologically with the exception of Luther, who, according to Aulén, returns to the classical view of atonement proposed by the early church (Greek) Fathers, starting with Irenaeus. Another exception to this linear progression is Tertullian, who along with Gregory the Great, started the motif of the judicial or legalistic view of atonement, which was later picked up and fully developed by Anselm of Canterbury, thus consolidating the view for the whole medieval period. The judicial view is later further rationalized by the Protestant Orthodox, including Calvin (despite their protest against the medieval Catholicism). The subjective view of atonement is championed by Schleiermacher in the 19th century and, wittingly or not, still dominates to the present day, including the American Evangelicals such as Billy Graham.

The book is subtitled: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. It comprises of Aulén's 1930 lectures he delivered at University of Lund, Sweden, where he taught as Professor of Systematic Theology. His contemporary Karl Barth is briefly mentioned at the end as a dialectical theologian but is not categorized in any of the three groups. After all, Barth had completely revised his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, which was published in 1922 (the second edition); and his work on the Church Dogmatics only began sometime between 1930-35 at Bonn where he held a short tenure as Professor of Systematic Theology before taking a post in Basel, Switzerland.

The book's title, Christus Victor, represents the "classical" view of atonement Aulén champions. The idea is that Christ, the second Adam, defeated the power of sin and death that subjugated humanity ever since the first Adam. Adam fell at the forbidden tree; and creation was lost as result. But Christ conquered death on the cross, rescuing humanity from the bondage of evil and thus restoring creation back to life and reconciling humanity to God. The key that Aulén emphasizes is that God himself reconciles humanity and creation back to himself and that He is both reconciler and the reconciled: "He is reconciled by the very act in which He reconciles the world to Himself" (5). Atonement is an act of God offered to human, not human offering it to God, through which God reconciles the world to Himself. Just like Abraham sacrificing his own son, Isaac, God himself sacrifices Himself in his Son, to reconcile Himself with humanity: "... in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). This idea is traced back to Irenaeus, who wrote:
Man had been created by God that he might have life. If now, having lost life, and having been harmed by the serpent, he were not to return to life, but were to be wholly abandoned to death, then God would have been defeated, ad the malice of the serpent would have overcome God's will. But since God is both invincible and magnanimous, He showed His magnanimity in correcting man, and in proving all men, as we have said; but through the Second Man He bound the strong one, and spoiled his goods, and annihilated death, bringing life to man who had become subject to death. For Adam had become the devil's possession, and the devil held him under his power, by having wrongfully practised deceit upon him, and by the offer of immortality made him subject to death. For by promising that they should be as gods, which did not lie in his power, he worked death in them. Wherefore he who had taken man captive was himself taken captive by God, and man who had been taken captive was set from the bondage of condemnation" (as quoted on 9-10).
Irenaeus wrote:
God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man” (Against Heresies, ed. Paul A. Böer, Sr., (Veritatis Splendor Pub., 2012), III, XVIII, 7, p. 273).
For Irenaeus, ‘recapitulation’ means Christ gathering up the old humanity in order to ‘recapitulate’ or ‘sum up’ (by way of repetition as done in a rhetorical summation) the humanity into a new and complete formation. See below:
He was not to be born but that, according to the promise of God, from David’s belly the King eternal is raised up, who sums up all things in Himself, and has gathered into Himself the ancient formation [of man] (Id., III, XXI, 9, p. 283).
… it is He who has summed up in Himself all nations dispersed from Adam downwards, and all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself. Hence also was Adam himself termed by Paul ‘the figure of Him that was to come,’ because the Word, the Maker of all things, had formed beforehand for Himself the future dispensation of the human race, connected with the Son of God; God having predestined that the first man should be of all animal nature, with this view, that he might be saved by the spiritual One (Id., III, XXII, 3, p. 285).
The Incarnation is part of God's atoning work. He must become man to rescue man from the bondage of the evil. "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death," the Eastern Orthodox Easter hymns goes. By death death is conquered. By the Second Adam's obedience the first Adam's fall is corrected. Salvation is effectuated by "recapitulation," where the fallen or lost creation (to the devil) is restored and perfected. (The Hebrew word "tikkun olam," repairing the world, has the same idea, except that there is no 'fall' in the Hebrew conception of redemption and that we are the co-creators with God in the ongoing creation of the world, as in the prayer of blessing that endows God's creative power in the creaturely beings.) If Christ's death on the cross defeats the power of death, His resurrection perfects the creation through the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the entire life of Christ--from his birth to death and through resurrection and ascension--is the work of atonement through which God reconciles himself with the redeemed world.

The classical view of atonement is sometimes referred to as the "ransom" theory, because Christ's life is offered as "a ransom for many," as Mark 10:45 says. Then, the absurd question arises: who is paying whom? Such a question distorts the classical view. The idea of purchase at a price is foreign to the classical view held by the Greek Fathers. Christ is not paying the devil; rather, He is claiming back the world away from the bondage of sin and death. Christ is victorious; and the satan is defeated. However, the dualism implied in this ransom theory is not a metaphysical dualism (such as Infinite and finite or spirit and matter) or absolute dualism (such as Good and Evil as in Zoroastrianism or Manicheanism). Aulén cautions the readers:
[Dualism] is used in the sense in which the idea constantly occurs in Scripture, of the opposition between God and that which in His own created world resists His will; between the Divine Love and the rebellion of created wills against Him. This Dualism is an altogether radical opposition, but it is not an absolute Dualism; for in the scriptural view evil has not an eternal existence (5, n.).
Luther is a master of juxtaposing the opposites: between God's Love and Justice, God Wrath and Mercy, Freedom and Bondage, the Law and faith, etc.--the rhetorical skill that he employes to retrieve the forgotten classical view of atonement that the Greek Fathers, whom he read and frequently quoted, held. For example, Luther wrote:
What is it now to be a 'Lord'? It is this, that He has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death and all oe. For before, I had not yet had any Lord, nor King, but had been held captive under the devil's power, doomed to death, ensnared in sin and blindness... Now, therefore, those tyrants and gaolers are all crushed, and in their place is come Jesus Christ, a Lord of Life, righteousness, all good and holiness, and He has snatched us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, won us, made us free, and brought us back to the Father's goodness and grace (quoted on 105).
In summarizing Luther's view of atonement, Aulén makes the following two observations:
First, that we are again listening to the classic idea of the Atonement--indeed, we get the impression that it is being presented with a greater intensity and power than ever before; and, second, that the dramatic view of the work of Christ, which Luther so emphatically expresses, is organically and inseparably connected with his doctrine of Justification. That we are justified through Christ is, he says, one and the same thing as to say that He is the conqueror of sin, death, and the everlasting curse (107).
Irenaeus and Luther's view of atonement is to be contrasted with Anselm's view, which Aulén labels the "classical" view. It is a familiar idea we hear in Protestant churches. Aulén summarizes:
Men are not able to make the necessary satisfaction, because they are all sinful.
If men cannot do it, then God must do it. But, on the other hand, the satisfaction must be made by man, because man is guilty. The only solution is that God becomes man; this is the answer to the question Cur Deus homo? [which is his book title ("Why God-man?")] (86)
Aulén emphasizes, "the whole structure [of the argument] is built on the basis of the penitential system" (86). Someone must pay the wages of sin. Since man sinned, man must pay it. But no man can pay because no man can carry the weight of sin of the entire humanity. Thus God becomes a man and offers himself to propitiate for human sin. The Reformers later rationalized further and reduced the Latin or judicial theory of atonement almost to a science. Crucial to Aulén is the shift of the work of atonement as from God's action to human action. It is humanity in Christ that atones for sin. Christ's sacrifice is the penance offered to God for human sin: "... it is absolutely necessary that satisfaction be made by man to God's justice" (89). The Latin view also isolates Christ death from the rest of his life as the atoning work. The Incarnation or resurrection does not figure into the work of salvation. In short, "[t]he relation of man to God is treated by Anselm as essentially a legal relation, for his whole effort is to prove that the atoning work is in accordance with justice" (90). The Latin view was held by the later medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and is dominant in Catholic theology, as is expressed in the Mass. It was still later developed into a tight rationalistic system by the 18th century Protestants (132).

The "subjective" view of atonement has its origin in Pietism that emphasized the idea of New Birth (Wiedergeburt or born again) rather than justification (134). Thus, the atonement became a matter of subjective process. In the 19th century, Schleiermacher championed this view. As Aulén summarizes:
Atonement, or Reconciliation, becomes essentially a sense of being at home in the cosmos, gained through the uplift of the soul, or a new attitude to life, characterised by harmony with the universe. Man comes to understand that all things are dependent on God, and, therefore, that which seems to disturb the harmony of things does so only in appearance (137).
The work of salvation thus rest entirely on man. In 1906 the Swedish Archbishop Ekman proposed, as Aulén quotes:
...'it is simply the conversion of men that effects the Atonement;' hence 'God gives up His displeasure against a man, and reverses His sentence of judgment, when the man confesses his sin and asks for pardon, recognizes that he has rightly deserved to suffer for his sin, and earnestly applies himself to do God's will' (140).
Billy Graham falls squarely within this "subjective" view of atonement with his emphasis on the conversion that he seeks to bring about by his famous 'altar calls.' Salvation is entirely a matter of subjective conversion that must be renewed and re-affirmed and thus creating perpetual insecurity with regards to one's assurance of salvation. One can never be sure of his salvation because it is entirely dependent on human's subjective or psychological process: "... the extent to which 'atonement' is effected depends upon that which is done in and by men, on their penitence, their conversion; therefore God's attitude to men is really made to depend on men's attitude to God" (142).

What is surprising about Aulén's swift survey of the theological history of the concept of atonement is the complete silence on Paul's account of Christ's kenosis (emptiness) in humility (Phil. 2:6-8), which is preached and practiced by Jesus himself. If the Incarnation is a vital part of Christ atonement, as Irenaeus shows in the "classical" view, why is this passage entirely missing in any of the accounts of atonement, especially in the "classical" view? In fact, this passage specifically describes how Christ descends and becomes the atoning sacrifice for humanity--by "taking the form of a slave, [and] being born in human likeness" (Phil. 2:7). God's descent to becoming a man and ultimately dying for humanity is the way of humility, Christ's act of emptying himself "to the point of death ... on the cross" (Phil. 2:8). The atoning sacrifice is the ultimate expression of God's humility. God dies on the cross for humanity: "Behold the Lamb of God" (John 1:36). But atoning sacrifice preceded human civilization, as God killed an animal to clothe Adam and Eve before the exile (Gen. 3:21). There, too, it is God who offers the sacrifice (to Himself). Is not "'being able to die' subject to sacrifice" the birth of human subject prior to, beyond, or otherwise than being? (Levinas, Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence, 128). Did not Christ come to fulfill the Law by becoming a burnt offering himself, as prescribed in Leviticus (chapters 1 and 4)? The notion of the substitutional atonement as the substitutional subject or as "one-for-the-other" must be revisited apart from the Latin view of Anselm and of the Protestant Orthodox. It stands all by itself outside the above three categories Aulén skillfully surveyed: substitution as atonement that recapitulates. Or, Levinas' ethics of substitution may contribute toward the Christian theory of atonement by merging the "classical" theory of recapitulation with the idea of sacrifice. This is possible if Levinas's ethics is understood in terms of the Jewish theology of 'tikkun olam,' 'to repair the world.' In taking up and recapitulating the world, did not Christ repair the broken world? In participating in His death and resurrection, are we not called to do the same?
Profile Image for Mark.
1,097 reviews138 followers
December 25, 2017
My whole life as a Christian, I have struggled with the central story of the faith: Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. More specifically, I have been bothered by the idea of the atonement as I learned it: that God demanded a perfect sacrifice to forgive humankind of its sins, and so God insisted God's own child die to serve as that sacrifice.

Reading Gustaf Aulen's classic 1930 study of the atonement, I learned that if I had grown up in the 1800s during the heyday of liberal Christianity, I might have embraced the "subjective" view of the atonement: that God did not want to punish humans for their sinfulness, but wanted to demonstrate God's love for them so much that God's son was put on Earth to serve as a model and inspiration for how to live a blessed life with God.

Aulen himself does not like this view, because it seems to make the death and resurrection of Jesus somewhat pointless. But he also does not like what he calls the predominant "Latin" view of the atonement -- the one I was raised with -- described by Anselm and others and embraced later by orthodox Protestants, that humankind's sinfulness and God's sense of justice demanded that the perfect man -- Jesus -- be put to death to "satisfy" God's justice.

Instead, he promotes what he says was the prevailing view of the atonement for the first 1,000 years of Christianity. In this "classic" view, Jesus came to Earth to free us from our bondage to sin, death and the Devil, and his crucifixion and return to life were a victorious conquering of our slavery to death and sin. In that view, God is somewhat schizoid, because God loves humans but also condemns them for their waywardness, and the crucifixion and atonement are ways God has of being both the enactor and recipient of God's grace.

This book was based on a series of lectures, and perhaps for that reason, it contains a fair amount of repetition and isn't always the easiest going to read -- so you can use this summary as your Cliff Notes and save yourself the aggravation.

In the end, I found there was much to like in the classic view of Christianity, and as someone who was raised Lutheran, I found his defense of Luther as an advocate for the earlier view to be enlightening.

Profile Image for Micah.
32 reviews3 followers
April 26, 2021
This review is going to mostly focus on my own personal reactions to this book, rather than giving a content summary, as the contents of the book are already well-summarized elsewhere.

I found Aulen's explanations convincing, and I find myself attracted to what he calls the "classic" model of the atonement. This perspective is characterized by a "note of triumph", which we still observe at Easter time. The classic view understands the atonement as God intervening decisively in history to conquer the powers of sin, death, and the devil. In Jesus, God does battle with the powers that oppress us and liberates us from the curse.

Contrasted with the rationalistic Latin view of the atonement, in both it's "objective" (substitutionary/penal) and "subjective" (moral influence) forms, the classical view stands head and shoulders above. It releases us from the need to "figure out" the atonement, and rather dwell in the amazing fact of God's action in the incarnation. The classic view of the atonement that Aulen lays out does not try to force God's action in Jesus to conform to human reason or effort, but rather allows God to be all-in-all.

I found in this book a big encouragement to pursue deeper engagement with the writings of the early church (ante-Nicene) fathers. Much of the Western church has lost or distorted important insights from this early period, and I suspect that much of what we characterize as "revival" in recent centuries - such as in the Pentecostal, charismatic, Quaker, Anabaptist, and Pietist movements - is in fact a reclamation of this ancient foundation and testimony.

I held back one star from this book not for its contents, but for presentation. It is at times difficult to read, especially for someone who is not theologically trained and aware of the currents of 19th and early 20th century European theology. I think in some cases the issue may be an overly-literal translation that is not always well-adapted to English.
486 reviews2 followers
March 30, 2018
After reading this book I am even more committed to the Anselmian view of the atonement. However, Aulén makes many important points that ought to bring greater clarity and precision to anyone’s understanding of the atonement. All Christian preaching of the atonement truly should be Christus Victor, should sound the battle cry of victory. It should hold the dualism of the Bible in tension with the sovereignty of God, and not allow one side to swallow up the other. Anyone who wants to think about the atonement should read this book.

Christus Victor is indeed, as Aulen observes, not a theory but an idea. It ought to be an idea centrally integrated into the Anselmian theory, and there is no reason why it could not. I found Aulen’s own explanation of the atoning efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ vacuous because of his separating out the idea of satisfaction. If not satisfaction, what? How else could the death of Christ deliver men from the wrath of God and overcome of the powers?

And finally, Aulen argues that the motivating force behind the Anselmian view is a desire for rationality. That may be a powerful motivating force (and understandably), but I believe the primary motivating force behind the view is Scripture itself, and the desire to be faithful to Scripture. For the Scriptures themselves make statements to the effect that God is satisfied by sacrifice, and that Christ died “in order to demonstrate God’s righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). It is verses like this that should make one pause who is about to accuse a viewpoint of simply being motivated by rationalism.

For an excellent review of this book, I recommend the one by George Evenson. It is available online. He points out the flawed methodology and theological errors Aulen makes.
Profile Image for Austin Mathews.
62 reviews2 followers
January 26, 2019
It's not difficult to see why Aulén's historical overview of atonement theory was groundbreaking in the early 1930s: it rejects the losing battle fought between legalistic Orthodoxy and subjective Liberalism, looking again into the church Fathers, Luther, and the New Testament itself to reveal a forgotten and viable "classic" idea of atonement. Christ is the victor over sin, death, and the devil. God is the active agent of reconciliation (at-one-ment) in creation, destroying the enemies of his Love and even mitigating his Wrath in favor of true grace. God's victory is an unbroken line traced from the nature of the Trinity through the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. In the classic idea of atonement, sin, death, and the devil, all representing and representatives of Evil, are destroyed in the paradox of God's enfleshment and sacrifice. The enemy was baited and hooked like a fish, and God plays the role of Reconciler and Reconciled, his Wrath abated by the new institution of grace as he triumphs in glory into the fellowship between God and Man.

It is a beautiful, clarifying book. Aulén proves that your theory of how Christ accomplished our atonement/salvation affects our portrayals of sin, justice, and God. The classic idea stands against formulated theories, and proves a stumbling block even now in its paradoxes and triumphant language. But it is true to the New Testament superseding of the Law in doing so, and rejects an offering that man has to make before God, favoring instead the belief that God intimately and personally involves Himself in the drama of sacrifice and reconciliation. It can be analogized, but cannot be systematically described in frameworks other than glorious paradox, into which theology dares to look, but can never articulate the true mystery and wonder of what Christ has done for us.
Profile Image for Chris Little.
106 reviews2 followers
December 17, 2019
This is a very influential study of the atonement that I haven't read since theological college. Aulén claims that his aim throughout was 'an historical, not an apologetic' one but that's hard to believe. He's really positive about Luther (not Lutherism, so much) and the 'classic' idea of the atonement, but not so positive about the so-called Latin and subjective views.

Rather than a review, here are some of my reactions to the book.
* Aulén presents the three positions as choices or alternatives, whereas more recent atonement books treat the theology of atonement as multi-faceted. Still, Aulén's book reminds us that there are some incompatible theologies.
* The presentation of the argument feels all out of order. The final chapter presents the three views - why not the first? Even so, the book does not start with the New Testament but with the church fathers and then the NT evidence. It feels to me that the evidence does not prove his arguments, but has been assembled to make his position.
* Some distinctions that Aulén insists upon don't really seem as sharp as he makes them, especially between aspects of classic and Latin.
* Penance. Aulén claims the idea of penance was essential to the development of the Latin view. While not convinced of that, I found it very helpful to read how human penance radically changes one's formulation of how atonement occurs.
* Aulén is insistent on seeing atonement as a work of God not humanity. I have the feeling a more robust Trinitarian theology might mean his accusations against the Latin theory hold less weight.

Overall, a worthwhile read but not as 'the' presentation of atonement theology. It's a book to provoke more thought, deeper reading, and prayer.
Profile Image for Dylan Katthagen.
38 reviews
November 29, 2022
The New Testament authors generally speak with one voice concerning the concept of Jesus' atonement. From their first-century Jewish perspective, the altruistic life and death of the divinely embodied Jewish Messiah ushered in the long-awaited redemption, liberation, and reconciliation between creator and creation. Yet, this theological unanimity breaks down into various theories once readers begin to ponder the process, purpose and consequences of atonement.

In his book, "Christus Victor", Gustaf Aulén argues that in contrast to the moral exemplar and the penal/restorative substitutionary theories, the "classical" and theologically superior understanding of atonement theory is “divine conflict and victory”. According to Aulén, the earliest writer to provide the Church with a clear and comprehensive atonement theory is Irenaeus who writes "our Lord by his passion destroyed death". Aulén, then, traces this messianic victory through the writings of the Early Church Fathers, numerous biblical passages, including, 1 John 3:8; Galatians 1:4; and Colossians 2:15, and the prominent theologians of Medieval and Reformation eras. In the end, Aulén proposes that the "classical" atonement model produces numerous challenges and opportunities for contemporary theologians to reevaluate and redefine Christian soteriology.
Profile Image for Katie.
217 reviews4 followers
February 16, 2021
This book provided a helpful overview of the different ways of understanding Atonement in the Western church.
With a special emphasis on Luther, Anselm, and Irenaeus we are led through history from the New Testament and the Apostles all the way to the modern subjective method of understanding.

Aulen does a good job putting forth concepts from theologians in their own words without criticism. He does hold up Luther as the best example of properly stating what Atonement means and is, but he lets the other ideas speak for themselves.

One part I particularly liked was that Aulen showed how as time has gone on in the West (he doesn’t speak of Eastern theologians post schism) that it has become more and more common to have clearly defined doctrines that are rational. He talks about this in contrast to how the early church was fine with having mysteries.

It’s definitely a denser book. At a couple points I had to ask for clarification from someone who has read more extensively in Luther and Irenaeus, but it was a good book for provoking thought and conversation.
Profile Image for Steve Irby.
319 reviews6 followers
July 3, 2021
I just finished "Christus Victor" by Aulen.

It was good especially for being a 80 year old translation. I do wish he would have spent the majority of the book detailing the "classic view" rather than just shooting down Anselm's (Cur Deus Homo/Satisfaction) and the Liberal Protestant (moral example, if I read it right) views. I like how he gave Barth and Brunner/Neo-Orthodox props in not falling into the Satisfaction or Moral Example trap.

A classic for sure, I'd just rather read a book on Christus Victor as opposed to contrasting it with others.

I'm still up in the air between moral government and Christus Victor (leaning toward CV). I especially appreciate how CV spits in the eye of the enlightenment by saying that "theres a spiritual war and over that Christ is Victorious, conquering sin and death and redeeming us." It seems all other atonement motifs and metaphors, while scriptural (usually), miss out on the cosmic conflict involved.
9 reviews
February 27, 2020
A couple years ago I rejected Calvisnism for the false gospel that it is. In debates with Calvinists I kept coming up against the famous (and notably based on logic instead of scripture) challenge to a Universal Atonement. I will paraphrase it like this: If all are atoned for, then why aren't all saved? The obvious answer is that the Calvinist understanding of the atonement is lacking. Without PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) I was left to wonder if in my understanding of the atonement, I was committing an error of innovating. Nothing could be further from the truth. This book helped me to understand that my view was not unique, in fact it is the "Classical view" of the atonement and fully in line with what the Church taught for at least the first 500 years of ecclesiastical history.
Profile Image for Blake Holbrook.
3 reviews8 followers
October 14, 2020
This is the most important book I have ever read.

Our understanding of God shapes how we live our lives. Our understanding of God is most influenced by how we understand and interpret what happened on the cross.

Aulén writes about the classic understanding of the atonement which is the understanding of the early church fathers like Iraneous, Gregory of Nyssa, and others. This classic understanding is most clearly seen in Luther's writings.

Aulén compares this classic understanding of the atonement with the Latin theory that began with the work of Anselm and Cyprian.

After reading this book I feel I have a better understanding of what happened on the cross and what the crucifixion of cross accomplished. I feel much relief knowing that some of the earliest church fathers did not believe that Christs death was to satiate God's anger towards mankind.
Profile Image for Jason.
247 reviews
February 7, 2022
This is considered one of the essential books on the Christian concept of atonement, and after reading it, I can (somewhat) understand why. Aulen does a good job of tracing ideas of the atonement from the New Testament period to his present day, showing how the three types of atonement ideas he discusses came to be and what they look like. He does separate the Old and New Testaments, and some of his explanations seem slightly simplistic (which even he admits to at times because of the limitations of his work), both of which are major flaws in his overall concept. At the same time, Aulen’s work ultimately lays down a solid foundation for someone seeking to understand the development of atonement theories throughout the history of Christianity.
Profile Image for James.
42 reviews
March 5, 2022
Not what I was expecting, but I feel wrong for removing a star for that. The reason for the lack of one star is because this book is written in the dense theological style of the early 20th century and contains relatively few citations of the works of the referenced church fathers.

I did enjoy the examination of Luther and Lutheran beliefs (as one worshiping and serving in a Lutheran church myself) and I wholeheartedly affirm the classic idea of the atonement (Christus Victor). Nevertheless, this isn’t the kind of book you’d want to recommend to a friend to help them rethink the errant PSA theory. Perhaps “How God Became King” or “The King Jesus Gospel” or “Arise, O God” would be better for that.
Profile Image for Brian Z. Hamilton.
30 reviews1 follower
November 5, 2022
A good book to read if you find yourself curious about the Atonement Christians have in Jesus and how it works. You will not find the answer within the book, for that answer can only truly be found in the Bible, but you will come away with many questions you had not previously considered, and those questions, perhaps, will draw you closer to the answer. You may find yourself, like I did, combing through familiar Bible passages and looking at them in a new light, and reconsidering the meaning of words and whether your understanding of them is accurate to what the Bible means by them. Reading this book and the subsequent reflection it encourages is a good exercise in reevaluating how you view your relationship with God.
Profile Image for Summer Bohannon.
28 reviews
June 9, 2022
Aulen presents a helpful summary of the history of theories of atonement. Once you reach the Reformation/Luther, it is easy to see Aulen's biases toward that position. Even so, the conclusion is incredibly balanced, and I appreciated his insistence that the reader remember no "theory" of atonement will ever completely grasp the mystery of Christ's work. Post-Enlightenment it is tempting to think that we can rationalize everything, and Aulen reminds that God is far beyond human rationalization. Overall, a well-written history.
Profile Image for Ben Williams.
9 reviews1 follower
December 31, 2019
Thorough and Accessible

I appreciated the author's attention to detail while not getting lost in minutiae that would have obscured the discussion. In general, I found this book to be incredibly accessible while also exceptionally thought provoking. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in understanding the historical development of the Christus Victor model.
Profile Image for Ben Williams.
9 reviews1 follower
December 31, 2019
Thorough and Accessible

I appreciated the author's attention to detail while not getting lost in minutiae that would have obscured the discussion. In general, I found this book to be incredibly accessible while also exceptionally thought provoking. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in understanding the historical development of the Christus Victor model.
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