Tag Archives: Atonement theory

Review: Christus Victor

Rating: ★★★★★

Full title: Christus Victor: A Historical Study of Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement.

Author: Gustaf Aulén was a Swedish theologian known mainly for Christus Victor. In historical context, he is also part of a movement towards neo-orthodoxy in Swedish Lutheranism (the “Lundensian” movement).


The book begins with the following statement:

My work on the history of Christian doctrine has led me to an ever-deepening conviction that the traditional account of the history of the idea of the Atonement is in need of thorough revision.

Aulén sees previous atonement literature as divided into two camps, while a third option has been overlooked since the Reformation. Many previous studies of the atonement used a dichotomy of two logical theories: the “objective” atonement theory (penal substitution) and the “subjective” atonement theory. Aulén’s book, however, traces atonement theory from a third, older view: the “classic” or “dramatic” view seen in Scripture and the Eastern Church Fathers, which is less logically rigorous but just as important. In a nutshell, the classic view is exemplified in the Narnia novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, wherein the atoning triumph is specifically over evil forces, not against an angry deity. The triumph is also sometimes seen as an act of deception over the devil, who attacked Christ at Calvary, not knowing that such a violation of divine law would overthrow his own kingdom:

Christ—Christus Victor—fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the “tyrants” under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself. Two points here require to be pressed with special emphasis: first, that this is a doctrine of Atonement in the full and proper sense, and second, that this idea of the Atonement has a clear and distinct character of its own, quite different from the other two types. (ch. 1)

In Aulén’s view, the atonement as conflict and triumph over Satanic forces (including sin and death) is the most prominent explanation in the New Testament and Church Fathers, and the objective and subjective theories are later attempts to iron out tensions in the New Testament’s account of atonement.

Thus, Aulén divides atonement history into:

1) The classic view (conflict and triumph), which was the usual explanation in the New Testament and the Church Fathers for the first millennium of church history;

2) The objective atonement (satisfaction theory or substitution), which was developed by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century and became the “orthodox” Protestant view;

3) The subjective atonement, which is typically credited to Abelard, a near contemporary and critic of Anselm. In Aulén’s view the subjective theory of the atonement is basically a reaction to the objective theory.


Aulén’s book is tranquil where others are incendiary, brief where others are verbose, historical where others are critical. It has become key to the entire atonement controversy and should be discussed by modern theology students.

Key to Aulén’s book are the many quotes from Irenaeus, Anselm, Abelard, Luther, and others. He shows quite effectively that “conflict and triumph” is at the very least an underappreciated facet of Christ’s atonement. This was part of a movement of “re-Reformation,” in which Luther’s theology was re-appraised and some key concepts were given new treatments in Lutheranism. Aulén states in the fourth chapter that legal explanations of the atonement had become the only “orthodox” explanations:

The theologians of Protestant Orthodoxy took it completely for granted that the theory of the satisfaction of God’s justice was to be found everywhere in the New Testament, or, rather, that it was presupposed both in the New Testament and in the Old; in fact, it was primarily from the Old Testament that the “scriptural proofs” of the Atonement were primarily drawn, and this is a highly significant point. (ch. 4)

The goal in view in Christus Victor, however, is not to criticize satisfaction theory, but to revise “the traditional account of the history of the idea of the Atonement” (ch. 1).

There are some unique elements of the classical/dramatic atonement that come out in his study:

1) The classical view of the Atonement is a view, not a theory. Aulén contends:

[The classical view] is not a logically articulated theory of redemption but rather an idea, a motif, a theme, which is essentially one and the same in Paul and in the early church, but finds ever-varying forms of expression. (ch. 4)

2) The classical view brings the Incarnation to the forefront. Aulén points out that early explanations of the Atonement were indelibly bound together with Christ’s Incarnation. The legal view, however, is somewhat at odds with the Incarnation, and critics point out that penal substitution pits the Trinity against itself.

3) The classical view makes God the main actor in the Atonement. The legal view of the Atonement often makes God the object of the Atonement, whereas he is the Initiator of the Atonement in the classical view (2 Cor. 5:19). Aulén aptly summarizes this tension:

It may be summed up thus: The classic idea shows a continuity in the Divine action and a discontinuity in the order of justice; the Latin type, a legal consistency and a discontinuity in Divine operation. (ch. 5)

4) Finally, the classical view emphasizes a new order based on grace. The legal view makes the act of grace also an act of payment; in the classical view, God not only makes amends (in Christ) or accepts the means of making amends (in the Father), but he initiates a change in the universal order which we may freely appropriate by faith in Christ. He enables believers to live in freedom from the devil and death. Law does not triumph over law; rather, grace triumphs over law, and the tension in the divine order is palpable in the classical view:

The nerve of the whole is the idea of the Divine Love breaking in pieces the order of merit and justice, and creating a new order to govern the relation of man with God, that of Grace. (ch. 6)

This acceptance of paradox, which is the final note of triumph in Aulén’s conclusion, resonates both with Christian mysticism and with modern writers on paradox such as Gerald Kennedy (in The Lion and the Lamb: Paradoxes of the Christian Faith) and G. K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy).


Aulén’s book is a potent challenge to proponents of substitutionary atonement. If the substitutionary atonement is so important, why is it only discussed during the second millennium of church history? Aulén probably doesn’t give proper weight to the Calvinist explanation, however. The options are these:

1) Aulén’s view: Substitutionary atonement is not mentioned during the 1st millennium A.D. because the dramatic view of the atonement was the dominant explanation.

2) The Calvinist view: Substitutionary atonement is not mentioned during the 1st millennium A.D. because there was no rigorous atonement theory.

As I see it, it would be shortsighted to say that there was “no theory” for 1000 years. This may be just another way of saying that explanations of the Atonement didn’t have all their kinks ironed out, which Aulén freely admits. But the fact of the Atonement was passed on from generation to generation, even in Britain’s medieval mystery plays, with a clear conflict and triumph motif. It cannot be passed on in a vacuum, just as anyone who says they have “no theology” just means that they do not know what theology they have.

Aulén manages to play to the strength of this problem by claiming that the classical/dramatic view is not logically rigorous; but I only mention it to point out that his explanation of this problem could be teased out in a longer work.


“The New Testament teaching corresponds with that of the early church; it being understood that there is not to be found in either case a developed theological doctrine of the Atonement, but rather an idea or motif expressed with many variations of outward form.” (ch. 4)

“It is possible to fix with precision the time of the first appearance of the Latin theory. Tertullian prepares the building materials; Cyprian begins to construct out of them a doctrine of the Atonement.” (ch. 5)

“The Latin doctrine of the Atonement is closely related to the legalism characteristic of the medieval outlook.” (ch. 5)

“Satan’s triumph would be his undoing. This strange paradox, that He who was the stronger than Satan should succumb to the power of evil and thereby break it—this paradox was involved in His situation as the Son of Man in lowliness, but having His high vocation, and all the while an instrument of God’s will.” (quoting Anton Fridrechsen)