Substitutionary atonement and Christus victor

I was reading this article by Mark Galli of Christianity today on ‘the problem with christus victor atonenement‘, and, to be honest I found it a very strange article.

Update: While I’m writing here about the nature for substitutionary atonement, the framing of the gospel in christus Victor atonement like explained here by Ed Cyezewski is equally important, or even more important. Why do I always miss the most important part??

Firstly he does seem to impose a dichotomy between Christus victor atonement and what he calls ‘substitutionaty atonement’, and secondly he does seem for some reason to equate the second term with ‘penal substitution atonement’.

What’s behind the lingo and why do I find this strange? Let’s start with the second one. ‘Substitutionary atonement’ means in simple words that Jesus saved us by taking our place. That surely is an important idea in christian theology, from the beginning on, but it shouldn’t at all be equated with the so-called theory of penal substitution, which says that Jesus died in our place to take the punishment for our sins. The latter one is a relatively new invention in the history of Christianity, dating from the time of the reformers, and one only embraced by some protestants. Even the satisfaction model of Anselm, one of its precursors, did not see Jesus taking punishment in our place, but doing penance in our place as far as I understand. This article by Derek Flood on substitutionary atonement and the church father, which I linked to before, is very interesting for those who have time to read it all… The problem is that some christians for a reason unknown to me seen to equate the gospel with the idea of penal substitution. (what was the gospel then for all christians in the first 1500 years?)

I never really understood substitutionary atonement in the penal way, and I still have a lot of problems with that theory. (Some version of it could rightly be called ‘divine child abuse… God punishing Jesus in our place because he isn’t able to forgive us otherwise) but yet I’ve always seen the atonement as substitutionary. Jesus died for our sins.

Growing up as a pentecostel kid my idea of atonement was that Jesus on the cross endured all sin, disease and pain of the world, in our place. He absorbed it, and there destroyed it, and then rose from the death. That’s clearly substitutionary atonement, but not at all penal.

The second thing that shaped my understanding of atonement is probably the story of Edmund in the narnia book, who betrays the others and gets enslaved by the witch. Aslan then gives himself in Edmunds place to get killed by the evil one. This could be called classical Ransom atonement,(Jesus liberating us from enslavement to the devil by taking our place) which is probably the most important atonement theory of the first millenium, and it’s purely a substitution model of atonement, but still not penal substitution.

Now for the dichotomy Galli creates, I don’t know where he gets that idea to separate Christus Victor from substitutionary as if they can be opposites..I would think that Christus victor atonement and this Ransom motif are closely connected and two sides of the , same coin. Jesus on the cross suffered evil, sin and death in our place, and destroyed it and came out as Victorious!!

And here do we come to something else Galli seems to overlook: the definition of justice (and sin). Penal substitution seems operates on the idea that God needs to punish because He is just, and that He can’t forgive without having punished someone (and so Jesus taking the punishment in our place) but I don’t see why this would be. Why would the omnipotent God not be able to forgive? The problem with sin is tha it destroys, not only individuals and their relationship to God, but the whole of creation, and so it needs to be destroyed. There also is a lot of power in the Eastern orthodox emphasis on Jesus destroying death. But the question here is how do we view Gods justice: Is justice punishing the bad guys (everybody in this fallen world) or is it first and foremost setting things right? I would go with the second one, and say that Gods justice first and foremost is restorative, not only for individuals but for the whole of creation!

For those who like to read more on this discussiopn: Read more here on the covenant of love blog for the first post in a series on the subject. I also have a quote  from Scott Morizot (who I respect for his knowledge on the orthodox church and the church fathers) from a comment on the Jesus Creed blog:

Galli’s post is interesting. If Christus Victor is “clearly a secondary atonement theme” and substitutionary atonement is the primary and dominant theme, why did it take the Church a thousand years to come up with the latter? From an historical perspective, the claim seems absurd. I would also say he clearly misses the point even of the Orthodox prayer he quotes. The “consequent wrath of God” is not interwoven into it. The prayer thanks God for his goodness and long-suffering and for *not* being angry.

There’s a reason Passover is and has always been the dominant theme. The Paschal lamb in the Exodus story guarded those protected by its blood from the angel of death — from death, not from the collection of a debt for sins committed. So Christ breaks the bonds of sin and death and frees us from the powers who used them to enslave us for all time.

It is, I suppose, possible that some Protestants are taking some of the Christus Victor themes in a more shallow way than they have traditionally been taken. I don’t particularly have an opinion on that. But Galli’s characterization of the traditional Christus Victor view of Christ and the atonement is flatly wrong.

To finally close this post:  as we’re coming closer to Easter we shoul realise that the big day is not good friday, but easter. Christus Victor should be very important for all Christians, unless they have a truly ‘good friday only’-gospel.

Jesus is Lord, and Victor over death, sin and evil

He who was God, became the least of us and suffered with us

All praises to the slain lamb!!



related posts:
Rethinking my childhood atonement theory
Psalm 51 and atonement theories
Rob Bell on atonement or the bible versus (reformed) tradition

7 responses to “Substitutionary atonement and Christus victor

  1. Good post. I too have problems with penal substitutionary atonement while embracing the Passover-type substitutionary atonement.

    However, while I have heard it before, I’m not so sure about the connection between the Christus victor atonement view and the Ransom atonement motif. In someways they seem two different view rather then two parts to the same one…

    For example:
    * Christus victor = Christ came to destroy sin and evil in a cosmic war.
    * Ransom = Jesus gave himself up as a payment, thereby purchasing our freedom from sin and death.

  2. Fire and Mirth

    Unfortunately, you haven’t quoted a single scripture. We cannot ground theology on opinion. We cannot even ground it on the church fathers. We must privilege scripture in doing theology.

    You give a link to Ed’s article. I posted there, but it applies here too. Most notably the verses on substitutionary atonement, which are difficult to explain outside of some form of penal substitution (see esp. Eph):

    “There is indeed a false dichotomy often inserted between what is typically called substitutionary atonement and Christus Victor (by contrast, see Col 2:13-15). However, I’m not sure how you’re arriving at “the victory of Christ as the controlling narrative of scripture”, if by this you mean Christus Victor.

    Most of the key Christus Victor verses and passages in the Bible are laced with references to substitutionary atonement, as commonly defined (again Col 2:13-15; also Heb 2:14-18, Rom 6, 1 John 3). By contrast, there are many references to substitutionary atonement with no attendant reference to Christus Victor (Eph 5:1-2, Rom 3:21-26, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:10).

    I don’t mean to be harsh in any way, but I fear these discussions of the atonement can get far afield of scripture. We start talking, as in the Willard quote above, about what we see and feel, and leave off doing the hard work of grounding what we’re saying in the text.

    I’d be keen to hear your thoughts.”

  3. This is a discussion that’s been hold with all positions backed-up with bible verses, so people just read the same verses differently and there’s a lot of reading ones theology into the test, or taling certain bits of the bible and letting it overhadow most of the others. Tradition is the reason any atonement theory is favored. And reading the verses you summed up in the light of PS atonement is also tradition.

    I do believe in a mosaic vision of the atonemet, where none of the theories is ever complere, but I do have problems with the penal version of substiutionary atonement as ‘the gospels’. That’s not the bible, that’s some people’s tradition. Jesus talked about the gospel of the Kingdom of God most of the time anyway.

    I don’t see ‘penal substitution’ as an important idea in scxripture and the most important atonement theory. I don’t see it in sacrifices either (whatever the purifying power of the blood of animals, it’s not because the animals are punished in our place) and I don’t see the need to read the idea in into verses that speak about ‘dying for our sins’. Saying that Jesus sacrificed himself (Eph 5:1) does not require penal substitution, it reminds me more of Ransom theory (think the lion, the witch and the wardrobe) There’s nowhere in Rom 3 that Christ got punished or something either, only that he offered his blood. 1 John 2 and 4 would be a good place to start a multiple-angle atonement theory, since it seems there that Christ as sacrifice does not mean that a redeemed life isn’t also a life that’s following Jesus, so there is a combination of Jesus sacrificing Himself to redeem us and bring us life, and we following Him into that Life… 1 John more reminds me of the idea that we should follow Jesus in everything, even in His sacrificing Hemself for us, like the early Christians and anabaptists say, than to anything about Jesus sacrifing Himself that sounds like penal substitution.

    If you can show me from those verses that Jesus dying in our place is because God needed to punish before He could forgive us, show me… I don’t see it, and with me a lot of Christian traditions… I don’t see why God would not be able to forgive. He isn’t affraid of sin, He is Holy. It will not affect Him. It was God who came looking for the fallen Adam and Eve in the garden, and it was them who turned away and could not face God. Sinful humans cannot face a Holy God (they have most chaces to die if we should believe the OT), but God will not be affected by sin.

    The discussion is here what the problem is that Jesus solved. I don’t believe Jesus died so we could be saved just from the effects of sin (punishment) but that he died to defeat sinn itself. If Jesus only died to erase punishment but didn’t do about the problem itself, how poserless is He? That’s why the idea of the victory of Christ is so important, also on an eschatological level! That resurrection life is growing in us as Christians (or ‘saints’ as the NT calls us) and that’s much more than just forgiveness; it’s a foretaste of the new heaven and earth!

    The problem and solution are much bigger than mere forgiveness of sins… God could forgive without sacrifices anyway (see psalm 51 or Hosea 6:6) but there’s much more that’s needed than that. We need to be a new creation.



  4. Pingback: Undertanding Atonement | CharisMissional

  5. Pingback: 10 old traditional and/or biblical Christian ideas that are sometimes mistakenly seen as ‘progressive’…’ | Brambonius' blog in english

  6. Theodore A. Jones

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 What’s that law Paul has referenced?

    • The law that Paul sums up in ‘love your neigbour as yourself’ in several places (Gal 5 comes to mind as I’ve been meditating on that chapter but it’s not the only place) and Jesus in ‘Love the Lord With all your mind, soul, heart and mind. This is the first commandment, and the second is equal to it: love your neigbour as yourself. The whole law and prophets are based on this.’ (quoting from my mind here)

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