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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Gustav Aulen, David Hart, and Atonement

The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil. .... Gustav Aulen

Both Jeff and Talmida have posts on atonement, so I thought I'd do something also. I don't care for the idea of atonement, but if I had to choose a certain theory of it, I might choose the one sometimes called Christus Victor, perhaps the first existing theory of atonement. As I mentioned in a past post, this view, basically the Eastern Orthodox view, is held and dicussed by David Bentley Hart in his book The Beauty of the Infinite, under the heading A Gift Exceeding Every Debt.

First, here's what Wikipedia says of Christus Victor ...

The term Christus Victor comes from the title of Gustaf Aulén's groundbreaking book first published in 1931 where he drew attention back to this classical early church's understanding of the Atonement. In it Aulén identifies three main types of Atonement Theories: The "Latin" or "objective" view, more commonly known as Satisfaction Theory beginning with Anselmian Satisfaction and later developing in the Protestant Church into Penal Substitution; secondly the "subjective" view commonly known as the Moral Influence view and credited to Abelard; and finally what Aulen called the "classical" view of the Atonement more commonly known as Ransom Theory or after Aulén's work now called the "Christus Victor" theory of the Atonement.

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 "classical 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 AD which marked the point where the predominant understanding of the Atonement shifted from the classical view (Christus Victor) to the Satisfaction view in both the Catholic and 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. (see also Theosis) .....

As I mentioned in that earlier post, if I understand David Hart correctly ( no guarantee of that :-), he wants to reconcile Anselm's atonement theory with the Orthodox ranson (Christus Victor) theory, or rather, he wants to show that reconciliation is not needed ... that interpretations of Anselm, both Eastern and Western, have been misguided and that the two theories are not really different. Here below I've posted the relevant excerpt from Hart's book......


.. the notion that Christ's death constitutes an appeasement of divine wrath against sin figures more than marginally in the history of Christain reflection upon salvation, especially in the West. Is it not the case, one might at least ask, that the theology of atonement has usually involved some sense that the death of Christ is required by the Father as a transaction that accomplishes reconciliation, and has therefore made God complicit in the violence of sacrifice? The locus classicus of the "substitution theory" of atonement is, of course, the Cur Deus Homo of Anselm .... If one is to reconsider the presence of violence in Christian sacrificial themes, and not do so with quite the peremptory disregard for tradition that Girard evinces, it would be disingenuous (to say the least) to ignore not only Anselm's influence but the claims his theology makes upon Christian thought ...

The argument of Cur Deus Homo ... Every rational creature is created to partake of beatitude in God, Anselm asserts, in return for which the creature owes God perfect obedience, by withholding which humanity offends infinitely against the divine honor and merits death .... the God-man must come, in order to make satisfaction on humanity's defense ....

But Anselm's argument, thus denuded of every nuance and ambiguity that enrivhes the text from which it is drawn, is susceptible of every causal misconstrual the theological mind can devise .....

... the closer the attention one pays Anselm's argument, the harder it becomes to locate the exact point at which he supposedly breaks from patristic orthodoxy. The divine action follows the same course as in the "classic" model: human sin having disrupted the order of God's good creation, and humanity having been handed over to death and the devil's rule, God enters into a condition of estrangement and slavery to set humanity free .... Anselm's is not a new narrative of salvation. In truth, this facile distinction between a patristic soteriology concerned exclusively with the rescue of humanity from death and a theory of atonement concerned exclusively with remission from guilt - the distinction, that is, between "Physical" and "moral" theories - is supportable, if at all, only in terms of emphasis and imagery; Athanasius, Gregory of nysea, and John of Damascus (to name a few) were no less conscious than Anselm of the guilt overcome by Christ on the cross, nor he any less concerned than they with the Son's campaign against death's dominion .... And it is explicitly not a story about a sustitutionary sacrifice offered as a simple restitution for human guilt, but concerns, rather, the triumph over death, the devil, and sin accomplished in Christ's voluntary self-donation to the Father, which the Father receives (as Gregory the Theologian would say) "by economy", so that its benefits might rebound to those with whom Christ has assumed solidarity ....

Even here, then, in the text that most notoriously expounds the sacrificial logic of atonement, the idea of sacrifice is subverted from within: as the story of Christ's sacrifice belongs not to an ecomony of credit and exchange but to the trinitarian motion of love, it is given entirely as gift - a gift given when it should not have needed to be given again, by God, at a price that we imposed upon him .... the primordiality of the gift is the truth of Christ's paschal donation: the gift God gives in creation continues to be given again, ever more fully, in defiance of all rejection, economy, violence, and indifference; there is no division between justice and mercy in God, on Anselm's account, because both belong already to the giving of the gift - which precedes, exceeds, and annuls all debt.



Blogger Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

If Christus Victor was normative for the first 1,000 years of Christendom, I don't see what's wrong with holding to it. Looks like it has good ecumenical possibilities to me, at least with the EO.

Interesting thing... When I was a kid studying the Baltimore Catechism in the 1960s, the sisters would tell us that Jesus died to "open the Gates of Heaven", which had been closed to all of mankind due to Original Sin. We were told how the Apostles Creed teaches us that Jesus descended into hell to free Moses, Abraham, the prophets, patriarchs, and other holy men and women who hadn't yet been able to go to heaven. There was nothing like the notion that Jesus had died to cover our personal sins, like it is commonly understood in the evangelical sense (our sins were still very much our own sins according to the sisters!!). We were told that through his sacrifice, Jesus merited superabundant grace that was shared with us in the sacramental life of the Church, particularly though penance and the Eucharist, which allowed us to live in Christ and to be in one body with Him. When I look back on that, it does seem to sound more to me like a Christus Victor view rather than an Anselmian view.

2:08 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


it's interesting that you mention the harrowing of hell. Fr. Marsh has a link on his blog to a peper he wrote that touches on the Christus Victor theory of atonement and also Hans Urs von Balthasar's writings on Jesus' harrwing of hel ... really interesting. It's here.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christus Victor was not nearly as common as Aulen claims it was. Read, for example, the Epistle to Diognetus where the second-century author teaches a penal, substitutionary interpretation of the atonement. Examples of this sort could be multiplied. Aulen overstated his thesis, and, at times, misrepresented historical sources.

2:13 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

To be honest, I'm over my head with this stuff, but I did look up the document you mentioned and saw an into to it - The Christian Life in the Epistle to Diognetus by Joel Stephen Williams - with these words ...

God's goodness makes us worthy through the atonement of Christ: "A ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, `the just for the unjust,' the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins?" (9.2-3).

This sounds like the Orthodox ransom theory of atonement, which Aulen calls the classical theory?

2:43 PM  
Blogger solarblogger said...

While I am open to the idea that Aulen erred by pitting these models of Atonement against each other so sharply, I am not so easily convinced that he is wrong in seeing a major change in teaching in Anselm, even if Anselm still more continuity with the classic view than many expect.

I do wonder, though, how much weight ought to be given to a document like the Epistle to Diognetus. If we want to know what most people would be familiar with, I would think hymns and catechisms would be the kinds of sources that would be most helpful, even moreso than church fathers. The question is not merely of when something was written, but how much influence it had. An apologist will often frame his case using elements he thinks will hold up best to counterargument, rather than the ones most commonly found in-house.

2:05 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for the comment. I have to admit, I don't have any investment in either kind of atonement, ransome or substitution. I'd rather chuck the whole atonement thing and go with an incarnational theory of why Jesus - The Incarnation: Why God Wanted to Become Human by Ken Overberg SJ

4:28 PM  

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