As promised in my last blog post about atonement theology, I want to share what I’ve found when researching the early church fathers’ view on the death of Christ. My countryman Gustaf Aulén wrote a book 83 years ago called Christus Victor when he argued that the church fathers didn’t believe in penal substitution but in a “classical” atonement framework which he calls Christus Victor, the victorious Christ.
The difference between the two views is essentially that while penal substitution emphasises that Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross, Christus Victor emphasises that Jesus defeated the devil and his wicked forces when he died on the cross. A form of Christus Victor which according to Aulén was popular during the age of the church fathers was the ransom theory, the idea that God sent Jesus as a “bait”, and when satan killed him he got hooked by the power of God like a sloppy wet fish.
Now, I don’t have any problems at all with the Christus Victor perspective. As a third wave charismatic, I think it suits well with the Kingdom message of the Gospels – Jesus is indeed at war with satan, which is evident in His healings, exorcism and finally His death and resurrection. The Bible clearly speaks about how Christ defeated the powers of darkness on the cross. So I do believe in Christus Victor. What I don’t believe is that this perspective by any means replaces the fact that Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross, which is also what the Bible teaches. As William Evans brilliantly argues, Christus Victor and Penal Substitution are not mutually exclusive and should be viewed as equally true perspectives rather than conflicting paradigms.
I also have a problem with that this blog and that blog and even Wikipedia as well as several books uncritically says that the majority of the church fathers believed in Christus Victor and that it was dominant for a thousand years before Anselm of Canterbury messed it up, and therefore we should not believe in penal substitution. Firstly, even if they emphasised Christus Victor we cannot conclude that they didn’t believe in penal substitution unless they say so, and as I wrote in my last blog post I think it’s really hard to deny penal substitution without ignoring large parts of the Bible.
Secondly, when I’ve been looking at the earliest Christian litterature outside the New Testament – the apostolic fathers – I cannot find that the Christus Victor or ransom theory are by any means dominant in how they describe the atonement. Even if later church fathers may have had this perspective, it was a later development and not necessarily something they inherited from ther predecessors. Let’s have a look:
Clement of Rome wrote that the blood of Christ was “shed for our salvation” (Cor. 7), and that we should “reverence the Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood was given for us” (Cor. 21) because “on account of the love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord, gave his life by the will of God; his flesh for our flesh, his soul for our souls.” (Cor. 49).
Ignatius of Antioch writes that Jesus “suffered for our sins” (Smy. 7), that He “died for us, that believing on His death [we] might escape death” (Trall. 2:1). Again, after describing how Jesus was tortured and executed under Pilate, Ignatius writes that he was crucified “for us” and suffered “for our sake” (Smy. 1-2).
Polycarp, the disciple of John the apostle, quotes Peter when he says “Let us then persevere unceasingly in our hope, and in the pledge of our righteousness, that is in Christ Jesus, ‘who bare our sins in his own body on the tree, who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth,’ but for our sakes, that we might live in him, he endured all things.” (Phil. 8). In the very next chapter he emphasies that Jesus “died on our behalf, and was raised by God for our sakes.” (Phil. 9).
The Epistle of Barnabas says that Christ “gave unto us to be a people of inheritance, having suffered for our sake” (14:4) and says that His death was a sacrifice: “Since he also was about to offer the vessel that contained his spirit as a sacrifice, in order that the type might be fulfilled which was given by the offering of Isaac at the altar” (7:3). He says that the Son of God came to “finish the sin” of the people (5:11) and that it therefore was “necessary that he should suffer upon the cross” (5:13).
Finally, the letter to Diognetus is the last apostolic father that talks about the death of Christ, and it contains a very famous passage which I will quote in its totallity:
And when our iniquity had been fully
accomplished, and it had been made perfectly manifest
that punishment and death were expected as its
recompense, and the season came which God had
ordained, when henceforth He should manifest His
goodness and power (O the exceeding great kindness and
love of God), He hated us not, neither rejected us,
nor bore us malice, but was long-suffering and
patient, and in pity for us took upon Himself our
sins, and Himself parted with His own Son as a ransom
for us, the holy for the lawless, the guileless for
the evil, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible
for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal.
For what else but His righteousness would have
covered our sins?
In whom was it possible for us lawless and
ungodly men to have been justified, save only in the
Son of God?
O the sweet exchange, O the inscrutable
creation, O the unexpected benefits; that the iniquity
of many should be concealed in One Righteous Man, and
the righteousness of One should justify many that are
iniquitous! (Diogn. 5:2-5)
(The translations I used are from earlychristianwritings.com. For more depth concerning atonement theology among the church fathers I can recommend The Atonement of the Death of Christ: In Faith, Revelation and History by H.D. McDonald.)
What conclusions can we draw from this? Well, while none of these quotes contradict the Christus Victor paradigm – and again, I like the Christus Victor perspective – it is strikingly obvious that Jesus’ victory over satan is not the dominating perspective the apostolic fathers use when talking about the death of Christ, instead they emphasize how Jesus’ died for our sins, on our behalf, for our sake. And this should be of no surprise since this also is how the New Testament speaks about the death of Christ.
Now, Christus Victor supporters would quickly point out that this does not equal penal substitution theory, since that has a very juridical framework, emphasises how God’s justice needs to be satisfied, etc. That may be true, but my point is that independently of what perspective we have on the atonement, it would be incorrect to claim that Jesus did not take our punishment on Himself in our place when He died on the cross. Likewise, it would be incorrect to claim that Christus Victor was the dominant perspective among the earliest church fathers. Of course, we would need to look at later church fathers as well but that comes in a future blog post 🙂