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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.