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Micael Grenholm, a Swedish charismactivist, apologist and author.

Micael Grenholm, a Swedish charismactivist, apologist and author.

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No Christus Victor Here – Atonement According to the Apostolic Fathers

Polycarp, disciple of John the apostle and a smart theologian who was burned alive for the sake of the Gospel

Polycarp, disciple of John the apostle and a smart theologian who was burned alive for the sake of the Gospel

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.


A Defense for Penal Substitution

The Crucifixion by Simon Vouet

The Crucifixion by Simon Vouet

So the kids I like to play with tend to reject the doctrine of penal substitution, the idea that Jesus took the punishment for our sins in order to satisfy the wrath of God. A recent article on the Sojourners website gives a good example of this:

Essentially, the cross is explained exclusively in legal terms. You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free as he awaits the “end times” when he’ll finally get to let the bodies hit the floor and feel good about himself.

It’s actually quite twisted when you break it down. Jesus protects us from God? Or, if you accept the inspiration of Scripture (which I 100 percent do), it gets even more uncomfortable when you see Jesus say things like: “If you have seen me, you have seen the father, for we are one,” or in Hebrews, when it is stated that Jesus is the “exact representation of God’s being.”

Accepting both the inspiration of Scripture and the penal substitution theory of the atonement, one could actually say that Jesus died to protect us from Jesus.

Which is quite silly, really — from one aspect this makes God look schizophrenic, and on the other, it makes the cross look like a bad case of domestic violence — something I personally find offensive.

With hardly any Scriptural quotations at all, Benjamin Corey goes on claiming that penal substitution is responsible for the capital punishment and crual legal system of the United States, and like many other critics of the penal substitution theology he claims that the idea was founded by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century and that no Christian believed in it in the first millenia of the church.

Allow me to disagree.