In his book ‘Christus Victor’, Gustaf Aulén declares that ‘God is pictured as in Christ carrying through a victorious conflict against powers of evil which are hostile to his will. This constitutes ‘Atonement’, because the drama is a cosmic drama, and the victory over the hostile powers brings to pass a new relation, a relation of reconciliation, between God and the world.’
However, what Aulén calls a ‘cosmic drama’ is not a cosmic struggle of good against evil for control over the earth and humanity, but rather it is a personal victory won by Jesus over the powers of evil through the seemingly foolish way of the cross.
Nevertheless, this cosmic drama has cosmic consequences that stretch through time, across the world, touching every individual and every people. It truly is a cosmic victory. Aulén certainly saw Christus Victor in this way, for he said that ‘the Atonement is not regarded as affecting men primarily as individuals, but is set forth as a drama of a world’s salvation.’
If ‘the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death and the devil’, as Aulén declares, then the Christus Victor must impact the whole of the creation that includes mankind because of the fact that the chains of sin, death and the devil are broken.
Very often, Christus Victor has been described as a ‘model’ or a ‘theory’ of salvation. Thus, there have been other ‘models’ put forward and other ‘theories’ expounded; such as the Satisfaction model (or theory), Ransom model, Moral Influence model, and so on. At any given moment in history one model may be dominant at the cost of another, and another model may be ignored for a long time. While recognising that models were appropriate for the time and culture into which they were born, I will suggest that Christus Victor is different from other models and theories.
While Christus Victor is often recognised as being the dominant model in the New Testament, I suggest that it is not a model at all; but rather that it is the foundation stone on which the rest of the understanding of the Atonement must be built. If the foundation stone is forgotten or ignored, any other model or theory of the Atonement will be inadequate, unsatisfactory and incomplete.
Webber speaks of the three most central features of modern thought: ‘(1) Individualism, which asserts the ultimate autonomy of each person; (2) rationalism, which is characterized by a strong confidence in the power of the mind to investigate and understand reality; and (3) factualism, which insists that the individual, through the use of reason, can arrive at objective truth.’ Christus Victor is bigger than these modern features can comprehend, and the cross therefore appears as a foolishness that confounds reason.
If the church is to be meaningfully representative of its God in today’s postmodern world, then it needs to grasp the significance of the cross and the Christus Victor in the way that the early church and the New Testament grasped it. This significance will impact greatly upon the evangelism of the church in the postmodern world and have a far-reaching impact on the way it thinks.
Furthermore, Webber says that ‘the church is the new society, the people of the future living in the present, the people of the Christus Victor, the people who are defined by the living, dying, rising, and coming again of Christ.’ This new society lives far away from the individualism of postmodernism and stands in opposition to it by showing the reality of a victory that will redeem the whole of creation.
Irenaeus’ theology of Recapitulation, which is the restoring and perfecting of the whole of creation back into God, took a cosmic view of a holistic salvation. Aulén states that ‘The Recapitulation does not end with the triumph of Christ over the enemies which had held man in bondage; it continues in the work of the Spirit in the church.’
Therefore, the church must move away from the simplistic idea that evangelism is about preaching to get an individual human ‘decision for Christ’, and instead embrace the truth that there are defeated enemies over whom the victory of Christ needs to be made manifest in this world, right here and now.
Furthermore, the whole of creation is groaning as it, too, awaits its salvation from its enemies. As Wright has said, ‘The idea that the whole purpose of God for us is that we “get to heaven” neglects the biblical vision of the renewal of all things in the new heaven and the new earth.’
Much of the evangelical church has tended to have its focus on the Bible rather than on Christ; Sola Scriptura shows this to be true as evangelicals declared that the Bible is the ultimate authority in all things Christian. Christus Victor declares that Christ is the ultimate authority in all things, and that creation, theology, worship, spirituality, life and death are to be known and understood in and through Christ.
‘The mystery of the person and work of Christ proclaimed is the starting point of faith, not rational argument that seeks to prove the Bible to be correct.’ Says Webber. Furthermore, Newbigin asserts that ‘the important thing in the use of the Bible is not to understand the text but to understand the world through the text.’ The Bible is the lens through which we see God’s world, it is the provider of meaning in God’s world; the Bible is the gateway to a true participation in the outworking of Christus Victor in God’s world.
Christus Victor will therefore have a huge impact on today’s ideas of evangelism. Webber rightly criticises modern-day evangelism because it has been ‘reduced to personal and privatized Christianity and fails to express that Christ has bound, dethroned, and will destroy all evil at the end of history.’
The great commission is to make disciples – nothing less. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” said Jesus. “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”
Here Jesus focuses not on the convert that the Pharisees gained, but on what they made him into. The conversion is almost irrelevant in some ways, it is their discipleship that Jesus criticises.
Modern-day evangelism has focused almost exclusively on conversions, and has often failed to understand that it is the discipleship following the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion that is crucial, not the conversion itself. Christus Victor brings a new dimension to discipleship and a new meaning to evangelism. There is a power in the world over which the power of God must be seen to rule. There is a world system that has been overcome.
Christus Victor will therefore transform the whole concept of evangelism in particular and mission in general. Indeed, Newbigin speaks of mission as God’s mission, not ours; he refers to the work of God where the church is, not the work of the church where God is. ‘It is God who acts in the power of his Spirit, doing mighty works, creating signs of a new age, working secretly in the hearts of men and women to draw them to Christ.’ Evangelism must therefore be understood within this context.
The restoration of Christus Victor as a foundation stone of theology and faith will make us realise that, according to Wells, those who stand on Christus Victor ‘discover that this God has a purpose for his creation and that they themselves have a valued part to play – and they perceive that this story is not about them but about God.’ This gives us a new view of sacraments, and particularly the Eucharist:
The Eucharist is one, integrated act of memorial thanksgiving and longing, which remembers not only what the Father did in and through the Passion of the Son, but what the Father will go on to do even beyond the Resurrection and Exaltation of the Son. As Sagovsky stated, to share in the Eucharist is to share in the Son’s prayer that the Father’s will be done (Luke 22:42) and in the action that expresses the hope of the Son’s triumph over the political, economic and social powers which dominate the earth.
Christus Victor certainly has an objective dimension, since the death and resurrection of Jesus are historical facts; but we have seen that there also subjective dimensions to it which bring the effectiveness of Christ’s work into the present day. Fiddes says that ‘it is always in the present that God acts to heal and reconcile, entering into the disruption of human lives at great cost to himself, in order to share our predicament and release us from it.’ He adds, ‘The question then is not whether a view of atonement is subjective or objective – the question to be asked is how well it integrates the two elements.’
The rediscovery, then, of Christus Victor in today’s church will revolutionise that church. As Fiddes has declared, ‘The cross is a creative act, a past event with power to change human attitudes to God and to each other in the present; this creativity is at the very heart of forgiveness, as can be seen if we reflect upon what it involves in human relationships.’
Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor, (London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1931)
Paul S Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation, (London, Darton Longman and Todd, 1989)
Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel In A Pluralist Society, (London, SPCK, 1989)
Nicholas Sagovsky, ‘The Eucharist and the Practice of Justice’, Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol 15 No 1, 2002, pages 75-96
Robert E Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, (Michigan, Baker Books, 1999)
Samuel Wells, ‘How Common Worship Forms Local Character’, Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol 15 No 1, 2002, pages 66-74
Dr Nigel G Wright, New Baptists, New Agenda (Carlisle, Cumbria, 2002)