The Errors of Aulen’s Christus Victor Model

*The following is the conclusion to a review I did of Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor. Therefore it is lacking a bit in context, but still important for anyone who is privy to the issues.*

Because Jesus was God and man one cannot argue that the Atonement involved a total God-to-man movement or a total man-to-God movement; one must affirm that it was both.  Through the Incarnation God moved to man and through the Atonement the God-man moved back to God.  Gustaf Aulen’s dichotomy between what he terms the classic view and the Latin view of the Atonement is unwarranted.  Anselm, for sure, reinterpreted the ransom theory but still saw Christ’s sacrifice as a victory over the devil.  Luther was liberated by the story of Christ overcoming the Law and death, but he also understood Christ’s sacrifice to include punishment for man’s transgressing of the Law.  Because Aulen sets up the classic view as a model in opposition to the other historical understandings of the Atonement he falls into the error of generalization, thus creating false dichotomies between historical figures and their words.  This also leads him to an overall neglect of the humanity of Christ, thus presenting a rather Docetic picture of the Atonement.

Because Aulen sees the metaphor of reconciliation as normative for understanding the Atonement, and because he believes that metaphor to be devoid of OT forensic connotations he sets up a stark division between the religion of the OT and the religion of the NT.  In other words he stumbles into the error of Marcionism.  Because Aulen minimizes the importance of legal metaphors he leaves God’s justice hanging in the balance.  When the penal aspect is not included in the classic view one is left with a partial victory of an unjust god.  When the victory is not included in the Latin view one is left with a purely human act aimed at the appeasement of a purely wrathful god.  When either of these two views leaves out the moral exemplary aspect Christ ceases to be the exemplar of the will of God for humanity – thus the Christian identity of  “living sacrifice” is modeled after one whom man could and should never imitate.  The solution to this problem of competing models has been demonstrated by Martin Luther’s return to the themes he saw prevailing in the biblical text.  For Martin Luther and John Calvin the person of Christ is the source of unity between these models.  Because Christ’s works cannot be separated from his person neither can his roles as Prophet, Priest, and King (i.e. Exemplar, Mediator, and Victor).  Calvin’s thought is a reminder that Christology is the source of soteriology: 

In short, since neither as God alone could he feel death, nor as man alone could he overcome it, he coupled human nature with divine that to atone for sin he might submit the weakness of the one to death; and that, wrestling with death by the power of the other nature, he might win victory for us. (Institutes, II.12.3)  

5 thoughts on “The Errors of Aulen’s Christus Victor Model

  1. Recently, I was intrigued, Eric, to note the way that Jaroslav Pelikan (a fan of Aulen) sees the reconciliation of the Satisfaction & Christus Victor aspects of the atonement in J. S. Bach’s two famous Passions: “By solemnizing the former (“satisfaction”) in his *Saint Matthew Passion* and celebrating the latter (“victory”) in his *Saint John Passion*, Bach demonstrated once again his refusal to choose from among alternatives that had equally legitimate authority in his tradition” (*Bach Among the Theologians,* p. 115). Then Pelikan points to the way Bach concludes his *Christmas Oratorio* w/ the tune “Sacred Head” but in D-major w/ a text that celebrates the victory Christ’s incarnation/death/resurrection will bring: “Death, Devil, Sin, and Hellfire are vanquished now for aye; In its true place, by God’s side now stands the human race.” Thanks for pointing us, in similar vein, to the same sort of balance point. I’d love a copy of your whole review article. Bless. RK

  2. Dr. Kidd,

    Thank you for pointing to Pelikan’s discussion. I haven’t thought about Aulen’s theology in a while. D.B. Hart’s discussion of this topic in *The Beauty of the Infinite* really formed my thinking about and critique of Aulen. The debate centers around the interpretation of Anselm. If Anselm’s theology of the cross is less juridical (or “Latin” as Aulen would say) then one of Aulen’s main points falls apart. Hart shows that Anselm had a robust understanding of Christ’s victory over Satan and the necessity of His resurrection.

    Though, I’m not sure Pelikan held on to the idea of reconciliation between the satisfaction & Christus Victor models after his conversion to Orthodoxy in 1998. *Bach Among the Theologians* was written before that event (1986). The Orthodox folk that I have interacted with are adamantly opposed to the “legalism” of Western tradition. I’ll will send you a copy of my review. Thanks for stopping by.

    Pax Christi tecum,


  3. I am always looking for good theological discussion and so appreciate your site. Concerning Aulen’s “Christus Victor”, I have not read that work but have read “The Faith of the Christian Church” where he definitely insists that the anthromorphic metaphore of “the wrath of God” must not be softened for the very reasons you are insisting upon. Also to compare Aulen with Marcion is a far reach since Marcion equated the God of the OT as an evil demiurge which Aulen would be appalled at.

    Thanks for writing. God Bless.

  4. Joe, you should read Christus Victor. In that work Aulen denies any penal aspect to Christ’s death. He does this in order to avoid any sort of “violence” language, thus not doing justice to the wrath of God. The core of Marcionism is the dichotomy between a wrathful God (Old Testament) and a purely merciful God (New Testament), a dichotomy upon which Aulen builds his critique of Western theology.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s