I’m feeling sufficient guilt at abandoning atonement theory all week that it must be time to review it again. Christus Victor, today — playing chain reaction backwards (this is the model– in one of its forms — that Anselm didn’t much like).
The language of Christ as Victor is familiar from a lot of our Easter Hymns. So, for example:
At the Lamb’s high feast we sing,
Praise to our victorious King:
Who hath washed us in the tide
Flowing from his pierced side;
Praise we him whose love divine
Gives the guests his blood for wine,
Gives his body for the feast,
Love the Victim, Love the priest.
On the face of it, Christus Victor models of atonement are a bit more joyful and a bit more hopeful: we dwell on resurrection instead of crucifixion, new birth instead of death. But there’s a devil lurking in the corner, which we might need to exorcise…
…as we can see more clearly in the third verse:
Mighty Victim from on high,
Powers of Hell beneath thee lie;
Death is broken in the fight,
Thou has brought us life and light.
Now thy banner thou dost wave,
Conquering Satan and the grave.
See the prince of darkness quelled;
Heaven’s bright gates are open held.
The language of victory comes naturally in relation to cross and resurrection. Jesus’ death felt like like the defeat of the disciples hopes. All that Jesus had taught and embodied — love, forgiveness, compassion, access to God — seemed to be crushed under the oppressive power of the Roman Empire, and the manipulative power of the religious authorities. So naturally, when the disciples encountered the risen Lord, they turned to the language of victory: over death, over sin, over all that enslaves and binds.
And interestingly — though not inevitably — the language of victory and sacrifice often got intertwined. It is because Christ is victorious that we can speak of Christ as both victim and priest. So with our hymn: ‘victorious king’ becomes ‘Love the victim, Love the priest’. But we need to be careful here — although the language of victory and sacrifice are often in close proximity, they actually reflect different understandings of the cross. (I daresay that means I’ll have to do Sacrifice next. Bother. I’d hoped we were getting close to Deification by now…)
The language of victory makes sense in terms of the disciple’s immediate expereince of Easter. And I suspect it makes sense to many of us when we think of it as victory over/ freedom from all that would restrict life or keep us bound. But when patristic theologians pushed the image, it became a bit more complex, and (to my mind) a lot less pleasant.
The problematic line of reasoning goes like this:
If we say that Christ is victor — what is he victorious over?
The biblical answer was threefold: sin, death, and the devil.
If we then say, How was Christ victorious over sin, death and the devil? we begin to get into trouble.
And here we need to introduce another image of atonement: Christ as Ransom for human sins. Again — Christ as Ransom and Christ as Victor are not quite the same. But because both are about freeing from something that binds, they get closely linked.
The idea with Ransom is that a price is paid for our freedom. At the time, a slave could gain freedom if a friend or relative paid ransom. It’s an enduring concept — from weirgild in Beowulf, to the ransom note of modern crime. But if we say that Jesus paid ransom for us, whom did he pay? It can’t be God — for if it were, then we would have to posit God as one who holds us captive in death and sin. So, some theologians said, ‘it must be the devil’. And that’s where the trouble starts.
An idea that has a shadowy existence in the bible was given substance as follows: when human beings sinned, God cast them out of Eden into the dominion of darkness. Satan was given authority over this world, which was bound in sin. By rights, Satan could claim the death of anyone who sinned — thus of all human beings. Death is the price of sin (again) — collected by the devil.
However, Satan’s rights only extend to sinners. If Satan gets it wrong, and causes someone to die ‘who knew no sin’, then he has vastly overextended his reach — and thereby forfeits his rights over humankind, since he has broken the terms of his authority with God.
You can see where this is going, can’t you?
The man Jesus seems to be like any other person — thus Satan assumes he can have his way. But Jesus is in fact without sin and shouldn’t have to die. Therefore, when Satan kills Jesus, the game is up: cosmic alarm bells start ringing, and Satan’s power is bound because he broke the rules of the game.
This theory is hugely troubled. It gives Satan a role that is both unprecedented and unjustifiable. It suggests that God deliberately sets out to trick Satan by sending Jesus as bait. That means that the incarnation is a game of divine sleight of hand. Anselm was right to say, ‘no, no, no! There must be some other way…’ (even if now we say the same to him…)
But we need to be clear — all that talk of ransom and victory over the devil was a theory that evolved out of basic biblical images, and there may be other, more fruitful ways to speak of Christ as Victor.
Christus Victor models of atonement saw a great resurgence in 20th century theology — in radically different forms.
In modern theology, the question is no longer ‘to whom was ransom paid’, but ‘how does Christ set us free?’ To speak of Christ having victory over the powers of darkness resonates anew in a culture shaped by Freud and Jung. And to speak of Christ’s victory over all that would oppress us is crucial in terms of liberation theology, feminist theology and (could someone clarify the right term here?) gay theology.
So, unlike Penal Substitution (which I would happily do away with), Christus Victor has its place. If for no other reason than it gives us this most splendid verse, beloved at weddings, funerals and ordinations alike (and more appropriate at each, I suspect, than at Easter…):
The strife is o’er, the battle done;
Now is the victor’s triumph won;
O let the song of praise be sung: Alleluia.