One of the most devisive theological subjects of all time is the atonement. There is a lot that has been written on this subject, and it is really kicking a dead horse to continually revisit the past 2,000 years of theology and polemics, but I think that when we understand the atonement better, we understand our nature as followers of Jesus. It is therefore important that we at least spend a healthy amount of time discussing the topic. Even if we disagree with others about the doctrine, knowing where we are coming from will certainly help our dialogue.

As you can tell from the title, eventually I am going to bring this discussion back to the idea of Christus Victor – a term first coined in 1931 by Gustaf Aulen although the idea goes back much, much farther. But for now, we should take a quick survey of the history of the doctrine of the atonement.


Survey of Various Views


The Ransom Theory

For the first thousand years of organized Christian doctrine (dating roughly from the mid-2nd century CE), the prevalent view of the atonement was what is know today as the Ransom Theory. It is difficult to find the origin of this theory, but it dates from at least Irenaeus (c 125 – 202 CE). The view was particularly prominent in the Greek Church around the time of Origen and ultimately became the doctrine of atonement in the Post-Nicene Church.

As Irenaeus believed it, Jesus had ransomed the Church by his blood. This much is supported by Scripture. Jesus [Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45], Paul [1 Tim 2:6] and John [Rev 5:9] all agree on this point.

But the issue that soon came to the forefront was to whom was the Ransom paid. It appears that Irenaeus believed the ransom was paid to God, but later proponents like Origen would redefine the payment as to Satan rather than to God. This may have been a compromise of sorts with the Latin church leaders who held a different view.


Primitive Christus Victor

First, a side note about the vocabulary I have chosen here.

The word primitive has some negative connotations tied to being somehow incomplete or unevolved. This meaning as come about since the advent of the theory of evolution, and has unfortunately robbed the word of its true meaning. The word means “first of its kind” and does not imply any need to progress to a better form.

Thus, I have chosen to dub the belief of the Latin Fathers’ view as primitive Christus Victor. Primitive means “first of its kind” and not “unevolved.” When we look at the works of these writers, we are looking at essentially the same belief in Christus Victor but it is the first incarnation of it.

In the Latin Church, as expressed by writers like Augustine and Ambrose, the term ransom is a metaphor. To them, what Jesus did was not actually pay a ransom but rather he freed his followers from the bondage of the world, the flesh and Satan. This is a reflection of the Biblical literature, especially the work of John and Peter although Paul also writes about the freedom gained in Christ.

There is some disagreement (and really no way to resolve it) about whether primitive Christus Victor and the Ransom Theory were actually contemporary and if so, which came first. Those are really open questions. The fact is that both camps extracted their beliefs from the writings of the apostles and believed strongly that their particular interpretation was the correct one.


Anselm’s Satisfaction Doctrine


In the late 11th century, Anselm of Canterbury reformulated the Ransom Theory and produced a theory that became the standard doctrine of both Catholics and Protestants (the Eastern Catholic Churches adhered to the Ransom Theory and most of the Orthodox Churches held to Christus Victor).

Anselm, who lived in feudal Britain and was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, brought a feudal perspective to the idea of redemption. To the upper class of feudal Europe, everything was a business transaction. In some way or another, a price must be satisfied in order to redeem anything – an animal, person or even a kingdom. There was a requirement to be met by someone.

Thus, Anselm held that Jesus did not simply pay a ransom for the souls of the Church. He must have satisfied their price – in this case, their punishment for their sins.

Because the Catholic doctrinal system became locked in a struggle with the Protestants in the 16th century, Anselm’s interpretation became their standard and because most of the Protestants were recovering Catholic priests, they brought the Satisfaction Doctrine into their various national churches. Often, the Protestants would revisit this doctrinal position and fuse bits and pieces of the Ransom Theory with the Satisfaction Doctrine.


The Rediscovery of Christus Victor

During the Reformation and the Enlightenment periods of European history, some significant political and economic shifts took place that rendered the Satisfaction Doctrine obsolete. Feudalism faded as nationalism and imperialism became dominant once again. Continental Europe consolidated into several imperialist powers – all of whom laid claim to the right of Charlemagne and thereby the Roman Empire.

This started long before the Reformation but it was really during these periods following the Age of Exploration (or perhaps more appropriately, the Age of Exploitation), the possibility of a massive, continent spanning empire became evident and almost immediately nations began justifying acts of violence to take over other nations.

And in counterpoint to these emerging imperial ambitions, the idea of individual liberty and freedom developed and started taking root. As individuals of various strata of society and eventually also of various races, creeds and genders, were seen as equals to even the greatest of men, there was no longer a need for a theology built around Jesus as a sort of feudal lord buying the Church as property from God (Satisfaction) or Satan (Ransom). In fact, such an image became unappealing, especially to those oppressed by the imperial nation-states.

Thus, theories based on medieval feudalism became increasingly unsatisfactory. Theologians attempted to reform the existing theories but just produced theological bedlam.

In 1931, Gustaf Aulen proposed the revival of Christus Victor in the Western Church. The idea was simple. The ransom was paid for the liberation from sin. Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection were not meant to buy off God or Satan but to show his victory over death, hell and sin. In essence, Aulen proposed that Christus Victor could embody both Ransom and Satisfaction. Jesus was Savior because he became human and defeated humanities enemies.

In reality, Christus Victor had never been abandoned. It had simply been in exile in the Eastern Church.


What Does Christus Victor mean for you and me?

For most of us, our beliefs in Jesus as our atonement is something we experience externally. We receive the atonement as a component of individual salvation. Because of this, we do not allow the atonement to define how we behave. We allow it to define what we perceive Jesus doing; we perceive it as part of Jesus; but it is not seen as part of us or our thinking.

But in Christus Victor, we have a Christ who has fundamentally altered the nature of our existence as individuals and as a group of people. It becomes the root of our actions rather than a theological idea that is added onto our belief structure.

Because we are freed from sin in Christ’s victory, any sin that exists in our hearts and minds has already been overcome. We overcome because he overcame. We are victorious when he is victorious, which is always.


Living in Community

October 27, 2008

Our modern American culture is one that places an extraordinary value on the enjoyment of privacy. We are literally obsessed with individual accomplishment as gauged by possession. Cars, physical fitness, 401(k) balances, homes, even phones and PDA’S are all indications of one’s accomplishments and thus their success as an individual.

selfish clipMaybe it is a product of our free market or our pioneer heritage. Who can say what factors have contributed to it? But we pour a tremendous amount of our personal resources into building personal kingdoms within our vast empire network that we call our culture.

We place almost no value on community – not really community anyway. And this is because you cannot truly have interdependent community and individualism at the same time. They are mutually exclusive.

While we give lip-service to caring for the poor, loving the needy, and often even do quite a bit to help these people, they are not really part of our world.

Our world revolves around and essentially includes only ME. This world might include those closely connected to those closest to ME, but often reluctantly. Spouses and children are good as long as they give ME what I want, but everyone walks a thin line because if you cross ME, I’ll get rid of you or ignore you.

This obsession with ME, this self-centered existence, is at the core of the reason I believe modern American Christianity is an utter (if not complete) failure.

Allow me a digression into Church History for a moment.

The Apostolic Church (30 – 325)

In the first churches, Christian worship was defined by action and community. It is not hard to see this as you read the book of Acts. Everywhere you see people abandoning individual religion for a community experience in the way of Jesus. We sold what we had; we traveled in community; we gave to those who needed without question. Those who claimed to be Christians and yet thought primarily of themselves were condemned or punished by God himself. [Acts 5:1-11, 8:9-25]

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In their letters, the apostles Simon Peter, James and Paul called the churches to a continual commitment to cast aside personal obsessions in favor of the community.

  • Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. [Romans 12:13-18, ESV]
  • Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. [1 Peter 2:10-11, ESV]
  • What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. [James 2:14-17, ESV]

This early church, which really thrived in the first three centuries after Christ, defined worship and Christianity by action. While the core of our beliefs – namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, was absolutely essential, it was not what defined us. To believe something but not to live it out was the ultimate heresy.

There were no church buildings in most of these churches. The church would come together in an assembly, which usually gathered at night. These gatherings were called ekklesia in Greek or synaxis in Latin.

Generally, their liturgy was very simple – observance of the Lord’s Table, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, singing of Psalms and a brief homily on the Gospels. It did not need to be complex because this was not church. This was simply the gathering of the church.

The church was this committed group of believers loving the people around them. The church was characterized by their work among people. Bishops and lay leaders routinely ventured into places of disease, poverty and war to serve the people. Christians took in orphans and widows. They were found everywhere – from the emperor’s court to the leper colonies. And everywhere they went, they took the message of Jesus with them.

There was no interest in being part of the world. In fact, the Christians had rejected the Empire long before the Empire rejected them. They were content to live under its rule; but they were not part of it. The church was a kingdom of servants, a free theocracy whose only rule was to love others.

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This early church was a church defined by action.


The Post-Nicaean Church (325-1450)

After Constantine legalized Christianity, replacing the worship of the Conquering Sun with the worship of the Trinity, the church found itself suddenly extremely wealthy and powerful. Bishops were no longer the humble servants of the word who met with people in the night. They were granted grand temples as church buildings, and their focus shifted from service to symbol.

The ekklesia moved indoor, to these places called kuriakos or “the Lord’s [building].” This shift turned the focus from the people being the Lord’s to the place or, later, the hierarchy being the Lord’s.

The worship of the church developed an intensive liturgy, meant to simulate the glory of the Lord’s presence. Ecstasy replaced work. People flocked to the churches, rather than the church flocking to the people who needed them. We abandoned our place of service for our place of worship.

As bishops became more powerful, the potential for wide scale corruption became all more overwhelming. Once the papacy (in particular, but not exclusively) became a political power, the See of Peter was filled with ambitious politicians and corrupt sycophants rather than by men who loved Jesus.

Especially after the 8th century CE, the Church increasingly became the Empire. The rule of popes and patriarchs were completely intertwined with the rule of secular leaders. In fact, there would have been no distinction made. The idea of separation of church and state was something totally alien to them.

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The medieval church was defined by authority and symbol.


The Reformation Church (1450-Present)

Inevitably, parts of the Church rejected this corrupt way of life. They could not claim to follow Christ and the ones who ruled so carnally in his place. But in their rejection of the corrupt, they also rejected their heritage and the richness of the previous 1500 years of Christian worship.

In the place of the authority of the medieval church, the reformers substituted teaching. They exalted the preacher and downplayed the liturgy. Church revolved around preaching and correct doctrine. More than any time in its past, the church became obsessed with being right.

Denominations sprang up as we divided against ourselves on points of belief – both large and small. The Church fragmented into ten thousand shards of glory, each with their pioneering teacher.

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The modern church is defined by teaching.


The Problem with all of This

And this is where we are right now. We are the modern church, defined more by what we say than by what we do. We talk and talk and talk.

Is this really what church is? The answer would have to be a resounding NO!

I am a preacher by trade, and it is deeply troubling to contemplate a world without the full-paid clergy or the church buildings that defined us in the medieval period. After all, we are 1800 years removed from the Council of Nicaea and Constantine. That is a long time!

But it seems like our priority is the preaching/teaching/worship thing that our culture reveres. Even in our own church, we invest 90% of our annual budget into a building and a pastor. I enjoy working with our church; I love being a pastor. But I can’t help but wonder if we might not be a better church if we took this same amount of money and invested it into helping people.

Think about it. Our annual budget at our little, little church is over $98,000. That means that we will spend around $90,000 on keeping our rent and salary paid. We will spend less than $8,000 on ministering to others (of which, $7,000 will be spent on things the pastor leads in the building!).

Our church is great with volunteering to do stuff for people, and they really throw themselves into serving the community when given the opportunity; but what if we shifted our focus and simplified our mission?

What if we decided to abandon the whole central building thing and instead worshiped in homes on the weekends?

What if we took all that money we give toward the building (and even ::GASP!:: the pastor) and invested it in repairing homes in the downtown? What if we stopped dumping money into rent and bought an apartment building and worshiped there by meeting for prayer and meditation before going out into the city to make a dramatic difference?


What if we just took the losses, consolidated our resources and devoted 90% of our time to others and used the other 10% for ourselves rather than the other way around?

What if we let go of the security of our UNsupernatural way of doing church and genuinely took a step of radical proportions away from our selfishness and cultural momentum and into the unknown of the ancient church?