Throwback Thursday — Christus Victor

I have often heard people say, “I never re-read books.” Who am I to judge, but I always find that astonishing. I value certain books so much that I go back and read them over and over, often at least once a year.

I don’t find new words in the re-reading. The books don’t change, but I do. So re-reading is a mirror of how I’ve changed, grown, and/or regressed. Even though the books don’t change, I typically miss the nuances and implications of a book on the first couple of readings.

If I don’t miss some of what’s going on, then the book probably wasn’t as substantial as I might have hoped. Good books have layers of meaning, connection, implication and proposal. On the first few readings I am not often sufficiently familiar with the argument to absorb the more complex elements of the book.

So, I often re-read books. For a while, at least, I will do my take on “Throwback Thursdays” by reviewing books I read repeatedly. Today I want to remind us of Gustaf Aulen’s seminal work, Christus Victor. I re-read Aulen’s work as a way to think about the nature of the gospel we Christians share in our preaching and teaching, our loving and serving.

Aulen was a Swedish Lutheran pastor, bishop, theologian and teacher in the first half of the 20th century. He was one of the founders of the Lundensian school of Lutheran theology, along with Anders Nygren and Ragnar Bring. He was a fairly prolific writer, but his most influential work by far is Christus Victor, published in 1930 in Swedish and then translated into English shortly after.

You can find numerous helpful summaries of the book elsewhere. In short, Aulen surveys the history of the theories of Atonement in western Christianity. He finds that a theory based on Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil predominates in the Church until the time of Anselm of Canterbury in the 10th century. Anselm proposes a theory that has the death of Christ paying off a debt of honor to a righteous and wrathful God. That theory undergirds the medieval penitential system which Luther so vehemently opposes. Aulen describes the later theory of Christ as moral exemplar but regards that modern theory as barely worth noticing and to be dismissed out of hand.

Numerous commentators have noted Aulen’s basic assertion — that the Christus Victor theory is not something created by a later theologian (as is Anselm’s theory). Rather, this is simply a description of the New Testament’s understanding of the work of Christ. Luther would agree to that assessment, and I find that to be quite convincing. That’s why I re-read it for a deeper appreciation of the nature of the Christian gospel.

What are the notable ideas in Aulen’s little book? One that grabs and holds me is the power of his analysis in connecting Luther’s theology to the perspectives of Eastern Christianity. That work has been done in other ways by the Finnish school of Tuomo Mannermaa (I’ll review some of Mannermaa’s books on other occassions). Eastern Christianity has never had a theory of the atonement along the lines of Penal Substitution theory. The closest Eastern Christianity comes to an atonement theory is along the lines of a victory model, not too distant from Luther’s interpretation.

A second note that compels me in Aulen’s work is the distance between Luther and Lutheran Orthodoxy on the matter of atonement theory. Aulen strongly suggests that Melanchthon took Lutherans back to the Medieval understanding of atonement. He did this, Aulen proposes, because he didn’t really understand or appreciate the complexity and subtlety of Luther’s thought in this regard. Luther was in so many ways a mystic rather than a scholastic. Melanchthon was the opposite. They could provide helpful correctives to one another. But in Lutheran Orthodoxy, Aulen concludes, Melanchthonian views triumphed, much to the detriment of later Lutheran theology.

An implication of these two conclusions is that we don’t make enough space for the coincidence of contradictories in Luther’s theology. We who have been trained in this tradition know that “paradox” is an essential category for understanding Luther’s work. In my experience, however, the work of Lutheran theologians has often been to resolve those paradoxes in order that we can have neat and tidy sermons. That is a misunderstanding of the almost reckless embrace of contradictions that informs Luther’s theology.

I was not led to the reading of Nicholas of Cusa, for example, in my theological formation. But Luther knew well the work of Cusanus and his meditations on the coincidence of contradictories in our descriptions of God. Here again Luther runs on a parallel track with Eastern Christianity. It is indeed the case that Luther’s theology is much more apophatic than kataphatic. We are much clearer about what God is not than about what God is. And we need a deep epistemological humility in that regard if we are to be faithful Lutheran theologians.

What does that mean practically? For me it means that I should always have more questions in my sermons than answers. Over the years I have moved to the place of having at least half my sermons end with questions rather than conclusions. That always makes me nervous because I expect people to come demanding the security of certainty. My experience, however, is that people appreciate the challenge. They know well that life is deeply mysterious, and that most “answers” are at best rough approximations to reality that work about as often as a coin flip.

At a deeper level, I have to wonder how this atonement theory has shaped western culture since the Middle Ages. Like so many people, I am repelled by the essential violence of the theory. If God is violent, to paraphrase Mary Daly, then violence is God. How might we be different Christians in the West if our theology was not intimately tied to a story of a God who must be appeased by the violent death of God’s Son?

There is also this running together of the ideas of payment and salvation. Are we stuck with the idea that penitence must include some sort of payment in order to be legitimate? I’m sure it’s a stretch, but to what degree are our ideas of cash bail, for example, tied to the notion that punishment must extract something of value from the accused? The naked racism of our system of cash bail is enough to argue for its abolishment. Is this system another echo of the theory of penal substitutionary atonement as a pillar of western thinking?

Finally, a number of authors have connected the punitive violence of this theory to the essential and horrific violence of systems of white supremacy in the western world. I won’t rehearse those arguments here, but how might this have been different if Anselm’s quill pen had broken, never to be repaired?

I hope you might consider reading or re-reading this magnificent little book.

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