Gustaf Aulén's Christus Victor

The term Christus Victor comes from the title of Gustaf Aulén's groundbreaking book first published in 1931 where he drew attention back to this classic early Church understanding of the Atonement[1]. In it Aulén identifies three main types of Atonement Theories: the earliest was what Aulén called the "classic" view of the Atonement, more commonly known as Ransom Theory or since Aulén's work known sometimes as the "Christus Victor" theory: this is the theory that Adam and Eve made humanity subject to the Devil during the Fall, and that God, in order to redeem humanity, sent Christ as a "ransom" or "bait" so that the Devil, not knowing Christ couldn't die permanently, would kill him, and thus lose all right to humanity following the Resurrection. A second theory is the "Latin" or "objective" view, more commonly known as Satisfaction Theory, beginning with Anselmian Satisfaction (that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind satisfying the demands of God's honor) and later developed by Protestants as penal substitution (that Christ is punished instead of humanity, thus satisfying the demands of justice so that God can justly forgive). A third is the "subjective" theory, commonly known as the Moral Influence view, that Christ's passion was an act of exemplary obedience which affects the intentions of those who come to know about it: it dates back to Anselm of Laon's protege, Abelard, who was its originator.

Aulén's book consists of a historical study beginning with the early church and tracing their Atonement theories up to the Protestant Reformation. Aulén argues that Christus Victor (or as Aulén called it the "classic view") was the predominant view of the early church and for the first thousand years of church history and was supported by nearly every Church Father including Irenaeus, Origen of Alexandria, and Augustine of Hippo to name a few. A major shift occurred, Aulén says, when Anselm of Canterbury published his “Cur Deus Homo” around 1097 AD which marked the point where the predominant understanding of the Atonement shifted from the classic view (Christus Victor) to the Satisfaction view in the original Catholic Church, and later within Protestantism. The Orthodox Church still holds to the Christus Victor view, based upon their understanding of the Atonement put forward by Irenaeus, called "recapitulation" Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is. (see also Theosis).

Aulén argues that theologians have misunderstood the view of the early Church Fathers in seeing their view of the Atonement in terms of a Ransom Theory arguing that a proper understanding of their view is not concerned with the payment of ransom to the devil, but with the motif of the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. As the term Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) indicates, the idea of “ransom” should not be seen in terms (as Anselm did) of a business transaction, but more in the terms of a rescue or liberation of humanity from the slavery of sin.

Aulén states that the chief distinction between Christus Victor and Satisfaction Theory is the role each gives to God and the Law. Satisfaction Theory, Aulén claims, contains a divine discontinuity and a legal continuity while the central emphasis of Christus Victor is of a divine continuity and a legal discontinuity. Since Satisfaction Theory arose from the penance based system of Anselm of Canterbury, its focus is on Law. God is unable to justly forgive without satisfying the Law's demands and since only a man can fulfill man's obligations to the Law, Christ must become a man in order to keep the Law perfectly and then suffer the punishment intended for us at the hands of his Father. This view, Aulén claims, inserts an opposition into the Divine relationship that does not exist in Christus Victor, and maintains a legal emphasis that is reversed in Early church thought.

Aulén points to the Law as an enemy in the writings of Paul and Luther (who he claims was a forceful advocate of Christus Victor), and claims that the penance systems of Satisfaction Theory and Penal Substitution place an undue emphasis on the role of man and on God's obligation to the Law. Instead by suffering a death that, before the Law, meant an accursed status, Christ, instead of satisfying an obligation, overthrew the power of the Law, since its condemnation of a perfect man was unjust. His subsequent Resurrection, a mark of the Father's favor despite the Law's curse, deprived the Law of its ability to condemn. God the Father and God the Son are thus not set at odds by Calvary, but are united in seeking the downfall of the devil's system of sin, death, and Law that enslaves humanity. This view, Aulén maintains, keeps from the errors of penance systems emphasizing Law and man, and reveals the unity within the Trinity's redemptive plan and the freedom of the forgiveness shown to us by God through Christ.

Unlike the Satisfaction Doctrine view of the Atonement (the “Latin” view) which is rooted in the idea of Christ paying the penalty of sin to satisfy the demands of justice, the “classic” view of the Early church (Christus Victor) is rooted in the Incarnation and how Christ entered into human misery and wickedness and thus redeemed it. Aulén argues that the Christus Victor view of the Atonement is not so much a rational systematic theory as it is a drama, a passion story of God triumphing over the Powers and liberating humanity from the bondage of sin. As Gustav Aulén writes,

The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil [2]

Development of the Christus Victor view after Aulén

While largely held only by Eastern Orthodox Christians for much of the last one thousand years, the Christus Victor theory is becoming increasingly popular with both paleo-orthodox evangelicals because of its connection to the early Church fathers, and with liberal Christians and peace churches such as the Anabaptist Mennonites because of its subversive nature, seeing the death of Jesus as an exposure of the cruelty and evil present in the worldly powers that rejected and killed him, and the resurrection as a triumph over these powers. As Marcus Borg writes,

for [the Christus Victor] view, the domination system, understood as something much larger than the Roman governor and the temple aristocracy, is responsible for the death of Jesus… The domination system killed Jesus and thereby disclosed its moral bankruptcy and ultimate defeat[3].

The Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver, in his book “The Nonviolent Atonement” and again recently in his essay "The Nonviolent Atonement: Human Violence, Discipleship and God," traces the further development of the Christus Victor theory (or as he calls it “Narrative Christus Victor”) into the liberation theology of South America, as well as feminist and black theologies of liberation[4]

This trend towards the Christus Victor view of the Atonement is also taking place among advocates of liberal Christianity, who traditionally espoused the Moral Influence view of theologians like Schleiermacher.


  1. Gustav Aulén (transl. by A. G. Herber) Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (Macmillan: New York, 1977)
  2. Ibid. p 20
  3. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (Harper: San Francisco), p 95
  4. J Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Eerdmans); J Denny Weaver, "The Nonviolent Atonement: Human Violence, Discipleship and God," Stricken by God? (Eerdmans, 2007).


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