Customer Reviews: Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement
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on July 10, 2007
I was going through my shelf the other day and came across a 1969 edition and recalled a conversation I had with the folks at Wipf and Stock a few years ago about reprinting it and lo, there it was on! Very cool guys. Why I haven't reviewed this book earlier surprises me, since it was seminal in modifying my views on the atonement from an American Lutheran to a more Eastern Orthodox position.

So why does this book matter? Aulén challenges the status quo answer to the question: Why did Jesus have to die and what effect does the resurrection have? Raised Lutheran (Missouri Synod), I was taught a very Anselmian version of God's rationale for the events of our salvation which the author of this book takes to task (or at least demonstrates to be a modern development). We sinned in Adam, are guilty for his sin, and the offense to God's justice demands His wrath be taken out against us. Jesus takes the wrath of God upon himself, so when the Father sees me He really sees Jesus and doesn't take His anger out on me. Of course there is a biblical basis to some of this, but not to the exclusive extent that this theory holds over most of Protestant theology (although, as the author points out, Luther himself had a more nuanced version in his theology with the "blessed exchange" of the natures in Christ and, by that virtue, our own in Christ). Such a model focuses heavily upon the death of Christ, and personally I can remark that often the incarnation and resurrection were taught as an afterthought.

Aulén begins his work by stating the problem of the atonement and its possible answers, tracing the history and role that the Anselmian, Latin version has played, commonly known as the substitutionary theory: Jesus takes my place under the wrath of God. Then Irenaeus is used as the example of the earlier and more universal theory of the early church and New Testament: Christ tramples down sin, death and the power of the devil by his incarnation, death and resurrection. This is the classic model of recapitulation in Christ.

Then the Middle Ages are examined with the roles of Tertullian, Cyprian, Gregory the Big One and Anslem, among other notables. Here the classic idea is beginning to wane and almost disappear under the weight of the Latin model. Although Luther moves markedly to the classical model, he still employs terms and sometimes the meaning of the Latin model, which has further solidified it in his tradition. He concludes with some analysis of post-Luther developments and posits that a return to the original model is a needed corrective. A very comprehensive and packed slim volume indeed!

Other books of interest may include How Are We Saved?: The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Traditionby Kallistos Ware, Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian by Jordan Bajis, and for a Lutheran reappropriation of the classical idea, Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Lutheredited by Braaten and Jenson. Lastly, perhaps the best book on the topic, although dated to 1927, is Grensted's A Short History Of The Doctrine Of The Atonement (1920). In fact, I would probably buy Grensted's work before Christus Victor for a more complex adn in-depth study. They compliment one another perfectly.

I would find it most interesting to look at this whole question through liturgical theology, since how we understand the sacrifice of Christ, along with his taking on and renewing our nature, is intimately bound (think of the Mass as Sacrifice, Recapitulation, partakers of divinity etc); For Christianity is primarily a doxological religion. This would refocus our attention upon the necessity, nature and role of the sacraments/mysteries. PhD/ThD thesis anyone?
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on December 6, 2004
Aulen's aim in this work is to explain the doctrine of the atonement as it was held for the first 1000 years of Christianity, and to explain how and why the church has deviated from it.

I am a lay theologian and I have read a lot of theological works, but this book stands out from the rest. I now feel that I didn't properly understand Christianity prior to reading this work.

Aulen doesn't interact much with scripture, and confines himself to a historical account of what various people in the church believed at different times. However his fundamental thesis is clear: that the Bible and the early church have a view of Christ's work that is majorly different to what is commonly received today in the Western Church.

Though Aulen was a Western theologian, Eastern Orthodox believers will also benefit from Aulen's clear and insightful exploration of the doctrine of the Greek Fathers. Aulen's account of the atonement is Orthodox, and far clearer than what I have seen expressed elsewhere in Orthodox writings.
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on July 15, 2008
This book provides an historically-faithful alternative to the substitutionary and exemplary models of the atonement. Its strength lies in its presentation of a vivid and robust picture of the work of Christ. Its (the book, not the model) weakness is its simplistic reductions of other theologians' thoughts.

The Christus Victor model presents the work of Christ as a triumph over the devil, powers (demons), bondage of sin, and the "law." Accordingly, given its Eastern overtones, the atonement and the Incarnation are inseperable. Christ united humanity to his nature to redeem it. He redeemed it (still united to his nature) on the cross.

This is to be contrasted with the Latin views of the atonement, which are narrowly penal. The Latin views incorporate merit and penance in the atonment model. For Aulen, this move removes the work of God from the work of Christ in redemption.

Criticisms of the work:
This is why I give it 4 stars. I do not think he dealt as fairly with St Anselm as he could have. David Bentley Hart (*Beauty of the Infinite*) has shown how St Anselm and St Athanasius do not fundamentally disagree. Another problem I had is that biblical students need to see that the Bible incorporates all 3 models of the atonement (Mark 10 = substitutionary; Colossians 2:15 = Christus Victor; Peter 2:21 = exemplary). Aulen also used language that begged the question in favor of his position.

Aside from the above criticisms, this is a paradigm-shifting book.
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on February 29, 2012
Gustaf Aulen very simply traces the history of the three main ideas of the atonement. One, the "Classic View." It is the more mythic view, the invasion of God to earth to rescue man, reconciling himself to himself. The Latin View, more commonly known as the Satisfaction theory of the atonement and then the more humanistic "subjective" view.

It is a very simple historical outline with weighty consequences. The way which in which we view the atonement shapes our image and idea of God and why he did/does what He does. Did God come to save me out of love or was it more rooted in retribution and punishment? Aulen systematically reveals the holes in the ever popular ideas of "Satisfaction," punishment and penitence found in the Latin idea of the Atonement and how Christ offering himself as a Man to God is erroneous and a breach in the Divine rescue. And I realized while reading, "if God demands a satisfaction of his justice, then how is it truly love and forgiveness?" I can't sum up everything Aulen says clearly in this place, but he addresses all these questions. He shows how the Atonement is the work of God from beginning to end and that the MOTIVE of God is the Divine Love working outside of and thwarting the Divine Justice. He shows that the Divine Love is bigger and works outside of the box of the Divine Justice or rather, man's need to rationalize and logically figure out how God's justice was satisfied through the Atonement; it wasn't. Rather, God performs the spontaneous act of love for his children and rescues them from the power of sin, death and law. He shows how the Law is just as much an enemy as sin is rather then something to be satisfied or lived out or held to in some moralistic fashion.

An amazing book that is refreshing and shows that God acts out of love rather than the logic, rationalism and all the other damaging theories we have about him. God saves man because he loves him, and if he decides that he loves us more than he wants to condemn us, then who are we to insist that his justice is robbed from him or not? If a father decides to rescue and forgive his child because he loves his child, why would we try to rationally figure that out? And isn't it truly justice and evidence that we are created in the image of God when we would do the same for our children and imagine God as doing it for us? God changes his mind, and he is not any less God because he does that. He changed his mind because of Moses and we see something of his heart for his people in Hosea 11 where he cries out that he cannot turn his back on them. Hence, the struggle of God and we see the dichotomy between the Divine Love and Divine Wrath. The former overcame the latter. Beautiful. I could go on, but reading the book would be far better.
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on December 21, 2012
This book has helped me tremendously by helping me understand the cross so much clearer. By the end of the book I was in tears because for the first time I finally understood my savior so much better. This book will forever be a treasure.
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on December 2, 2006
The author draws a sharp contrast between the atonement theology of the apostles, the early church fathers, and the Lutheran catechisms on one hand, and the atonement theology of Anselm, medieval Roman Catholicism, and later Protestant orthodoxy on the other hand. He demonstrated that the fathers did not hold to "the ransom theory" at the exclusion of the objective reconciliation of God by his own victory in Christ over the curse.

As a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I found more interesting than convincing the argument that the observed divergence between Luther and sixteenth-century Lutheranism goes beyond differences in emphasis. For example, the author did not appear to sufficiently appreciate the relevance of Lutheranism's teaching, in opposition to Calvinism, the communication of attributes between the divine and human natures of Christ.

The biggest contribution of the book may be the case that Luther's joyous proclamation of Christ's victory over sin, death, Satan, the law, and God's wrath represented a Pauline development of the atonement theology of the fathers.
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How come every time I turn around I hear that Augustine came up with something that was later turned into Reformation Theology in contradiction to everything the church believed before Augustine? Can it be that the pre-Augustine church was so screwed up that they got almost nothing right? I'm OK with some improvement of theological thought given the discovery of texts they might not have had, etc. But, on major topics like salvation security, eschatology (as it relates to preterism), pacifism, and church/state integration, do you really think they'd be completely wrong within a decade of the death of the last Apostle?

In this book, the author traces the evolution of atonement over the course of church history. He does a pretty good job of explaining the difference in the mechanics between the original system ("Classical Atonement" or "Christus Victor") which the western church followed for about 1000 years (and The Church of the East still does) and the system that was invented after 1000 AD by the Roman Catholic Church and then adopted by Reformed Theology ("Substitutionary Atonement").

I would like to see some skilled writer update the author's work to make it a bit more readable. However, if you put the effort in, he makes a clear argument which seems to me to be hard to refute.
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on September 26, 2014
Aulén is a little bit technical, but not bad. His topic is deep, and he does not waste words. Many, many times I set down the book and just pondered for 15-20 minutes what I'd read on a single page, not because it was dfficult, but because it was so foreign to how I have always understood the cross. Aulén showed me how sadly sheltered we are in Western Christianity from the historic Christian understanding of the cross. I normally burn through books, but I spent over two weeks digesting this short 150 page work. I would give it six stars if I could.
As I have learned more about Christus Victor theology, Aulén gave Anselm a little too much credit. After you read the book, just do some research of "satisfaction theory" versus "penal substitution." The former is Anselm, the latter Aquinas. That clarification does not detract from my 5 star rating of this book. Also, Aulén spends the first chapter justifying why he is writing. The layman can skip chapter one without missing anything.
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on August 9, 2014
For the first 1100 years, the church believed in the Christus Victor doctrine. Then came Anselm and added to/changed that doctrine. In the 1500s, Calvin added God's wrath and the judicial aspect to the Cross. Both Anselm and Calvin changed what the church had believed in for many centuries; Aulen propose that we go back to the Christus Victor view again.
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According to The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, this book is the classic explanation and defense of the Christus Victor view of the atonement. I wanted to learn more about this view, so I bought and read this book.

At first, I was quite disappointed with what I read. It was not at all what I wanted or expected. Aulen wrote correctly when, near the beginning of his second chapter when he explains how he will proceed, wrote, "This method of procedure may seem surprising..." Yes, it definitely was that... and as a result, almost caused me to put down the book and stop reading. But I am glad I persevered.

By appearances, the book is little more than a long, historical survey of the doctrine of the atonement, showing how various views of the atonement have been developed over time and in response to various events within the church and the surrounding culture. This is Aulen's "surprising" approach.

For myself, I did not want an historical survey of the doctrine of the atonement, but an explanation and defense of the Christus Victor view. But Aulen provided the second by doing the first.

Frankly, this caused me to frequently get frustrated with his approach. "Just explain the view!" I wanted to yell. But I ended up getting a decent explanation of the view and a history lesson to boot.

As it turns out, the history lesson was important, for it shows why the Christus Victor view fell out of favor among church theologians for nearly 1700 years, but is now beginning to make a bit of a comeback.

And I, for one, say this comeback is long past due.
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