The doctrine of the atonement can be divided into three main motifs or schools of thought in which Gustaf Aulen in his book Christus Victor, articulates each model in comparison to its historical roots and theological understanding. The ideas that are presented in each account are viewed with a fine ontological lens that evaluates the classical, objective and subjective models, although favoring the classic, Gustaf paints an objective picture to capture the essence of the doctrine. The development of each view is processed and how they came to fruition.
The classic or ransom theory is the main thesis of the book and its central theme is the idea of the atonement as a divine conflict and victory. Christ fights for the world against the evil powers of the enemy and is triumphant in victory in order to reconcile us back to the reconciler. This type of cosmic drama is depicted in the finish work of Christ in order to bring man to God. The divine operation of God is continuous and dualistic in its background. The first patristic father to provide a clear and comprehensive doctrine of the atonement and redemption is Irenaeus who ask the question: For what purpose did Christ come down from heaven? Because of such a profound question, the doctrine of the incarnation became the atonements companion in the theology of Irenaeus. The purpose of Christ becoming man in incorruptible form was to free us from the enemy from the bondage of sin, death and the devil. Sin here is clearly defined as separation from God and is inseparably associated with death. This is the main caveat of Anselm Cur Deus homo and the divine conquest of Christ redemption from the devil’s grasp.
The author surveys the diversities of the different early church fathers and provides a general survey that expresses their basic views of juridical, political and poetical. The dominant view of the western world is classified as classical according to Gustaf and stood side by side with the Latin type. This leads to the incarnation and the atonement were the author could have provided a more detail analysis of connecting the two doctrines as it relates in the sphere of Christology. A more exhaustive approach to Athanasius and Augustine’s discussion on the topic would have connected the doctrinal dots in a more systematic undertaking. The incarnation is founded on the premise of God’s love and is a divine act, overcoming the tyrants and redeeming mankind.
In the New Testament, we see that the very idea of the Atonement is found and how the Pauline teachings are regarded, according to his religion and theology. Paul, considered the real founder of the Latin doctrine of Atonement, is expressed by Gustaf to be the herald of the classical type instead. One could argue this point made by the author as Paul not only writes about the victory of Christ in his Epistles, but a penal and moralistic view could be attested to his writings as well. The idea of the classical idea being anti-moralistic and the synoptic gospels appealing to the ransom theology gives such a dualistic outlook of conflict and triumph in the atonement. The sacrificial work of Christ discloses the patristic and Pauline teachings of the New Testament and is alien to the Latin type but primarily an eternal sacrifice made by God to men. The author reiterates that New Testament data does not reflect the Latin type of the atonement and Law is more commonly acquainted with the Old Testament. Has the Law been totally abrogated as it enters the New Testament era of covenantal grace? A comparison or biblical example of obedience to the law in relation to grace and atonement would have provided some depth.
The middle ages beginning with Tertullian marking the concepts of the Latin theory of Atonement especially in terms of satisfaction and merit in regard to penance. Gustaf defines penance as a satisfaction, the acceptance of a temporal penalty to escape eternal loss. This penitential system is introduced in the western church and suggest that a penalty had to be satisfied to restore relationship back to the God. This theory appears more fully in Anselm and his writing of the Cur Deus homo? and carries on to reformers like John Calvin. Man can’t keep to the law because of our fallibility so God must do it by becoming man in a hypostatic union that correlates His divinity and humanity for our salvation. Anselm’s view on the human work of satisfaction is contrary to the early church fathers but doesn’t negate the fact of a necessary sacrifice made by Christ on the cross. The medieval ages closely link the Latin doctrine with that of a legalism characteristic according to Aulen and is widely accepted by post-reformation theologians in conjunction with the doctrine of grace alone.
Martin Luther’s teaching returns the thought of the classic view in his theology in regard to salvation and not necessarily to atonement as Gustaf acclaims. There is a continuality with Anselm and Lutheran Orthodoxy that maintains the idea of merit, but the true character of his teachings expresses the theme of the classical type. The dramatic view of the work of Christ is summed up in three points; dramatic idea, the essence of Christian faith and the organic relation with his theological outlook as a whole. The patristic view is demonstrated in Lutheran thought and establishes the treatment of our enemies as a fivefold; sin, death, the devil, law and wrath. The addition of law and wrath are in close relation to God’s will and both reveal the sin of man in connection with the bondage of our wills. Aulens examination of the law and wrath closely ties in with the Latin theory and the use of God’s divine love and justice to mankind. The comparison of Luther’s point on this matter is said to be a radical divergence of the Latin doctrine but still maintains the classic idea especially when using certain terminology throughout his works.
Luther sets the tone for the classic idea of atonement and throughout the reformation but then seems to take a vivid turn into Aristotelian philosophy and brought a misunderstanding of his teachings later on. Many debates on theological topics such as justification lead to a Protestant Orthodoxy and the idea of satisfaction by payment. The legal structure of the Latin doctrine is dominant at this point in the time frame. Gustaf suggests that this motif gets its law idea mainly from the Old Testament for scriptural proof. This footnote could have used a more detail rendering as the text continues to deal with the aspect of divine justice, mercy and the reconciliation. The Protestant Orthodoxy is covered in the Latin type and is reflected in the passion hymns and theology during the middle ages.
The arrival of the Enlightenment era is described by the author as a having no respect for church authority or orthodox theology and is considered controversial in its approach. It almost seems that the subjective or humanistic doctrine is regarded as unorthodox and in a state of decline, but this seems to be more of the opinion of Aulen then mere fact. A more human aspect of the atonement was proposed and set to replace the juridical treatment. This seems to take sin as relative and punishment out of the picture, covered and concealed in God’s love and the need for atonement out the window. The order of Salvation and atonement are shifted and their roles reversed and show a disarray in thinking but even the author states that it is of some value. The nineteenth-century subjective view seems to have its lack of definiteness and tends to focus more on God’s love and character on humanity and the action of man performed to God than God performed to man.
The three types are thus concluded in the final chapter of Christus Victor and an analysis of each view according to the structure, idea of sin, salvation, incarnation and concept of God are compared. There are connections and controversy that each view carries one with another and the weakness of the views exposed when aligned together. Though it can be safe to say that Gustaf is in favor of the classic type as the more appropriate view, standing by itself in opposition to the two other themes of the atonement. His attempt to depict the classic type as theologically accurate is without question an apologetical approach that can be seen as successful but more thought could have been made in the other two types. He seems to skim the surface and not dig in the deep doctrinal wells of each type. A return to the classic type is the prayerful hope of the author to its original authentic and genuine Christian faith. The failure of our finite minds cannot grasp the exclusivity of the true nature of God and an attempt to return to our spiritual grassroots may be theologically impossible. This hope is found in Christ and in knowing him we have become acquainted with the person and work of the atonement.