We are pleased to offer another guest post by blogger Mark Citadel.
In Gustav Aulén’s 1931 book Christ the Victor, he writes, “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”
Such a concept is unsurprisingly alien to most Western readers who have for so long been believers in a very different theory of atonement, that is, what exactly occurred at the metaphysical level during our Savior’s crucifixion. While Aulén’s theory would not have been at all controversial before the turn of the first millennium after Christ, when the east and west were divided, the western portion of the Occident was heavily influenced by the works of St. Anselm of Canterbury and his book Cur Deus Homo?, which was published in 1097. It’s important we understand what this model puts forth.
What has come to be known as satisfaction theory declares that the sin of man is a direct insult to God, and in fact an insult so great that no human could provide adequate satisfaction for this offense. The term satisfaction was used in Ancient Rome to mean having one’s honor restored, so that if somebody harmed one’s honor, they could justly claim right to satisfaction for this slight. Later on, this would evolve into the still rather familiar practice of ‘dueling’, where the aim was never justice, but instead satisfaction. St. Anselm says:
This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us.
St. Thomas Aquinas would later remove what he saw as dubious the element of God’s wounded honor, and modified the theory to center more on the idea of a ‘medicinal’ punishment which would rejuvenate man and return him to grace. This was to be distinct from the later Protestant idea of a legal punishment for man, that Jesus bore His Father’s just penalty in our place. In fact, Aquinas argued directly against the idea that it was even possible for someone to bear another’s punishment in this legalistic sense:
If we speak of that satisfactory punishment, which one takes upon oneself voluntarily, one may bear another’s punishment…. If, however, we speak of punishment inflicted on account of sin, inasmuch as it is penal, then each one is punished for his own sin only, because the sinful act is something personal. But if we speak of a punishment that is medicinal, in this way it does happen that one is punished for another’s sin.
Aquinas also introduced the idea of supererogation, that is a superabundance of merit accrued by both Christ’s death and the works of the great saints who went above and beyond their moral duties. This ‘treasury’ of merit was in the possession of the Roman Catholic Church and could be given in the form of the holy sacraments. This view would lead the Church into dangerous territory as in the wake of the Crusades, certain priests began to hold that the Church could sell this atoning grace for profit in the form of indulgences, working off of Pope Clement VI’s 1343 declaration: “The merits of Christ are a treasure of indulgences.” Undoubtedly these words were abused not only by individual friars, but local princes who gained a share of the money and encouraged the practice.
The erroneous ambiguity, later corrected by the Church itself in the Council of Trent, would be one of the root causes of Martin Luther’s uprising against the Vatican and subsequent breaking of the Roman Catholic monolith in the West. Far from ‘reforming’ the Church as he had intended, Luther created an entirely new Christianity, which would itself fragment endlessly right up to the present day
It’s very easy to look at all this and say that the Roman Catholics shot themselves in the foot, but was it necessary? To understand the answer to that question we have to ask about atonement before St. Anselm, before the Great Schism.
For the first thousand years of Christianity’s history, the Church Fathers were almost unanimous in their views of atonement. From St. Irenaeus to St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa to St. Augustine, St. Athanasius to St. Ambrose, the crucifixion represented less a systematic action and more a passionate drama, The belief was that in the Fall, man had given himself up to the authority of the devil. He had disobeyed God and obeyed Satan, his fallen condition coming to reflect this terrible choice. In Matthew 28:18, we read “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” This would be a strange statement if this had been the case all along.
Paul routinely speaks of sin in an almost personified manner, not of the sins of man, but of sin as a power, something which has a malevolent control over us, an evil principle.
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For in Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the Law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in likeness of sinful man, as an offering for sin.
– Romans 8:1
Original interpretations held this ‘offering’ to be a ransom, as described in Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6, a transfer of authority and the condemnation of death from mankind to the Son. Less emphasis is placed on our forgiveness, which is of course necessary, but on our rescue from this domain in which we were captives, and the destruction of the devil’s power.
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.
– Colossians 1:13
The one who practices sin is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the very start. This is why the Son of God was revealed, to destroy the works of the devil.
– 1 John 3:8)
Let us for a moment dwell on the cross itself. What is its significance? Did it only gain its symbolic power with its use to execute the Son of God, or did it possess a kind of ‘hidden’ or esoteric dimension before this? There is a powerful case that the method of execution employed by the Romans harked back to the Greek post-war practice of erecting a tropaion in the wake of their enemy’s retreat. This would be a stylized ‘cross’ or ‘tree’ adorned with the armor of the defeated, and was a sign that the gods had favored the winning side. Given this ancient context, the cross can be seen initially as satan’s tropaion, a statement that he has conquered, for the Son of God has been killed. However, this is not the whole story. If the cross symbolizes the death of a challenger, then the cross is in fact overcome in the act of resurrection. The devil’s tropaion is shattered. This same dynamic symbolism would be employed by Romanian Legionaries who used the ‘Cross of the Archangel Michael‘ as their sigil, a grid representing prison bars, those which the Legion endeavored to overcome. In the wake of His victory, Christ erects his own tropaion upon which he nails “indebtedness expressed in decrees,” that being the Old Testament Law, which is abrogated in its ceremonial requirements by His resurrection.
He has destroyed what was against us, a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us. He has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
– Colossians 2:14
To make a public disgrace was, at the time, a militaristic action known formally as the Roman Triumph. The rebellious Gaul Vercingetorix was famously brought through the streets of Rome in chains before being executed on Caeser’s orders, just to name one prominent example. The devil had tried to claim the ultimate prize, killing the Son of God, who was not only innocent of the crimes he stood accused of by the Jewish Sanhedrin, but of all crimes. Perhaps in ignorance, the devil accepted a “ransom” as described in Mark 10:45 in exchange for “many;” but death cannot claim what is by definition eternal. Gregory of Nyssa described it thusly:
God veiled Himself in our nature. In that way, as it is with greedy fish, Satan might swallow the Godhead like a fishhook along with the flesh, which was the bait.
Satan believed God to be vulnerable when he was in fact invulnerable. Lured into declaring a material victory (Christ’s capture and crucifixion), he was then forced into a spiritual combat that he lost because he was unable to cage the Son in death. The idea of Jesus as a trap would find its way into even Western art, as the early Dutch painter Robert Campin would depict Joseph making mousetraps in his Mérode Altarpiece. C.S. Lewis’ famous Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe lifts the ransom theory and applies it directly to Aslan the lion.
Apologist William Lane Craig has voiced a common objection to ransom theory in the following way:
Part of the problem with this Ransom Theory is that it seems totally misdirected. It is directed toward Satan rather than God. Surely, what the atonement in the New Testament is about is how Christ offers himself as a sacrifice to God the Father. It is God-directed, or Father-directed. We are reconciled to the Father. But here the whole theory seems to be skewed in a really unfortunate way in that the sacrifice of Christ’s death is offered to Satan rather than to God the Father.
This is part of a noble and indeed understandable effort on the part of sincere Christians to avoid the falsehood of Manicheanism, a theological school popular in the Roman Empire in the early centuries AD, that sprang from Persia and was strongly influenced by the dualist Zoroastrian religion also native to that land. Manicheanism holds that there are equally matched supernatural elements of good and evil that do battle for control of creation. What many people think that ransom theory does is elevate Satan to the level of Ahriman, the Zoroastrian spirit of destruction. We of course know this to be false, as the devil was cast down from heaven with his insurgent host, defeated and in fact powerless in the face of God Himself. However, the criticism is itself misdirected for it misunderstands what is being implied by the theory. The devil has power not by virtue of himself, but by humanity’s free will. Unfortunate language of ‘kidnapping’ on the part of ransom theorists has not helped dissuade this mistake, and it would be more apt to describe humanity selling itself into ‘bond-servitude.’ God cannot, in all of his divine power, violate His own nature, and this nature is consistent in its honor. God honors the decision made by man in the Garden of Eden, though He dislikes it. From this point on, it is the devil He must contend with for the soul of humanity, not man, and the devil is understandably reluctant to give over his deceitfully won prize.
Through understanding Christ in these originally conceived terms, terms that no doubt aided in Rome’s conversion because they were so relatable to the Roman ethos, we come to a somewhat different notion of the Son, not as a victim but as a conqueror, the banner-bearer of the righteous path who liberated man from chains which held him, those being sin, the Law. death, and the evil one. No greater enemies have ever been felled by any hero, and no bounty so rich has ever been achieved than the salvation of all who share in this victory, who assent to it, who affirm that Christ was God made flesh and rose from the dead. He had two dispositions, one of merciful compassion towards man, and one of imperial fury towards his jailers. This is how the “Prince of Peace” can come “bearing a sword.” Russian and Bulgarian armies went so far as to use the Mandylion – an image of the very face of the living God – on war banners right up until WWI, in this sense a ‘greater Mars’ whose crushing of the enemy had already occurred.
Perhaps a re-examination of the popular Western understandings of the crucifixion may be desirable in order to combat the rampant Liberalism within European and Anglospheric Christianity, which gorges itself upon repeated misunderstandings of God’s love and charity. It might just be one small step to ending the fantasy view of the world as a field of victims in need of aid, when it is instead a field of battle in which the forces of light, indestructible in Christ Jesus, are arranged against the forces of darkness whose only remaining claim over our souls is apostasy, is the denial of victory, the revision of history, the destruction of believing nations by one method or another. This is all that evil has been left with in the wake of the Resurrection, but because of our laziness and pride, it is at present devastatingly effective.