Should the West Consider Christ’s Victory?

We are pleased to offer another guest post by blogger Mark Citadel.

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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.

18 thoughts on “Should the West Consider Christ’s Victory?

  1. Pingback: Should the West Consider Christ’s Victory? | Aus-Alt-Right

  2. Is God some sort of trickster who deceives in order to win? And why would God need to bargain with the devil if the power was ultimately in man’s will?

    The problem with the Atonement is that many look at it as an either/or problem rather than a both/and. A more synthetic view seems appropriate, but I’ll leave that for theologians to formulate. You do still find depictions of Christus Victor in Catholic Churches though.

    • Agreed. Christ’s closure of the infinite ontological and aesthetic gap yawning between creaturely perfection and the imperfection and incompetence consequent upon the Fall can be ransom *and* satisfaction *and* victory *and* medicine *and* pedagogy *and* penance.

      • I should’ve looked harder before commenting. I found this gem from Aquinas:

        Among means to an end that one is the more suitable whereby the various concurring means employed are themselves helpful to such end. But in this that man was delivered by Christ’s Passion, many other things besides deliverance from sin concurred for man’s salvation. In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation; hence the Apostle says (Romans 5:8): “God commendeth His charity towards us; for when as yet we were sinners . . . Christ died for us.” Secondly, because thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation. Hence it is written (1 Peter 2:21): “Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps.” Thirdly, because Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss, as shall be shown later (48, 1; 49, 1, 5). Fourthly, because by this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, according to 1 Corinthians 6:20: “You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body.” Fifthly, because it redounded to man’s greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil; and as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:57): “Thanks be to God who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s good-will. [ST III, 46, 3]

    • Deception as a military tactic is rather exalted in books such as Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’.

      “Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

      Once man had chosen to obey the devil in the Garden of Eden, it could not simply be a case of having him change his mind. There seems to have had to be a consequence for such a tragic choice, that being enslavement to sin and the ‘Prince of the Powers of the Air’, who as is often reminded is the “ruler of this world”, with unbelievers still caught in his “snare”. He does after all possess prestige, which even Michael honors in Jude 1:9.

      The purpose of the article was more of a directional push than an ultimatum. When I talk to many Western Christians they have this very tragic view of Christ, which is understandable, but does not seem to be in line with at least the earlier beliefs of Christians. I’d agree the old understanding is not completely lost, and there are other aesthetic appeals beyond those mentioned that have cropped up occasionally in both Roman Catholic and Protestant works (I saw a particularly good painting earlier today but can’t seem to find it again). It is just something worth considering for those who may be unaware of this intriguing piece of theological controversy. As a non-theologian, I did my best to present it, but I’m certainly no Irenaeus.

      • I think you did an admirable job. The Atonement is tricky. And it is tricky in a different way than the Trinity is tricky. There are lots of ways to think about the Trinity, but only one of them really avoids paradox. With the Atonement, its the other way round: there are lots of ways to understand it, and they all contribute something true to the understanding, without contradicting each other.

        This is just as we should expect. The Trinity is a doctrine about the Eternal One, who is Simple. There’s only one correct way to think about God, then; and all the other ways will sooner or later lead to confusion. The Incarnation is a doctrine about the Eternal One *and creatures.* The latter are complex and multifarious; so then must the Incarnation be complex and multifarious.

      • This is likely why the Trinity was essentially made what I’d call a ‘defining Christian dogma’ (i.e – a way to determine heretical sects, a kind of litmus test), whereas Atonement never held such a station. Aquinas’ theology is exalted by many Popes, but I don’t think its a dogma of Roman Catholicism per se. The only groups who seem to have formalized atonement would be certain Protestant churches who recognized penitential atonement as an essential doctrine, at least from what I have read.

      • But can Truth deceive? My point is that there’re difficulties with this view of the Atonement just as there are with the others. I understand your purpose, and it is certainly something that modern Christians must consider. Unresolved controversies ought to be explored since their discussion can help us going forward. Dogma doesn’t change but different points can be emphasized for different eras.

    • I agree, but I don’t think Mr Citadel is saying we should throw over our other understandings of Calvary. Rather, I think he’s offering a corrective and a timely reminder of a facet the Church has always held to be the case that has fallen on hard times recently; a facet furthermore that is specifically helpful against the sorts of heresies we must deal with in these dark times.

  3. The distinction between Anselm’s theology of atonement and that of the Fathers is, I think, greatly overstated. It is essentially the recapitulation theory common among the Fathers, with a deep concern to resolve the apparent contradiction between God’s mercy and his justice which the salvation of humanity raises and the Incarnation solves (he wrestles with the same question in the Proslogion as well). David Bentley Hart makes an eloquent case for this in The Beauty of the Infinite, but it’s also clear on a close read of Cur Deus.

    Much of the confusion regarding Anselm, who is truly one of the greatest minds in history, results from a misunderstanding of his terminology. For instance, God’s honor to Anselm is identical to his goodness. It is what imparts order and life to creation. Thus the offense against God’s honor is an offense against the fundamental order and goodness of creation. Anselm explains this in Chapter XV:

    Nothing can be added to or taken from the honor of God. For this honor which belongs to him is in no way subject to injury or change. But as the individual creature preserves, naturally or by reason, the condition belonging, and, as it were, allotted to him, he is said to obey and honor God; and to this, rational nature, which possesses intelligence, is especially bound. And when the being chooses what he ought, he honors God; not by bestowing anything upon him, but because he brings himself freely under God’s will and disposal, and maintains his own condition in the universe, and the beauty of the universe itself, as far as in him lies. But when he does not choose what he ought, he dishonors God, as far as the being himself is concerned, because he does not submit himself freely to God’s disposal. And he disturbs the order and beauty of the universe, as relates to himself, although he cannot injure nor tarnish the power and majesty of God. For if those things which are held together in the circuit of the heavens desire to be elsewhere than under the heavens, or to be further removed from the heavens, there is no place where they can be but under the heavens, nor can they fly from the heavens without also approaching them. For both whence and whither and in what way they go, they are still under the heavens; and if they are at a greater distance from one part of them, they are only so much nearer to the opposite part. And so, though man or evil angel refuse to submit to the Divine will and appointment, yet he cannot escape it; for if he wishes to fly from a will that commands, he falls into the power of a will that punishes. And if you ask whither he goes, it is only under the permission of that will; and even this wayward choice or action of his becomes subservient, under infinite wisdom, to the order and beauty of the universe before spoken of. For when it is understood that God brings good out of many forms of evil, then the satisfaction for sin freely given, or if this be not given, the exaction of punishment, hold their own place and orderly beauty in the same universe. For if Divine wisdom were not to insist upon things, when wickedness tries to disturb the right appointment, there would be, in the very universe which God ought to control, an unseemliness springing from the violation of the beauty of arrangement, and God would appear to be deficient in his management. And these two things are not only unfitting, but consequently impossible; so that satisfaction or punishment must needs follow every sin.

    Our offense against God’s honor is the fact that we have attempted to remove ourselves from the sacred order of Creation. Christ restores this order via recapitulation.

    • Yes. Offending against God does not hurt God, it hurts the offender. If you beat your head against the rock of a mountain, it isn’t the mountain that is damaged.

      • At the same time … it rather depends on what one means by “hurt” —
        The Scriptures say, “In Christ we live and move and have our being” and “In Christ all things hold together” and other like declarations.
        An implication of this is that *everything* we do — whether good or wicked — is done through the sustaining power of Christ: everything involves Christ, for nothing at all exists apart from Christ.
        So, one of the horrors of our sinning is that when we sin, we cause the Sinless One to experience sin, we cause him to participate in sin; for this is a power he gave his creatures by making them in his image: free moral agents.
        The Creator surrendered himself into the hands of his creatures not simply when he allowed them in their sin to murder him, but in the very act of creating them.

  4. Pingback: Should the West Consider Christ’s Victory? | Reaction Times

  5. “Substitutionary atonement” was, I think, one of the Five Fundamentals of the Faith according to my Fundamentalist Upbringing. Here it is called “Blood Atonement”. I never really considered it at odds with Catholic teaching, but I have noticed that among all the Protestant hymns that Catholic parishes have lately borrowed (most of them abysmal), none of them seem to speak of the “he died in my place” sort of hymnody. So maybe I’m just a badly informed Catholic.

  6. Found this to be great article. As a more traditionalist Catholic it brought to the fore some things I have read but never gave much thought to especially when St. Paul refers to Christ being crucified upon a tree. It also helped with my meditations on some of the mysteries of the Rosary.

    Also made me think of the movie 300 when the Spartans came upon the tree upon which an entire village had been crucified.

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