The Problem with Christus Victor
First, note how Scripture, even when it momentarily uses Christus Victor language, grounds it in substitution. For example, in the classic Christus Victor passage quoted above—"He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him"—note how Paul sets the context of that victory with substitution: "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross" (vv. 13-14).
Or note again what is said immediately after that passage quoted above —" … through death [Christ] might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." A verse later we read: "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:14-17).
Add to this the extensive discussion of substitutionary atonement in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews—and no extensive discussions of Christus Victor anywhere in the New Testament—and one begins to wonder how much stock we should put in Christus Victor. In short, should we be so quick to marginalize substitutionary atonement?
One other area worth noting: the social setting in which this discussion takes place. It is no coincidence in a society where we imagine ourselves mostly as victims of social or biological forces, in a culture increasingly illiterate in the language of guilt, sin, and personal responsibility, that Christus Victor is winning the day in the Christian world. To be clear: I am not suggesting that champions of Christus Victor are avoiding personal guilt and the need for forgiveness. That's a question of the heart about which one cannot judge. My point is this: Is this model capable of addressing our culture with the truth of the gospel at one of its most troubling points?
I have noticed—and do tell me if you see otherwise—that in general those who publically champion Christus Victor don't pepper their talks and prayers with personal guilt for sin or the need for divine forgiveness. By way of contrast, note the oldest advocates of Christus Victor, the Eastern Orthodox. Personal sin and guilt, and the consequent wrath of God, regularly weave themselves into their prayers. Note this prayer recommended for each morning:
Arising from sleep I thank you, O holy Trinity, because of the abundance of your goodness and long-suffering, you were not angry with me, slothful and sinful as I am. Neither have you destroyed me in my transgressions, but in your compassion raised me up as I lay in despair, that at dawn I might sing the glories of your Majesty.
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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