In 1930 Professor Gustaf Aulen published his condensed Olaus Petri Lectures, first delivered at the University of Uppsala and then in Germany, on “The Three Chief Types of the Christian Atonement Concept” (Die drei Haupttypen des christlichen Versoehnungsgedanken, in Zeitschrift fur systematische Theologie, pp. 501–538). Ever since, the question has been asked whether the learned Swedish theologian has accurately and correctly presented the “three chief types of the Atonement,” and Luther’s doctrine of the Atonement in particular.
In many respects the modern Christian world owes Aulen, and the whole Lundensian, or Swedish, school of theology as well, a vote of thanks for reviving interest in the study of Christian doctrine, especially that of the Protestant Reformation. Through the investigations and publications of the Swedish school, the sola gratia of Wittenberg and Geneva has once more been made the object of careful study both in Europe and in America, so that this articulus fundamentalissimus of Christendom has had a new chance to assert itself over against the Pelagianism of modern Liberalism.
In English-speaking countries Aulen’s monograph on the three types of the Atonement has become favorably known through A. G. Herbert’s excellent translation, published under the title Christus Victor, which first appeared in England in 1931 and then again in an “American edition” in 1951.
Aulen’s Three Types
The three types of the Atonement that Aulen delineates not only in Christus Victor, but also in many of his other works, in particular in his Christian Dogmatics—known among English-speaking students as The Faith of the Christian Church (Muhlenberg Press, 1945)—are: the patristic, or “classical”; the Latin, or objective (Anselmic); the subjective, or humanistic (Abelardian).
According to Aulen, Martin Luther, following the New Testament and the Church Fathers, espoused the patristic, or “classical,” view. The central thought of this view is that the satisfaction, or Atonement, was made by God and not merely to God, and that it consisted primarily in Christ’s conquest of man’s spiritual enemies: Satan, sin, death and hell. In Christ Jesus, God has proved himself the triumphant Victor over these powerful enemies, from which sinful man was freed through the death of his incarnate Son.
Aulen admits that Luther uses certain typical phrases of the Latin, or Anselmic type, especially merit and satisfaction, though in a quite new and different sense. But the use of these terms, he contends, has led to confusion, in particular to the complete misapprehension that Luther’s teaching of the Atonement belongs to the Latin type (Christus Victor, American ed., pp. 101–122).
Aulen states, in criticizing the view of Anselm of Canterbury, pre-eminent champion of the Latin type of the Atonement, that Anselm, in presenting Christ’s Atonement in his work Cur Deus Homo, starts from the idea of penance, and not from that of agape, or divine love. He concedes that Anselm presents the Atonement, in a sense, as God’s work, since he is the sovereign Author of the plan of redemption. However, according to Aulen, Anselm holds that the actual offering of the satisfaction was made by Christ as man, or from man’s side. In Anselm’s view, therefore, the connection between the Incarnation and the Atonement is not nearly so plain as in the Church Fathers. On the other hand, the order of divine justice is rigidly maintained so that the doctrine becomes juridical (op. cit., pp. 81–100).
Aulen, moreover, asserts that although Luther consistently taught the patristic, or classical, view of the Atonement, his contemporaries and successors, from Melanchthon down to the Lutheran Confessions and the Lutheran dogmaticians of the seventeenth century, went back to the Latin, or Anselmic, type of the Atonement. Misunderstanding his great teacher and friend, Master Philip, in the controversy with Andrew Osiander on the question whether justification is a forensic or a medical act, i.e., whether God for Christ’s sake declares the believer righteous or makes him righteous by the infusion of his essential righteousness through the indwelling Christ, fixed the lines of the accepted Lutheran doctrine and returned to a thoroughly legalistic outlook.
The doctrine of the Atonement in Lutheran orthodoxy was thus dominated, according to Aulen, by the satisfaction of God’s justice. The Lutherans differed from Anselm in emphasizing also Christ’s active obedience, since as our Substitute he put himself under the Law and fulfilled all righteousness for us. Anselm, on the other hand, had centered Christ’s atoning work in his passive obedience, or in his vicarious, sacrificial death (ibid., pp. 123–142).
Humanist View Not Relevant
In this study we are not interested in the so-called subjective, or humanistic (Abelardian), view of the Atonement, of which Aulen states correctly that it was prepared by the Pietists and developed by the Enlightenment. From the latter, it was taken, by way of Schleiermacher, Ritschl and others, into the modern liberal view of the Atonement, though with more or less modification (ibid., pp. 133 ff.). Much more, of course, might be said of Aulen’s presentation of the so-called three chief types of the Atonement, but what has been said may serve as a brief overview of his theory.
Narrow Appraisal Of Luther
Our chief concern here is with Aulen’s description of Luther’s doctrine of the Atonement. As an informed student scrutinizes Aulen’s learned discussion of the subject, he will find himself confronted with a number of important questions. Aulen’s treatise will appear rather one-sided and biased. He evidently has selected certain emphases from which he elaborates his system of evaluating the various types of the Atonement. That is true, in the first place, with regard to Holy Scripture, in particular to the New Testament, which in its many statements on Christ’s redemptive work certainly teaches far more on the Atonement than what Aulen says it does. That is true also of Luther’s doctrine of the Atonement. The Wittenberg Reformer most assuredly speaks of Christ’s atoning work in terms of the Latin, or Anselmic, type; and he uses these terms in exactly the same sense as did the erudite scholar of Canterbury.
Then, too, Aulen scarcely envisions Anselm’s doctrine of the Atonement in its whole scope and purport. Here also he selects certain criteria which he depicts too narrowly, without taking into consideration the Anselmic viewpoints in their entirety.
Luther And The Biblical View
Again, Aulen has failed to observe that Luther never attempted to do what he himself does, namely, elaborate a scientific statement of the doctrine of the Atonement with nice distinctions and subtle analyses. Rather, Luther taught the doctrine as it is set forth in Scripture in plain expressions, which the people could well understand and which his opponents could not misunderstand. Indeed, at times Luther used rather crude illustrations with only one thought in mind, namely, to show that Christ is our true Sacrifice and Savior, in whom alone we have redemption and salvation. This method Luther pursued in his lectures, sermons, hymns, biblical expositions and learned treatises. He applied the divine truth as it best suited his special purpose, always trying to show his hearers and readers what Scripture, as the inspired Word of God, reveals to us.
From Anselm To Luther
Nevertheless, Luther does not contradict himself. He states triumphantly in his entire teaching that Christ, the God-man, as our Substitute overcame Satan, sin, death and hell; but that he did this by laying down his life as a ransom for our sins. Essentially, therefore, Luther’s doctrine of the Atonement does not differ from that of Anselm, though he treats it primarily from God’s love in Christ Jesus, so that his viewpoint is decidedly evangelical.
Benjamin B. Warfield certainly states the matter correctly when he says that “no one before Luther had spoken with the clarity, depth, or breadth which characterized his references to Christ as our deliverer from the guilt of sin, and then, because from the guilt of sin, also from all that is evil, since all that is evil springs from sin” (“Atonement,” in New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Vol. I, p. 350, Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1908).
Very apt also is the judgment of J. L. Neve on this point: “In criticism [of Aulen’s three types] it must be said that Aulen’s view tends to underrate the religious significance of the Anselmic doctrine of Christ’s work as an expiation for human guilt. He likewise seems to miss Luther’s true view. The Reformer did not one-sidedly follow the Greek fathers. His own teaching is a wholesome synthesis of the best that is contained in both the teachings of the patristic age and the Middle Ages (A History of Christian Thought, Vol. II, p. 186, Muhlenburg Press, Philadelphia, 1946).
In his articles on Anselm of Canterbury and the Atonement, referred to above, Dr. Warfield remarks incidentally that Anselm, by his presentation of the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ, has furnished essentially the church doctrine for all Christendom.
Up to the time of Anselm the doctrine of the Atonement had never been developed in any organized, or systematic, form. From Anselm, Luther later took the doctrine to fill it with a truly evangelical content. On this point Professor C. E. Luthardt writes truly: “Thus the chief thoughts of the Anselmic theory ever more and more, though with biblical modifications, became the general view of the Church … especially the concurrence of divine justice and grace, the satisfaction, and the vicarious bearing of punishment [Strafteiden].These form the substratum also of the [teaching of the] Church of the Reformation” (Kompendium der Dogmatik, 13. Auflage, p. 289 f., Verlag von Doerffling & Franke, Leipzig, 1933).
What has been said of the one-sidedness of Aulen’s treatment of the three chief types does not mean that he willfully tried to misrepresent the three views or that he failed to study the matter carefully. His is rather a scholar’s attempt at classifying teachings, in a scientific way, from a viewpoint that frequently proved too narrow.
Seeberg On Luther’S View
In his immortal work Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (A. Deichentsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Leipzig, 1933), Professor Reinhold Seeberg devotes the entire volume IV1 to the discussion of Luther’s doctrine (Die Lehre Luthers), and here he treats with great thoroughness Luther’s doctrine of the Atonement. The student of his Dogmengeschichte may, of course, not agree with Dr. Seeberg on every detail; but, on the whole, the learned author has conscientiously tried to present to his readers what the Wittenberg Reformer actually taught with regard to Christ’s atoning work. Seeberg’s presentation contains no attempt at Systembildung, since Luther himself, being an expositor of Scripture rather than a systematician in the modern sense, attempted no systematization of this or any other doctrine of the Christian faith.
Professor Seeberg treats the doctrine of the Atonement as presented by Luther, in the main, from the two aspects of satisfaction and reconciliation. That is to say, in summary, that Christ, as our divine-human Substitute, willingly rendered to God full satisfaction for our sins and that he made amends for our transgression of the divine Law by keeping it for us. By this work of satisfaction he secured an objective and universal reconciliation between the holy and righteous God and sinful and condemned man. God freely grants this perfect righteousness of Christ, the Savior of the world, to man through the means of grace, the Word and the sacraments, so that all who, through the operation of the Holy Spirit, believe and accept the divine consoling word of reconciliation (the Gospel) are reconciled to God, for they have received and are in possession of forgiveness of sins and life everlasting, not indeed by human merit but by God’s grace through faith in Christ.
This comforting Gospel teaching of Luther, as Seeberg shows, already appears from his explanation of the Second Article in his Small Catechism, where he says: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true” (Weimar ed., 30. 1, 296; Dogmengeschichte IV1, p. 237).
According to Luther, therefore, as Seeberg points out, Christ has become by his sacrificial satisfaction our Redeemer and Lord, our Priest and Mediator (W 33,101), our Atoner and Intercessor (W 46,94). Luther teaches not only that Christ reconciled the world to God (W 27,105; 29,578), but also that through Christ’s satisfaction God became reconciled to the sinful world (30. 1,9; 20,399). Christ’s redeeming work ended with his triumphant resurrection, which is the beginning of his gracious rule as the risen Lord among men (W 10.1. 1,135 ff.). His vicarious suffering and death were the sacrifice that was rendered to God for our reconciliation and remission of sins. By his resurrection he was exalted to the Session on the right hand of the Father and so through the Gospel to his victorious rule over his elect saints, for whom he makes constant intercession. The purpose of Christ’s redemptive work was to gather sinners into his kingdom of salvation and to renew and bless them through his Holy Spirit. But this purpose he could not have accomplished unless he had first appeased God’s wrath over sin and made satisfaction to God for our condemning transgressions.
In support of this summary statement of Luther’s doctrine of the Atonement, Seeberg quotes from Luther, among others, this following clear and comforting declaration of his faith:
But now God found for this evil [man’s sin] a counsel and he determined that He would send into the world Christ, His own Son, in order that He might shed His blood and die so that He might make satisfaction for [man’s] sin and remove it; and that then the Holy Spirit should enter the hearts [of men] to make those who unwillingly and under coercion did the works of the Law, such as are ready to keep the divine Law without any coercion out of a joyous heart.… Thus God has put away the sins of all men who believe in Christ so that henceforth it is impossible that those can continue in sin that have [accepted] this Savior, who has taken all sins upon Himself and wiped them out [W 12,544].
Luther was an ardent defender of the sola gratia, and he continually inculcated in his hearers faith in God’s free and universal grace. Nevertheless, according to Luther, God’s free and forgiving grace presupposes that satisfaction had to be made (by Christ) for man’s sin. Remission of sin could not be granted free of charge, that is, without any satisfaction of God’s justice, or righteousness; for there is no room for divine mercy and grace to work over and in us … but first his righteousness had to be satisfied most perfectly (Matt. 5:18) (W 10.1. 1,121).
It was Luther’s conviction, anchored in Scripture, that God could not justify, or declare righteous, guilty man by any arbitrary imputation (of forgiveness); otherwise Christ’s vicarious suffering and death would have been unnecessary (W 10.1. 1,468 f.). He writes, for example: “If God’s wrath is to be removed from me, and I am to obtain grace and forgiveness, it must be earned by payment [abverdienen] from Him, for God cannot be merciful and gracious over against sin nor can He remove [His] wrath and punishment, unless that has been paid for, or compensation has been made” (W 2,137; 12,544).
This payment, or satisfaction, Christ, in obedience to his Father and in loving service of lost mankind, has rendered to God by his suffering and death (W 1,270; 2,146,691). In willingly doing this, Christ purposed to redeem sinners for his kingdom and to exercise over them as their Lord his redeeming dominion of grace (W 2,97). Christ’s dominion embraces redemption, remission of sins, peace and righteousness (W 37,49; 30.1.1,90; 33,500; 46,44). He rules by the power of his Holy Spirit through the Gospel of the remission of sins (W 19,163).
Shield From God’S Wrath
Luther thus writes: “We should look upon Christ’s kingdom as a beautiful, large cloud, or as a cover which is drawn over us everywhere and veils and guards us against God’s wrath; indeed, as a large and wide heaven in which there shines nothing but grace and forgiveness, and so fills all things that, compared with it, all sins are but as a little drop compared with the large and wide ocean” (W 18,206; 36,367). This is a brief overview of Luther’s doctrine of Christ’s atoning work.
The Wittenberg Reformer never tired of stressing the thought that God’s grace and pardon had to be purchased, and that this was accomplished by what Christ did and suffered for us. He admits that God indeed could have helped lost and condemned mankind in another way had he so willed. But the fact is that God did not will another way (W 52,379). Luther, therefore, criticizes Ockham severely for speculating on the possibility of divine pardon without redemption, or atonement, for then Christ would have done His work “foolishly” and “unnecessarily” (W 10.1.1,468).
On this point Luther writes: “Now, however, He [Christ] took our place and for our sakes He permitted the Law, sin, and death to fall upon Himself” (W 36, 693). Again: “As a Priest He placed Himself between God the the sinners and offered Himself up to God as a sacrifice” (W 40.1, 298 f.). Or: “He has paid for our guilt and made amends for it so that we are rid of it” (W 47,113; 33,310). “In His tender, innocent heart He had to feel God’s wrath and judgment against sin. He had to taste for us eternal death and damnation; in short, He had to suffer what a condemned sinner deserves and has to suffer eternally” (W 45,240). “Let no man think of reconciling God … for God over against man is always the Justifier and Giver” (W 43,607). “God is reconciled through only one and a very unique offering, namely, Christ’s self-sacrifice in death in order that the wrath of God might be appeased and sin might be forgiven, after His wrath has been removed so that we may have grace and remission of sins” (W 8,442; 44,468). “Thus Christ has reconciled the Father for us and earned for us grace. To this we must hold, for He is our constant Mediator and Intercessor, who pledges His perfect holiness and His good conscience for us” (W 36,366).
Christ Our Substitute
In short, according to Luther, Christ is our Substitute. “He is a true sinner, who never committed any sin and yet became guilty of all of them” (W 27,109; 2,692). “But as Christ has freed us from God’s wrath, so also He has redeemed us from the power of the devil, sin, and death. The devil wrongly seized Christ, whose deity was concealed by His humanity, just as the fishhook is concealed by the worm. But the fishhook tore open Satan’s belly so that he had to throw up what he had swallowed” (W 46,556.560; 47,80; 40.1,417). To understand this somewhat crude illustration we must bear in mind Luther’s eager desire to render clear to the common man of his day, against the errors of the Roman Mass, Christ’s perfect redemption from sin, death and the devil. Luther himself stemmed from common stock, and it was in the main for Hans and Grete, representatives of the common people, that he expounded the Holy Scriptures.
Luther went beyond Anselm in teaching that Christ’s fulfillment of the divene Law was vicarious, or substitutionary. He often uses the expression that Christ has put himself under the Law for us, for which as proof he quotes Galatians 4:4,5 (“made under the law”). He found great comfort in the divine truth that Christ kept the Law for him, which he himself had transgressed. He writes, for example: “There stands the Man who has accomplished it! To Him I cleave, for He has fulfilled the Law for me and He graciously grants me His fulfillment” (Erlangen ed., 15,58). Despite his mercy, so Luther teaches, God nevertheless demands that satisfaction must be made for sin and his honor and justice be compensated. In his mercy he sent Christ who in our place procured that satisfaction for us (ibid., 15,385).
Such excerpts from Luther’s writings might be quoted endlessly, for Christ’s merit and satisfaction are central in his evangelical theology. Essentially, therefore, there is no difference between Luther and Anselm in their teaching of Christ’s atoning work. Both use the same terms emphasizing the propitiatory and objective character of the Atonement. Practically, the only real difference between Luther and Anselm is that the Wittenberg Reformer stressed also the active obedience of Christ, or his vicarious fulfillment of the divine Law, whereas Anselm centered his atoning work in his death on the cross. In this also Luther often centers his doctrine of the Atonement, for the vicarious propitiatory death of our Lord was the culmination of his willing obedience to his Father’s will. After all, according to Luther, there is only one atoning obedience of Christ, though it has two aspects, which after all are one: for us transgressors he kept the divine Law, which we had broken; for us transgressors he suffered and died to make satisfaction for our sins.
Such is Luther’s classic view of the Atonement. It is classic because it is scriptural. It may be summed up in the words: He died for us. That is what the Church Fathers believed; that is what Anselm believed; that is what Luther believed; that is what all true Christians believe. And that is what Aulen believes, if indeed he, as a Lutheran, accepts Luther’s Small Catechism; for that, and that only, is the faith of the Christian Church.
The Rev. J. Marcellus Kik, Associate Editor of Christianity Today, served as minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the Reformed Church in America. He is author of Matthew Twenty-four, Revelation Twenty, and Voices from Heaven and Hell.
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