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Christus Victor expressed in the Passions

In the course of the church’s history, three theories of the atonement have come to the forefront: the Christus Victor theory, the satisfaction theory and the example theory. The example theory need not detain us here. Orthodox Christian theology never has accepted the idea that we can atone for our sins by following Christ’s example — that is antithetical to the tenet of substitutionary atonement. Certainly, the theme of imitating Christ is a biblical one, but it belongs to our response for the atonement done on our behalf by Christ — not to the means by which our atonement is accomplished.

This mosaic of the resurrected Christ treading the beasts is from the Archbishop’s Chapel in Ravenna, Italy, from the 6th century, and is an early depiction of Christus Victor that later would become a major motif in Lutheran theology. photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

The Christus Victor theory was developed primarily by the Greek fathers of the church. It pictures the atonement “as an action directed by God through Christ against the enemies of humanity sin, death, the fallen world, and the devil. These enemies hold mankind in thrall, illegitimately but effectively, until their hold is broken by the cross of Christ … These are infinite permutations of the theme, as the Greek fathers rang the changes of metaphor and imagery to celebrate the triumph of the heroic Christ and his nikopoios stauros, the victorious cross.” [Pelikan, pg. 106]

The Christus Victor theory has its origins in biblical passages such as I John 3:8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” and Colossians 2:15, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Ultimately, the roots of this theory go back to the words of God to the serpent in the Garden of Eden [Genesis 3:15], “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

The satisfaction theory sees the atonement as a sacrifice of the guiltless for the guilty. Like the Christus Victor theory, it also has biblical origins, and perhaps can be seen as simply a different way of looking at the same biblical motif. The central source for this theory is Romans 3:21-26, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

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