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#736 Room for Christus Victor?

June 13, 2021

Why can't your view of the atonement be plus(+) christus victor? Why's there a either or?


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Dr. craig’s response


Your question caught my eye, Crystal, because just yesterday I read a very accurate review of my Atonement and the Death of Christ (Baylor University Press, 2020) by Chad McIntosh in the journal Modern Reformation (March/April 2021) in which he makes the same point:

Craig pays virtually no attention at all to Scripture’s spiritual warfare motif as it relates to the atonement (especially in the New Testament), which is robust enough to have inspired the first theories of the atonement among the fathers. It is telling that penal substitution, at least as it is put forward by Craig as a theory of the atonement, is wholly consistent with the nonexistence of Satan and demons. Is that really a biblically adequate theory of the atonement? It seems to me that integrating penal substitution into a robust Christus Victor theory would be a promising endeavor.

I was puzzled by the comment because my book was precisely an attempt to enunciate an integrative theory of the atonement that includes Christus Victor as one of its elements. I compare the doctrine of the atonement to a multifaceted jewel. A biblically adequate atonement theory will include all the facets of the doctrine found in the New Testament, including Christ’s conquering death, hell, and Satan, which a Christus Victor theory aims to express. So I close out my discussion of patristic theories with the sentence, “Anyone aspiring to articulate a biblically adequate atonement theory will want to include Christus Victor as a facet of that theory” (p. 112). There is no either/or.

In Part III of the book I attempt to make good on that ambition by devoting two full chapters to the biblical motif of redemption, which is the motif that Christus Victor theories attempt to capture. The whole point of such theories is that Christ has set us free from our bondage to death, hell, and the devil. So I open my first chapter on redemption by affirming, “Christ’s atoning death frees us from the bondage of sin, death, and hell and so liberates us from Satan’s power. This emphasis is characteristic of classic Christus Victor theories” (p. 215). The point is not just that Christ went and beat up the devil, but that he has liberated those whom he held hostage and so who were in bondage to sin, death, and hell. For that reason the Church Fathers emphasized that Christ defeated Satan, not by power (which would have been trivially easy for an omnipotent being), but by righteousness. Christ’s atoning death on our behalf satisfies the demands of God’s justice and so sets us free. Thus, penal substitution is what procures our redemption. As Augustine beautifully expressed it, Christ is Victor quia victima (Victor because victim). Thus I defend a wonderful integration of penal substitution with Christus Victor.

While it’s true that I don’t say much about “Scripture’s spiritual warfare motif as it relates to the atonement,” that’s because I don’t find spiritual warfare to be a prominent motif with respect to the atonement. Oh, it’s there, all right: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2.13-15). Here Paul nicely integrates penal substitution, satisfaction of divine justice, and defeat of Satan. I could have emphasized this third motif more, I suppose, but it’s hardly a prominent atonement motif in the New Testament.

As for the claim that my theory is “wholly consistent with the nonexistence of Satan and demons,” while that’s right, the same is true of Christus Victor theories. As I note in the book, “Christus Victor can still be a valuable facet of an atonement theory even without the devil. For redemption from our bondage to sin, death, and hell does not depend upon the reality of a personal devil” (pp. 111–12). That’s a very good thing, I think! For we would not want the doctrine of the atonement and, hence, Christianity itself to stand or fall on the existence of a personal devil! My theory does not exclude the existence of Satan; quite the contrary. Indeed, I note that insofar as modern scepticism about the devil “is rooted in anti-supernaturalism, . . . it is a prejudice of modernity to which the Christian theologian need not yield” (p. 111).

- William Lane Craig