A couple of weeks ago, after Vespers, we heard an Orthodox priest answering questions from his parishioners. They were a young and engaged crowd, posing some good questions. In response to one, asking him to compare Orthodoxy with Latin Christianity, the priest averred in the politest way possible that he had some doubts about the West's reliance on using the language of the courtroom to describe the majesty of God's work. Ah, yes, we thought; and here comes Aulen versus Anselm.
According to its website, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America includes twelve congregations named Christus Victor. This is an unusual name, and seems to be as distinctively Lutheran as Gustavus Adolphus. We've never heard of a Christus Victor Presbyterian Church, and doubt we ever will.
The oldest of the ELCA's Christus Victors was organized in 1947, the newest in 1988, but most date from the 1960s and 1970s. Now consider the publication dates of Gustav Aulen's influential study of the atonement, Christus Victor: Swedish in 1930; English in 1931 -- and the first American publication in 1969. It seems reasonable to conclude that the idea of giving this curious name was prompted by the gradually increasing prominence of the theory Aulen describes, and which he attributes in various forms to many Fathers and much of the Orthodox world.
Now, we in the West (and, frankly, we at the Egg) generally default to a juridical, Anselmian model of the Atonement. You know: We were (and are) guilty, but Jesus paid the penalty, and therefore the Father treats us all as if we were innocent. There are more sophisticated ways of putting that, but you get the idea. This has been a part of our ecclesiastical culture for so long that it simply seems right, at the most basic learned-it-in-Sunday-School level.
To be brutally honest, it sometimes seems that American Christianity, at least, has a higher regard for the theory of vicarious substitutionary atonement than it does for the doctrine of the Trinity. If true, this ought to give us all pause.
Anyway, we mention this because, thinking about his sermons over the past few years, Father A. sees that the Christus Victor model has assumed a surprisingly important position. Hardly a week goes by anymore in which he does not use some expression on the order of "for our sake, Christ has defeated sin, death and hell." We fully expect to say something along these lines come Sunday, and hope that you will as well. It's an important part of the story.
On the other hand, it may not be the whole or sufficient story. In the wake of the Rob Bell tempest in a teapot, Christianity Today has recently published an editorial warning that when Protestants start to talk about the Atonement as a victory rather than a substitution, they are generally soft-pedaling the reality of sin, and opening the door to universalism (which, for CT, is the Devil). Maybe sometimes. But probably not. A quick review of our own victory-besotted sermons shows that we are quite happy to talk about sin, the uglier and more personal the better. Without that, "the victory over sin death and hell" loses its meaning.
It seems to us that the two models in question, victory and substitution, are held in an admirable tension -- a Lathropean juxtaposition, if you will -- by the traditions of the church. Consider the great (and fairly late, and thoroughly Western) Easter hymn, Victiamae Paschali. It begins, obviously, with the image of Jesus as a sacrifice: "Christians to the paschal victim." And it ends with the title of this post: "Victorious King, thy mercy show."