The Power of the Resurrection

Can the doctrine of substitutionary atonement be held alongside christus victor theology?

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When I think of the substitutionary atonement, I think of a teaching that's rooted, really, in the earliest traditions, earliest writings of the church. The classic expression, of course, is by St. Anselm, who died in the early 1100s, and his work on how, or the manner in which God became human, was a classic statement, the first full-length statement, on the atonements. And there, he declares that the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ was brought to bear on this deep problem of our unrighteousness, and that the humanity of Christ enabled him to be the perfect substitute, bearing the penalty of our sin. That would make him there on the cross a victim if it weren't for two things: if it weren't for the resurrection, the power of the resurrection, and the victorious appearance of Christ thereafter — that's Easter; that's the good news — and also the fact that it's a victory in that this was a path chosen and affirmed by Christ himself. So, there is a victory in his following this path of obedience, this path of humility, this path of triumph. And that's really what Gustaf Aulen picks up on a century ago in his work Christus Victor, which, far from portraying Christ as some of the more liberal theologians would, as someone who prophetically challenged the great powers and wound up ground up by them, he says, on the contrary, resurrection victory, the obedience of Christ, his perfections gained a triumph for us all, christus victor.

Answer by Dr. James D. Smith III

Rev. Dr. James D. Smith III is the Professor of Church History at the San Diego campus of Bethel Seminary and serves as an editorial board member for Christian History & Biography.