Monday, April 11, 2016

Christus Victor Part V

(This is part of a series discussing Christ's crucifixion and the Atonement theories that seek to understand the cross.  Earlier posts may be found here, here, here, and here.)


While Scripture affirms the classical view of the Atonement, Church Tradition also lends its voice in support. The Church Fathers offered fresh explanations, analogies, and insights on how Christ defeated Satan through the cross. While none of the Church Fathers developed a systematic view of redemption, each included many related themes scattered throughout his writings. Yet, when viewed as a whole, there does emerge what can be termed a patristic soteriology.[1]

To begin this soteriology, the early Fathers described the Son as the Logos, or Word, who existed as the universal mediator of the Father since the very beginning. The Father, being invisible, could only be manifested by His Son who revealed Him. Jesus accomplished this through the created world, but even more so through salvation history. 

Jesus was not a mediator in the way of being less than God and simultaneously more than human (a heresy known as Arianism). Rather, Jesus’ humanity is the pathway to His divinity. Saint Gregory the Great commented, “The Word Himself helped man by becoming man. Man left to his own resources could not return to God. Only the God-man could open up the road to return…He shared death with man…by uniting our lowliness with His highness, the road for returning to God was opened for us.”[2]

As the Patristics discussed the Incarnation of the Son, they inevitably confronted His opposition, which is Satan. Gustaf Aulén writes regarding their presentation of the devil, “No other aspect of the teaching of the Fathers on the subject of Redemption has provoked such criticism as their treatment of the dealings of Christ with the devil; primarily on this ground, their teaching has been commonly regarded as unworthy of serious consideration.”[3] 

Yet, just as some incorrectly dismiss the concept of Satan, so, too, is it an error to reject this essential and fundamental portion of the Patristics. In order to have a full understanding of the classical view of the Atonement, exploring the pages of the great Fathers of the Church is vital.

Reflective of the classical view’s characteristic of lacking one set description of what transpired between Satan and Jesus, so is a uniform presentation of the Atonement absent from the Patristics. However, all agree on the basic components of the classical view: men and women were created by God and belong to Him, the devil’s rule over humans is not the way things are meant to be, and the Creator is one with the Redeemer. 

How these concepts interact and relate to one another slightly varies between the Fathers. The greatest difference lies in discerning the devil’s rights over humankind and how Jesus specifically dealt with Satan. 

Most concur that the devil gained definite rights over sinful humanity after the Fall and, therefore, the devil requires some sort of settlement to release humanity from his grasp. According to this understanding, the devil serves a legitimate role of executing God’s judgment on man. Aulén explains, “…for he [Satan] stands, as it were, to execute God’s own judgment on sinful and guilty man.”[4] Humanity transgressed God’s laws and, therefore, deserves just punishment, which the devil dispenses. 

This concept is at times intersected with the contrary notion of the devil as a usurper who does not have rights over men. Either way, both views assert that the devil, whether as just executor of God’s justice or usurper, was deceived through the cross.

The dynamic of God contracting a deal with the devil was criticized by some, but was nevertheless strongly asserted in the early Church. Part of the misunderstanding may be due to the fact that the early Fathers employed legal terms in a different manner from later theories of the Atonement. As opposed to something concretely legal, they meant lawful in the sense of demonstrating God acting justly and fairly with the devil. 

St. Augustine


To illustrate the unity and, at times, disunity among the Fathers regarding the classical view, it is helpful to highlight some of their specific thoughts on the Atonement. Perhaps the most influential and central Church Father is Saint Irenaeus. 

Irenaeus, writing only about one hundred years following the writings of the New Testament, was the first Father to study the Atonement in depth. Unlike the later Patristics who studied the Atonement only in part, Irenaeus presented a lucid, comprehensive study. The Atonement frequently appears in his work and, as the first Father to undertake an examination of this topic, he laid a path for later Fathers to follow.[6]

In the mind of Irenaeus, the Atonement and Incarnation were two interrelated, inseparable occurrences, a concept that became significant to the classical understanding. In fact, the very purpose of Jesus’ becoming man was so “that He might destroy sin, overcome death, and give life to man.”[7] 

Like Saint Paul, Irenaeus attributes Jesus’ action to His overflowing love for humankind; Jesus humbled Himself to become one like us in order that we may in turn become like Him.[8] In this way, the Incarnation was an essential prelude to the Atonement because only God alone was able to free man. “The Word of God was made flesh in order that He might destroy death and bring man to life,” Irenaeus writes.[9] 

Irenaeus expands on this thought in his work Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Due to the fact that death ruled in the human body, it had to be through the same agency--a human body--that death was overcome. Jesus joined the battle on earth so that, “sin, destroyed by means of that same flesh through which it had gained the mastery and taken hold and lorded it, should no longer be in us…”[10] 

Again, the Word of God became flesh to “undo death and work life in man; for we were in the bonds of sin…”[11]

For Irenaeus, just as the Incarnation and Atonement are connected, so, too, do sin and death belong together. Death is not specifically an end to life, but disobedience to God. Individuals who freely rebel against God separate themselves from Him, an act that is ultimately death. 

When Irenaeus speaks of sin and death, behind these concepts lurks the figure of Satan. Wherever these are present, there also is the devil, who Irenaeus describes as the lord of sin and death. Satan is the deceiver of man and if humans follow him, they will fall under his power: “Those who do not believe in God, and do not do His will, are called sons, or angels, of the devil, since they do the works of the devil.”[12] 

Irenaeus explains that this happened to Adam and Eve. The latter were led astray by Satan, who was envious of the gifts that God had bestowed upon man.[13] Now all people, in the footsteps of Adam and Eve, have fallen from the Father’s light and cannot escape from the bondage of sin on their own. 

Due to sin, man is at enmity with God. Yet, through Jesus’ death on the cross, “This enmity the Lord recapitulated in Himself, being made man, born of a woman, and bruising the serpent’s head.”[14] Whereas the one tree in Eden brought sin and the knowledge of evil in disobeying God, the other tree in Golgotha brought the knowledge of good, which is obedience to God.[15]

In his writing, Irenaeus speaks of God’s justice in two ways. He is among the Patristics who believe that the devil cannot possess rights over humankind. On the contrary, the devil is a robber and a ruthless hegemon who seizes what is not his; from the beginning, the Creator brought forth humans to freely love and serve Him, not to suffer as slaves to Satan. 
Accordingly, it is only just that the devil should meet defeat. 

Second, Irenaeus believes that God is righteous in His redemptive work because He does not employ brute force. Humankind is guilty because by their own free will, men and women have sold themselves to the devil. In this sense, humankind does deserve punishment.[16] 

In order for the Atonement to be just, it was necessary that a man should die. Irenaeus explains, “…Had not man conquered man’s adversary, the enemy would not have been conquered justly. Again, had it not been God who bestowed salvation we would not possess it securely.”[17] 

Through His Incarnation and death on the cross, Jesus, both God and man, justly defeated the devil and restored life to humankind. 


These ideas first introduced by Irenaeus were further developed by Origen, another prominent Church Father popular throughout the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries. Though popularly regarded, Origen faced controversy at the Second Council of Constantinople as some of his teachings were questioned. Due to this, his work was officially condemned. It was not until the 20th century that his work was once again recognized as significant. 

Among his writings, Origen lacks a work specifically on the Redemption. Yet, his main interest in Scripture belies an Atonement undercurrent. Primarily an exegete, Origen desired to unlock the meaning of Scripture, believing that underneath the surface, literal words of Scripture lies deep truth. 

Origen transferred this concept to the cross. The literal cross as a means of capital punishment confuses and bewilders; as Saint Paul said, it becomes a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23) to some. However, beneath its initial level of meaning is a profound spiritual revelation about God and His love for humankind. For example, those present at the crucifixion only saw the physical dimension: a man crucified. Yet, for those filled with the Spirit, they witnessed the Word of God on the cross, a sign of divine love. [18] From a secular view, the cross was the defeat of Jesus. From an eternal view, it was the defeat of Satan.[19]

Whereas the first Christians would have viewed the cross with revulsion as inhumane murder, Origen, reminiscent of Paul, saw it as an ultimate act of goodness and perfect virtue. It is this goodness of the crucifixion, says Origen, which gives the Christian Gospel validity and strength. 

When discussing the role of Satan in Christ’s death, Origen explains that the Father grant permission to the devil to provoke the scandal that led to the cross. He supports this proposition by citing Jesus’ statement to Pilate that the Roman governor would have no authority over Him if it had not been given from above (John 19:11). 

Accordingly, the devil only had authority to initiate the process of the cross because the Father gave him that ability. Origen further contends that this bestowal of power from the Father to Satan was necessary for Jesus to overcome the devil. Ironically, therefore, the Father gave authority to Satan to crucify Jesus in order to bring about Satan’s demise![20]

In addition to this train of thought, Origen asserts a very tangible point to his theology of the Atonement. He argues that the cross is also necessary because it presents Jesus’ followers with a model for suffering and death. “Now let it be seen whether we have taken up our own crosses and followed Jesus,” he challenges Christians.[21]

Origen’s point highlights that, while Jesus defeated Satan on the cross, Christians must not remain apathetic or stagnate, but instead valiantly carry their crosses, resisting the path of disobedience and sin and sacrificing themselves out of love for Christ present in their fellow brothers and sisters. The classical view of the Atonement should spur one to enter the fray of battle alongside Christ, armed with faith and love, certain of victory through Him.

Indeed, this idea of the cross as paradigmatic for Jesus’ followers is critical for Origen’s grasp of the Atonement. The Father permitted the suffering of Christ because a degree of affliction is important for souls to advance in virtue; the ultimate purpose of suffering is to prepare and purify a soul for heaven. Jesus set a necessary precedent through the cross. 

Thus, Origen’s focus is not the Atonement changing God’s sentiment from anger to appeasement due to some sacrifice presented to Him, but rather, Origen emphasizes that the Atonement should change people from vice under the rule of Satan to virtue under the love of God. Peter J. Gorday writes in his essay “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” “…the redemptive power of the cross lies in its ability to change human beings in the direction of virtue by freeing them from demonic powers.”[22]

In discussing how the cross freed people from Satan, Origen speaks of the “coincidence of opposites.” This is the paradox of how the humility and obedience of Jesus emerges victorious over the pride of Satan.[23] Origen employs the idea of a “divine trick” when describing Christ’s victory over Satan. He explains that God offered Satan a prize (Jesus) that the devil had no right to, so that when Satan seized the prize, he breached justice and, in the end, lost not only Jesus, but the human race as well. 

When stating this portrayal, Origen insists that God is not unfair in His dealings with the devil, but instead this dynamic is similar to how Pharaoh’s heart had been hardened in the book of Exodus.[24] Satan, like Pharaoh, could not perceive truth or justice. Origen writes, “…he [the devil] had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, even the life (or soul) of Jesus, since he (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength greater than he was equal to.”[25] Gorday concludes, “For Origen, it is the freely willed obedience of Jesus…that robs the demons of their power—though exactly how this happens remains obscure—and that restores a like capacity to His followers.”[26]


Among the other Patristics is Saint Athanasius. This Church Father concurred with Origen’s concept of the cross serving as a model for humans to mimic. Athanasius further expanded on this idea by explaining that, just as Jesus conquered Satan as a human, so, too, in likeness can His followers do same. He writes, “Therefore now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, for all who believe in Christ trample on it as though it were nothing and choose rather to die than deny their faith in Christ. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.”[27]

Gregory of Nazianus

Saint Gregory of Nazianus, a contemporary of Athanasius, wrote against the notion of God paying a ransom to the devil, as though Satan possessed rights over humankind. Instead, Gregory of Nazianus concurred with Irenaeus that the devil is a robber, seizing what did not belonged to him. 
In all respects, he deserved to be conquered by Christ. 

John Chrysostom

Saint John Chrysostom supports Gregory of Nazianus by labeling the devil a tyrant who tortures all who fall into his power, including Christ. Chrysostom echoes the familiar transgression of events: Satan unjustly kills Jesus and, thus, becomes a creditor to Christ. When Satan imprisons the innocent Jesus, he forfeits his power.[28]

Gregory of Nyssa

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, another Patristic, focused on the justice of God, similar to Irenaeus. The former explained that the human race is justly under the sway of Satan due to freely committing sin. Satan’s dominion is possible because of the reality that God Himself created.[29] Had God not bestowed His people with free will, this state of affairs would have been avoided. Yet, since God deigned that His creatures should be free, it was mandatory that the victory of Christ not be obtained by violent force, a coupe d’état of sorts. “There was a kind of necessity for Him [God] not to proceed by way of force, but to accomplish our deliverance in a lawful way,” Gregory of Nyssa elaborates.[30]

Like some other Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa promoted the theory that the devil was deceived because the Godhead was hidden in the humanity of Jesus. The devil did not recognize who it was that he contended with on the cross. Satan seemingly captured his prey, but in reality, was himself taken captive by God. This happened in order that, “…that which is opposed to Life and Light might be brought to nought. For darkness cannot endure when the Light shines, nor can death remain in being where Light is active.”[31] 

This is not unjust of God, however. Instead, Gregory of Nyssa claimed it is perfectly just for God to deal with Satan in the same manner in which Satan dealt with God’s children. “...For just as he [Satan] at the beginning beguiled men with the bait of fleshy lust, he is now beguiled through God clothing Himself in the veil of humanity.”[32] 

Though the same method is employed by God, the Father’s action is upright and righteous because, from a teleological viewpoint, the outcome, which is salvation for humankind, is upright and righteous. Gregory of Nyssa believed that God’s interaction as such with the devil is positive for the additional reason that it demonstrates God did not use brute force to gain victory and also reveals God as an intimate player in salvation history, not a distant deity unmoved by humanity’s plight.[33]


Instead of focusing on God’s justice or the ransom paid to the devil, Saint Ambrose emphasizes the love God demonstrates in His victory on the cross. When Jesus cries out on the cross, Ambrose says it is not a sign of weakness, but a witness to Christ’s love for the men and women for whom He died. 

Ambrose continues that it is not the pain of the nails driven into His flesh that agonize Christ, but the wounds of sin. “You suffer the pain, O Lord not of Your wounds, but of my wounds, not of Your death, but of my weakness.”[34] Though sinless, Jesus feels even more acutely than sinners the actual immensity of sin. Yet, just as creation shares in Jesus’ Passion through its sin, it also shares in His glorious Resurrection. Ambrose writes, “The world rose in Him, the heavens rose in Him, the earth rose in Him, for there will be a new heaven and the new earth.”[35] 

Ambrose illustrates well the classical view’s point that Christ’s victory contains ramifications for God’s entire creation. Furthermore, Ambrose evidences that the classical view does not espouse a negative message consumed exclusively with sin and Satan. More accurately, the classical view is a message of hopeful, triumphant victory over Satan, accomplished by Christ through the most powerful force of love.


One of the most famous Church Fathers is Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Augustine played a prominent role in understanding the Atonement because he gathered together the diabology of the earlier Fathers and further developed it.[36] 

One starting point for examining Augustine’s treatment of the Atonement is to consider his understanding of Satan. Augustine explains that the devil’s deepest desire and longing is to be worshipped in place of God. In order to seduce believers to do this, Satan appeals to his own immortality, contrasting it with the seeming mortality of Christ, as evidenced in His death upon the cross. Satan wishes people to “scoff at the death of Christ, and to regard him, the devil, as all the more holy and divine for being immune from any such thing.”[37] 

Since humans desire immortality and, therefore admire this feature in the devil, Satan has gained sway over men and women. People succumb to the devil whenever they conform their wills to his due to fear or pride.[38] Augustine echoes his predecessors in explaining that all people are in the power of the devil due to their sin. 

Yet, he also reiterates the point of Saint Ambrose, emphasizing the love of God. Augustine states that the occurrence of the Incarnation alone is proof of God’s love.[39] Yet, even more so, the agape love of Christ as evidenced upon the cross displays God’s tremendous compassion, hospitality, and humility.[40]

Augustine concurs with the other Patristics that Jesus freely chose to die and suffer in a human body. Augustine’s predominant explanation for Jesus’ motivation is that humankind needed such a proof to become convinced of God’s love. Also, the cross was a startling recognition of the status of human beings as true sinners, a critical realization needed to provoke feelings of humility, which directly invert the pride Satan seeks to foster among God’s children. Augustine declares, “The only thing to cleanse the wicked and the proud is the blood of the just man and the humility of God; to contemplate God, which by nature we are not, we would have to be cleansed by Him who became what by nature we are and what by sin we are not.”[41]

To explain what occurred between Satan and Jesus on the cross, Saint Augustine employs visual images. One of his most famous portrayals is that of a mousetrap: Satan was exultant when Christ died and like a mouse gleefully noticing a piece of cheese, seized his prize. This delight became his downfall; “The mousetrap for the devil was the cross of the Lord; the bait he would be caught by, the death of the Lord.”[42] 

In describing this deception, Augustine avers that the devil was consumed with such greed that he blindly overlooked Jesus’ sinlessness. Jesus had entered so fully into the human condition that the devil mistook His compassion for humanity as guilt. Herein lay Satan’s downfall. Augustine defends God’s justice in acting this way by explaining that God knew Satan’s heart was so full of fury at God’s love for humanity that he would seize the chance to salvage Christ. Satan’s hatred, not God’s love, led to the devil’s demise. 

While the devil justly puts to death those with original sin who emulate Adam in disobeying God, Jesus did no wrong and so unjustly died. Thus, through the cross, the devil’s ploys and seductions are made clear. In “‘The Tree of Silly Fruit’: Images of the Cross in Saint Augustine,” John Cavadini writes, “In an odd way, the compassion of Christ would not have been disclosed apart from the devil’s lust for killing, but once disclosed, the moving, persuasive force of the compassion of God renders the devils’ blandishments impotent to persuade anyone who believes.”[43]

Augustine also addresses the relationship between the Father and Son during the crucifixion. In contrast to later theories of the Atonement, Augustine rejects the idea that the death of Jesus satisfied the Father. This incorrectly presumes a difference and perhaps even rancor between the Father and Son, which, according to the theology of the Trinity, is not possible.[44] 

The Father is not bloodthirsty, purposely pursuing the death of His Son. Instead, only a death freely given could aptly substantiate God’s love. Augustine writes, “It was indeed the worst of deaths, but it was chosen by the Lord. For He was to have that very cross as His sign; that very cross a trophy, as it were, over the vanquished devil…”[45] 

The cross is God’s initiative “to become our friend in the companionship of death.”[46] Though humans still fear death, Augustine reassures his readers that through the crucifixion, one realizes that God’s love is far greater. Cavadini remarks, “…the greatness of God’s love shines out in the death he [Satan] so greedily caused.”[47]

[1] Kereszty, 199.
[2] Saint Gregory the Great, Moralia, quoted in Kereszty, 203.
[3] Aulén, 47.
[4] Aulén, 47-48, 54.
[5] Aulén, 50, 54-55.
[6] Aulén, 16-17.
[7] Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, quoted in Aulén, 19.
[8] Kereszty, 204.
[9] Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, quoted in Aulén, 20.
[10] Saint Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, ed. Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, trans. Joseph P. Smith (Maryland: The Newman Press, 1952), 67.
[11] Saint Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 71.
[12] Aulén, 25, 20, 26.
[13] Saint Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 57.
[14] Aulén, 22-24.
[15] Saint Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 69.
[16] Aulén, 27-28.
[17] Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, quoted in Kereszty, 209.
[18] Peter J. Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” in The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure, ed. Elizabeth A. Dreyer (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 93-95, 104.
[19] Russell, 80.
[20] Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” 99, 107.
[21] Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” 13.
[22] Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” 108.
[23] Dreyer, “Introduction: The Cross in the Tradition,” 15.
[24] Russell, 80.
[25] Origen, In Matthaeum, quoted in Aulén, 49.
[26] Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” 112.
[27] Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, quoted in Kereszty, 211.
[28] Aulén, 49, 57.
[29] Kereszty, 210.
[30] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, quoted in Aulén, 48-49.
[31] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, quoted in Aulén, 52.
[32] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, quoted in Aulén, 53.
[33] Aulén, 53.
[34] Saint Ambrose, Commentary on Luke, quoted in Kereszty, 207.
[35] Saint Ambrose, quoted in Kereszty, 219.
[36] Matera, 93.
[37] Saint Augustine, On the Trinity, quoted in John Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” in The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure, ed. Elizabeth A. Dreyer (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 178.
[38] Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” 178.
[39] Aulén, 45.
[40] Dreyer, “Introduction: The Cross in the Tradition,” 14.
[41] Saint Augustine, On the Trinity, quoted in Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” 175.
[42] Saint Augustine, Sermon 263.2, quoted in John Cavadini, “‘The Tree of Silly Fruit’: Images of the Cross in St. Augustine,” in The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure, ed. Elizabeth A. Dreyer (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 154.
[43] Cavadini, “‘The Tree of Silly Fruit’: Images of the Cross in St. Augustine,” 154-155.
[44] Aulén, 58.
[45] Saint Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, quoted in Cavadini, “‘The Tree of Silly Fruit’: Images of the Cross in St. Augustine,” 151.
[46] Saint Augustine, On the Trinity, quoted in Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” 176.
[47] Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” 179.

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