1. Jesus’ death was to satisfy the Father’s justice, paying the penalty for our sins. Here the notions of justice, and of the death being directed to the Father predominate. It also tends to be explained in legal terms—and so reflects a purely Western hang-up with legality.
2. Jesus’ death paid the ransom for our release from Satan’s tyranny. In the hands of certain thinkers, Jesus’ death is actually paid to Satan.
3. Jesus’ death defeated Satan and so rescued us from his tyranny. You get a version of this in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Aulen is quite passionate about his subject, and I have listed the views of the atonement in ascending order of his appreciation of them. That is, he really doesn’t like the idea that Jesus’ death pays the penalty for our sins. He can sort of live with the idea that it is a ransom. And he loves the idea of the atonement as the defeat of Satan (hence the name of his book…).
One of the ideas that has become ‘common knowledge’ since his book is that of these three views, only the latter two really exist in the Early Church. The first view doesn’t really appear until Anselm, and is then picked up by Reformers and Roman Catholic Church alike.
However, a number of scholars have shown that Aulen’s nice little schema is (at best) over statement of the evidence—more of an impressionistic advocacy for his view than a carefully considered statement of the evidence overall.
And today I came across another example of the satisfaction view of the atonement as I was reading Eusebius for a research paper on the Trinity and Creation. Eusebius offers two reasons for the death of Christ.
First, that by dying and coming back to life, Jesus showed that the promise of resurrection that he offered his followers was stronger than death. It was the only way to convince us that there is a certain hope for us.
Second, by dying and coming back to life, Jesus manifests his own invincible power over death as the Lord of Life. To be in death’s grasp and to uncurl death’s fingers from the inside of his palm—that underscores Christ’s deity in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
So far, these would fit under the Christus Victor idea. But then Eusebius gives us the final reason. It’s a long quote, but bear with it:
I may offer you even a third reason to account for the salutary death. He was a sacrifice offered up to the All-Ruling God of the Universe on behalf of the entire human race, a victim consecrated on behalf of the flock of mankind, a sacrificial victim for averting demonic error. And in fact, once this one great sacrificial victim, the All-Holy Body of Our Saviour, had been slaughtered on behalf of the human race and atonement offered for all races formerly ensnared in the impiety of demonic error, thereafter all the power of the impure and unholy demons was destroyed, and all earthbound and guileful error immediately yielded to a stronger power and was done away with. Thus was the salutary sacrifice—that is the physical instrument of the Logos—taken from the midst of men and consecrated on behalf of the common flock of mankind. This, then, was the offering given over to death about which the work of Holy Writ proclaimed, here saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” there predicting that “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not his mouth.” They also give the reason, declaring: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes are we healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Thus the physical instrument of the divine Logos was sacrificed for these reasons. But He who is the Great High Priest dedicated to the All-Ruling and Almighty God, who is distinguished from the sacrificial victim as the Logos of God, the Power of God, and the Wisdom of God, not long after recalled His mortal body from the dead and presented it to the Father as the prototype of our common salvation, having raised it on behalf of mankind as a trophy of victory over death and the demonic host, and a safeguard against the human sacrifices that formerly were performed. Oration “On Christ’s Sepulchre”
Now Eusebius is a bit of a dark horse. He was a Bishop of the fourth century. He signed the Nicene Creed, but was a defender of Arius and many of Arius’ views. He and Athanasius were, shall we say, not the best of buddies. So it would be easy to dismiss this little statement as the marginal comment of a heretic. But Eusebius was also an astute Church leader who had the respect of much of the Church and the newly converted Emperor Constantine for his learning and moderation. Eusebius saw his own view on the Person of Christ (incorrectly, but not without some justification) as the traditional view. He wasn’t an innovator by temperament. He was also well respected in his day—one of the reasons why Arianism got the support it did. None of these square with the picture of someone who was coming up with weird and wonderful ideas left, right, and centre. So these words he uttered in his sermon were most likely uncontroversial.
And what we find here is a fairly straightforward statement of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice offered up to the Father with John’s comment of the Lamb of God being understood in light of the Suffering Servant Passages in Isaiah—classic sacrificial atonement ways of interpreting Christ’s death. Indeed the Isaianic passages appear to have so shaped his thinking at this point that the language there of us being sheep that have gone astray, appears to have affected the way he speaks about humanity calling us “the common flock of mankind.
Now the preoccupation with evil spiritual forces are there, with the mention of ‘demonic error’. And there’s some dodgy stuff coming out of Eusebius’ poor Christology when he suggests that Christ’s body is the sacrifice while the Word himself is the Priest who offers it, rather than grasping that Christ is both Priest and Sacrifice.
Nonetheless, even if it can be shown that the Early Church tended to speak in terms of victory and ransom more often, it’s another piece of evidence that sacrificial language is hardly a legal or mediaeval innovation. Eusebius explains it at some length in fairly classic terms. And Eusebius is no legal-minded Western Churchman. He is as Eastern as the rising sun.
Another bit of evidence to show that a sacrificial view of the atonement isn't just at the heart of the Biblical material. It is also every bit as classic as other accounts.