The Disenchantment of Salvation: Part 1, The Enchantments of Christus Victor

I want to devote four posts to the relationship between penal substitutionary atonement and disenchantment. 

It's not news that penal substitutionary atonement has come under a lot of criticism. And not just among progressive Christians. Theologians and biblical scholars have also raised concerns about how a narrow focus on the forensic aspects of salvation warps and distorts the full scope of what the Bible and the early Christians meant by "salvation." Salvation is more than guilt and punishment, more that God's wrath and God's forgiveness. 

Still, for better or worse, penal substitutionary atonement has become the dominant model in Protestant churches, especially evangelical churches. And the thesis I want to argue for across three posts is that the disenchantment of the West was one of the forces that made penal substitutionary atonement ascendant. Basically, penal substitutionary atonement is what happens when Christian salvation becomes disenchanted. 

Today, let's start with the decline of Christus Victor and the rise of penal substitutionary atonement.

To catch everyone up, Christus Victor was a dominant, if not the dominant, way in which the early church viewed atonement and salvation. In this view, humanity was enslaved to dark cosmic forces--Sin, death and the devil. The work of Jesus in his life, death and resurrection was to defeat these powers and set captive humanity free.

Starting around 1094, with St. Anselm's treatise Cur Deus Homo? ("Why Did God Become Human?"), Christus Victor began to fade within the Western church. To be clear, Anselm didn't really preach penal substitutionary atonement, but he does mark a turn which culminated in the ascendency of penal substitutionary atonement in modern times.

Why this turn? In his seminal treatment of the subject, Gustaf Aulen argues Christus Victor began to struggle in the West because it was too tied up with a metaphysical imagination where the devil played a large role in human affairs and salvation history. Here's Aulen describing how Christus Victor took a beating among modern theologians:

[Modern theologians] inclined to be critical of the forms in which the patristic teaching had usually expressed itself. They disliked intensely the 'mythological' language of the early church about Christ's redemptive work, and the realistic, often undeniably grotesque imagery, in which the victory of Christ over the devil, or the deception of the devil, was depicted in lurid colours. Thus the whole dramatic view was branded as 'mythological.' The matter was settled. The patristic teaching was of inferior value, and could be summarily relegated to the nursery or the lumber-room of theology.
Basically, Christus Victor atonement was too enchanted for the increasingly disenchanted West. Especially when it came to the devil. So the earliest view of atonement in the church was slowly swept aside for a more disenchanted view of salvation, penal substitutionary atonement. 

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