Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009)
See my review on 2/2/14.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the rising popularity of the Christus Victor theory of the atonement. It is has always been the standard view in Eastern Orthodoxy, but it is making inroads in Mennonite circles and in the left wing of the evangelical movement who are trying to develop non-penal and non-violent ways of understanding the atonement. N. T. Wright holds to his own particular version of it. So I decided I really needed to read this book for myself.
Swedish theologian Gustav Aulén (1879–1977) wrote this hugely influential book in 1930, and it appeared in English translation the next year. His main claim in a nutshell is that there are three main ideas of the atonement in the history of Christian theology: (1) the classic idea (not theory) of the atonement (= Christus Victor), (2) the satisfaction doctrine of the atonement, and (3) the subjective moral influence theory.
He sees the New Testament and the church fathers from Irenaeus onward as strongly embracing the classic idea, that is, the emphasis on the victory of Christ over the devil. The context of this view is the apocalyptic conflict between God and the devil over the fate of humanity. God rescues humanity through the instrument of the divine Son who took on flesh in order to “bait” Satan and defeat him. The humanity of Christ was the bait, but the divine nature of Christ was the hook hidden beneath by which he tricked Satan, thus freeing humanity from the grip of sin and death. The descent of Christ into hell (or Hades) between his death and resurrection is of critical significance, since this is the moment when the hook took effect. Satan took the bait and caused the death of Christ, but once dead, the divine Son still hypostatically united to his human soul, stormed the devil’s fortress (hell or Hades). Then on the third day, he burst through the doors of the devil’s shattered fortress, thereby releasing humanity from the devil’s power. (Of course, Aulén makes clear, we don’t need to take these crude images literally.) On the classic idea, then, the deity of Christ and his resurrection are the key to his gaining the victory over Satan. His death in his human nature only provides the bait that makes the victory possible.
Aulén’s sympathies clearly lie with the classic idea of the atonement. He spends a whole chapter arguing that Luther’s writings are filled with Christus Victor motifs, and he charges Luther’s successors (Melanchthon and the Protestant scholastics) with engaging in a deliberate cover-up, even tampering with the text of his writings, in an attempt to hide Luther’s true teaching on the atonement. His claim is that we need to get back to the classic idea, and he seems to be suggesting that we can do so through a theological retrieval of the authentic views of Luther, an argument that may have had some appeal in his Swedish Lutheran church context.
Turning now to the satisfaction theory, Aulén traces its origins to Tertullian’s legal mind and his concept of penance as a satisfaction for sins. But this theory really gets a hold of the Western Latin-speaking church through Anselm in his treatise Cur Deus Homo? (written in the late 1090s). The concept of the divine moral law is the backbone of this view. Humanity has violated God’s law and deserves to be punished. Therefore Christ becomes a man in order to suffer the punishment demanded by the law and satisfy the distributive justice of God (which Aulén calls a “chilly juridical term”). On this view, the humanity of Christ is more important than the deity of Christ, and the death of Christ plays a more important role than his resurrection.
The subjective moral influence theory can be traced back to Abelard, but its greatest exponents are Schleiermacher and Ritschl in the 19th century. The essence of their view of the atonement is that humanity’s problem is neither bondage to the devil, nor the violation of God’s moral law, but humanity’s misunderstanding of God’s essential character as a God of pure love. Sin is essentially mistrust, doubting God’s love. But when we behold Jesus going to the cross out of love for us, it reveals God’s love, melts our heart, dissipates our misapprehensions of God’s true nature based on fear and distrust, and makes us turn back to God to be reconciled to him.
I appreciate Aulén for reminding us of a neglected theme in the doctrine of the atonement – the theme of Christ’s victory over Satan through his death, descent into Hades, and resurrection. It is surely a biblical theme. However, I think it is unfortunate that his historical analysis sets the classic idea and the satisfaction doctrine in such polarity against one another as if they were irreconcilable. But they belong together and are perfectly compatible with one another. Is not the satisfaction of divine justice the legal ground of Christ’s victory over the devil? This is argued well by Jeremy Treat in The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology, Chapter 8, “Atonement: Reconciling Christus Victor and Penal Substitution.”
This is a magisterial volume; absolutely essential for the serious student of the creeds. I couldn’t decide whether this book belongs under “historical theology” or “church history.” It is a mixture of both, since Kelly not only explains the oral and textual history of the early Christian creeds but also provides valuable theological exposition of their contents (Chapters 5, 8, 11).
According to Kelly, there are basically two main families of creeds: baptismal creeds and synodal creeds. Baptismal creeds are the most important, for they are the ones that were handed over to catechumens prior to their baptism and which they were expected to recite at their baptism. Synodal creeds were used to root out heretical bishops and were not designed for the catechetical/baptismal process.
- Fragments of early interrogatory baptismal creeds
- The Old Roman Creed
- Daughter creeds of the Old Roman Creed
- Eastern baptismal creeds
- The Apostles’ Creed in its final form (7th/8th cent.)
- The Creed of Nicaea (AD 325)
- The creeds of the various synods between Nicaea and Constantinople
- The Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381) (= what we now call “the Nicene Creed,” not the same as the Creed of Nicaea)
The formula of Chalcedon (AD 451) is not considered a “creed” per se, and so it is not directly addressed in this book. (However, that council is dealt with, since we first get the actual text of the Constantinopolitan Creed from the minutes of the Council of Chalcedon.)
In addition to the distinction between baptismal and synodal creeds, Kelly also makes an important distinction within the baptismal creeds, between interrogatory and declaratory creeds. In the second century, baptismal candidates were asked three questions and baptized after the positive response to each one: “Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” (or something along those lines). Various additional phrases may have been added to flesh out each item – especially to the second question about Jesus Christ, which likely included a basic outline of his career.
It is not until the third century that the interrogatory form of the baptismal creed shifts to a declaratory form, where the candidate is expected to recite the entire creed from memory. This is the famous traditio and redditio of the creed. The traditio refers to the bishop’s teaching the catechumens, usually a few days before their baptism, the actual wording of the creed – always orally, never in writing. The redditio refers to the candidates’ reciting what they had received, essentially handing it back – again, orally, at the time of their baptism.
One thing that really jumped out at me from reading this book was how fluid the creeds were. It isn’t until around the fifth century that you start to see a hardening of the language of “the Nicene Creed” to the point where a precisely fixed formula is used and no changes are allowed. But prior to that time, each major city or region had their own local variations of “the Nicene Creed.” The same fluidity is seen with the baptismal creeds of both the east and the west. They all share the same Trinitarian structure. They all include the birth-death-resurrection-ascension narrative of the primitive apostolic kerygma attached to the second article. Nevertheless, there are many variations from region to region, not only in individual words, but whole clauses being added by different local communities of Christians in Gaul, Italy, North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Antioch, and so on.
Another point that Kelly demonstrates is the biblical basis of every clause in the two great creeds. The creeds had authority only to the degree that they were thought to be repeating and summarizing the teaching of Scripture. The only exception to this was the use of the extra-scriptural word homoousios in the Creed of Nicaea, and this caused some heart burn even for the orthodox bishops, but it was finally determined to be necessary when it became clear that the Arian party could gloss scriptural terms in a way that was consistent with their own views. It finally became clear that what was needed was a term that was resistant to being wrested to a heterodox meaning. Homoousios is the exception that proves the rule. Otherwise, practically every word and clause in the creeds is derived from Scripture.