Greg Boyd on the Christus Victor Model of the Atonement

There is currently a useful and accessible series of books out that tackle major areas of Christian doctrine by inviting significant contributors to both argue for and defend their position on that doctrine. Each contributor gets to critique the other positions- all in a well-mannered, non-confrontational style it should be said- so that the end result is a (relatively) steady ‘for and against’ case for each position. Four Views on the Nature of the Atonement is one such volume, and to whet your appetite (or save you the bother of reading it) I’ll be engaging critically with those four views over the next week or so. We begin with Greg Boyd, who articulates and defends the Christus Victor model of the atonement. Here are some thoughts on his essay.

At the heart of Greg Boyd’s presentation of the Christus Victor view of the atonement is the idea that Christ- in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection- defeated the devil, and he repeatedly emphasises this throughout. Boyd sets his argument for the Christus Victor view against the backdrop of Yahweh’s conflict with unruly and chaotic forces in creation, arguing that a warfare motif is central to understanding not only Christ’s death, but also his whole life and ministry.

Boyd argues that when the New Testament speaks about salvation, it is a cosmic reality before it is an anthropological one, therefore the soteriological significance of Christ’s death for individuals is predicated on the cosmic significance of his victory over Satan and demonic powers. Anthropologically speaking, salvation means deliverance from the grip of the powers and participation in Christ’s victory over them. Our participation in Christ’s victory demonstrates the richness of God’s wisdom as revealed in Christ, and reminds the powers of their defeat at calvary as we live lives of calvary-like love. In Greg Boyd’s view, the Christus Victor model of the atonement is the central piece of the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Christus Victor model of the atonement, and I generally like Greg Boyd’s articulation of it, even if I don’t agree with him on every detail. I appreciated Boyd’s focus on the cosmic outworking of Christ’s accomplishments that sets human salvation in the bigger picture of the reconciliation of all things- a potentially helpful corrective to the contemporary church and the overly-individualistic Christian culture that often seems to go with it. I also think it is refreshing and illuminating that he draws on the Old Testament’s picture of Yahweh as a warrior who vanquishes the cosmic foe (even if I did balk at the idea of creation as a ‘cosmic war zone’). I am slightly surprised that Boyd (contra Gustaf Aulén) did not explicitly address the theological question of the incarnation and how it relates to the Christus Victor model, as it seems to be such a significant part of Aulén’s defence of the view. It is helpful that Boyd attempts to tidy up some of the more speculative views surrounding ancient interpretations of Christus Victor, but I think that his defence of the idea that God deceived Satan, and that Christ was somehow ‘bait’ for Satan, is thoroughly indefensible on the basis that scripture never makes that claim.

And that leads me to address what I perceive as perhaps the weakest part of the Christus Victor model as articulated by Greg Boyd: the Christus Victor model appears to function as a lens through which Boyd not only views the atonement, but also the entire Bible. I am in no doubt that the motif of warfare is a significant part of the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ, but Greg Boyd assigns centrality to it. He accomplishes this by seemingly cherry-picking verses that fit his model. For example, Boyd claims that, ‘According to the New Testament, the central thing Jesus did was “drive out the ruler of this world” (John 12:31).’ Not only does this claim a centrality for the works of Jesus based on just one verse from John’s gospel, it also assumes that the central message of John’s gospel is basically the Christus Victor model of the atonement. Again, somewhat confusingly, Boyd claims, ‘The central thing Jesus did, according to Peter, was fulfil Psalms 110:1.’ Again, this not only makes the assumption that the Christus Victor model of the atonement is what Psalm 110:1 is all about, but also that it was the centre of Peter’s (or indeed Luke’s) theology.

In short, there is much to affirm and embrace in Greg Boyd’s treatment of the Christus Victor model of the atonement, and yet there are some significant elements to be critical of, not least those that appear to superimpose a theological model onto the text, claiming a centrality that is not obviously self-evident in the work of the biblical authors themselves. Good stuff here, but it’s worth being savvy about the bigger claims Boyd is making.



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