The Barthian distortions in Aulen’s atonement typology

I’m getting ready to write a couple pieces for a reference volume on atonement, and that has got me thinking once again about how profoundly strange Aulen’s Christus Victor is. On the one hand, it was an absolutely decisive intervention insofar as it demonstrated the variety of approaches to making sense of Christ’s saving work through history and drew much-needed attention to the patristic “ransom theory.” On the other hand, his argument is at times tendentious and willful. This is clearest above all in his insistence that the patristic view is to be recommended because its narrative is a completely one-sided exercise of divine sovereignty from beginning to end. In reality, the whole point of the theory according to basically all the patristic authors is that God doesn’t use unilateral violent means to save us but intervenes non-violently in order to undermine Satan’s rule from within — and when people start objecting to the theory, it’s precisely because it’s not unilateral enough and grants too much legitimacy to Satan.

There are other odd points as well, though. For instance, he faults Anselm for overemphasizing Christ’s humanity, hence undermining the axiomatically desirable divine unilaterality — when it seems to me that Anselm and the patristic theory are at one in equally emphasizing the importance of Christ’s humanity and divinity, which is on the face of it the most “orthodox” way of going about it. Further, he credits Abelard with inventing the “moral influence” theory, when I show in Politics of Redemption that Abelard does no such thing.

What is going on here? I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is the Barthian framework that Aulen is working with. He finds the ransom theory in Luther and in the New Testament, and hence it must be Protestant in the full Barthian sense — which means divine unilateralism, etc. The moral influence theory is obviously much more associated with Liberal Protestantism, but it’s not enough for it to be a modern innovation. Instead, his strategy on both Anselm and Abelard is to show that Roman Catholicism was secretly Liberal Protestantism the whole time. With Anselm, this works because he turns redemption into too much of a human achievement, and with Abelard it’s a matter of finding some Roman Catholic root for the modern Liberal Protestant theory.

Overall, I’d say Aulen’s book is a huge net gain for theology — his Barthian-Protestant bias was probably necessary to give him “eyes to see” the ransom theory to begin with, and he gathers a lot of helpful material that would be hard to track down otherwise. The only problem is that the very bias that allowed him to see the variety in the tradition also led him to misread his own evidence.

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10 Responses to “The Barthian distortions in Aulen’s atonement typology”

  1. George Hunsinger Says:

    I essentially agree with these criticisms of Aulen. But I think the idea that he operates with a “Barthian-Protestant” framework is incorrect. Aulen is a Scandinavian Lutheran, not a “Barthian.” His typology of “classical,” “Latin,” and “humanistic” options is meant to validate his version of Luther and Lutheran theology as over against Roman Catholicism and modern liberal theology. The result is generally rather crude and tendentious, although, yes, it contains some useful bits. In any case, Barth would not accept this typology — as anyone familiar with his work would know. For one thing, Aulen works with a Law/Gospel mentality as opposed to Barth’s Gospel/Law approach. If Aulen went off the rails, I don’t see how the blame can be laid at Barth’s doorstep.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Fair enough. Perhaps it’s enough simply that he’s Lutheran. What made me think of Barth in specific is the slippage between Roman Catholic and modern liberal approaches.

  3. seanchristophercapener Says:

    Regardless of the specific source of the distortions, one of the interesting things about them is that the interjection of extreme unilaterality onto the texts also renders nonsensical the means by which both the ‘patristic’ and ‘Latin’ models conceive of the transmission of redemption (which actually makes the omission of the social-relational aspect you diagnose in *The Politics of Redemption* not just a forgetfulness but structurally necessary for his reading). Without the emphasis on a divine economy that opens up a space for Jesus’ human nature to co-act in the recapitulation of Adam (and, as Aulen would of course never mention, for *Mary* to be directly involved in the mechanism as well, as a recapitulation of Eve) the fact that the redemption effected is valid for the rest of humanity disappears, since it’s transferred in literally every case via some or another sort of genericity. Whether procreatively, or by participation in a eucharistic kinship, the method of transmission in each case depends on the redeemed being of one kind with the redeemer. As I’ve mentioned before on Twitter, this aspect of the theory sticks around even up to Anselm, who denies the possibility of a redemption for angels due to the fact that each angel is itself generic, and so there can be no mode of transmission between angels.

  4. Evan Says:

    Evangelium und Gesetz was published five years after Christus Victor… would the difference between Barth and Aulen on law/gospel be relevant to any assertions of theological influence in this case? It’s a genuine question… I’m ignorant of how far back these views went. It seems to me that in a broader sense a “Barthian framework” makes a lot of sense on the points that Adam addresses (liberal/Catholic conflation, a Pauline Reformation theology, divine unilateralism) despite differences elsewhere in their theological approaches. I’ve always thought of Lund Theology in the early 20th century as generally neo-orthodox in character, but again, I’m ignorant of how directly there was any Barthian influence.

  5. George Hunsinger Says:

    If “unilateralism” refers to the belief that only God can save us from sin and death, then the argument against it would be with the Reformation. Barth would merely be a representative of this view, not its defining instance.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It seems fair to say that Barth has a special role in radicalizing and popularizing that view in the 20th century.

  7. seanchristophercapener Says:

    I’d add (for the sake of clarity, rather than personal investment) that there’s a difference between the statements “only God can save us…” and the stronger position “only God can have any sort of active role in saving us,” and that the latter, stronger position seems more akin to Aulen’s thinking on protestant unilaterality. I doubt even the least ‘unilateral’ of the RC thinkers invoked would dispute the former statement.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    To echo what Sean has said, the orthodox view through most of Christian history was that only God-become-human could save us. Aulen seems bizarrely insistent on downplaying the incarnation.

  9. John Hoyum Says:

    But if Aulen is insistent on downplaying the incarnation, wouldn’t that problematize the claim that his concerns are fundamentally Lutheran? It seems to me that Luther’s Christology is aligned more with the church fathers – and the Greek christological tradition in particular – than it is with this Barthian unilateralism, at least in the sense that the redemptive work of Jesus is accomplished precisely by the person of Christ who is one person with two natures. I’d be interested to know what both you and Dr. Hunsinger think of this.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Aulen’s claim is that Luther is retrieving the patristic — which in his mind is unilateral — view of the atonement. It would fit the larger pattern of his weird approach if he perceived a real connection between the two and yet totally misconstrued it.


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