In the early church, the dominant theme is that of victory, Christus Victor, Christ the Victor. Salvation is the deliverance of man from the evil powers which hold him in bondage by the victory over them that Christ accomplished through His death and resurrection. In the early church, this victory is usually treated as being accomplished through a ransom paid to the Devil, and that the theory of the atonement embodying this idea has been called "the ransom theory." Since in one form or another this theory was held by most of the early church fathers, it has often been called "the patristic theory." And because this theory was more widely held in the Eastern Church than in the Western Church, it has also been called the "Eastern" or "Greek" view to distinguish it from the "Western" or "Latin" view, which Anselm later more fully developed.

Gustav Aulen in his book Christus Victor puts forth a view of the atonement in the early church that he calls the "the classic idea" of the atonement. He calls this view "the classic idea," because he is convinced that it was the oldest and truest theory of the saving work of Christ. He describes it as "dramatic" since the chief characteristic of this idea of the atonement is a dramatic Divine struggle, conflict and victory. He also calls it "Christus Victor", since "Christ - Christus Victor - fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself." [1]

But Aulen rejects the ransom theory as the dominant theory of the atonement in the early church. Concerning Irenaeus (c.175-c.195 A.D.), Aulen says,

"But though the thought of the victory of Christ over the Devil occurs very frequently in Irenaeus, it is not so dominant a theme with him as with some of the later Greek Fathers, and it is not elaborated with anything like the same wealth of imagery. In particular, the realistic imagery which became exceedingly common later on is almost absent from Irenaeus; there is only a trace in him of the theme of the Deception of the Devil, which became to some of the other Fathers a subject of engrossing interest." [2]
Aulen also rejects the "juridical" interpretation of Irenaeus that the element of justice in Christ's victory over the Devil was required by the justice of God and hence Christ's act of redemption had satisfied God's justice or righteousness. Concerning this misinterpretation, Aulen says:
"The statement which is sometimes made, that Irenaeus is here propounding a 'juridical' doctrine of the Atonement, shows a complete misconception of his meaning. The real point is rather to be expressed as follows. Irenaeus has two different ways of expressing the righteousness of God's act of redemption. According to the first, the devil cannot be allowed to have any rights over men; he is a robber, a rebel, a tyrant, a usurper, unjustly laying hands on that which does not belong to him. Therefore it is no more than justice that he should be defeated and driven out... But at the same time Irenaeus also exhibits the righteousness of God's redemptive work, by showing that in it He does not use mere external compulsion, mere brute force, but acts altogether according to justice. 'God deals according to justice even with the apostasy itself.' For man after all is guilty; man has sold himself to the devil." [3]
"Irenaeus shrinks from the assertion which some of the later Fathers are prepared to make, that the devil has gained, in the last resort, certain actual rights over man; he is restraind by his sense of the importance of maintaining, against the Gnostics, that the Devil is a robber and a usurper. Yet the underlying idea is present; the 'apostasy' of mankind involves guilt, and man deserves to lie under the devil's power. In his reply he [Irenaeus] goes no further than to say that God acts in the way 'that befits God'; even with the devil God deals in an orderly way. To call this a juridical doctrine of the Atonement is nonsense. Irenaeus' real meaning would be more truly expressed by saying that God observes 'the rules of fair play.'" [4]
Thus Aulen dismisses the juridical interpretation of Irenaeus and rejects the view that the juridical doctrine of the Atonement is present in his soteriology.

The Ransom Theory of the Atonement was developed in the Eastern Greek speaking church and orignated very early in Alexandria in Egypt. In expounding Christ's saving work, Clement of Alexandria (c.155-c.220 A.D.) "speaks of Christ's laying down His life as a ransom (lutron) on our behalf, redeeming us by His blood, offering Himself as a sacrifice, conquering the Devil, and interceding for us with the Father." [5] But these are conventional phrases and do not express the Ransom Theory of the Atonement.

But it is Origen (c.185-c.254 A.D.) who raises the question to whom the ransom was paid, and denies that it was paid to God, affirming that it was paid to the Devil. Origen asks:

"But to whom did He give His soul as a ransom for many? Surely not to God. Could it, then, be to the Evil One? For he had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, even the life (or soul) of Jesus, since he (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength (thasanon) greater than he was equal to. Therefore also death, though he thought he had prevailed against Him, no longer lords over Him, He (Christ) having become free among the dead and stronger than the power of death, and so much stronger than death that all who will amongst those who are mastered by death may also follow Him (i.e. out of Hades, out of death's domain), death no longer prevailing against them. For every one who is with Jesus is unassailable by death." [6]
Christ's death, Origen declares, [7],
"not only has been set forth as an example of dying for religion,
but has effected a beginning and an advance in the overthrow of the evil one, the Devil, who dominated the whole earth".
From the moment of His birth, Christ's life was a conflict with the powers of darkness. [8] His passion and resurrection signified their final defeat. Origen appeals to Col. 2.15
("He [Christ] disarmed the principalities and powers
and made a public example of them,
triumping over them in it [the cross].")
as proving that the Savior's death has a twofold aspect, being both an example, and also the trophy of His victory over the Devil, who in effect was nailed to the cross with his principalities and powers. Kelley says that Origen's
"underlying idea seems to be that the Devil, with whom death is identified, deluded himself into imagining that he had triumphed over Christ, but his seeming triumph was turned to defeat when the Savior rose from the grave." [9]
Origen speaks of Jesus as delivering up His soul, or life, not indeed to God, but to the Devil in exchange for the souls of men which the Devil had claimed as his due because of their sinfulness. The Devil accepted the exchange, but he could not hold in his clutches Jesus, Who proved to be stronger than death, and the Devil was thus cheated of his victim. But it should be noted here that Origen, while he uses to the fullest the idea of ransom, he thinks much more in terms of Christ's victory over the Devil than of any actual transaction with him. [10] Culpepper says,
"To Origen it was Christ's resurrection on the third day
that turned Christ's death into victory over death and him
who has the power of death, the devil." [11]

Origen's severe critic, Methodius of Olympius (d. c.311), following Irenaeus, viewed Christ as the new Adam because Christ assumed human nature and, just as all died in the first Adam, so they are made alive in the second. It was fitting that the Devil should be defeated and that the judgment of death which the Devil had brought on the human race was annulled through the very man he had originally deceived. Methodius virtually identified Christ with Adam. He actually says that it was appropriate that the only-begotten Logos would unite Himself with the first-born of men, Adam. In Methodius' view the Lord's humanity is the instrument by means of which He disclosed the resurrection of the flesh. More important in his view than the conquest of sin and death on the cross is the fact that the Logos "took to Himself this suffering body in order that ... what was mortal might be transformed into immortality and what was passible into impassibility". [12] It is clear that Methodius saw that salvation was primarily from death to life, resurrection of the dead. The Ransom Theory seems to be almost totally absent from his theory of Christ's death.

The Ransom Theory seems also to be totally absent in soteriology of Athanasius (c.296-373 A.D.). In his early treatise On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius argues that through the transgression of Adam the race of men became subject death's power, and on this account death has legal rights over all men. But God's purpose for creating man cannot come to naught; for His love for the fallen race persists in spite of the judgment of death upon them. Therefore the Word becomes man, that he may restore to life that which had been lost; for this was the one possible way, that Life, the Life of God, should enter into the world of men and prevail over death. In one place in his treatise [13], Athanasius asks whether God could have adopted some other way than that of the Incarnation, and he replies that for the gaining of salvation it might well have been sufficient that man should repent. Athanasius writes:

"So here, once more, what possible course was God to take? To demand repentance of men for their transgression? For this one might pronounce worthy of God; as though, just as from transgression men have become set toward corruption, so from repentance they may once more be set in the way of incorruption. But repentance would, firstly, fail to guard the just claim of God. For he would still be none the more true, if men did not remain in the grasp of death; nor, secondly, does repentance call men back from what is their nature - it merely stays them from acts of sin. Now, if there were merely a misdemeanor in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed? or what was required for such grace and such recall, but the Word of God, which also at the beginning made everthing out of nought? For his it was once more both to bring the corruptible to incorruption, and to maintain intact the just claim of the Father upon all. For being Word of the Father, and above all, he alone of natural fitness was both able to re-create everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father." [14]
If the only problem had been that of sin and not of corruption and death as the consequence of the sin of man, repentance would be sufficient; but since through sin men had lost the Divine image, and become subject to death, on this account the Word must come and deliver them from the power of corruption.
"And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death he gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father -- doing this, moreover, of his loving-kindess, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord's body, and had no longer holding ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, he might turn them again to incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of his body and by the grace of the resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire." [15]
In Athanasius' discussion of the reason for the incarnation, the ransom theory that Christ's death was a ransom paid to the Devil plays no part.

It was Gregory of Nyssa (330-c.395 A.D.) who affirmed that the Devil had a just claim over man, since through the fall man had voluntarily placed himself under the Devil's power. Like Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa asserts that God would not use violence in redeeming man from the Devil; for if He had done so, then man would not have been justly redeemed. So then to redeem man, God paid the Devil, who was man's owner, all that he asked as the redemption price for his property. The Devil was dazzled by Christ's miracles.

"When the enemy saw the power, he recognized in Christ a bargain which offered him more than he held. For this reason he chose him as the ransom for those whom he had shut up in death's prison." [16]
But the Devil was deceived because the deity of Christ was veiled in flesh. Using a crude metaphor, Gregory compares the Devil to a hungry fish who is caught on the hook of Christ's deity when he is enticed to swallow it by the bait of Christ's flesh. [17] Gregory raises the question [18] as to whether God was justified to deceive the Devil. Gregory concludes that it was both just and good. It was just because the deceiver reaped what he had sowed, being himself deceived. It also was good because in it God had a good purpose, which was the redemption of the Devil as well as man.
"By the principle of justice the deceiver reaps the harvest of the seeds he sowed with his own free will. For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the comouflage of human nature. But the purpose of the action changes it into something good. For the one practiced deceit to ruin our nature; but the other, being at once just and good and wise, made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined. And by so doing he benefited, not only the one who had perished, but also the very one who brought us to ruin. For when death came into contact with life, darkness with light, corruption with incorruption, the worse of these things disappeared into a state of nonexistence, to the profit of him who was freed from these evils." [19]

Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389 A.D.) rejected the idea that a ransom was paid to the Devil or to God. The whole conception of rights belonging to the Devil and of the Son of God being handed over to him was subjected to an extremely damaging critque by Gregory of Nazianzus. He says,

"It is worth our while to examine a point of doctrine which is overlooked by many but seems to me deserving examination. For whom, and with what object, was the blood shed for us, the great and famous blood of God, our high-priest and sacrifice, outpoured? Admittedly we were held in captivity by the Devil, having been sold under sin and having abdicated our happiness in exchange for wickedness. But if the ransom belongs exclusively to him who holds the prisoner, I ask to whom it was paid, and why. If to the Devil, how shameful that that robber should receive not only a ransom from God, but a ransom consisting of God Himself, and that so extravagant a price should be paid to his tyranny before he could justly spare us!" [20]
Kelley comments,
"Gregory went on to show that Christ's blood was not, strictly speaking, a ransom paid to God the Father either, since it is inconceivable that He should have found pleasure in the blood of His only Son. The truth rather is that the Father accepted it, not because He demanded or needed it, but because in the economy of redemption it was fitting that santification should be restored to human nature through the humanity which God had assumed. As for the Devil, he was vanquished by force." [21]
Then Gregory goes on to explain the atonement under the category of sacrifice.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), like Gregory of Nyssa, recognized the Devil's just claim on man. God justly committed man to the power of Devil when Adam sinned. But the Devil exceeded his rights when he shed innocent blood in slaying Christ. Therefore, "it was no more than justice that he should deliver up those that were in bondage to him." [22] Augustine was inclined to dramatize this transaction by using colorful language which gives a misleading impression of his true thought. He speaks, for example, of the blood of Christ as the price which was paid over for us and which the Devil accepted, only to find himself enchained, [23] and, again, of His body as a bait by which Satan was caught like a mouse in a trap (compare, tanquam in muscipula escam accepit). [24] But his true thinking was more in line with that of Chrysostrom, Hilary, and Ambrosiaster, which Kelly summarized as follows. [25]

"(a) The Devil owned no rights, in the strict sense, over mankind; what happened was that, when men sinned, they passed inevitably into his power, and God permitted rather than enjoined this.
(b) No ransom as such was therefore due to Satan, but on the contrary, when the remission of sins was procured by Christ's sacrifice, God's favour was restored and the human race might well have been freed.
(c) God preferred, however, as a course more consonant with His justice, that the Devil should not be deprived of his dominion by force, but as the penalty for abusing his position.
(d) Hence, Christ's passion, the primary object of which was of course quite differen, placed the Son of God in Satan's hands, and when the latter overreached himself by seizing the divine prey, with the arrogance and greed which were characteristic of him, he was justly constrained, as a penalty, to deliver up mankind."
But this at best is a secondary motif in Augustine's thinking. Augustine clearly represents our release from the Devil as a consequent upon and as presupposing our reconciliation to God; the Devil is conquered precisely because God has received satisfaction and has bestowed pardon.

This brings us to the central thought in Augustine's theory of the Atonement. That is, that the essence of the redemption lies in an expiatory sacrifice offered for us by Christ in His passion. Christ as the mediator perform this principal act:

"Him Who knew no sin, Christ, God made sin, i.e. a sacrifice for sins,
on our behalf so that we that we might be reconciled". [26]
In its effect, a sacrifice is expiatory and propitionary:
"By His death, that one most true sacrifice offered on our behalf,
He purged, abolished and extinguished ... whatever guilt we had." [27]
By this sacrifice the wrath of God is appeased and we are reconciled to Him:
"He offered this holocaust to God;
He extended His hands on the cross...
and our wickednesses were propitiated....
Our sins and wickednesses having been propititated
through this evening sacrifice, we passed to the Lord,
and the veil was taken away." [28]
This means that Christ is substituted for us, and being Himself innocent discharges the penalty we owe. Augustine writes,
"Though without guilt Christ took our punishment upon Himself,
destroying our guilt and putting an end to our punishment." [29]
And again,
"You must again confess that without our sin
He took the penalty owing to our sin upon Himself"; [30]
"He made our trespasses His trespasses,
so as to make His righteousness ours" [31].
It was precisely His innocence which gave value to His sacrifice, for
"We were brought to death by sin, He by righteousness;
and so, since death was our penalty for sin,
His death became a sacrifice for sin." [32]
Thus in Augustine's view of the atonement, the emancipation from the Devil is regarded as a consequence of, and thus subordinate to, the reconciliation itself. Augustine anticipates the objective view of the atonement,

But Augustine's teachings about the atonement also stressed the exemplary aspect of Christ's work. Both in His person and what He had done, Christ, our mediator, has demonstrated God's wisdom and love. The spectacle of such love should have the effect of inciting us to love Him in return. More particularly, it should bestir our hearts to adore the humility of God which, as revealed in the incarnation, breaks our pride. So for Augustine, the humility of the Word revealed in His amazing self-abasement forms a vital part of His saving work. He writes [33],

"This we well do to believe, nay, to hold fixed and immovable in our hearts, that the humility which God displayed in being born of a woman and in being haled so ignominiously by mortal men to death, is the sovereign medicine for healing our swollen pride. the profound mystery (sacramentum) by which the bond of sin is broken."
Remember, according to Augustine, pride was the cause of the Fall. Thus not only has the Ransom Theory been replaced by the objective or juridical theory, but also the subjective or moral influence theory has been anticipated.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1100 A.D.) in his work on the atonement, Cur Deus Homo? [Why did God become Man?] (1098) uses his pupil, Bozo, to attack the idea in patristic theology that through the fall Satan had obtained just rights over man and that the death of Christ was a ransom paid to the Devil. His argument is set forth in the form of a dialogue between Anselm and his pupil, Bozo, in which Bozo raises the questions frequently posed by unbelievers and Anselm answers them. The basic question which Boso poses and which Anselm seeks to answer is that which relates to the necessity and reason for the atonement. While recognizing that man is justly subject to the Devil, because of his sin, Bozo maintains that it is unjust for the Devil to torment man, since he himself is a rebellious servant of God. Bozo argues that God uses the Devil to show man that since he has freely sinned it is impossible for him to avoid sin or the penalty of sin. [34] The point that Anselm is making through Bozo is that the ransom was not paid to the Devil. Anselm's book is divided into two parts, the first showing that it is impossible for any man to be saved apart from Christ, and the second showing that salvation has been provided through Christ, the God-man. In the first part, Anselm shows that the ransom could not be paid to the Devil, and in the rest of his book he attempts to demonstrate that the ransom was both required by God and paid by God. Anselm uses the term "satisfaction" instead of "ransom" [35], interpreting ransom as a satisfaction.


How are we to evaluate the ransom theory? The use of such crude imagery of the fishhook and the mouse trap, employed by Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, respectively, are certainly repulsive. But the biblical term "ransom" (lutron or antilutron) was used by Jesus (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45) and Paul (I Tim. 2:6) to indicate the means by which redemption was obtained. We are set free or delivered from the slavery of sin by means of the death of Christ. And it is meaningless to ask to whom the ransom is paid that effects our redemption. According to Paul, Christ redeemed us from the slavery to sin.

"In whom we have redemption through his blood,
the deliverance from our sins,
according to the riches of his grace."
(Eph. 1:7 ERS; see also Col. 1:14; Titus 2:14).
The New Testament writers never says that the ransom was paid to the Devil. But the Christus Victor theme that Christ through his incarnation, life, death and resurrection wins for us a decisive victory over all the evil powers which hold man in bondage - to sin, death, and the Devil - is certainly biblical.
"Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood,
he himself likewise partook of the the same nature,
that through death he might destory him
who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
and deliver all those who through fear of death
were subject to lifelong bondage." (Heb. 2:14-15).
Aulen is to be thanked for recalling our attention to this biblical theme. But this theme should not to be identified with the Ransom Theory of the Atonement.

ENDNOTES for the section "The Ransom Theory of Atonement"

[1] Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor
(New York: The Macmillan Company, 1951), 4.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Ibid., 27-28.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 183.
Footnote 5 on page 183 gives the following references to Clement.
"Quis div. 37, 4; paed. 1, 5, 23; 1, 11, 97; 3, 12, 98; protr. 11, 111; 12, 120."

[6] Commentary on Matthew XVI, 8;
Aulen, op. cit., p. 49. In footnote 13, Aulen says,
"Translation from Rashdall, p. 259. where the Greek is printed in full."

[7] Contra Celsius 7, 17. Quoted by
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 185.

[8] Ibid., 1, 60; 6, 45; hom. in Luc. 30; 31.

[9] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 185. He refers to
Origen, Commentary on Matthew XIII, 9.

[10] Commentary on Matthew XVI, 8;
see Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 185-186.

[11] Robert H. Culpepper, Interpreting the Atonement,
(Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), 76,
paraphasing Origen, "Commentary on Matthew," XIII, 9, in
The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IX, p. 480.

[12] Methodius, On the Resurrection. 3, 23, 4.
see Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 187-188.

[13] Anthanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, ch. 7.
LCC, III, 61.
The translation and text is found in
The Library of Christian Classics,
Vol. III, The Christology of the Later Fathers
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, first published, MCMLIV). [Hereafter
The Library of Christian Classics is referred to as LCC.]

[14] Ibid., 61-62.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Gregory of Nyssa, "An Address on Religous Instruction," Chapter 23.
LCC, III, 300.

[17] Ibid., chapter 24, 301.

[18] Ibid., Chapter 26, 302-303.

[19] Ibid., Chapter 26, 303.

[20] Or. 45, 22. Quoted by Kelley, p. 383.

[21] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 383-384.

[22] Augustine, Sermon CXXX, 2;
quoted by Sydney Cave,
The Doctrine of the Work of Christ
(London: Hodder and Stoughton,
first printed, 1937, fifth impression, 1959), p. 119;
quoted by Culpepper, Interpreting the Atonement, p. 77.

[23] De trin. 13, 19. Footnote 8 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 291

[24] E.g. serm. 263, 1. Footnote 9 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 391.

[25] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 392.

[26] Enchir. 41. Footnote 3 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 392.

[27] De Trin. 4, 17. Footnote 1 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 393.

[28] Enarr. in ps. 64, 6. Footnote 2 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 393.

[29] C. Faust. Manich. 14, 4. Footnote 3 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 393.

[30] Ib. 14, 7. Footnote 4 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 393.

[31] Enarr. 2 in ps 21, 3. Footnote 5 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 393.

[32] De Trin. 4, 15. Footnote 6 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 393.

[33] De trin. 8, 7. Footnote 10 in
Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 393-394.

[34] "Why God Become Man," I, 7, LCC, Vol. X,
A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham,
edited and translated by Eugene R. Fairweather
(London: SCM Press, 1956).

[35] Culpepper, Interpreting the Atonement, 82.