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Aquinas on the victory view of the atonement (ETS paper)

Jonathan Morgan, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented a paper titled, “Christus Victor Motifs in the Soteriology of Thomas Aquinas.” The paper argued that people have wrongly associated Aquinas almost exclusively with Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, neglecting the many ways in which he affirmed victory as an important aspect of the atonement. Rather than neglecting this motif entirely as many do or seeing it as merely tangential to his true understanding of the atonement as Gustav Aulen does, Morgan argues that it is fundamental for understanding Aquinas’ soteriology.

Morgan offers three lines of evidence to support this conclusion:

  1. Aquinas’ interpretation of Scripture. The first part of the paper offered several examples of Aquinas interaction with Scripture, noting that he regularly identifies Christ’s victory over death and the demonic as fundamental for understanding the atonement.
  2. Aquinas’ dependence on the patristics. Morgan rightly points out that Aquinas interacts extensively with patristic writers. And, he also points out how odd it is that people routinely see the patristic thinkers as affirming a “classical” understanding of the atonement (victory), but seldom see the influence that this had on medieval thinkers like Aquinas who were so keen on interacting with and remaining faithful to earlier thinkers.
  3. The theological necessity of the victory motif. Finally, Morgan points out that Aquinas’ understanding of sin requires more than the satisfaction theory alone suggests. Aquinas sees sin as a condition of bondage that has enslaved all human persons to the demonic, and Morgan argues that the satisfaction theory really does not address this aspect of the sin problem. So, the victory motif is soteriologically necessary given the nature of Aquinas’ view of sin.

The paper was somewhat interesting in helping me recognize the importance of the victory motif in the medieval period as a whole. Many have critiqued Aulen over the years for an overly schematized understanding of the atonement through history, one that regularly forces people into simplistic categories that are simply inadequate for the complexity of their theology as a whole. Aquinas is definitely the kind of person who cannot be simply categorized as “classical”. And, this is true of most great thinkers.