The following post is a contribution to an ongoing conversation on the subject of the doctrine of the atonement. The goal of this conversation is not that of arguing for one single doctrine of atonement, but of having the chance to listen to a number of different sources and voices. Lord-willing, participation in this conversation will help us grow in appreciation and understanding of theological positions that we have not previously had the same opportunity to engage with. My role here is that of hosting a conversation. The substance of the posts in this conversation do not necessarily reflect my own convictions (except, of course, when I am the author!). The contributors do not write as my proxies, but as my guests. Discussion in the comments is encouraged. If you strongly disagree or dislike something that has been said, please leave a comment to say why; if you have found something helpful, please give some reasons why you have found it to be so.
The author of the following post is Andrew Wallace. Andrew was born and bred and lives in New Zealand. He was brought up Baptist, but has a general interest in academic theology and thinks that all denominations have something to learn from each other, so he would no longer really identify himself with any particular denomination. For the past year he has been co-authoring a book about the atonement theologies of the New Testament writers and Early Greek Fathers.
One of the reasons that I as a Protestant see great value in studying Eastern Orthodox thinking and writing is because their tradition has been so isolated from our own heritage due to historical and linguistic reasons. Due to the independence of their tradition from our own they tend to have very different ways of looking at things, and I find these can provide helpful insights which are useful in critically evaluating our own tradition. On the subject of the atonement, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has some quite different ideas to the Protestant tradition, and the whole paradigm of salvation tends to be very different. Many of the essential protestant concepts such as original sin, penal substitutionary atonement, and salvation by faith are not present, and instead other very different ideas tend to be utilized. The Eastern Orthodox church traces its tradition and teachings very strongly to the writings of the church fathers of the first millennia.
These church fathers are worth studying for other reasons. The Church Fathers that the Eastern Orthodox church originated out of were the Greek speaking ones, whereas our Western Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions historically were Latin-speaking. The New Testament was written in Greek and that was the main language spoken within the early Church. The subsequent generations of Greek speaking Christians both read the New Testament in their native language and were taught Christianity by the previous generation. It seems reasonable to think that the people who were in an ideal position to understand the writings of the apostles as clearly as possible were those who spoke the same language and lived around the same time and in the same culture and empire as the writers. Therefore, the early Greek Christians’ comments about New Testament passages and verses are valuable for exegetical reasons. But more than that, learning their theology itself is valuable. It is reasonable to presume that Christianity was not instantaneously forgotten worldwide the moment the New Testament was completed. Rather it seems reasonable to assume that the apostolic generation passed the essential truths of their faith onto the next generation, and that the variety of texts written around the world by different Greek-speaking Christians in the early church ought to contain theology substantially in agreement with apostolic Christianity. Therefore studying the writings of the Greek Christians in the period 100-400AD (these dates are relatively arbitrary, and altering them makes no difference) is worthwhile in order to gain an insight into their theology, given that in all probability their theology is going to be substantially similar to the theology of the apostles.
The Theology of the Greek Fathers 100-400AD
The theology of these Christian writers is substantially different to Protestant thought, so it can require some effort to wrap your head around. The ideas of atonement held by these writers can get complicated, so for simplicity’s sake let us start with the basic idea of salvation that is common to all the Fathers of this period. The basic paradigm of salvation universally held by these writers is as follows:
1. Humans have free will to engage in either vice or virtue, and the ability to become more or less virtuous over time.
2. God is virtuous and desires humans to be also. He is pleased with virtue and displeased by vice.
3. Christ taught virtue to mankind.
4. By following Christ’s teachings, and by the help of the Spirit, we can progress and improve in virtue if we make the effort.
5. All men have the ability to achieve a standard of virtue acceptable to God.
6. The Final Judgment will be decided based on our level of virtue.
Each of those points, and the paradigm as a whole, are common to all the Greek writers from the period 100-400AD. In addition to these common points, two main different theories about the work of Christ are reasonably common but not universally held:
1. Ransom From Satan & Christus Victor
Satan was seen as having some form of power over the world, precisely what power varies from writer to writer. In some cases he is seen as attempting to influence men towards vice, just as the serpent in Eden had. In other conceptions he is seen as ruling over the world like a lord, and having a deliberately evil influence on events in the world. Sometimes he is seen as having power in the afterlife over the souls of men, either due to him being the natural lord of sinners or due to him unjustly seizing human souls.
In these models of atonement, Christ is seen as performing some action appropriate to defeat or remove the power of the devil. This can vary depending on how the devil’s power and influence is conceived. Christ can be seen as overthrowing the devil as lord of the world, removing the devil’s power in a real battle in the spiritual realms. He can be seen as entering into Hades and by his spiritual power defeating and vanquishing the powers holding human souls captive. He can be seen as defeating the devil’s influence in this world by virtue of the explusion of evil spirits from people in his own ministry, and the power he gave to Christians to do the same in his name. Sometime he is depicted as offering his own soul to Satan as a ransom payment in return for Satan setting free all the souls of humanity - Satan accepts and takes Jesus’ soul in exchange, and then God resurrects Jesus back to life and Satan is left with nothing. The reasons given about why and how Satan has power over humanity, the world, or the souls of humans vary, as does the methods Jesus uses to defeat, trick or overthrow Satan.
This, rather different, view of the atonement is concerned with the danger of the created order passing into non-existence. God in the act of creation infused his creation with existence. Created beings and substances do not possess self-existence but are dependent upon God for it. Humanity (or Satan and his angels) as rulers of the created order, in sinning broke away from God, and in doing so severed the flow of existence from God. Corruption set in and began to decay toward non-existence. Humans began dying physically, a symptom of the metaphysical decay that was taking place spiritually. The real problem was not that humans were merely dying physically, but rather their actual souls were decaying as well, so God simply creating new human bodies and stuffing the souls back in would not help as the entire creation would eventually decay completely and humanity with it.
The necessary solution was to recreate the connection between God and the created order, restoring the continual flow of existence from God into creation. To do this, the Word through which the creation had been made joined itself to the creation by becoming human. God himself in the person of Jesus Christ by living a fully human life from birth to death reunited God metaphysically with humanity and creation. Jesus’ resurrection appearances were to demonstrate the success of this endevour, showing that metaphysical death had been destroyed and the decay and ultimate annihilation of the created order averted.
These concepts of the prevention of annihilation and the defeat of Satan vary immensely between authors. They can be both present at once, or neither present, or multiple forms of the defeat of Satan thinking can be present in a given author. What is worth noting is that neither of these ideas relate to whether humans pass the Final Judgment. The prevention of non-existence, and the freeing of souls from the control of Satan both make it possible for there to be an afterlife and a final judgment from God on individual human souls. But neither has any effect whatsoever on the outcome of that final judgment for individual souls. In Protestantism our focus of atonement on how we can achieve a positive final judgment. Noting that, we can make a conceptual distinction between “things Christ did that were worthwhile” and “things that cause us to pass God’s final judgment” and see that the two do not have to overlap. Recapitulation and Defeat-Of-Satan concepts apply only to the first category and not the second, whereas Penal Substitution links both. With that in mind, it can be observed that the connection that Greek Christians of this period make between Christ’s actions and us gaining a positive final judgment on the last day is solely one of Christ teaching virtue and bringing knowledge of holy living to the world and setting an example of holy conduct and a virtuous life pleasing to God. That is the system of salvation that I outlined earlier which is common to all the Greek Christians of this period and which is extremely well-attested in their writings.
So when it comes to answering the question of what the Greek Christians in this period thought about the “atonement”, some reflection is required about what we actually mean by “atonement”. If we are thinking of things that cause indirectly or directly the passing of the Final Judgment of God, then the answer is that they thought human virtue to be the deciding factor and that they saw human virtue as being brought about primarily through the teaching of God to the world, first in the Law, then in the Prophets and most clearly of all through the teachings and example of Jesus’ Christ, and that they believed in the influence and importance of the Holy Spirit in the lives of humans to reveal virtue and knowledge of God and strengthen humans in righteousness. But if the question is about the work of Christ and what they saw Christ as achieving, then the answer is they saw him primarily as a teacher of righteousness, but also had a wide variety of other ideas which tended to center around the ideas of Christ defeating the power of Satan and/or saving the created order from death and destruction.
Given where and why I am writing this, I feel I must add some comments on the relationship between Penal Substitution and the theology of these Christians. Penal Substitution as a systematic theological paradigm of salvation is not present in the writings of the Greek Christians of this period. A penal substitutionary paradigm conflicts fundamentally with two of the Greek Christian ideas - their views that (i) our virtue of character is what we are judged on at the final judgment, and (ii) that humans can be virtuous enough to please God. Thus the Greek Christians do not hold the two ideas of (a) human inability and (b) a final judgment based on our belief/acceptance of Christ’s work on our behalf, which are part of the penal substitutionary paradigm as we know it.
However the Greek Christians do occasionally make some usages of some penal substitutionary ideas in ways which do not relate to the deciding criteria for final judgment. For example when trying to answer the question of why Christians no longer perform sacrifices like the Jews did, Eusebius suggests Christ was a substitutionary sacrifice, and hence did away with the need for sacrificial practices. Jesus in this context is treated as a penal substitute, but this is not seen as part of any system of eternal salvation: Sacrifices are assumed by him as having this-worldly purposes; and no belief in or acceptance of Christ’s work is needed to obtain God’s positive verdict, only virtue. In this way, penal and substitutionary ideas can occur on occasion within the Greek Fathers but the paradigm of penal substitutionary atonement as we know it is never present, and is fundamentally inconsistent with their paradigm.