Saturday, May 21, 2016

Theories of Atonement III

Classical or Patristic Theory – Part 2

In the next two posts I’m going to focus on two theologians of the modern era who have intensively mined the writings of early Christian scholars to try to uncover the basic Patristic view of atonement.  The first of these two thinkers is Gustaf Aulén, a Swedish theologian and a bishop in the Church of Sweden who wrote in the mid-20th century.  The second is Benjamin Myers, an Australian theologian currently teaching at Charles Sturt University's School of Theology in Sydney, Australia.  

In his groundbreaking book, Christus Victor (Christ the Victor), published in 1931, Aulén took a fresh look at the early Church fathers’ conception of atonement.  His book shook things up a bit in the theological community and generated renewed interest in the Patristic writers.  (FYI:  We speak of the Church fathers and the Patristic period, but there were Church mothers as well – ecclesiastical scholars in the early church who were women.  Among them were Macrina the Younger (330 – 379) and Proba Betitia Faltonia (310 – 360)).  

Before Aulén, theologians in the West mostly took a dim view of the ancient Christian theory of atonement, branding it the “ransom theory.”  Relying mostly on the second century writings of Origen of Alexandria (c.184 – c.254), these theologians saw the Patristic thinking this way:  by Adam and Eve’s disobedience and turning away from God, Satan was able to obtain ownership of the human race.   God made a deal with Satan to buy back humanity.   His own son’s death was the payment.  Satan, however, mistakenly believed that he had the power to hold Christ.   Instead, Christ overcame Satan and was resurrected on the third day as the devil helplessly looked on.  Said Origen, “[H]e (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that [Jesus’] soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength greater than he was equal to.”  Origen, Commentary on Matthew.  Irenaeus (c.130-c.202) and Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c.215) similarly described Jesus’ death as a ransom payment.

This approach had the advantage of some scriptural support. The Bible repeatedly uses the term “ransom” in connection with God’s saving act.  See Mark 10:45 ("For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many"); 1 Timothy 2:5-6 ("For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time"); 1 Corinthians 6:20 (“A great price was paid to ransom you”).

Nevertheless, the idea that salvation was achieved by a bargain between God and Satan has been heavily criticized and was generally dismissed as untenable.  It makes God look bad in two different ways.  First, it has God making deals with Satan almost as an equal.  Second, God then deceives Satan into thinking that the Son was someone that Satan could actually possess.  Satan honors his end of the bargain but God does not.  Accordingly, for centuries Church thinkers in Western Europe and the New World tended to ignore the Patristic writing on atonement. 

Aulén, however, stepped forward in the 20th century and claimed that this picture was both incomplete and a mischaracterization the view of the early church – even of Origen.  Aulén said that the better way of seeing the ancient Christian idea of redemption was not as a deal between God and Satan but as God’s confrontation of evil and the conquest of sin and death.  As the title of Aulén’s work suggests, Christ is not the ransom paid to Satan but he is a warrior who battles and defeats the forces of evil.  Aulén explains that the use of the word “ransom” should not be understood as part of a bargain, but as the price or cost to Christ for his rescue and liberation of humanity from Satan’s imprisonment.  

Aulén also emphasizes that the classical “theory” of atonement was not really a rational theory or doctrine, but a theme with variations:

[T]he classic idea of the Atonement has never been put forward … as a rounded and finished theological doctrine; it has always been an idea, a motif, a theme, expressed in many different variations. It is not, indeed, that it has lacked clearness of outline; on the contrary, it has been fully definite and unambiguous. But it has never been shaped into a rational theory. (Emphasis in original)

As Aulén points out, there is still a basic storyline.  Satan held humanity captive, made possible by Adam and Eve’s original sin.  In order to gain entry into the devil’s kingdom and free humankind, God became man in the incarnation.  Satan did not recognize God in Jesus but saw him as an extraordinarily righteous man and, for this reason, desperately wanted his soul, if just to silence him.  Satan first tried to tempt Jesus in the desert but was not successful.  Then he turned to Judas and lured him into betraying Jesus and bringing about his execution.  Once Jesus was crucified and had died, he gained entrance to Satan’s realm in the underworld.  And then, like the Greek Trojan horse, Christ revealed his true nature, laid waste to Satan’s kingdom, freed the souls’ imprisoned there and destroyed death.  Christ gathered up those who had been imprisoned in hell and led them out of the netherworld to paradise.  His work done, on the third day, Christ was resurrected and ascended to the Father. 

Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 202) writing in the second century, explains it this way:

For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly [and forever] abandoned to death, God would [in that case] have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God. But inasmuch as God is invincible and long-suffering, He did indeed show Himself to be long-suffering in the matter of the correction of man and the probation of all, as I have already observed; and by means of the second man [Christ] did He bind the strong man [Satan], and spoiled his goods, and abolished death, vivifying that man who had been in a state of death. …  [W]herefore he who had led man captive, was justly captured in his turn by God; but man, who had been led captive, was loosed from the bonds of condemnation.  (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies).

This version of salvation also has Biblical support.  In the Gospel of John, at the last supper Jesus tells his disciples, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”  John 12:31.  In his first letter, John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” 1 John 3:8.  Paul says in Colossians that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”  Colossians 2:15.   And in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”  Hebrews 2:14.

The early Christian writers often spoke about God’s saving act with striking, and occasionally borderline crude language.  Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) in the fourth century, for example, used the image of bait hung on a fishhook to describe the incarnation:

Hence it was that God, in order to make himself easily accessible to him who sought the ransom for us [the devil], veiled himself in our nature. In that way, as it is with greedy fish, he might swallow the Godhead like a fishhook along with the flesh, which was the bait.  (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism.)  

Then, in the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), the well-known Latin writer, similarly describes God’s action as a deception, using his well-know image of the mousetrap:  

The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; and by the very death of Christ the devil was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap.  He rejoiced at the death, thinking himself death’s commander. But that which caused his joy dangled the bait before him. The Lord’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord.  (St. Augustine, Sermons)

Yes, there is still some deception on God’s part in this revised theory.  Gregory of Nyssa, for example, concedes that God’s use of Christ’s human flesh as bait may not have been the most honorable thing to do:  “For that not by pure Deity alone, but by Deity veiled in human nature, God, without the knowledge of His enemy, got within the lines of him who had man in his power, is in some measure a fraud and a surprise….”  (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism)  Gregory nevertheless justifies the deception because it was used “for the salvation of him who had perished, and thus not only conferred benefit on the lost one [Man], but on him, too, who had wrought our ruin [Satan].”  (Ibid.)  Indeed, Gregory says that the devil has no cause for complaint, for he was deceived for his own good:  

[E]ven the adversary himself will not be likely to dispute that what took place was both just and salutary, that is, if he shall have attained to a perception of the benefit. 

For it is now as with those who for their cure are subjected to the knife and the cautery; they are angry with the doctors, and wince with the pain of the incision; but if recovery of health be the result of this treatment, and the pain of the cautery passes away, they will feel grateful to those who have wrought this cure upon them.  (Ibid.)

This passage suggests a recurring and intriguing theme in the Patristic writings that must, unfortunately, await exploration for another day – that Christ not only brought universal salvation to all humankind but also restored Satan himself.

We also frequently find among the writings of the Church fathers vivid portrayals of Christ’s military victory over Satan and his dramatic rescue of humankind.   The early Christian writers repeatedly speak of Christ advancing to Satan’s house, binding him, “trampling Hades” and plundering Satan’s possessions.  (Melito of Sardis (died c.180), On the Passover; Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans).  Ephrem the Syrian (306 – 373) writes, "By death the Living One emptied Sheol. He tore it open and let entire throngs flee from it." (Ephrem the Syrian, Hymn on the Nativity).  Cyril of Alexandria (378 – 444) says that Christ “despoiled Hades, and overthrew the tyranny of the enemy.”  (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke)  The Latin poet, Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530 – c. 609) writes, “The ruler of the lower regions, … who has always been a spoiler, becomes a prey to Thee. … [A]s a warrior, Thou carriest back ample trophies to the heavens. Those whom chaos held in punishment he has now restored; and those whom death might seek, a new life holds.”  (Venantius, “On Easter”) 


But the most extensive and probably the most entertaining account is found in the noncanonical Gospel of Nicodemus.

The present form of this work dates from the middle of the fourth century.  It claims to be a translation of the original Hebrew text written by Nicodemus, the Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin mentioned in the Gospel of John, who along with Joseph of Arimathea took care of Jesus’ burial.   The bible verse citation that we always see displayed on signs in the end zone at football games, John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”), is a statement that Jesus made to Nicodemus.

The story begins with a discussion between Hades and Satan.  Satan is apparently the fieldman while Hades serves as the warden of the underworld.  Satan begins by announcing to Hades the anticipated arrival of Jesus:  “Make yourself ready to receive Jesus, who boasts himself to be the Son of God, but is a man fearing death, saying, My soul is sorrowful, even unto death.”  (Nicodemus’ interpretation of Mark 15:34: “and at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice ... My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”)  Satan is especially interested in Jesus for his many grievances against him:  “he has withstood me much, doing me evil; and many whom I made blind, lame, deaf, leprous, and demoniac, he has healed with a word; and those whom I have brought to you [Hades] dead, he has dragged away from you.”  (The last is a reference to Lazarus who Jesus raised from the tomb).

Hades, however, is worried, since Jesus has already thwarted Satan’s efforts:  “If then, you are powerful, what is that man Jesus like, who, though fearing death, withstands your power?”  So, Hades pleads with Satan not to bring Jesus to the underworld:   “I adjure you by your powers and mine, do not bring him to me. …  [I]f you bring Him to me, all who are here shut up in the cruelty of the prison, and bound by their sins in chains that cannot be loosened, He will let loose, and will bring to the life of His divinity for ever.”

But, it’s too late, for while Satan and Hades are speaking, Jesus arrives at the gates to the underworld.  Hades bids his servants to bolt and lock the doors, but to no avail; Jesus shatters the gates and enters.  He seizes Satan and binds him in iron chains, and consigns him into Hades’ keeping.  That gives Hades the opportunity to let Satan know in no uncertain terms what a bonehead he was.  The language is so sumptuous here that I quote Hades at length:

O prince of perdition, and leader of extermination, Beelzebub, derision of angels, to be spit upon by the just, why did you wish to do this? Did you wish to crucify the King of glory, in whose death you promised us so great spoils? Like a fool, you did not know what you were doing. For, behold, that Jesus by the splendor of His divinity is putting to flight all the darkness of death, and He has broken into the strong lowest depths of our dungeons, and has brought out the captives, and released those who were bound. And all who used to groan under our torments insult us, and by their prayers our dominions are taken by storm, and our realms conquered, and no race of men has now any respect for us.  Moreover, also, we are grievously threatened by the dead, who have never been haughty to us, and who have not at any time been joyful as captives. O Prince Satan, father of all impious wretches and renegades, why did you wish to do this?  Of those who from the beginning, even until now, have despaired of salvation and life, no bellowing after the usual fashion is now heard here; and no groaning of theirs resounds, nor in any of their faces is a trace of tears found.  O Prince Satan, possessor of the keys of the lower regions, all your riches that you had acquired by the tree of transgression and the loss of paradise, you have now lost by the tree of the cross, and all your joy has perished.

Jesus then raises up Adam, along with all the prophets and the saints in the underworld. Together, they all depart from Hades, and ascend into Paradise.

Jesus Leading People Out of Hell

*          *          *

As I suggested at the beginning of this section, there has been a recent revival of interest in the Patristic view of atonement.  As we will discuss later, if nothing else, it avoids some of the troubling aspects of the current dominant concept.  More importantly, it presents a God on our side who is opposed to tyranny and the hostile forces intent on harming us.  As Aulén himself writes:

It was . . .my intention to emphasize that the outlook of the Atonement as a drama, where the love of God in Christ fights and conquers the hostile powers, is a central and decisive perspective which never can be omitted and which indeed must stamp every really Christian doctrine of the Atonement.

Indeed, Aulén adds, Christ “fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering….”   It almost sounds like liberation theology. 

Even so, this is not the whole story on the Patristic theory of atonement.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, Ben Myers also had ideas to add on this matter.  

And if the black cat doesn’t cover himself with talcum powder and make believe he’s a white kid glove going to a dance, I’ll tell you about Myers’ view in the next section. 


James R said...

Nice story. Descent into hell has continually been a fount of rich storytelling, and your retelling with the aid of Nicodemus rivals The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, I also get the nagging sensation from Gustaf Ahlén’s writings that we will forever be in tension between the legal, authoritative pronouncements of the church and the unrestrictive love of Jesus.

If the jedi could have somehow freed the contract-workers on the death star before destroying it.

Big Myk said...

I'm glad that you took this post in the spirit in which it was given. I'm one of the few people who has neither read the book nor seen the TV show Games of Thrones, but the similarity of the Christus Victor story and the Lord of the Rings is interesting. Both Frodo and Jesus enter the enemy's kingdom by stealth and at some cost to themselves. (Frodo is stung by Shelob and for a time is "dead.") But both carry with them the means to conquer the evil one, which means is unkown to either Sauron or Satan. Frodo has the ring and Jesus has his divinity. And both Sauron and Satan are undone by their own avarice and pride.

And the Gospel of Nicodemus was an enjoyable discovery. We can just imagine in Amy Vanderbilt's Book of Etiquette section of Forms of Address:

How to address the devil:
The Lord of Darkness

O prince of perdition, and leader of extermination, Beelzebub, derision of angels, to be spit upon by the just:
O Prince Satan, father of all impious wretches and renegades:

James R said...

That's makes two of us. When I first started reading, it was, "What happened to Myk?", and I could only get half way. When I came back later and finished the post, I still wasn't sure what the extraordinary amount of remarkable effort was for, but the language and content carried my mind to where reason could not. And you're right, The Lord of the Rings is a much better example than The Game of Thrones. I also imagine the Death Star as hell. The vision of Jesus breaking the chains and locks conjured up the vision of X-wing fighters attacking their own evil monstrosity.

I applaud you for taking a big risk. There are not many who will take "the post in the spirit in which it was given." Theology is a strange, strange enterprise: How do you tell a story of something outside our reality? One had better bring some impressive imagination and expressive language.

Big Myk said...

This project has grown into something -- both in subject and scope -- the likes of which I have never done before. First, it was never intended to be about my ideas, but the ideas of others. Aside from a few odd remarks here and there, I want to let others do the talking on this one. Before the end, however, I plan to have my say-so about all this, and what it may mean. But, I can't get there until I lay out as clearly as possible the varous views of atonement over the years.

Also, this project has been growing exponentially since it was first conceived. Originally, it was a to be a single short blog post. Then, it expanded to what I thought would be 6 modest posts. Now, I'm already working on the third part of the Patristic theory, which I originally thought would be a single post. There's so much material here, and all of it interesting: in the back of my mind I'm worried that I might "pull a Jordan" -- Robert Jordan died before he completed his epic fantasy “Wheel of Time," upsetting fans everywhere. (Another writer, Brandon Sanderson, was supposed to finish it.)

Anyway, I just don't want anyone saying that I didn't warn you.