Before calling attention to the development of the doctrine of the atonement in the second period of the church (this period is not characterized by too much development of this doctrine), it might be well to summarize what we covered until now. First, we have a clear presentation of this in the History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff, Vol. II, 583 ff.; and we quote:
The work of the Triune God, in His Self-revelation, is the salvation, or redemption and reconciliation of the world: negatively, the emancipation of humanity from the guilt and power of sin and death; positively, the communication of the righteousness and life of fellowship with God. First, the discord between the Creator and the creature must be adjusted; and then man can be carried onward to his destined perfection. Reconciliation with God is the ultimate aim of every religion. In heathenism it was only darkly guessed and felt after, or anticipated in perverted, fleshly forms (of course, the Scriptures do not teach that there was any real and earnest seeking after the living God among the heathen—H.V.). In Judaism it was Divinely promised, typically foreshadowed, and historically prepared. In Christianity it is revealed in objective reality, according to the eternal counsel of the love and wisdom of God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and is being continually applied subjectively to individuals in the church by the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace, on condition of repentance and faith (we understand, of course, that the words, “on condition of repentance and faith,” are the sentiments of Philip Schaff—H.V.). Christ is, exclusively and absolutely, the Saviour of the world, and the Mediator between God and man.
The apostolic scriptures, in the fulness of their inspiration, everywhere bear witness of this salvation wrought through Christ, as a living fact of experience. But it required time for the profound ideas of a Paul and a John to come up clearly to the view of the church; indeed, to this day they remain unfathomed. Here again experience anticipated theology. The church lived from the first on the atoning sacrifice of Christ. The cross ruled all Christian thought and conduct, and fed the spirit of martyrdom. But the primitive church teachers lived more in the thankful enjoyment of redemption than in logical reflection upon it. We perceive in their exhibitions of this blessed mystery the language rather of enthusiastic feeling than of careful definition and acute analysis. Moreover, this doctrine was never, like Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity; a subject of special controversy within the ancient church (it is well that we bear this in mind; doctrines are always developed when attacked by the enemies of the truth—H.V.). The ecumenical symbols touch it only in general terms. The Apostles’ Creed presents it in the article on the forgiveness of sins on the ground of the divine human life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Nicene Creed says, a little more definitely, that Christ became man for our salvation, and died for us, and rose again.
Nevertheless, all the essential elements of the later church doctrine of redemption may be found, either expressed or implied, before the close of the second century. The negative part of the doctrine, the subjection of the devil, the prince of the kingdom of sin and death, was naturally most dwelt on in the patristic period, on account of the existing conflict of Christianity with heathenism, which was regarded as wholly ruled by Satan and demons. Even in the New Testament, particularly in
the victory over the devil is made an integral part of the work of Christ. But this view was carried out in the early church in a very peculiar and, to some extent, mythical way; and in this form continued current, until the satisfaction theory of Anselm gave a new turn to the development of the dogma. Satan is supposed to have acquired, by the disobedience of our first parents, a legal claim (whether just or unjust) upon mankind, and held them bound in the chains of sin and death (compare
Christ came to our release. The victory over Satan was conceived now as a legal ransom by the payment of a stipulated price, to wit, the death of Christ; now as a cheat upon him, either intentional and deserved, or due to his own infatuation.
The theological development of doctrine of the work of Christ began with the struggle against Jewish and heathen influences, and at the same time with the development of the doctrine of the person of Christ, which is inseparable from that of His work, and indeed fundamental to it. Ebionism, with its deistic and legal spirit, could not raise its view above the prophetic office of Christ to the priestly and the kingly, but saw in him only a new teacher and legislator. Gnosticism, from the naturalistic and pantheistic position of heathendom, looked upon redemption as a physical and intellectual process, liberating the spirit from the bonds of matter, the supposed principle of evil; reduced the human life and passion of Christ to a vain show; and could ascribe at best only a symbolical virtue to his death. For this reason even Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Tertullian in their opposition to docetism, insist most earnestly on the reality of the humanity and death of Jesus, as the source of our reconciliation with God.
In JUSTIN MARTYR appear traces of the doctrine of satisfaction, though in very indefinite terms. He often refers to the Messianic fifty-third chapter of Isaiah.
And then, on page 588 of Vol. II Philip Schaff has this short paragraph:
Athanasius, in his early youth, at the beginning of the next period, wrote the first systematic treatise on redemption and answer to the question “Cur Deus home?”, the necessity of God’s becoming man. But it was left for the Latin church, after the epoch-making treatise of Anselm, to develop this important doctrine in its various aspects.
Anselm was born in 1033 and he died in 1109. This would certainly seem to indicate that there was little development of the doctrine of the atonement in the period of the church to which we are now calling attention, the period of 254 to 730 A.D.
The late Dr. H. Bavinck, an authority on the history of dogma, also calls attention to this history of the development of the doctrine of the atonement in his Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. III, 322, and it is surely of interest to listen to him, (we translate):
The history of the doctrine of the work of Christ reveals another character than that of the dogma of the trinity and of the person of Christ. No definite battle was waged which led to a sharp and clear formulation. The Scriptures, in the description of that work, were also so many-sided; and in the history of theology various presentations of the work of Christ arose which contained a kernel of truth. The apostolic fathers adapted themselves to the parlance of Holy Writ, and they say only that Christ out of love for us suffered for us and offered Himself. Soon, however, they tried to give a somewhat greater account of the work of Christ. And then immediately different presentations appeared; from the beginning Christ was viewed not only as prophet, but also as king and as priest. At times these three offices were expressly named as next to each other. This does not take away the fact that the one or other presentation sometimes appeared one-sidedly upon the foreground. The emphasis, then, was laid that Christ is the Logos, who appeared upon earth to reveal to men the full truth and to give them an example of virtue. Or, sin was felt more as a power than as guilt, and in harmony therewith the work of Christ was interpreted more as redemption than as reconciliation or atonement; God became man in order that He should redeem people from sensuality, mortality and the dominion of demons and make them like unto God, and make them partakers of eternal life and immortality. Another presentation, well-known and in spite of the contradiction of Gregory of Nazianzum, and hailed by many, was that Christ in His death gave Himself to Satan as a ransom, bait or as a trap or snare,
thus conquered the devil by craftiness and delivered people out of his dominion. And finally the thought appears already at the beginning that Christ in. His suffering and dying offered Himself in our stead unto God, in order to realize the atonement, the forgiveness, the sanctification and the entire salvation. Very beautifully this thought appears already in the letter to Diognetus (we will quote this later, the Lord willing—H.V.). According to Justin Martyr Christ did not only become man in order to make us partaker of His suffering and to bring healing, to make an end of all disobedience which had come into the world, in order to conquer the power of Satan and also death; but His death is also a sacrifice for all sinners, who will to repent, the Passover slain for all, the cause of the forgiveness of sins. Much more clearly Irenaeus declares that Christ, Who through His incarnation stands in fellowship with us and has entered into our entire condition, has reconciled us with God by His suffering and death, restored us into the favor of God against Whom we had sinned, has reconciled the Father for us (incidentally, the Scriptures do not declare that the Father was reconciled—H.V.), has rectified our disobedience by His obedience, and has bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sins in faith. And a similar presentation of the suffering of Christ also appears in the writings of Origen, Athanasius, and others. This presentation was also adopted and further developed in the West. Tertullian saw in religion a legal relationship, in which man is subject to the law of God and must satisfy before God through penitence for transgressions committed. Even as in the Trinity, so Tertullian used many terms, which, although not by himself, yet were applied by others to Christ and His sacrifice. Augustine enumerated many fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, which all came down to this that they, on the one hand, delivered us from guilt, pollution, death and the devil, and, on the other hand, have given us enlightment, life and salvation. Besides the ethical, mystical and the ransom theory, the juridical and satisfaction theory also are advocated by him. Christ is mediator, reconciler, redeemer, Saviour, healer, pastor, etc. He is priest and sacrifice together; He is the true and only sacrifice for sins; Himself without guilt, He took upon Himself our punishment, in order to pay our guilt and to make an end to our punishment.
The Lord willing, we will continue with the history of this doctrine of the atonement in the period, 254 to 730, in our following article, quoting also the letter addressed to Diognetus, mentioned by Dr. Bavinck in the quotation above.