The Doctrine of Atonement, FIRST PERIOD—80-254 A.D.

Returning to one of the Apostolic Fathers, in connection with the doctrine of the atonement, we would quote (briefly from Polycarp. Polycarp was instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ. We have this information from Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp. In his epistle to the Philippians, its authenticity being unquestioned, Polycarp writes as follows:

I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because ye have followed the example of true love (as displayed by God), and have accompanied, as became you, those who were bound in chains, the fitting ornaments of saints, and which are indeed the diadems of the true elect of God and our Lord; and because the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by, endureth even until now, and bringeth forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, Who for our sins suffered even unto death, but “Whom God raised from the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave. In Whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory;” into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that “by grace ye are saved, not of works,” but by the will of God through Jesus Christ . . . . Wherefore, girding up your loins, serve the Lord in fear and truth, as those who have forsaken the vain, empty talk and error of the multitude, and believed in Him Who raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory, and a throne at His right hand.

In his general estimate of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Reinhold Seeberg writes the following (Book I, 78):

(5) Jesus Christ is the Redeemer. He revealed the Father and taught the new moral law; but, above all, He by His passion and death freed mankind from sin and death. He brought to men a new life, forgiveness of sins, knowledge of God and confidence in Him: He gave the impulse to true morality, the hope of immortality. Although this is made dependent upon His sufferings and death, we fail to find any distinctive conception, or original religious apprehension, of the latter. The death of Christ arouses and moves religious feeling, but it is not understood nor pursued to its consequences. Our authors miss entirely that interpretation of The Old Testament premises which is so prominent in the canonical Scriptures. (6) The salvation which Christ has obtained and brought to men is quite differently described: (a) Forgiveness of sins through baptism, new creation. In Hermas and 2 Clement, only the sins of the past are included. There is a great lack of clearness in conception; it is particularly noticeable that the significance of the forgiveness of sins for the whole subsequent Christian life is greatly obscured. “Righteousness” is always merely an active, actual righteousness. Paul is not understood, but even the influence of his specific doctrinal ideas falls noticeably into the background. The type of doctrine which is followed corresponds generally—though in a cruder form—with that of the catholic epistles of the New Testament. (b) Communion with God, the indwelling of the Father, or Christ, or the Spirit in the heart (Ignatius, Hermas). (c) Knowledge of God as the One God, the Creator, Lord, Father, etc. (d) The new law. (e) Eternal life as the reward of moral living.

The Apologists were Christian writers who defended the teachings of the Word of God against heathen attacks upon the truths of Scripture. The foremost of these Apologists was Justin Martyr, whom we have already quoted in previous articles. Concerning the development of the doctrine of the atonement in this period of the Apologists, who followed the Apostolic Fathers, Reinhold Seeberg writes the following, (Book I, 116):

Although it does not appear from such presentations of the subject why the sufferings and death of Christ were necessary (except as in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy), yet the Apologists very positively testify that the belief in the significance of these experiences of the Lord formed an essential part of the common Christian faith. The sufferings of Christ deliver men because He thereby took upon Himself the curse which rested upon them; they bring forgiveness of sins and set free from death and the devil. He who now believes in the Crucified is purified from his past sins, the Spirit of God stands by his side to help in all assaults of the devil, and Christ will deliver him from all trouble and receive him to His kingdom if he will but keep His commandments. The wood of the cross, the water of baptism, faith, and repentance are the means by which to escape from condemnation on the day of judgment. There was no attempt to enlarge upon these ideas in the controversial writings of the period; but there can be no doubt that they held the same place in molding the life of the church at large as in the post-apostolic age.

Also Dr. H. Bavinck calls attention to the historical development of the doctrine of the atonement in his “Gereformeerde Dogmatiek,” Vol. III, 450-451, and we quote (we translate):

Intensively the word of Christ is of infinite value, but also extensively it broadens out to include the entire world. Even as the world was the object of the love of God,

John 3:16,

so also Christ came, not to condemn that world, but to save it,

John 3:17, 4:42, 6:33, 51, 12:47;

in Him God has reconciled the world, all things in heaven and upon the earth, unto Himself,

John 1:29II Cor. 5:19Col. 1:20,

and gathers them in this dispensation to be one,

Eph. 1:10;

the world, created by the Son, is also destined for the Son as its heir,

Col. 1:16Heb. 1:2Rev. 11:15.

Origen concluded from this that Christ has redeemed the entire world by His suffering and death, not only all people but also all other rational creature, namely the fallen angels and also all creatures. It is true that He dies only once, in the end of the ages,

Heb. 9:26,

but the power of His death is sufficient unto redemption, not only for the present world, but also for that world, which existed formerly but which also shall exist later, and not only for the people, but also for the heavenly spirits. This universalism, however, has been unanimously rejected by all Christian churches, and, as a matter of fact, these churches were always particular in their viewpoint to that extent that they limit the “all things” in

Col. 1:20

and did not broaden this term out to include the fallen angels. Nevertheless the conclusion was drawn from these and other passages, where the word “world” or “all” is brought in connection with the sacrifice of Christ,

Is. 53:6Rom. 5:18, 8:32I Cor. 15:22II Cor. 5:15Heb. 2:9I Tim. 2:4, 6II Pet. 3:9I John 2:2,

that Christ had satisfied for all men, head for head, and that therefore the vicarious satisfaction must be interpreted as universal. 

The church fathers, before Augustine, speak generally very universalistically concerning God’s will of salvation and the atonement of Christ, but the actual question did not exist as yet in that time and could not arise in that time, inasmuch as they accepted a foreknowledge as far as God is concerned, and, as far as the side of man is concerned, laid the emphasis upon man’s freedom of the will, although weakened by sin. In the Pelagian controversy this question could not be subdued; and Augustine was the first who clearly taught the doctrine of particular atonement.

We need not quote from Bavinck beyond this. We may undoubtedly have opportunity in subsequent articles to quote him again, but we are now calling attention to the doctrine of the atonement as presented in the years, 80-254.

Tertullian was a prominent church father. Of his conception of the atonement Hagenback writes as follows, and we may include also other general remarks:

The incarnation of the God-Man, in and of itself, had a redeeming and reconciling efficacy, by breaking the power of evil, and restoring the harmony of human nature, through the life-awakening and life imparting influences which proceeded from this manifestation of deity. But from the very beginning, in the basis of apostolic Christianity, the redeeming element was put chiefly in the sufferings and death of Christ. The first teachers of the church regarded this death as a sacrifice and ransom (lutron), and therefore ascribed to the blood of Jesus the power of cleansing from sin and guilt, and attached a high importance, sometimes even a magical efficacy, to the sign of the cross (the undersigned wishes to state that this tendency to attach a magical efficacy to the sign of the cross need not surprise us, inasmuch as the fathers were certainly characterized by this tendency in general during this early period of the Church in the New Dispensation, H.V.). They did not, however, rest satisfied with such vague ideas, but, in connection with the prevailing views of the age, they further developed the above doctrine, and saw in the death of Christ the actual victory over the devil, the restoration of the divine image, and the source and condition of all happiness. But, however decidedly and victoriously this enthusiastic faith in the power of the Redeemer’s death manifested itself in the writings and lives of the Christian fathers, as well as in the death of martyrs; yet this faith had not yet been developed into the form of a strict theory of satisfaction, in the sense that the sufferings of Christ were a punishment, necessarily inflicted by divine justice, and assumed in the place of the sinner, whereby the justice of God was strictly satisfied. At least several intermediate links were wanting, ere the doctrine could assume this shape. The term “satisfactio” occurs, indeed, first in the writings of Tertullian, but in a sense essentially different from, and even opposed to, the idea of a vicarious satisfaction. Nor was the death of Christ, as a reconciling power, considered as an isolated truth, dissevered from other aspects of it. The same Origen, who, on the one hand, along with the notion that the devil had been outwitted in this matter, likewise developed the idea of sacrifice as applicable to it on the basis of the Old Testament typology, on the other hand, spoke just as definitely in favor of the moral interpretation of Christ’s death, which he did not hesitate to compare with the heroic death of other great men of primitive times. He also ascribed a purifying power to the blood of martyrs, as Clement had done before him. And, besides, he understood the death of Jesus in a mystic and idealistic sense, as an event not limited to this world, nor to one single moment of time, but which occurred in heaven as well as on earth, embraces all ages, and is in its consequences of infinite importance even for the other worlds.

The Lord willing, we will continue with this in our following article, calling attention to what these church fathers have to say on this doctrine of the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ.