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

In this article we would call attention to the views of Origen with respect to the doctrine of atonement. Concerning this church father Philip Schaff, in hisHistory of the Christian Church, writes in Vol. II, 786-787:

Origenes, surnamed “Adamantius” on account of his industry and purity of character, is one of the most remarkable men in history for genius and learning, for the influence he exerted on his age, and for the controversies and discussions to which his opinions gave rise. He was born of Christian parents at Alexandria, in the year 185, and probably baptized in childhood, according to Egyptian custom which he traced to apostolic origin. Under the direction of his father, Leonides, who was probably a rhetorician, and of the celebrated Clement at the catechetical school, he received a pious and learned education. While yet a boy, he knew whole sections of the Bible by memory, and not rarely perplexed his father with questions on the deeper sense of Scripture. The father reproved his curiosity, but thanked God for such a son, and often, as he slept, reverentially kissed his breast as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Under the persecution of Septimius Severus in 202, he wrote to his father in prison, beseeching him not to deny Christ for the sake of his family, and strongly desired to give himself up to the heathen authorities, but was prevented by his mother, who hid his clothes. Leonides died a martyr, and, as his property was confiscated, he left a helpless widow, with seven children. Origen was for a time assisted by a wealthy matron, and then supported himself by giving instruction in the Greek language and literature, and by copying manuscripts.

Later, in the same chapter, on page 790, Philip Schaff writes the following appraisal of this church father:

It is impossible to deny a respectful sympathy, veneration and gratitude to this extraordinary man, who, with all his brilliant talents and a host of enthusiastic friends and admirers, was driven from his country, stripped of his sacred office, excommunicated from a part of the church, then thrown into a dungeon, loaded with chains, racked by torture, doomed to drag his aged frame and dislocated limbs in pain and poverty, and long after his death to have his memory branded, his name anathematized, and his salvation denied; but who nevertheless did more than all his enemies combined to advance the cause of sacred learning, to refute and convert heathens and heretics, and to make the church respected in the eyes of the world.

Origen writes about the atonement and sufferings of Christ in his refutation of the teachings of a certain Celsus. Celsus was a pagan philosopher and controversialist against Christianity. These quotations of Origen, in his refutation of Celsus, are taken from Vol. IV of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. These writings are divided into eight books and each book is again subdivided into several chapters. 

In the following quotation, Book I, 54, Origen recognizes the fact that the salvation of the believer is dependent upon the sufferings and death of Christ:

And since Celsus, although professing to know all about the Gospel, reproaches the Saviour because of His sufferings, saying that He received no assistance from the Father, or was unable to aid Himself; we have to state that His sufferings were the subject of prophecy, along with the cause of them; because it was for the benefit of mankind that He should die on their account, and should suffer stripes because of His condemnation. (And then, in this same paragraph, Origen quotes two passages from

Isaiah 53:1-8, 13-15.)

Also in Book II, 23 Origen speaks of this benefit of Christ’s sufferings for all mankind, and we quote:

Since, therefore, He voluntarily assumed a body, now wholly of a different nature from that of human flesh, so along with His body which it was not in His power to avoid enduring, it being in the power of those who inflicted them to send upon Him things distressing and painful. And in the preceding pages we have already shown, that He would not have come into the hands of men had He not so willed. But He did come, because He was willing to come, and because it was manifest beforehand that His dying upon behalf of men Would be of advantage to the whole human race.

Moreover, the death of Christ is not only presented as a model for our dying on account of piety, but also effects the beginning and progress of our deliverance from the evil one, the devil, as in VII, 17:

And there is nothing absurd in a man having died, and in His death being not only an example of death endured for the sake of piety, but also the first blow in the conflict which is to overthrow the power of that evil spirit the devil, who had obtained dominion over the whole world. For we have signs and pledges of the destruction of his empire, in those who through the coming of Christ are everywhere escaping from the power of demons, and who, after their deliverance from this bondage in which they were held, consecrate themselves to God, and earnestly devote themselves day by day to advancement in a life of piety.

Seeberg, in his History of Doctrines, Vol. I, pages 154-155, writes the following concerning the sufferings and atonement of Christ:

The death of Christ is accordingly presented in the light of deliverance from the power of the devil and the demons; sacrifice for sin offered to God; the purification of man from sin; and the advocacy of man’s cause before the Father. (Incidentally, there are references in the writings of Origen to which Seeberg refers but to which we do not have access.—H.V.) Through sin the souls of men have surrendered themselves to the devil. Jesus gave his soul (life) to death as an exchange or ransom to redeem them from the devil. But the devil was not able to retain these souls (“For he controlled us until the ransom for us, the soul of Jesus, was given to him, deceived as being able to rule over it, and not observing that he does not possess the touchstone for maintaining possession of it,” in

Joh. 16:8.)

Thus the souls of men—even those in Hades—became free from the power of the devil and his demons. An idea is thus expressed which was destined to play an important role in the History of Doctrines. (b) Sin requires a propitiatio before God, and this is effected by the bringing of a sacrifice. Christ is the high-priest, who offered to God in our behalf his own blood as a spotless sacrifice, in order that God might become gracious to us and forgive our sins. He bore in our stead the penalty belonging to us (in Joh 28:14, p, 355: “And he assumed our sins and was bruised for our iniquities, and the penalty which was our due in order to our discipline and the reception of peace came upon him”). Since Christ thus, as the Head of the church, intervenes for us, God is reconciled to us and we to God. This work of reconciliation extends beyond the world of men to the realm of the angels. Origen even seems to hint at a continuation of the sufferings of Christ in heaven. Thus the sufferings of Christ constitute a sacrifice which is offered to God as an atonement for sin, while at the same time his soul was delivered to Satan as a ransom.

We may say, in regard to the history of the doctrine of the atonement during this first period, 80-254 A.D., that the Church’s conception of this work of our Lord Jesus Christ was not clearly and sharply defined. The Church certainly did not emphasize that the work of Christ’s atonement was limited to the elect. And the essence of this work of Christ was not sharply set forth. This, of course, is understandable. This sharp definition of the sufferings of our Lord did not occur until also this truth came under attack by the enemies of the truth. 

We would call attention, briefly, to one more phase of the truth before we call attention to the second period of the church in the New Dispensation, as expressed also in our Apostles’ Creed: Christ’s descension into hell. Concerning this Hagenbach writes, and we quote:

We have seen that the fathers of this period, with the exception of Origen, limited the direct efficacy of Christ’s death to this world. But several writers of the second and third centuries thought that it was also retrospective in its effects, and inferred from some allusions in Scripture that Christ descended into the abode of the dead (underworld, Hades), to announce to the souls of the patriarchs, etc., there abiding, the accomplishment of the work of redemption, and to conduct them with him into the kingdom of his glory.

Origen, in his writings against Celsus, writes in Book II, 43, the following:

Celsus next addresses to us the following remark: “You will not, I suppose, say of him that, after failing to gain over those who were in this world, he went to Hades to gain over those who were there.” But whether he likes it or not, we assert that not only while Jesus was in the body did He win over not a few persons merely, but so great a number, that a conspiracy was formed against Him on account of the multitude of His followers; but also, that when He became a soul, without the covering of the body, He dwelt among those souls which were without bodily covering, converting such of them as were willing to Himself, or those whom He saw, for reasons known to Him alone, to be better adapted to such a course.

What Origen says here is plain language. When this church father writes of Jesus that He became a soul without the covering of the body, he refers, of course to the moment of His death upon the cross of Calvary. It was then, according to Origen, that Jesus dwelt among those souls without bodily covering, and this means that Jesus descended into Hades. Although it is not clear just what the authors of the Apostles’ Creed understood by the expression, “descended into hell,” because of the fact that it appears in the confession after Jesus’ death and burial, thereby leaving the impression that it must have occurred after His burial, Hagenbach calls attention to the fact that church fathers of the early or first period spoke of a “descension into hell.” He does say that the passage quoted from Ignatius is doubtful. He states that more definite language is first used by Ireneaus, and he calls attention to the quotation which we have quoted from the writings of Origen. This concludes our articles on the atonement of Christ as set forth by the Church in the early or first period of the New Testament. The Lord willing, we will next call attention to the second period, from the year 254 to the year 730.