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

We concluded our preceding article with the remark that distinctive clarity of thought with respect to the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ did not characterize the doctrine and teachings of the church until later. This is understandable. It is always heresy and attacks upon the truths of the Word of God that evoke and call forth from the church its answer to these attacks upon the truth. This is true of the union of the divine and human natures as united in the one Divine Person of the Son. This is also true as far as the atonement and redemption of Christ are concerned. Be this as it may, Tertullian does have something to say about the nature of the passion and sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

In answer to Marcion, who denied the reality of Christ’s appearance in our flesh and blood, Tertullian maintains the reality of this appearance of Christ, as is evident from the following quotation (Vol. III, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, page 524):

There are, to be sure, other things also quite as foolish (as the birth of Christ), which have reference to the humiliations and sufferings of God. Or else, let them call a crucified God “wisdom.” But Marcion will apply the knife to this doctrine also, and even with greater reason. For which is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that God should be born, or that He should die? that He should bear the flesh, or the cross? be circumcised, or be crucified? be cradled, or be coffined? be laid in a manger, or in a tomb? Talk of “wisdom!” You will show more of that if you refuse to believe this also. But, after all, you will not be “wise” unless you become a “fool” to the world, by believing “the foolish things of God.” Have you, then, cut away all sufferings from Christ, on the ground that, as a mere phantom, He was incapable of experiencing them? We have said above that He might possibly have undergone birth and infancy. But answer me at once, you that murder truth: Was not God really crucified? And, having been really crucified, did He not really die? And, having indeed really died, did He not really rise again? Falsely did Paul “determine to know nothing amongst us but Jesus and Him crucified;” falsely has he impressed upon us that He was buried; falsely inculcated that He rose again. False, therefore, is our faith also. And all that we hope for whom Christ will be a phantom.

Of Tertullian, The New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia writes the following (XI, 306: “(4) In soteriology Tertullian does not dogmatize, he prefers to keep silence at the mystery of the cross. The sufferings of Christ’s life as well as of the crucifixion are efficacious to redemption.” 

Tertullian does not give such a comprehensive and varied portraiture of the work of redemption, although he does speak of the death of Christ as the ground of salvation, and as a sacrifice. Writing against Marcion, he writes the following (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, III 328):

Christ’s death, wherein lies the whole weight and fruit of the Christian name, is denied, although the apostle asserts it so expressly as undoubtedly real, making it the very foundation of the gospel, of our salvation, and of his own preaching. “I have delivered unto you before all things,” says he, “how that Christ died for our sins, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day.”

In this same volume of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, page 639, Chapter VII, this church father writes the following:

The apostle also knows what kind of God he has ascribed to us, when he writes: “If God spared not His own Son, but gave Him up for us, how did He not with Him also give us all things?” You see how Divine Wisdom has murdered even her own proper firstborn and only Son, Who is certainly about to live, nay, to bring back the others also into life. I can say with the Wisdom of God; It is Christ Who gave Himself up for our offences.

Writing on Baptism, Tertullian writes, Chapter XI, page 674 (in this passage the emphasis is laid upon the truth that the death of Jesus Christ is the ground of our salvation):

And thus it was with the selfsame “baptism of John” that His disciples used to baptize, as ministers, with which John before had baptized as forerunner. Let none think it was with some other, because no other exists, except that of Christ subsequently; which at that time, of course, could not be given by His disciples, inasmuch as the glory of the Lord had not yet been fully attained, nor the efficacy of the font established through the passion and the resurrection; because neither can our death see dissolution except by the Lord’s passion, nor our life be restored without His resurrection.

Setting forth the views of Irenaeus, Reinhold Seeberg writes the following (see his The History of Doctrines, Book I, 128 ff.):

United to God through Him, we attain to the faith of Abraham and learn to know and properly honor God. But to this man could not attain unless freed from the forces of evil under whose dominion and bondage he had fallen. These are sin, alienation from God, and the devil. Christ, therefore, became man in order to recapitulate cf.

Eph. 1:10

the whole human race in Himself. (The reader may possibly recall, in an article not too long ago, that the undersigned quoted the late Dr. H. Bavinck, in which Dr. Bavinck states that the universalism of Christ’s death was rather widely accepted in the Church in the days of its New Testament infancy.—H.V.) . . . . He embraces in Himself the entire human race and all human life: “When He became incarnate and was made man, He recapitulated in Himself the long line of men, standing surety in compendium for our salvation, so that what we had lost in Adam, i.e., our being in the image and likeness of God, this we might receive in Christ Jesus.” . . . . As the human race was thus combined in Him, He became a new progenitor like Adam. He did what we and Adam should have done. He, as the representative of the race, presented His obedience before God for our disobedience. By His blood Christ redeemed us from the unrighteous dominion of sin (“By His blood effectually redeeming us, He gave Himself a ransom for those who have been led into captivity.”) Through the fellowship of Christ with the race, it becomes reconciled to God; “For in the first Adam we offended, not observing his commandment; in the second Adam we have been reconciled again, having become obedient unto death.” Through the fall, the race was brought under the dominion, though unlawful of the devil (the undersigned, H.V., does not understand just what is meant when it is stated that the race was brought under the dominion unlawfully; we know, in the light of the Word of God, that man’s bondage to sin is certainly the punishment of God upon sin and therefore completely in harmony with the justice and righteousness of the living God). Christ has lawfully as a man, by the application and observance of the divine commandment (at his temptation), conquered the devil, and He has by His resurrection broken the power of death over the race. Thus the race became free from the power of death and the devil and from condemnation. In this way man became again the image of God and the son of God. And thus man became again precious in God’s sight and intercourse and fellowship between God and man was restored through the forgiveness of sins . . . . Irenaeus accordingly means that Christ has taught us to know God, and that He, by entering the race and becoming a member of the body of humanity, has, as the new Adam, made the latter acceptable to God and freed it from the devil, death, and the dominion of sin. Through fellowship with Him the Spirit of God is brought to us, Who begins in us a new life in holy works, But the aim in view is the immortality of man; and thus the scope of apostolic teaching is, after the Greek fashion, contracted. Yet, as means to this end, biblical ideas find recognition as of fundamental importance.

We are not in the position to check up on all the references in the writings of Irenaeus which appear in this quotation of Seeberg. Even so, however, it is interesting to call attention to certain expressions attributed to Irenaeus. We read, e.g., that Christ stood surety in compendium for our salvation. We also read that this church father speaks of Christ as the representative of the human race, and this would seem to stress the legal idea. Irenaeus also uses the word “reconciliation,” and that Christ by His blood gave Himself a ransom for those who have been led into captivity. However, we again observe that the sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ were not clearly and distinctively defined and set forth by these early church fathers. 

We also wish to call attention to Origen. Of the person and life of Origen we may read in Vol. IV ofThe Ante-Nicene Fathers. Origen, surnamed Adamantinus, was born in all probability at Alexandria, about the year 185 A.D. Notwithstanding that his name is derived from that of an Egyptian deity, there seems no reason to doubt that his parents were Christian at the time of his birth. The reader should remember the rise and rapid development of the great Alexandrian school, and the predominance which was imparted to it by the genius of the illustrious Clement. But in Origen, his pupil, who succeeded him at the surprising age of eighteen, a new sun was to rise upon its noontide. Truly Alexandria was the mother and mistress of churches in the benign sense of a nurse and instructress of Christendom. On the outbreak of the Decian persecution, in 249, he was imprisoned at Tyre, to which city he had gone from Caesarea for some unknown reason, and was made to suffer great cruelties by his persecutors. The effect of these upon a frame worn out by ascetic labors may be easily conceived. Although he survived his imprisonment, his body was so weakened by his sufferings, that he died at Tyre in 254, in the seventieth year of his age. 

According to Philip Schaff (Vol. II, page 587):

Origen differs from Irenaeus in considering man, in consequence of sin, the lawful property of Satan, and in representing the victory over Satan as an outwitting of the enemy, who had no claim to the sinless soul of Jesus, and therefore could not keep it in death. The ransom was paid, not to God, but to Satan, who thereby lost his right to man. Here Origen touches on mythical Gnosticism. He contemplates the death of Christ, however, from other points of view also, as an atoning sacrifice of love offered to God for the sins of the world; as the highest proof of perfect obedience to God; and as an example of patience. He singularly extends the virtue of this redemption to the whole spirit world, to fallen angels as well as men, in connection with his hypothesis of a final restoration. The only one of the fathers who accompanies him in this is Gregory of Myssa.