The Doctrine of Atonement SECOND PERIOD—254-730 A.D.

Concluding our discussion of the history of the doctrine of the atonement in the second period, 254-730 A.D., we wish to quote a certain letter which was written to an unknown heathen, Diognetus. The late Dr. Bavinck, in our quotation which we quoted from him in a previous article, also refers to this letter. This passage which we promised to quote appears, according to Philip Schaff, in an epistle by an anonymous author to this Diognetus. This epistle has sometimes been ascribed to Justin, but is probably of much earlier date. In this epistle is a beautiful and forcible passage on the mystery of redemption, and it shows that the root of the matter was apprehended by faith long before a logical analysis was attempted. This need not surprise us. The church of the living God certainly apprehended the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by a true and living faith, although it was not able to give a full and complete account of the atonement of Calvary in all its rich and wonderful significance. This would come later when the enemies of the truth would also attack this fundamental teaching and doctrine of the Word of God. This particular passage, now, reads as follows:

When our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward—punishment and death—was impending over us . . . God Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities. He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

This is certainly a beautiful statement. In it we read that the Lord took upon Himself the burden of our iniquities, that He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, and that we, the wicked and ungodly, could never be justified except by the only Son of God. 

In this period, according to the late Rev. H. Hoeksema in his notes on the History of Dogma, we are no longer concerned with the Eastern Church as far as the history of dogma is concerned. In these notes Rev. Hoeksema mentions John Damascenus, a theologian in the East, who closes the second period. According to Hagenbach, the mythical notion of the atonement, developed in the preceding or second period, setting forth a legal transaction with the devil, and the deception practiced upon him on the part of God and Christ, was also adopted by John Damascenus. This theologian in the east, to whom must be attributed the honor of having made an attempt to produce a completely systematic work, defended the general will of God unto salvation. However, after 730 A.D. the history of dogma finds little of importance and interest in the Eastern Church. Hence, we must confine our attention from now on to the church of the West, the so-called Latin Church. 

This third period is known as the “Age of Scholasticism.” Basing our remarks upon the notes of Rev. Hoeksema, we note that it is characteristic of this third period that the church and the theologians of this time labored with the materials they inherited from the past. Up to this time the church had developed several doctrines, such as: the doctrine of the Trinity, the relation of the Son to the Father, of the Holy Spirit, of the Godhead of Christ, etc. In this third period the church worked with these materials, and the leading men of the church, the scholars and dogmaticians, aimed especially at two things: 1) They sought to systematize these separate dogmas into one whole, to build one structure of the materials at hand. It was indeed the age of systematizing. 2) They aimed at demonstrating the truth of these doctrines by rational proof. Their work, therefore, was not pre-eminently exegetical, but rather dogmatical and philosophical. 

In his notes, Rev. Hoeksema gives the following general estimate of the work of the Schoolmen during this third period:

Scholasticism undoubtedly has its points of commendation: It was no doubt a period of brilliant intellectual activity, that produced a shining light, both from a philosophical and theological viewpoint. Besides, in distinction from a former period, the Age of Scholasticism is characterized by a serious attempt at systematic work. This really has been wanting heretofore. Formerly materials had been gathered, and separate truths and dogmas had been developed. But hardly an attempt had been made to build them into a systematic structure. This was different with the schoolmen. They collected the material that had been found in a former period, and their logical mind as well as the fact that they followed Aristotle caused them to seek a systematic whole in the scattered parts. Then also it may be mentioned that they developed several distinctions in dogmatic truths and lines of reasoning that are of an abiding value. We can refer, for instance, to Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo.” On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there are several elements in Scholasticism that are to be condemned. The Schoolmen were undoubtedly overzealous to demonstrate philosophically and rationally the rational nature of Christian truth, the harmony between faith and reason,—a zeal that led them frequently to ignore the limitation of reason and to forget the absolute necessity of revelation. Besides, Scholasticism proceeded on the assumption and took implicitly for granted that the faith of the church was the absolute truth, and set itself the task of demonstrating the truth of ecclesiastical dogma and of the sententiae patrum (the opinions of the fathers), rather than testing those dogmas by the criterion of Holy Writ (this is certainly true in the Roman Catholic Church; in that church one must believe what the church believes and how the church interprets the Word of God—H.V.). In close connection with this last remark, we may add that exegesis did not occupy an important place in the work of the Schoolmen. They worked with the materials at hand, offered them by the church and the fathers, and to it they applied all the efforts of reason. Then, too, it may be said that the Scholastics’ love of intellectual exercise and discipline and their emphasis on logical distinction often led the Schoolmen to busy themselves with fruitless questions, rather than with the riches of the truth in Christ. Such questions, for instance, as how many angels could dance on the point of a needle, or whether God could create two mountains without a valley in between, probably had their disciplinary values, but no more. Finally, it may be said that to an extent Scholasticism construed a false synthesis between Hellenistic philosophy and the truth of Scripture. And it is by no means impossible to show that the synthetic theory of a gratis communis has its origin in this period.

Although in general it may be said of the Scholastic Period, and, in fact, of the entire period from 750 to the Reformation, that there was little or no progress in doctrine, we may note that the following doctrines were established: 1) The supremacy of the pope was strongly emphasized in this period. 2) The number of the sacraments was finally fixed at seven. These sacraments are the following: baptism, confirmation, penance, extreme unction, holy orders, matrimony, and the doctrine of transubstantiation in connection with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. 

When the doctrine of atonement is discussed as developed during this third period, the name of Anselm is prominent. Writing about Anselm, Philip Schaff has the following in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. V, 598 ff.:

Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109, the first of the great Schoolmen, was one of the ablest and purest men of the mediaeval Church. He touched the history of his age at many points. He was an enthusiastic advocate of monasticism. He was archbishop of Canterbury and fought the battle of the Hildebrandian hierarchy against the State in England. His Christian meditations give him a high rank in its annals of piety. His profound speculation marks one of the leading epochs in the history of theology and won for him a place among the doctors of the Church. While Bernard was greatest as a monk, Anselm was greatest as a theologian. He was the most original thinker the Church had seen since the days of Augustine. 

Anselm was born at Aosta, in Piedmont, at the foot of the great St. Bernard, which divided Italy from western Switzerland. He had a pious mother, Ermenberga. His father, Gundulf, a worldly and rude nobleman, set himself violently against his son’s religious aspirations, but on his death-bed himself assumed the monastic garb to escape perdition.

In his childish imagination, Anselm conceived God Almighty as seated on a throne at the top of the Alps, and in a dream, he climbed up the mountain to meet Him. Seeing, on his way, the king’s maidens engaged in the harvest field, for it was Autumn, neglecting their work he determined to report their negligence to the king. The lad was most graciously received and asked whence he came and what he desired. The king’s kindness made him forget all about the charges he was intending to make. Then, refreshed with the whitest of bread, he descended again to the valley. The following day he firmly believed he had actually been in heaven and eaten at the Lord’s table. This was the story he told after he had ascended the chair of Canterbury. 

A quarrel with his father led to Anselm’s leaving his home. He set his face toward the West and finally settled in the Norman abbey of Le Bet, then under the care of his illustrious countryman Lanfranc. Here he studied, took orders, and, on Lanfranc’s transfer to the convent of St. Stephen at Caen, 1063, became prior, and, in 1078, abbot. At Bet he wrote most of his works. His warm devotion to the monastic life appears in his repeated references to it in his letters and in his longing to get back to the convent after he had been made archbishop. 

In 1093, he succeeded Lanfranc as archbishop of Canterbury. His struggle with the kings of England over investiture (the king of England claimed to have the right of investiture with rod and staff, which meant that bishops really received their authority and power from the king) led to his exile on the Continent of Europe. 

The archbishop’s last years in England were years of quiet, and he had a peaceful end. There, “as morning was breaking, in the Wednesday before Easter,” April 21, 1109, the sixteenth year of his pontificate and the seventy-sixth of his life, he slept in peace. Anselm was a man of spotless integrity, single devotion to truth and righteousness, patient in suffering, and revered as a saint before his official canonization in 1491.