Participatory atonement 1: Early Christian era

The dominant Christian understanding of the atonement is the ‘penal substitution’ theory, which states that Christ was punished by an angry God as a substitute for those he came to save. However, the ‘representative’ or ‘participatory’ understanding of the atonement was the first to be held, originating with Clement of Rome (fl. 96).[1] [2] [3]

This interpretation understands Christ as the representation of how Christians should live, making salvation dependent on participation in the life of Christ.[4] The atonement changes the attitude of the sinner towards God, but no penalty is inflicted, no substitution made.

Early beliefs on the atonement often contain a range of elements. For example, Ignatius described Christ’s sacrifice as an example,[5] yet included other themes in his exposition of the subject.

Interpretations such as ransom, substitution, or penalty are found in the majority of writers, such as Eusebius,[6] Gregory of Nazianzus,[7] Basil of Caesarea,[8] Chrysostom,[9] Cyril of Alexandria,[10] Cyril of Jerusalem,[11] Nestorius,[12] Hilary of Poitiers,[13] Ambrosiaster,[14] Augustine,[15] Leo the Great,[16] and Gregory the Great.[17] However, even at this stage the focus was still largely on representation, not substitution.[18]

*  fl.96: Clement of Rome; exemplary, participatory[19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25]

*  d. c. 215: Clement of Alexandria; exemplary[26] [27] [28]

*  d.254: Origen; ransom, exemplary, participatory[29] [30] [31] [32]

*  d.330: Arnobius the Elder; exemplary[33]


[1] ‘You see, dear friends, the kind of pattern that has been given to us. For if the Lord so humbled himself, what should we do, who through him have come under the yoke of his grace?’.Clement of Rome, ‘Letter of the Romans’ (16.17), in Holmes (ed.), ‘The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations’, pp. 47-49 (2nd ed., 1999).

[2] Its origin is commonly mis-attributed to Peter Abelard (d. 1142), who developed it in detail in opposition to the satisfaction model of Anselm; ‘For example, Hastings Rashdall praised Abelard lavishly for at last stating the doctrine of the Atonement “in a way which had nothing unintelligible, arbitrary, illogical, or immoral about it” – precisely because Abelard was an exemplarist and eschewed such bizarre notions as penal substitution and the ransom paid to the devil.’, Williams, Sin, Grace, and Redemption’, p. 259.

[3] Contrary to what has been claimed, Abelard’s model was not entirely ‘subjective’; he believed a truly objective event took place as a result of the crucifixion; ‘Abelard includes multiple references to Romans 5:5-8 and 8:35-38, John 3:16 and 15:13, as well as 1 John 4:19. Therefore, the charge against Abelard that atonement has been reduced to an idea, or that nothing happens, really does not apply. Something does happen that changes the course of history; the love of God is revealed for Jew and Gentile in Jesus Christ. This demonstration of love is an objective event. The theory is not completely reduced to the subjective response of humanity.’, Schmiechen, ‘Saving power: theories of atonement and forms of the church’, p. 294 (2005.

[4] ‘The central thesis of this lecture now comes into view. I contend that the work of the cross is not completed until we participate in it.’, Marshall, ‘On A Hill Too Far Away?: Reclaiming The Cross as the Critical Interpretive Principle of the Christian Life’, Review and Expositor (91.2.251), 1994.

[5]It serves as an example of obedience (Ign Rom. 2:2).’, Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), ‘International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia’, volume 1, p. 355 (1992 ed.).

[6] ‘Among other Eastern fathers, Eusebius of Caesarea stressed the vicarious aspect. Christ bore the punishment, retribution, or curse in our stead (Demonsfratio evangelica 10.1).’, ibid., p. 355.

[7] ‘Gregory of Nazianzus attempts a new version of the ransom understanding in which the ransom is paid to the Father rather than the devil, but he does not seem to see how this can be carried through with consistency (Oratio 45.22).’, ibid., p. 356.

[8] ‘Basil of Caesarea repeats the same thought in Epistula 261.2, though he can describe Christ quite definitely as an equivalent for us all (In Ps. 68.6).’, ibid., p. 356.

[9] ‘Chrysostom in a much fuller analysis presents the same idea: “Christ hath paid down more than we owe” (Homiliae in Rom. 10.3). He emphasizes the universal character of Christ’s death; it is equal “to the death of us all” (Hom in Hebr. 17.2). He tries to find illustrations for the transfer of liability, e.g., a king giving his son for a bandit (Hom in 2 Cor. 11.4). The injustice of Christ’s death counterbalances the justice of our own condemnation, so that freedom is secured for the guilty (Hom in Ioann. 62.2f).’, ibid., p. 356.

[10] ‘Cyril of Alexandria strongly holds that in Christ’s flesh an equivalent is paid “for the flesh of us all” (De recta fide 21). He describes this payment as a punishment (De incarnatione 27). In answer to the possible objection that only the man Jesus died, he replies that by virtue of the enhypostasis the one person of Jesus Christ died, so that His death has the scope and efficacy of that of the eternal Son (ch 16).’, ibid., p. 356.

[11] ‘Cyril of Jerusalem again alludes to the trick on the devil, but a more interesting concept is that the righteousness of Christ is more than adequate to counterbalance the sin of man: “We did not sin so much as he who laid down his life for us did righteously” (Catechesis 13.33).’, ibid., p. 356.

[12] ‘It is interesting that Cyril’s great rival, Nestorius of Constantinople, also spoke of Christ paying our penalty “by substitution for our death.”’, ibid., p. 356.

[13]In Hilary the penal aspect received attention (in Ps. 53.12).’, ibid., p. 356.

[14] ‘Ambrosiaster also espoused the ransom view,.’

[15] ‘He sees not merely the payment of a debt whereby the release of justly held debtors is secured, but also the vicarious suffering of a penalty.’, ibid., p. 356.

[16] ‘Leo combines restoration by Christ’s incarnation with the concept of his righteousness counterbalancing our sin (Sermo 22.4).’, ibid., p. 356.

[17]Gregory the Great uses the category of penalty: Christ suffers without guilt the penalty of our sins (Moral. xiii.30, 34).’, ibid., p. 356.

[18]The general patristic teaching is that Christ is our representative, not our substitute; and that the effect of His sufferings, His perfect obedience, and His resurrection extends to the whole of humanity and beyond.’, Cross & Livingstone, ‘The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church’, p. 124 (3rd rev. ed. 2005).

[19] ‘It is also a moving demonstration of love (1Clem 7:4).’, Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), ‘International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia’, volume 1, p. 355 (1992 ed.).

[20]Human penitence — not vicarious penitence only in man’s stead, but reality of penitence in man himself: this is its beauty, its joy, its preciousness, in the presence of God.’, Moberly, ‘Atonement and Personality’, p. 236 (1907).

[21] ‘In the other passage, the one thing that is absolutely clear is that the passion of Jesus Christ was all love, love beyond human conceiving, the love of God Himself. There is not a whisper here of anger, or vengeance. It is simply the unplumbed mystery of love.’, ibid., p. 326.

[22] ‘Here it is quite clear that Clement regards the Cross as central in the work of Atonement, and as resting upon God’s love as its motive cause. And the result of this display of love is to turn us into the way of truth and righteousness, making us sons of God.’, Greensted, ‘A Short History of the doctrine of the Atonement’, p. 12 (1920).

[23] ‘By emphasizing Christ’s work for our repentance, he underpins the moral influence theory.’, Park, ‘Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation’, p. 18 (2009).

[24] He saw the atonement as an expression of love not anger; ‘Because of the love he had for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, in accordance with God’s will, gave his blood for us, and his flesh for our flesh, and his life for our lives.’ Clement of Rome, ‘Letter of the Romans’ (49.6), in Holmes (ed.), ‘The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations’, p. 85 (2nd ed., 1999).

[25] He understood the effect of the atonement as transformative in the life of the Christian, who is moved to participate in Christ’s example; ‘You see, dear friends, the kind of pattern that has been given to us. For if the Lord so humbled himself, what should we do, who through him have come under the yoke of his grace?’, Clement of Rome, ‘Letter of the Romans’ (16.17), in Holmes (ed.), ‘The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations’, pp. 47-49 (2nd ed., 1999).

[26] ‘On the Alexandrian side Clement points out that the life of Christ equals the world in value (Quis dives salvetur? 37). Its main force, however, seems to be as an example.’, Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), ‘International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia’, volume 1, p. 355 (1992 ed.).

[27] ‘The concept of punishment occurs, but it is presented as educative rather than penal (i.8.70).’, ibid., p. 355.

[28]It will be observed, that the obedience of Christ is the point here chiefly dwelt upon, and to which the victory over the evil one and our redemption is ascribed.’, Oxenham, ‘The Catholic doctrine of the atonement: an historical inquiry into its development in the Church’, p. 24 (1865).

[29] ‘In most of his references to the atonement Origen repeats early patristic phrases or ideas, including propitiation (comm in Rom. 3.8) and punishment (comm in Joannem 28.19). Christ’s death also has value as an example (Contra Celsum iii.2.8), and it is as exemplary rather than imputed that the righteousness of Christ saves.’, Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), ‘International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia’, volume 1, p. 355 (1992 ed.).

[30]The power of Christ’s death to evoke a response of love also occurs (4.10). In addition to the death of Christ and faith, works are necessary to salvation (4.11).’, ibid., p. 355.

[31]The suffering of Christ, in which we too have mystical fellowship, is like awakening of new life in us. It is not merely a penalty, but a true chastisement. And so it is that Origen, with the piacular aspect of Atonement in his mind, can call it a purging or cleansing  of our sin. The chastening of God works a real change upon our hearts, and by Christ’s example we are enabled to see that this chastisement is sent by God’s love, and not by His wrath, and to accept it thankfully.’,  Greensted, ‘A Short History of the doctrine of the Atonement’, p. 67 (1920).

[32] ‘Such language as this quite outweighs the objectionable features of the Ransom theory as stated by Origen, while at the same time avoiding the danger of over-statement along the lines of vicarious punishment. We may notice, finally, that Origen sometimes uses phrases which suggest the Moral theory: Even apart from the value for all of His death on behalf of men. He showed men how they ought to die for righteousness’ sake,’, ibid., p. 67.

[33] ‘Arnobius, like many others, quoted Isa. 53, but with an emphasis on the exemplary side (Inst. Divin. 4.24f).’, Bromiley, ‘Atone; Atonement’, in Bromiley (ed.), ‘International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia’, volume 1, p. 356 (1992 ed.).

  1. February 6, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    I actually really want to bookmark this specific post,
    “Participatory atonement 1: Early Christian era Christian Studies” on my personal webpage.
    Will you care if I actuallydo? Thank you ,Kattie

    • Jonathan Burke
      February 6, 2013 at 10:00 pm

      Yes please do, I’m very glad you are interested in doing so.

  2. February 23, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Hi, Jonathan. I read Clement of Alexandria a long time ago and thought I should review his works with the idea of including some mention of his views on the atonement in my online book, together with additions from other important authors from that period of early Church history. Today (just a few moments ago) I came across this compilation of yours and your considered views. Your conclusions seem to resonate in harmony with my own views to a great extent. The second part of my book (chapter 8-12) is concerned with the atonement as expressed by major figures of the Early Church. Here is the link: http://atonementjesuschrist.bible-study-online.org/

    This page contains the whole book as it stands so far (unfortunately it just seems to keep on growing!) with internal links.The bibliography links to a separate page at the main site bible-study-online.org

    If you have time, you are more than welcome to review the book online. Needless to say, I found the above work of yours very stimulating and I am glad to make contact. Thank you for sharing!

    Blessings!

    Norman

    • Jonathan Burke
      February 24, 2013 at 1:09 am

      Many thanks Norman, it’s refreshing to see someone with a similar view. I’ve been reading your work online and finding it useful for my studies, especially your research into the Patristic writings. Many thanks for getting in touch!

  1. April 8, 2015 at 10:13 am

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