Saturday, September 27, 2008

Athanasius and the Cross as a Means of Ontological Renewal

Athanasius’ understanding of the cross is in harmony with the later Protestant/Reformational emphasis on penal substitution. Athanasius views Christ’s death as a vicarious sacrifice whereby the legal debt of sin is satisfied. This concept of penal substitution is woven throughout Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. “He is the Life of all, and he it is that as a sheep yielded his body to death as a substitute, for the salvation of all.” Frequently, Athanasius speaks of Christ dying “in our place,” “in our stead,” “on our behalf,” and of Christ “paying our debt.”

For Athanasius, Christ’s death is necessary in as much as God, having promised that death would be the result of sin, could not go back on his word. The divine prohibition, once spoken, could not simply be revoked without impugning the veracity of God. What was to be done? Being incapable of rescinding the curse, God took upon himself true humanity through the incarnation of the Word and died in our stead. “For by the sacrifice of his own body, he both put an end to the law which was against us, and made a new beginning of life for us, by the hope of the resurrection which he has given us.” And again, Christ died in order that “the law involving the ruin of men might be undone, (in as much as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding ground against men, his peers).” In the death of Christ, the legal hold over humanity is broken; the curse is defeated. Christ, through his sacrifice, has banished “death from [humanity] like straw from the fire.”

Yet more needs to be said. Athanasius’ view of the cross moves beyond legal satisfaction, and is ultimately concerned with ontological renewal. What is important to observe here is that Athanasius’ understanding of the cross is centered on resolving the fundamental issue of man’s condition—his deficient ontology. While Christ dies to satisfy humanity’s legal debt, the satisfaction of the debt is only a necessary first step in addressing the deeper issue of ontological corruption.
For the Word, perceiving that not otherwise could the corruption of men be undone save by death as a necessary condition, while it was impossible for the Word to suffer death, being immortal, and Son of the Father; to this end he takes to himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the grace of the resurrection. Whence by offering unto death the body he himself had taken as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, straightway he put away death from all his peers by the offering of an equivalent. For being over all, The Word of God naturally by offering his own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by his death. And thus he, the incorruptible Son of God, being conjoined with all by a like nature, naturally clothed all with incorruption, by the promise of the resurrection (On the Incarnation, 9)
This passage captures the essence of Athanasius understanding of the cross. For Athanasius, Christ’s death has an ontological—rather than legal—payout. To be sure, Athanasius understand the need for the legal debt to be satisfied, but the satisfaction of the legal debt is only significant in that it clears the way for the resolution of humanity’s more fundamental problem. For Athanasius, the “fruit of [Christ’s] . . . cross . . . is the resurrection and incorruption,” not primarily the legal forgiveness of sins. In fact, Athanasius makes virtually no reference to the forgiveness/remission of sins throughout the vast majority of his writings. And tellingly, at the single point in On the Incarnation where Athanasius does mention the “remission” of sins, he equates/conflates it with spiritual regeneration. Athanasius’ soteriological paradigm isn’t concerned about clearing a legal debt, but rather about securing ontological renewal—a renewal typified by bodily and spiritual resurrection. This is not an insignificant observation. It is this facet of Athanasius’ paradigm that, more than any other, moves the resurrection theme toward the center of his soteriology.

Further adding to the emphasis of ontology over legal concerns is Athanasius’ soft voluntarism. For Athanasius, Christ’s death as a legal substitute is only required in as much as God freely chose to connect disobedience with corruption and death; there is nothing inherent within the nature of God that requires legal payment for sin. But the ontological barrier between God and humanity is not a matter of the divine choice; rather it flows of necessity from the very nature of God and humanity. God is infinite and immutable; man is finite and mutable (and now fallen). It is this necessary ontological barrier, not primarily the contingent legal barrier, that represents the greatest soteriological challenge. For Athanasius, the curse is broken most fundamentally, not in the sense that a legal debt has been paid, but in that the effects of the curse—ontological corruption toward non-being—have been abrogated by cross. It is the removal of the corruption of sin itself—not just its guilt—that drives Athanasius understanding of the cross.


Lextalionis said...


I find some of your insights into Athanasius’ theology of Jesus’ cross-work intriguing to say the least, not least his concept of “ontological renewal” and its crucial place in his soteriology. Your bringing this to light comes at an important time in recent church history. The last century has witnessed a down playing of Jesus’ resurrection and its role in a believer’s salvation experience. This, I believe, was the result of the Fundamentalist/Evangelical reaction to German Higher Criticism’s influences, with its anti-supernaturalism. So, to avoid offending the modern man’s sensibility, most focused on the cross of Jesus and used his resurrection to “prove he was God.” But, I am sure you will agree this is not consistent with the profuse biblical data regarding the resurrection; there is much, much more to the resurrection story and its implications. Enter, then, Athanasius.

Despite how enamored I may be with what you have re-discovered, I have a couple of questions that are giving me some reluctance in giving Athanasius’ paradigm the credence it’s perhaps due. Here is the crux of it:

1. Concerning this particular entry, your first paragraph is disarming to that which would foremost stand the way of my adopting, more firmly, some of Athanasius’ convictions. However, upon reading the remainder of the post, my reservations are renewed. (Now, for a side, I don’t know how much of Athanasius’ soteriology you yourself hold to, as you preface nearly all the most daring comments with “For Athanasius...” but I hope that you might be able to clear some of my concerns, even if in Athanasius’ stead alone. So, please be patient with my questions).

What I mean by this is that the rest of your post, which brings to life Athanasius’ thought (in other words, I believe you have nailed him down on this issue), seems to contradict the opening paragraph. For later in the post you say “This passage captures the essence of Athanasius’ understanding of the cross. For Athanasius, Christ’s death has an ontological—rather than legal—payout.” “Athanasius’ soteriological paradigm isn’t concerned about clearing a legal debt, but rather about securing ontological renewal.” “...not in the sense that a legal dept has been paid...but...ontological corruption toward non-being—have been abrogated by the cross.” In my limited understanding, I just don’t believe that Calvin, Owens, and Edwards would themselves consider such statements “in harmony with the later Protestant/Reformational emphasis on penal substitution.” Or am I missing something here?

2. Then there is Athanasius’ concern with “non-being.” This, to me, is a classic case of “eat the fish; spit the bones.” Athanasius offered us much in Christology, but due to his situatedness, there is plenty to be “spit out.” Non-being does not appear to be a biblical category at all. Recent scholarship is making ground in rescuing from Greek philosophy the often enigmatic name YHWH gives to Moses (Ex 3:14). Notions of pure Being and the like are giving way to the content of the Name that arises out of the context of the exodus event; it means, at least: PROMISED-POWER-PRESENCE of YHWH in redeeming his covenanted people. So, I am very cautious with regard to Athanasius’ platonic overtones, believing they have implications that would infect nearly every “ology” of systematics; for the bad.

3. Finally, there is an ambiguity in the terms “legal/debt” and “penal.” The former appears to swing on an equivocation; finding continuity with the reformed understanding of “legal” only in the symbol, but not the signified. The reformers transparently viewed the idea in terms of conceptual realities such as forensic justice, judgment of sin, God reckoning, imputation and the like. With Athanasius, however, especially given his understanding of the curse as having plummeted all creation into tending toward non-being, his understanding of “legal” seems to me to be more of a causal law rather than having any sense of a moral law, with its legal demands: i.e., God said X so, Y (corruption unto non-being) has a “legal” (law-like, cause and effect consequence) hold on humanity. Therefore, the term “legal” trades meanings in the course of the post.

“Penal” seems to be anachronistic. I have read Incarnation a couple of times through and studied some parts in greater degree than others. I don’t, however, think that one would see in his writing any penology in Jesus’ cross-work, except by reading it through the colored lenses of Reformation soteriology. But, if legal does not mean the same thing for Athanasius as it does for the reformers, then finding penology in the former would not be finding at all, but something the reader brought along with them. I just don’t believe that “penal” was in the mind of Athanasius. As you yourself have observed, “There is nothing inherent within the nature of god that requires legal payment for sin,” according to him. Any ethical legalities must have arisen from, according to Athanasius, some arbitrary injunction of God himself; not necessary, but arbitrary—capriciousness.

So, my problem is obviously not with Athanasius proper; his work for Christ and his Church, orthodoxy must count him as a father to be sure. I so revere him and those like him who were responsible for “handing down the faith once for all to the saints.” Much more, like you are here doing, we must awake from our dogmatic-modernistic-slumber and return to the deep mines of the patristics to find the greatly to be valued gold left there for us. But too, we must do so through the filter of the Church’s maturation, theologically.

Where, then, do you see these thoughts of Athanasius augmenting the theology—systematically and practically—of the Church; what is to be learned from him? I guess I am looking for the “take home application” of your many insightful observations

Thank you,


Gerald said...


I intend to answer you, but was out of town all last week. If you'll pardon my slowness, please check back in a week or so after I've caught back up with life.


Gerald said...


Sorry for the delay in responding. You've written a lot, so I'm not sure if I'll cover all of your concerns. But here goes.

Regarding your first point...Yes, Athanasius is doing something different than Calvin, Edwards, etc., when it comes to penal substitution. Athanasius does see the death of Christ as removing a legal debt, but for Athanasius, the legal debt is not the primary issue. His concern is more related to ontological corruption. The cross of Christ paves the way for salvation, but is not the sum total of salvation. The focus of Calvin and later Reformed orthodoxy has tended to focus on legal culpability as the chief concern, and thus has tended to stop with the cross of Christ without moving on to the resurrection. Having said all of that, Athanasius does affirm the basic contours of penal substitution--the idea that Christ died in our place, as a representative substitute, to pay the demands of the legal debt against humanity due to our/Adam's disobedience.

Regarding your second point... I'm not an anihilationist, and neither is Athanasius (from what I have gathered). But I'm not as worried about metaphysical dualism as you perhaps appear to be. The basic platonic insight that there is a material and non-material world is, I think, a very biblical idea. The idea that both the material and non-material world are not self-substaining or eternal, is a very biblical idea (even if not platonic). I find Athanasius' basic theological insight compelling here, though I confess I haven't sorted it all out yet.

Regarding your third point... I think you are defining penal too narrowly. As mentioned in the post, Athanasius is working from a sort of soft voluntarism. This does cast Athanasius' doctrine of the atonement into a slightly differing light (for the better in my mind). But the fact still remains that for Athanasius, sin has a legal hold over humanity--arising from the fact that God has laid down the law of "sin results in death". The death that results from sin doesn't just seem to be the natural law of cause and effect, but is in fact God's punishment of Adam's disobedience. I don't think the term "legal" trades meaning between Athanasius and the Reformers as much as you think it does.

Regarding the question in your final paragraph... I'm finishing up a paper that speaks to this question. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail ghiestand[at]harvestbible[dotcom]and I'd be happy to send you a copy when it's finished.



Mike said...


Thanks for your work in this blog. I wanted to see if you had expanded this out into a book. I'd be interested to hear more about Athanasius' Ontological Renewal.