Thursday, April 7, 2011

Christ’s Work of Salvation in the Third Century Church Fathers - Part 2

This is part 2 of this discussion. Part one can be read here.

Because of this eastern understanding of original sin, theologians, such as Origen and Clement, formulated doctrines that dealt with salvation in a specific manner. Clement took the teaching of the Apologists and modified it with his own understanding. He taught that Christ served as a ransom for humanity by offering himself as a sacrifice, defeating Satan, and interceding with the Father. Each of these are clearly taken from New Testament passages, and expanded within his theological framework. Again, elements of the Christus Victor and subsitution interpretive models are evident. He continued to view Christ as the ultimate teacher, echoing the Apologists, whereby as God, Christ forgave sins, and as man, he provided the proper example to follow. This emulation was not to be understood as simply copying the actions of Christ, but to actually be identified with, and assimilated into, Him. Again, we see little importance attached to Christ’s death and resurrection at this stage.

Origen held similar beliefs, but was not limited to them. He placed more emphasis on the death of Christ, which “effected … an overthrow of the evil one." In this manner, by dying, Christ defeated the Devil and triumphed over the evil powers in the world. The seeming demonic victory achieved at Christ’s death turned into defeat for evil at the resurrection. Origen further taught the idea of a ransom, but with the price being paid to the Devil, rather than God. While this concept of paying the Devil is not Orthodox understanding, the idea of a ransom has been influential up to the present day. Origen also included the concept of penal substitution, where Christ took the place of sinful man, taking humanity’s sins upon himself and bearing their punishment.

At the same time, Irenaeus’ recapitulation theory was still considered valid, though it was adapted. Methodius stressed that man died in Adam, but were made alive in Christ. His teaching indicates that Christ took on a mortal human body in order to return immortality to humanity, by joining divinity with it. While the basic understanding is similar to the earlier views, this newer incarnation of recapitulation was more mystical, and no longer dependent upon atonement.

Modern Christians focus much attention on the death of Christ, regarding salvation. But in the Third Century, more attention was given to the resurrection. The resurrection was seen as the proclamation of victory over evil. This provides an understanding of the importance given in earlier centuries to the Christus Victor approach. Yet the death of Christ was not ignored: “Christ, by his suffering, destroyed death and error… [endowing] believers with incorruption." It has been repeatedly shown that Christ as Conqueror was common in these early theologians, but there was also a germ of Christ as Healer in their teachings.

What is evident from this discussion is that salvation was not viewed as a one-time event, but was an ongoing process. Salvation was defined variously as “revelation of the truth; forgiveness of sins and justification; immortality and deification." With this understanding, one can see that salvation was considered as being freed from sin, forgiven for transgressions, and made to understand and obey truth. This would result in the ultimate Christian goal of immortality and theosis. A Christian would therefore be one who lived according to Christ’s example, with the freedom that comes from being forgiven for sin – also achieved by Christ, with the hope of being a “partaker of the divine nature” (NKJV; 2 Peter 1:4). Christ would forgive sins, and teach His followers how to avoid sin in the future.

The teachings of the Fathers of the Third Century did not clearly delineate the doctrines that would form later: Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Healing, and the Kaleidoscope view, however their work paved the way for those developments. Many of the early writers intermingled various aspects of these theologies. The words of St. Iraneus serve as a good foundation for the continual development of the doctrine of salvation: “The sin which came by the tree (cf. Gen. 3:6) was undone by the tree of obedience to God when the Son of man was nailed to the tree. There He overcame the knowledge of evil and brought the knowledge of good. Evil is disobedience to God, and good is obedience to God."

To Be Continued...


Joel said...

Well done Clint. For me you're crafting fair summations and overviews with detail and clarity while not wasting words.

Have you read much Pelikan?


Clint said...

Thanks Joel.

I have read some Pelikan, but certainly not everything. I do have several references in this particular work from him (I delete most of the citations for blog posting).

I have read both his Mary Through the Centuries, and Christ Through the Centuries, in addition to the Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, which is referenced here.